Posts tagged with: Christian socialism

Today at Mere Orthodoxy, I argue that

the duty of the Christian statesman (or stateswoman) to the poor requires defending human rights, supplying urgent needs, reducing barriers to market entry, and guaranteeing access to the institutions of justice, seeking realistic, gradual reform as possible and prudent.

Of particular interest to readers of the PowerBlog, I dedicate substantial space to explaining and advocating for free markets:

Jobs are what the poor need, and jobs are created by businesses. People settle for bad jobs only when good ones aren’t available. Thus, eliminating barriers to market entry ought to be of primary concern to the Christian statesman, combatting the unjust inequality created by closed markets. Barriers to entry include onerous occupational licensing and patent laws, high corporate taxes, zoning laws, overregulation, and subsidies. These things close markets to new competitors because, even though it might seem against their interest (except for subsidies), large, established firms are more likely to benefit from them and lobby for them (which is called rent seeking)….

In free markets, properly understood, these barriers are kept to a minimum, increasing competition and wealth creation. The more businesses there are looking for workers, the more demand there is for labor. Thus, not only will there be more jobs, but wages will be higher as well. It should be no surprise that the decline in American entrepreneurship has coincided with wage stagnation. Beyond wages, an additional benefit of increased competition is that it also drives down the price of consumer goods, thus lowering the cost of living for everyone as well. Free markets help the poor—and everyone else—in terms of production (labor), distribution (wages), and consumption (lower cost of living).

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almsDavid Schelhaas, Professor Emeritus of English at Dordt College, recently published an article titled “What Does Social Democrat Mean?” Schelhaas suggests that “Christians should seriously consider the merits of social democracy.” Schelhaas is quick to point out that he does not advocate socialism, with state control and management of the means of production, coupled with the redistribution of wealth. Instead, he advocates for the lighter “social democracy.”

Schelhaas goes on to outline his vision of social democracy, including the state’s role in “creating a good and just society” and “using taxes to pay for…other social changes they desire.” His chief concern is wealth inequality, and claims it is the underlying cause of “virtually all social problems that plague a society, things like infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, mental illness, etc.”

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Commenting on Warren Buffet’s call to raise taxes on the “mega-rich,” North Carolina Minister Andrew Daugherty says this on Associated Baptist Press (HT: RealClearReligion):

Unlike some of our political leaders and media pundits, the gospel does not make false distinctions between the “makers” and the “takers,” the deserving and the undeserving or the hard-working and the hardly-working. Instead, we are told that the first Christians had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. In other words, no person had too little and no person had too much, whether or not their means were greater or lesser. Applied to our capitalist society, this is a dubious economic philosophy. Applied as a compassionate ethic, it supplies a model of shared sacrifice that Buffett calls for in our taxation system.

A much more reliable guide to understanding why and how the earliest Christians shared their possessions is Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts. Pelikan, author of the five-volume work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, actually does see a distinction between the “makers” and the “takers.” Perhaps a better description of these first Christians would be “givers.” Pelikan points to the very different historical situation that developed for the Church as it grew, including a role for the state in providing “mutual support.” But the Book of Acts was never intended as a template for tax policy, even less so in the 21st Century. (emphasis mine in the following Pelikan quote):

Paul’s words to the Corinthians provide another key to the accounts in Acts of the mutual support of the members of Christ’s family, with their stipulation that in giving “according to their means … and beyond their means” the Macedonians acted “of their own free will.”

On the narrow basis solely of the descriptions earlier in Acts, “all who believed … had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all” (2:44-45), and again, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and the distribution was made to eash as any had need” (4:34-35), it would be difficult to tell whether these were instances of contribution or of confiscation. But a careful review of the longest sustained account of the process, the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphhira (5:1-11) makes it clear that the property and its proceeds remained “at your disposal” (5:4), so that here, too, the support was an act of their own free will. The report in the immediately following chapter, that “the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1) provides at least a glimpse into the practical difficulties attendant on such mutual support.

Significantly, the author of Acts prefaces that glimpse with the explanation that “in these days … the disciples were increasing in number” (6:1). This can be seen as an anticipation of the vast complications that were to follow in the subsequent centuries, when the sheer size and the geographical spread of the Christian movement made such a direct and simple response to famine as is described here difficult to administer, and then when the Christianization of the Roman Empire brought about the reallocation of responsibility for “mutual support among the members of Christ’s family” between the state and the church and the monastic communities.