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Why is socialism being promoted by conservative Christian outlets?

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“Socialism,” said Richard John Neuhaus, “is the religion people get when they lose their religion.” While that might have been true in Neuhaus’s day, many young Christians are now attempting to have their faith and socialism too.

I never got the opportunity to meet Fr. Neuhaus. He died in January 2009, two months before I started working as the web editor at the magazine he founded, First Things. I suspect, though, that the staunch advocate of democratic capitalism would be surprised and dismayed to find his publication now has editors who identify as socialist and columnists who claim capitalism is inimical to Christianity.

I’d also be curious to hear what he thought of the baffling article published yesterday in his magazine in which Andrew Strain claims a truly free market is as mythical as a unicorn. I loathe to appear to be picking on Mr. Strain, but by analyzing his essay we can see a common pattern that is emerging, even in once conservative publications: writers who don’t know the first thing about free markets explaining why they are inferior to socialist policies.

The theme of Strain’s article is that, “So-called free markets are not actually free. Recognizing this, we are at liberty to evaluate economic life by other, higher criteria than market freedom.” In a sense, this is not a controversial claim. Because of state intervention, many markets are indeed not free.

But this is not what Strain means. He is arguing that because the state intervenes in markets they are not free and thus we need more state intervention. Strain says,

Neoliberals often invoke a dichotomy between public and private: The private (“the market”) operates according to competitive self-interest, whereas the public (“the state”) is a coercive expression of politics. But the foundation of markets in western economies is the commercial corporation, and commercial corporations are not simply private.

While he touches on an important point by highlighting “competitive self-interest” and “coercive expression of politics,” Strain’s understanding of the “the market” is incomplete. It’s also absurd to claim as he does that the foundation of markets is the commercial corporation. A better way to think about markets is through what the legendary hedge fund manager Ray Dalio calls a “transactions-based approach”:

An economy is simply the sum of the transactions that make it up. A transaction is a simple thing. Because there are a lot of them, the economy looks more complex than it really is. If instead of looking at it from the top down, we look at it from the transaction up, it is much easier to understand.

A transaction consists of the buyer giving money (or credit) to a seller and the seller giving a good, a service or a financial asset to the buyer in exchange. A market consists of all the buyers and sellers making exchanges for the same things – e.g., the wheat market consists of different people making different transactions for different reasons over time. An economy consists of all of the transactions in all of its markets. So, while seemingly complex, an economy is really just a zillion simple things working together, which makes it look more complex than it really is.

A market consists of all the buyers and sellers making exchanges for the same things. The buyers and sellers can certainly be commercial corporations, but they can also be individuals, non-profits, partnerships, or even the government. When it comes to markets there is absolutely nothing special about corporations.

Having started off with a misunderstanding of markets, Strain then proceeds to highlight his misunderstanding of corporations:

As David Ciepley has pointed out, [corporations] are neither fish nor fowl. They rest on private initiative but depend on the state to co-create and sustain them. The distinctive features of commercial corporations are impossible to maintain without the state’s ensuring them. Ciepley explains: “The business corporation depends on government for its contractual individuality, or ‘personhood’—its right to own property, make contracts, and sue and be sued as an individual. . . . The corporation depends on government for its governing rights: its right to establish and enforce rules within its jurisdiction.” The corporation is defined by its government-created and -conserved properties: limited liability, asset shielding, and asset lock-in. The corporation as a market institution is a product of the state, and what it means to be a corporation is inseparable by its very nature from governmental power.

Strain makes an error that is all too common today: assuming that if a government recognizes or regulates an institution then the state must have created the institution. The most obvious example of this thinking is on the institution of marriage. Many intelligent people believe that since the state has the ability to regulate and redefine what it will consider to be “marriage” that it has the power to changes the ontological status of marriage. It does not.

Nor, for that matter, is the ontological status of corporations dependent on the state. A corporation is merely a group of people who choose to act as a single entity. They almost always seek government recognition, of course, because it makes it easier to deal with our ubiquitous legal environment. But the state does not “co-create” a corporation any more than the state “co-creates” a marriage when it issues a marriage license.

Strain is correct, of course, in implying that the corporation depends on government to recognize and enforce its rights. But that is true also for individuals. While government does not establish our natural rights as humans, we rely on the state to recognize, protect, and enforce these rights when necessary. That is one of the primary functions of the state.

Up to this point, Strain appears to be merely confused about markets and corporations. However, he next uses this confusion as the basis for a peculiar argument:

This fact has devastating implications for those who subscribe to the notion of a self-regulating market. A laissez-faire economy that has corporations is a contradiction in terms, since in corporations the private is intertwined with the public. In the age of corporations, a truly free market is as mythical as a unicorn. Once we recognize this, and discard the public/private dichotomy, we can cease to decry state intervention as such, and begin to think about the best way to manage our economy. Intervention should be judged on its merits—how well it serves the common good—rather than condemned on principle. And the common good, contrary to neoliberal tenets, is not a utilitarian aggregate of material goods, but the order of justice and peace participated in by all the members of a society. This order and its demands are the true basis for assessing government intervention.

This paragraph is such as mess that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s unpack it as best we can.

First, the claim that “a laissez-faire economy that has corporations is a contradiction in terms” is nonsensical. Laissez-faire is merely the idea that “the less the government is involved in the economy, the better off business will be – and by extension, society as a whole.” Even if we concede that corporations are wholly birthed by the government it would not be a contradiction to claim that businesses, once born, should have as minimal interference with their parent as possible.

Second, the claim that “in the age of corporations, a truly free market is as mythical as a unicorn” is easily disproven. The “Market” (i.e., the economy) is merely an aggregate of all markets. Some of these markets are free, others less so. For example, as a seller of his writing, Strain entered the “market” for online articles and engaged the buyer, First Things magazine. That market is relatively free of government interference. No one from the state told Strain or First Things how much had to be paid for the article, what the word count must be, when it could be published, etc. The fact that Strain never recognized that he was engaged in a market activity—much less engaging in a free market—merely reveals how constrained his thinking is on this issue of markets.

Third, he claims that since corporations rely on the government to enforce their rights then we should “cease to decry state intervention as such, and begin to think about the best way to manage our economy.” This is a question-begging conclusion. Those of us who advocate for free markets and “decry state intervention” do so precisely because we think it’s the best way to manage the economy.

Fourth, Strain engages in reification when he says, “Intervention should be judged on its merits—how well it serves the common good—rather than condemned on principle.” Before we can judge the merits we must ask who is doing the intervention? Strain would say “the State.” But who is the State? Is it the consensus of a democratic majority? The Congress? Unelected bureaucrats?

What Strain is saying is that some other people—rather than those directly engaged in the market activity—should decide what is best for those involved. Unfortunately, many people tend to prefer government interventions to market-driven solutions because of this fallacious reified thinking. As Pascal Boyer says:

[H]umans may be motivated to place their trust in processes that are (or at least seem to be) driven by agents rather than impersonal factors. This may be why there is a strong correlation between being scared of markets and being in favour of state interventions in the economy. One of the most widespread political assumptions in modern industrial societies is that “the government should do something about x”, where x can be any social or economic problem. Why do people trust the state? The state (in people’s intuitions, not in actual fact) has all the trappings of an agent. It is supposed to have knowledge, memories, intentions, strategies, etc. Now it may be that people are vastly more comfortable trusting an agent to provide help or impose sanctions, than they would trust an impersonal, distributed and largely invisible process. That would be mostly a question of intuitive psychology (highly salient in our reasonings about social processes) versus population thinking (highly unintuitive, difficult to acquire and engage in without sustained effort).

Fifth, Strain says we should judge interventions on their merits. But what he fails to note is that once the state has intervened we often have no say in whether the intervention was good or bad. The state has spoken and we are to fall in line. That is another reason free market advocates prefer that before being implemented interventions be as minimal as possible and proven to be for the common good.

Sixth, Strain says “contrary to neoliberal tenets, [the common good] is not a utilitarian aggregate of material goods, but the order of justice and peace participated in by all the members of a society.” It’s hard to know what to make of this slander. I’ll be generous and assume the comment was made out of simple ignorance and that he isn’t aware of why most free market advocates believe it serves the common good. As Rev. Robert Sirico has explained, the true goal of free markets is solidarity:

[W]e speak well of the market economy not because we embrace a soulless ideology about, or practice an idolatry of, the market. It is instead because of our respect for human liberty and our desire for social structures that affirm the dignity of all. This implies finding an economic system which, while providing outlets for human freedom in the marketplace, can also help alleviate poverty, increase general standards of living, respect private property, and minimize coercion. We seek economic growth, but not for its own sake. Our true goal is genuine human development through solidarity, a component of which is economic growth. Genuine human development through solidarity implies growth that is aimed at human betterment and the furthering of the common good of all people. Growth must be for the increased welfare of the community and the individual, and not for the isolated improvement of a select few. This means that all must have the opportunity to choose and live in accord with their vocation. All must have access to the physical capital needed to earn a living, whether producing for their own consumption on a farm or producing for exchange in an enterprise where they earn a just wage. Such a system is, nearly by definition, a just economic order. The dignity of the human person leads us to conclude that a society in which we are free (in the sense explained above) is a just social order. The free market economy then is one aspect of this just social order through which we can achieve solidarity.

After all of this bashing of the free market, you can probably guess the solution Strain proposes will involve socialism. I give Strain credit, though, for loosely concealing it in the guise of syndicalism. Strain uses Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo anno to advocate for “State-established syndicates of workers and employers would work together, with the state acting as a judge of last resort when no agreement can be reached.”

As with all advocates of socialism, Strain believes something magical happens when you take freedom and power away from individuals and give them to state-controlled collectives. Whereas people were unable to freely choose to act in a way that advanced the common good, according to Strain, the common good will suddenly and magically become maximized by the state adjudicating how “workers and employers would work together.”

Strain says this will be an advancement over the way the “neoliberal conflation of the common good with so-called market freedom” which, he says, “leads to confusions.” His primary example is a panel discussion at the recent Acton University conference in which Rev. Sirico, “the president of the neoliberal Acton Institute criticized the creation of laws against child labor in Thailand.”

Again, I’ll try to give Strain the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t being intentionally dishonest. He does, after all, link to the video which allows us to see the full context of what Rev. Sirico said:

We think we can just fix the problem of child labor . . . my making laws in Thailand to abolish child labor that we’ve sent these kids off to nice schools and that’s not what happens. If they can’t work a factory—usually with their parents in homes— that what ends up happening is they’re trafficked, and you know that if you’ve worked with trafficking [organizations]. So I think that these kinds of things need to be looked at with a different lens, but with a moral concern not just with the economic concern but with the effects, the consequences of good and well intended legislation.

We see that Strain has completely misrepresented Rev. Sirico’s position, which does not “conflate the common good with so-called market freedom” but does the very thing Strain implores us to do: judge state interventions based on the standard of the common good.

Again, I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Strain or First Things (a publication I still admire). But this shows how easy it is for otherwise conservative outlets to promulgate the most economically ignorant claims.

A key problem is that magazines, think tanks, and non-profits are often staffed by the same type of cheap labor—young people who all went to the same elite (or semi-elite) schools, all live in the same liberal urban environs, and who have never done any real work outside of academia or have any real experience with business or the market economy. Often, these staffers have no economic background yet think they are qualified to pontificate on the problems with markets because they read a few old encyclicals.

In Catholic circles, they tend to align with (or at least sympathetic to) the recent Tradinista! manifesto.” As John Zmirak says,

To generalize, Tradinistas are mostly liberal arts grads that soaked in the political theories of pre-Christian philosophers who accepted slavery and scorned honest commerce. Tradinistas have only the crudest understanding of economics. It’s a discipline they sneer at, because the truths it uncovers expose the hopelessness of utopia.

Instead, they quaff a few economically confused essays by writer and poet G.K. Chesterton, activist Dorothy Day, or theologian David Bentley Hart. They pretend that past papal reflections are infallible divine revelations. Then they act as if this dilettante’s hodgepodge makes up for their willful ignorance of the science of human cooperation — economics.

If the moldy and discredited ideas of the new breed of Christian socialists were quarantined on the left, it wouldn’t be so troubling. But if they can invade the former free market advocating institutions like First Things, then we are in danger of having them spread the contamination everywhere. It would be troubling enough to have these neo-socialists use the megaphones of the conservatism to miseducate their peers. But having an entire generation be deceived because they trusted the gatekeepers at formerly conservative outlets would be a travesty.

“Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed,” said Richard John Neuhaus. What he meant was that when beliefs about what are right and wrong are allowed to become optional, “the old orthodoxy that is optional is proscribed by the new orthodoxy, which is never optional.”

We may soon see a variation of “Neuhaus’s law” applied to the economic sphere. Because conservative Christians are too timid to defend the moral superiority of the free market system we may soon find that we have socialism forced upon us by those who we assumed were our allies.


Related: In October the Acton Institute will be sponsoring a conference titled, Toward a Free and Virtuous Society: Marxism a Century after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Jay W. Richards

    Essays such as Strain’s are always the same: they argue with a mythical “neoliberal” (that’s always the term). No names of any actual humans opponents appear. No doubt this is because they are entirely unfamiliar with the arguments, and their own musings would wither in their light. Strain doesn’t summarize or refer to the arguments of, say, Richard John Neuhaus, Fr. Robert Sirico, Michael Novak, Sam Gregg, Arthur Brooks, or any other actual Christian champion of markets over socialism. That leaves him free to swat at imaginary straw men in his head. Reading his essay, one would think that free market proponents are all anarchists or crony capitalist simpletons. Alas, this rhetorical disability is not limited to dilettantes. It’s common among clerics and churchmen as well.

  • D Greenhorn

    While it’s troubling that so many Catholics are going too far in their criticism of capitalism and falling into socialist speak, Mr. Carter is far too enamored with neoliberal economics to really give a good refutation to them.

    First, no one has ever thought that a private corporation is in any way a natural entity a la marriage. Yes, the existence of the firm predates the state, but this is not true of the private corporation. Before the 19th Century (and especially before the Supreme Court really kicked off the process of creating the modern corporation in the Dartmouth College case), no one thought that corporations existed outside of serving the public interest. The modern private corporation may incidentally help the public good, but only as a side effect of its primary goals, which are private (e.g. profits, revenue maximizing, etc.)–early Americans would have found this scandalous, as the benefits the state conferred in incorporation were meant to be paid back to the public, not exploited by private citizens. Claiming the private corporation predates the state is historically inaccurate.

    Second, that few markets should be considered “free” is so evident as to be banal. In truth, any market which features labor as an input deals with a commodity which cannot be considered even remotely free in the sense economists mean it. This is owing to the high transaction costs of moving labor from job to job, place to place, not to mention differences in training, education, etc. Karl Polanyi wrote well on why a “free” or even liberal labor market is unendurable–the more you treat labor power as a free commodity, the more you treat the laborer as an object. This should be troubling to anyone who cares about Catholic social teaching, and make us seriously think whether or nor a “free” labor market (or more apropos a “freer” labor market) is actually something we desire. The current immigration crisis, which is tearing apart American and Mexican communities, is a product of free markets, not government intervention.

    Mr. Carter’s belief that capitalism increases “freedom” is also misplaced. 100 years ago I had much more freedom to work my own land than today. Is being dependent on the market for almost all of my goods a form of “freedom?” Almost every man who ever worked the land would disagree, and see that, on the contrary, we are enslaved to wage labor, and wholly dependent on others for our subsistence. A large reason why modern Christians do not fight sodomy, for example, is that they’ll lose their jobs if they do. The subsistence farmer may have been thinner, and closer to starvation, but he possessed intellectual and spiritual autonomy modern man can scarcely know.

    I could go on, but suffice it to say that Mr. Carter goes too far in equating the capitalist economy with neoliberal economics. He can argue for “freer” markets, but he seems not to be aware that the perfectly free market is an enigma only found in econ textbooks, not a moral or practical end. But even some of this becomes weird and almost demented in claiming the goal of the market is “solidarity.” The goal of the market is utility maximizing through selfish exchange. This is a state Christians should be uncomfortable with, even if we accept it.

    On the flip side, the modern Catholic socialists seem to be unaware of the economic history of the past 100 years, to say nothing of the failures of socialist economics. All capitalist economies have elements of laissez faire and state intervention, and the question of finding the right balance is very banal.

    But honestly, the modern Catholic socialists are probably not all that concerned with the nitty gritty of economics. They are concerned with the way so many Catholics fetishize the market and attach moral attributes to the capitalist economy where they really cannot be found, as Mr. Carter has done above. Capitalism is a great tool for wealth creation, but its “creative destruction” has destroyed the family (as both Marx and Chesterton pointed out) among many other hallmarks of Christian society; the cultural devastation it has wrought compares to those wrought by communism.

    Now that we are reaching the “Player Piano” stage of capitalism, where machines will soon supplant not only mechanical but service jobs, it would benefit pro-capitalist Christians to think why we have the economic structure we do. What kind of “freedom” is it that leaves so many of us underemployed, doing largely menial and unnecessary tasks?

    • Grady

      “Before the 19th Century (and especially before the Supreme Court really kicked off the process of creating the modern corporation in the Dartmouth College case), no one thought that corporations existed outside of serving the public interest.”
      Odd – I’ve never hear the East India Company described as philanthropic! Quite the contrary – the EIC was well-known as being motivated purely by profit – and profit without the slightest shred of conscience.
      The British version was not alone, either – several European countries had their own versions which were just as motivated by profit and just as lacking in restraint. Since most of these companies were formed in the early-to-mid 1600s (a few were in the 1700s), this puts them well before your 19th Century mark.
      Oddly enough, these examples are excellent examples of exactly the kind of “neither fish nor fowl” corporation Andrew Strain claims that *all* corporations must be – created by government edict, and in a fully symbiotic relationship with their “parent” government. Of course, they can hardly be compared with the small businesses that make up 99% of all employer firms in America – who can hardly be seen as symbiotic with the government that continually interferes with their ability to do business.

      Also. I’d like to point tout the seeming contradiction between two statements. Compare, if you will, this:
      “… where machines will soon supplant not only mechanical but service jobs …”
      with this:
      “… leaves so many of us underemployed, doing largely menial and unnecessary tasks …”
      I know nothing about your livelihood or training, but I work in computers – particularly programming in order to increase automation. My experience is that it is exactly the “menial” tasks – the boring and repetitive jobs – which are most likely to get automated. While I don’t generally work in robotics, the principle is the same: it is the “mechanical and service” jobs which will get automated, freeing human labor to be turned to the jobs that computers and robots *can’t* do. This is one of the *positive* aspects of capitalism – with each new advancement in technology (paid for by invested capital), human capital is freed up to invent yet newer and better ways of doing things – and new things to do! Just think where we would have been if Charles Babbage had been stuck working for a Scrooge, and had never invented his calculator. Or if Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had been too busy picking half-runner beans in the hot sun to contribute *their* skills and ideas to the world?
      Only because some jobs had been eliminated were they free to invent whole new areas in which humans can employ their time and skills!

      • D Greenhorn

        You seem to have lost the train of discussion. The distinction is that corporations were not free to pursue their self (read profit-seeking ends) without having their charter reviewed or revoked. The SCOTUS cases i referred to concerned the contract clause i.e. the state’s inability to impair contracts, including corporate charters. In other words, the very nature of the corporation–which again, is a body whose rights are completely dependent on govt. recognition to exist as a separate entity–is one wholly dependent on the govt for creation and regulation. The relative level of autonomy provided to US corporations is an anomaly, and the effects of this autonomy are well worth investigating.

        There’s no contradiction in those statements, so long as you notice the movement of economic history. What you need to know is that soon we will have a nation full of largely idle men who serve no purpose but to maintain machines. You seem to live in a strange world where every unemployed laborer is going to be in his garage creating google. What you’re really going to get is an increase in idle, sinful activities and political discord. Just behind needing an income, men need a purpose, and late capitalism no longer supplies one.

    • The corporation is nothing but the right of contract. People can contract to work together on financing a venture that is too big for any one of them. Then they can hire (contract) with someone to run the day-to-day operations. Corporations are nothing more than that.

      You have a very distorted view of free markets. You have used highly stylized definitions to make sure your argument wins by default. Try using commonly understood definitions and your argument falls apart. So does Polanyi’s. A free market in labor does not require that workers have superhuman powers. The great theologians at the University of Salamanca in the 16th century did some of the best analysis of labor markets. Free markets in labor to them and to honest people since mean nothing more than that no one is coercing either party to the transaction. That’s all. The theologians also insisted that free markets, even in labor, were requirements for property. Without free markets property doesn’t exist.

      Those theologians judged every economic principle by how it affected the poor. The poor were their greatest concern and they determined that free markets were best for the poor.

      “100 years ago I had much more freedom to work my own land than today. Is being dependent on the market for almost all of my goods a form of “freedom?”

      It’s simply not true that today you are dependent on the market. A lot of people live self-sufficiently on farms, eating only what they grow, selling to no one and making what they need. I have relatives who do that. But autarky means poverty. Other farmers are smart enough to realize that if they specialize in something they are good at and trade for other things they have more free time and are wealthier. But it’s a lifestyle choice, not a requirement.

      I doubt that “Mr. Carter goes too far in equating the capitalist economy with neoliberal economics…” I doubt he equates the two. That would be a mistake Mr. Carter is smart enough not to make. Neoliberal economics is very socialist oriented. It see market failure behind every bush and sees the state as omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. Neoliberal economics has very little to do with capitalism, which did include free markets.

      ” its “creative destruction” has destroyed the family…”

      That’s simply not possible. If Chesterton thought that then he was a dupe for the atheist view of human nature. Christianity teaches that humans are born with a tendency toward evil and only God can change that. Family, church and education can sometimes influence human nature if the individual cooperates. The economic system cannot make people immoral or moral. People choose which they will be. The atheist view of human nature is that humans are born good and the system makes them better or worse. If you want to side with atheists that’s fine.

      “What kind of “freedom” is it that leaves so many of us underemployed, doing largely menial and unnecessary tasks?”

      Machines have for 400 years relieved humanity of grueling labor and allowed them to pursue higher work while making us enormously richer than our ancestors. Using machines to do more work has always created more jobs than it destroyed. That is economic history. Today people are moving from manual labor to working in education, entertainment and healthcare. Also unemployment today is at historic lows. But if we don’t see jobs created as we would like, whose fault is that? Freer markets have historically created far more jobs than state controlled markets. That is a fact of history. The evidence is overwhelming. Check out the recent histories of China and India where slightly freer markets have cause an explosion in wealth and jobs. The logical conclusion should be that greater state control blocks the job creating power of free markets.

      • Bradley Bass

        Roger, I think I liked these comments better than the original article. Thank you for making sure erroneous thinking doesn’t go unchallenged.

      • D Greenhorn

        “The economic system cannot make people immoral or moral.”

        I feel that this foolish and wicked statement is a good enough reply to your entire post. Of course, if you believe it, you have negated any argument you have against socialism!

        You don’t understand what corporations are distinct from non-corporate business entities. Until you learn this, your opinions are not relevant, and hopefully no one, including yourself, takes them seriously.

        • That statement is pure historical Christian theology. How does it negate criticism of socialism? I never clamed that socialism makes people evil. It doesn’t. It doesn’t have to. Socialists claim they can perfect human nature. My argument against socialism is that it is anti-Christian and impoverishes nations.

        • PS, socialism does not make people evil, but it empowers already evil people to steal, defraud and murder good people.

          • D Greenhorn

            Ah, the system doesn’t make people evil….it just empowers them to do evil. Got it!

          • No, I don’t think you get it because you don’t want to get it. But for those who do, it’s clear from the history of socialist nations that socialism elevates evil men to positions of power, as Hayek describes in “Road to Serfdom.” According to historians, the 20th century was the bloodiest in the history of mankind mostly because of socialist nations such as Nazi Germany, the USSR and Communist China. Capitalism restrains evil people and allows good people to thrive.

          • D Greenhorn

            You don’t seem to be reading your own words, let alone mine, but try reading works skeptical of capitalism for a try, rather than the works of atheist capitalists. Chesterton and Carlyle are a good start

  • Anton Medak

    “Sell all you have and follow me” Quite simple really

  • BruceEdwardWalker

    Wonderful essay, Joe.

    • Joe Carter

      Thanks, Bruce.

  • Lori

    Yes, they shared according to the Spirit, it wasn’t the gov’t redistributing the wealth. It is the Church who should provide true charity, not the gov’t. Of course, today our church is a welfare arm of the gov’t when many of their ‘charities’ get more money from our tax dollars than from tithe.

    • David Dault

      So we are in agreement that the early Christians were socialists, even communists. Good.

      I agree with you that the early Christians were not *state* socialists, but that really does not undercut the absolute moral demand that Christians share with the poor among them, until no one is in need (as the text clearly states).

      The one place where you and I might differ is when you collapse “charity” and “socialism,” as if the terms were interchangeable. They are not the same, and such a collapse risks a mis-reading of Acts.

      Our current understandings of charity understand it to be a non-compulsory act. We can choose or choose not to be charitable. However, the sharing of possessions in Acts was not voluntary. Everyone participated, full stop. It was not a matter of individual choice.

      Indeed, in the following chapter, we read that members of the community are struck dead by lightning when they use deceit to keep from full participation in the communal sharing. The text is clear: all participate, and no one is in need.

      • Bradley Bass

        I think you misunderstand the story of Ananias & Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. They are indeed struck down, but for lying about their giving, not the giving or lack there of. “While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?” No sin was imputed to them for having the land or the money after the sale. Only for lying that they had given it all. So giving was not compulsory, although there may have been a lot of social pressure to do so. Hence their lying and subsequent punishment.
        You say, “Our current understandings of charity…” implies there is some new understanding of charity. As defined, charity is voluntary. Anything else is something else, not charity.

        • David Dault

          Correct. What the early Church did was “something else” than (voluntary) charity. That remains my point. I am reading chapter five in the context of chapter four, and in that context, the plain sense is quite clear.

  • Zmirak

    A fine essay! Thanks for taking this on. For more background on why this tendency is contagious, see this piece:

    • Joe Carter

      Thanks, John.

  • Very well done! Thanks! The field of economics is unique in that it is the only field of science that everyone thinks they can be experts in without having even read a single article on the topic. Somehow everyone thinks they were born with all of the relevant knowledge.

  • You might want to check out my pdf book at It’s a rough draft and I’m working on a more polished one, but it presents a decent definition and the best Biblical support for capitalism I can find. It’s called “God is a Capitalist.”

    • wcszabo

      Ave not read it yet… but I would alter your argument to “God is pro free-market”.

      The free market and capitalism are different things. Without the free market Capitalism might as well be a feudal or aristocratic system.

      • Well I spend some time defining capitalism and it is free markets. Property requires free markets or property doesn’t exist. Capitalism also requires the rule of God’s laws prohibiting theft, fraud, murder, etc.

        • wcszabo

          No, one need only to look at an aristocracy to see that capitalism can exist without a free market. They are different economic systems.

    • I’m going to check this out. I’m tired of seeing Socialism creep into mainstream Christianity…if you can call it mainstream anymore.

  • Free market tyranny? So freedom is a kind of tyranny. Man you socialists perform amazing gymnastic tricks with language.

  • C.J.

    It’s very disingenuous (and rather annoying) to insinuate that all critiques of capitalism come from some state of ignorance, dealing in straw men, utopianism, and clandestine designs for socialism. I’m sure even an anti-Catholic libertarian would fine this paragraph cloying:

    “A key problem is that magazines, think tanks, and non-profits are often staffed by the same type of cheap labor—young people who all went to the same elite (or semi-elite) schools, all live in the same liberal urban environs, and who have never done any real work outside of academia or have any real experience with business or the market economy. Often, these staffers have no economic background yet think they are qualified to pontificate on the problems with markets because they read a few old encyclicals.”

    What would you say to someone like Patrick Deneen? I can’t fathom how someone can willfully ignore the difficulties embedded in capitalism, even if he sees it as the best available option. Tocqueville saw it. Adam Smith saw it. How can you not?

    • I read the First Things article and it is clear that the author is fighting a straw man version of capitalism fabricated by socialists:

      “Liberalism did not introduce the idea of choice. It dismissed the idea that there are wrong or bad choices, and thereby rejected the accompanying social structures and institutions that were ordered to restrain the temptation toward self-centered calculation.”

      No free marketeer leader ever made that mistake. Classical liberalism or capitalism always and everywhere insisted on the rule of God’s laws protecting life, liberty and property. The rule of God’s law is essential to liberty.

      “The first revolution, and the most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism, is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism—the free, unfettered, and autonomous choice of individuals. ”

      No, classical liberals always insisted on constitutional limits to the government and democracy.

      “Human beings are by nature, therefore, “non-relational” creatures, separate and autonomous. ”

      No. That is a description of atheist individualism from the French revolution. Christian individualism is far different and the basis for capitalism. Christian/capitalist individualism puts most of its trust in family, church and community. The state is a last resort.

      I could go on but you get the idea. There isn’t an accurate depiction of classical liberalism anywhere in the article. On the other hand, if the author meant by “liberal” the modern notion of socialist then I think the article is very well done.

      To understand real classical liberalism read the works of Mises and Hayek. Start with Hayek’s “Individualism: True and False.”

  • “Strain says “contrary to neoliberal tenets, [the common good] is not a utilitarian aggregate of material goods, but the order of justice and peace participated in by all the members of a society.”

    The “common good” is a pagan concept. It originated in ancient Greece and was the idea that every citizen was obligated to do whatever the city fathers dictated, no matter how evil. Church fathers like Ambrose brought over such pagan ideas in Christianity and baptized them, but made them more confusing. In pagan Greece and Rome everyone knew who defined the common good – the rulers. Who defines it today? Everyone has a different idea but most Americans think like pagans and believe the government dictates what the common good is. Christians should see the dictator of the common good as God through the Bible. But if we take that approach, the common good is an extreme, Christian, individualism, which annuls the old idea of the common good.

  • Anytime someone uses the term “neoliberal”, I assume they are a postmodernist with no interest in truth.