Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What is Wrong with Socialism?

In academia and in elite circles in late-modern Western culture there is a widespread perception that socialism is humane and loving and that only rich capitalists, selfish apologists for big business, and stupid people, who are duped into defending a system that is not in their own best interests, oppose socialism.

Left-wing Christians in the liberal Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the small but noisy Evangelical Left believe that socialism is simply the implementation on a society-wide basis of the OT prophets' call to be concerned about the poor and Jesus' command to love our neighbor. They see it is as self-evident that Christians would naturally be socialists and that any Christian who is not is somehow lacking either morally or intellectually or both.

This is such a widespread prejudice that it is seldom questioned or examined. It simply defines the parameters of who is "in" and who is "out." To accept the desirability of socialism is not so much a conviction as it is a membership card in the club of late-modern, cultural elites. Socialism is a matter of blind faith, not a working hypothesis to be questioned, tested and either implemented or abandoned on the basis of the results.

The attitude that presumes the goodness of socialism also functions as the basis for general attitudes of contempt for business and commercial activity. Businesspeople are seen as the enemy, except when they are enlightened enough to fund the promotion of socialism. Even business owners feel the pull of social approval and are drawn into supporting socialist political action as an extension of the charity that many of them are moved to engage in. There is something supposedly unseemly and slimy about business, whereas public service is seen as noble and enlightened, which accounts for how corrupt unions are excused and honest corporations regarded with suspicion.

So why do I think socialism is a bad thing? And how can I be so categorical? When pressed about the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, many socialists will denounce those regimes as "corruptions of socialism" and will argue that there is a great deal of difference between Communism and Social Democracy or Democratic Socialism. So why do I condemn the whole lot? There are two basic reasons.

The Critique of Capitalism: First, all forms of socialism from the most democratic ones that resemble basically Capitalism joined to a welfare state, at one extreme, to Stalinism at the other extreme, all tend to agree with and utilize the Marxian critique of capitalism, which I think is a failure. Marx's theory is wrong from the presuppositions all the way down to the practical conclusions. He wanted to abolish the market, which is the engine of Western economic progress and the only human invention that has ever really been able to lift people out of poverty in the history of the human race. I have never encountered a form of socialism that does not see the market as immoral and evil, so I therefore think that all forms of socialism that I know about are evil and wrong.

The Trajectory of Collectivism: Second, it seems to me that where actual Communism has not been able to seize power it is not for lack of desire by hard-core Marxist agitators, but rather because Christian, democratic, liberal and natural law traditions have been too firmly entrenched. Social democracy is what socialists preach when the possibility of a Communist revolution is remote or impossible. It softens up the opposition for a more complete implementation of the socialist ideal later on and is therefore an uneasy compromise. Why do I say "compromise"? Because it is clear to me that socialism is impossible without a centralized command economy and a gigantic, administrative state bureaucracy, both of which are incompatible with freedom and democracy. The more centralized the economic decision-making process becomes and the larger the government becomes, the less democratic the socialism is.

So if we imagine a continuum between chaos at one end and total centralized control at the other, liberal democracy comes in the middle and the various forms of socialism - Communism fall along the line moving closer and closer to total centralized control. Capitalism is not chaos, it is government upholding law with economic decisions dispersed widely among the various actors in society. It is the center of the political spectrum. The West emerged out of highly centralized Eastern civilizations such as Babylon, Egypt and Persia by developing the legacy of Israel and Republican Rome. Imperial Rome reverted to dictatorship and then fell like all dictatorship always do (eg. the USSR). And out of the chaos of the end of the Western Empire came ordered liberty with neither Church or State becoming an exclusive central power in society, but with both contributing to the culture in different, complementary ways.

Socialism is a heresy of Christianity which leads us down a dead end road back to the East and the highly-centralized political economies that predated the market. It is no coincidence that Marxism took root in Russia where Lenin and Stalin continued the legacy of the Tsars and in China where the Imperial legacy continued in the Chinese Communist Party. Marxism is in a struggle to the death with Christianity in the West and, one fears, it has won that struggle in Europe. Marxism is a modern configuration of a tendency that has ruled civilization for all of human history wherever large empires have been carved out by revolutionary leaders (eg. Alexander the Great) who then imposed their will on conquered peoples. In terms of St. Augustine's The City of God, socialism is the archetypal "city of man," a civilization built on a rejection of God and the worship of idols.

What is wrong with socialism? Let me merely list the major problems for I cannot defend each one extensively in a blog post.

1. Socialism keeps the masses in poverty and provides no hope of a rising standard of living. Any gains for ordinary people as a result of socialist revolution are short-lived and basically a one-off. The poor suffer under socialism because the means of creating new wealth are stifled under the heavy hand of central planning.

2. The appeal of socialism is not justice in the classic sense of "each receiving what is due him" but rather envy. The labor theory of value is essentially a metaphysical justification for envy and is bunk. Socialism encourages people to feel entitled to be as rich as their neighbor simply because their neighbor is richer than they are. This violates the 10th commandment.

3. Redistribution of wealth is a hallmark of all forms of socialism including "democratic" socialism. But if there are many less well off people and a few better off people and they have a vote to transfer wealth from one group to the other, that is not really democracy. It is actually stealing, a violation of the 8th commandment, upon which the right to private property is based.

4. Socialism is inherently revolutionary, which means that it is essentially anti-traditional. This makes it clash with Biblical teaching in both Testaments. Both the Old and New Testaments urge the people of God to remember the past revelation of God to them and to strive constantly to look backward to that revelation as the ultimate standard by which all activities and aspirations are to be evaluated morally. This is a violation of the 5th commandment.

Everywhere in the world you will find all socialist parties in favor of the sexual revolution, the abolition of gender and the undermining of the family. The USSR tried to abolish the family overnight and failed; the Marxists who infect our educational, health and other institutions in the West are trying to abolish marriage and the family gradually. They will fail too.

5. Socialism empowers bureaucracies and dis-empowers ordinary people. It attacks corporations as oppressive and corrupt and then replaces them with corrupt, oppressive, government bureaucrats who are not held in check by the rule of law.

6. Socialism despises natural law and exalts the power and ability of human reason to design, change and operate society according to a Utopian dream born in the mind of philosophers. It does not recognize limits to human wisdom to alter nature including human nature and it dismisses original sin as a myth designed to keep the masses in their place. It thus leads to bloodshed, disaster and social upheaval followed by a reversion to past patterns of oppression.

Summary: Socialism hurts poor people, promotes vices such as envy and theft, violates numerous Biblical commandments, disdains tradition, twists Biblical calls for charity and love of neighbor into centralized government power, attacks marriage and family, creates totalitarian governments and fails to recognize the reality of both natural law and sin.

My question is "How could any Christian be in favor of such an ideology?"


NathanColquhoun said...

I don't know much about this, but wondering if you could elaborate.

1. How is Capitalism different than Socialism in terms of your conclusion of why socialism is negative? From my understanding, capitalism has all the same negatives.

2. What/Where does the year of jubilee teaching fit into a theory. Is it just an idea? What type of system would that be called where that was practiced?

Craig Carter said...

Three comments:

1. I disagree that Capitalism has all the same negatives. I can't go point by point, but let's just take the first point as an example. Socialism does not create wealth; it just redistributes existing wealth. Therefore the poor are always worse off under socialism in the long term. No non-capitalist society in the world ever has made the poorest in society as well off as the capitalist West. If you care about eliminating absolute poverty, capitalism is the superior system. See my post differentiating absolute from relative poverty.

2. So you do agree that socialism oppresses people? The next step is to get rid of the way of thinking that I must admit I wallowed in for 20 years: false moral equivalence. Capitalism has faults, but these faults can be addressed if a country embraces Christianity and the benefits of free enterprise can remain. On the contrary, the essence of socialism is contrary to Christianity. Capitalism is a morally superior system and is compatible with Christianity.

3. The best equivalent to the year of jubilee today is the extremely enlightened and generous laws of bankruptcy that have developed in capitalist countries. These laws allow a person to start over with a clean slate and not be trapped in debt for his whole life.

Note that the purpose of the Jubilee legislation was not to level everyone down to the same economic level. It was only land that was restored ever 50 years - other accumulated wealth was not redistributed. And this was not an infringement of private property. What it meant was that ancestral land could only be rented, not sold outright.

NathanColquhoun said...

I personally would probably land closer to the side of what I heard called once "conscious capitalism." It's a capitalist mentality that wealth is created for the purpose of spreading (as opposed to hording). I don't really resonate with either socialism or capitalism entirely, but they both seem to focus on some aspects that are important. Capitalism focusing on creating wealth and motivating those to do so and socialism focused on a more balanced and equal living standard. Are they both not necessary? I am really not sold on either system that exists.

Have you ever read Faith and Wealth by Justo L. Gonzalez? I thought it was a good read for helping me understand how I should view my role in the world with money and possessions.

Craig Carter said...

I don't understand what you mean by "conscious capitalism." You write:

It's a capitalist mentality that wealth is created for the purpose of spreading (as opposed to hording).

First, the very last thing capitalism can be accused of is hoarding. Capitalists typically live frugally and reinvest profits and capitalism is the ONLY system that encourages this behavior (which contributes to the common good) by assuring the owner that his wealth will not be expropriated by the government for its purposes if he re-invests.

Second, John Wesley would agree with you that Christians should "earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can." But the key is who decides how much wealth is spread around and who receives the wealth. Is that the government or the individual? If the former, you have a kind of socialism. If the latter, you have the Christian businessperson who is generous to the poor.

If the government decides, then the motivation to take risks, work hard and be creative in order to create wealth disappears. That is the key.

The trade off is that some capitalists will be selfish and neglect the poor, while others will be generous and responsible. Are we as a society willing to accept the fact that not all will do the right thing in order to preserve a system that creates wealth? It is hard to see people being selfish with their wealth, but it also is hard to see people being promiscuous or drinking excessively but most socialists don't advocate compulsory celibacy on pain of imprisonment or prohibition.

I'm afraid you want to have it both ways. Either we have individual freedom and personal responsibility or we have the bureaucratic state imposing morality on individuals and replacing private charity and the family. There really is a fundamental choice to be made here.

NathanColquhoun said...

You write "the very last thing capitalism can be accused of is hoarding."

I don't know where you live, but where I live, it's all blue collar workers, making 6 digits in the oil plants, and all of them wasting it away on beer, technology, big houses and vacations. How is that not hoarding? Conscious capitalism would be the belief that you make the money to add to the common good, not to your own good. So while there might be great ideals that this is what capitalism is meant to do, if it isn't practiced on an individual level, I'm unsure how it is helpful. How is what they are doing not hoarding?

If wealth is the only motivator of investing, creating or growing, then we as Christians have probably missed the point. Why can't we be motivated simply by helping, or spreading wealth instead of assuming everyone only is motivated by wealth?

Your explanation of who decides helps me understand this a lot better, so thanks for that. One day I see it as important to get involved in politcs and shaping the legislation to better shape the kingdom. Other days I would rather forget about it completely and spend my time shaping my life to reflect the principles I have.

I agree, that in terms of what works to spread the wealth the greatest is the capitalist system thus far. I just think that it still needs to be reworked and changed and evolve to be a better system. Questions like how do we create more people who will do the right thing inside of capitalism? Or what do we do with all the other nations who are not capitalist, do we help? How do we create even more of a middle class rather than just pushing more and more people to either rich or poor?

I think the heart of socialsm can help us and don't want to throw out the baby just because the socialst bathwater stinks.

Craig Carter said...

You wrote:

Questions like how do we create more people who will do the right thing inside of capitalism? Or what do we do with all the other nations who are not capitalist, do we help? How do we create even more of a middle class rather than just pushing more and more people to either rich or poor?

I agree that these are important questions and I used to agree with you that some sort of merging of capitalist and socialist insights in a new system would be ideal. But I've changed my mind. I don't think socialism has anything to offer and that it is an alternative to the real solution.

Nothing can create people who will do the right thing inside capitalism except the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God. Only Christ can make us unselfish and move us from consumerism to using our wealth as stewards for His glory. This is why the evangelistic preaching ministry of the Church is the most important thing it does.

Socialism is like trying to change people by law; it is essentially a system of works righteousness administered by Pharisees. Instead of that we need Gospel and the power of the Spirit.

NathanColquhoun said...

Ok, this makes more sense. "nothing can create people who do the right thing....except the Gospel of Jesus Christ.." I agree fully. I just feel like the same understanding isn't passed onto socialism as it is capitalism.

So then, would it not be true that only the Gospel creates these people in either system?

Then you say "socialism is like trying to change people by law" and then say capitalism is a more morally superior system. But if the system has nothing to do with morals (or shouldn't create or enforce them), why fight for one system over the other at all. By fighting for capitalism, are you not fighting for a system that still creates laws, some of which are very flawed as opposed to simply fighting for the Gospel, acknowledging that all systems are flawed, but there is good ideas and intentions behind most systems that exist, but they are still nothing compared to the Kingdom of God and how that would be run.

Craig Carter said...

It seems you are stuck in a mode of positing moral equivalence between socialism and capitalism. The problem is more complex than that. I am arguing that capitalism enables people to be free and to choose freely to be Christians or to reject the Gospel. But socialism is a system in which the State tries to replace God and the Church as the provider of all needs. Socialism enforces the redistribution of wealth and so the State assumes a larger and larger role. So it isn't possible to just preach the Gospel in a socialist State and expect justice. The only way that could happen would be if everyone in the country became practicing Christians, which would make the entire country into a Church.

It is possible for an economic system to be the best for a fallen world at this present time (between the Ascension and the Parousia) even though it is not the Kingdom of God or even close to being it. Capitalism is realistic about the reality of original sin, whereas socialism is Utopian and Pelagian. So Capitalism is better - but it is not the Kingdom of God.

I am Augustinian enough to believe that the Kingdom of God is not going to arrive before Christ returns and so our job is to live in "between the times" not to bring the kingdom in by force. For Christians this always involves a tension. Capitalism allows for that tension, whereas Socialism relaxes it.

NathanColquhoun said...

I only brought morals into the conversation because you said that capitalism is the morally superior system.

So I wouldn't call the system morally superior, i would just say it enables more freedom. I don't know if that is the same thing.

I've always seen myself as an idealist, which is why when i originally saw your post i was a bit suprised. i understand and agree with what your saying, but I guess I just see the end and want now to look as much like that as possible, by Christian means of love and peace. So for example, when I see all the talk about privatizing health care, which in many ways hurts those that are poor, and then insults being hurled that the people who want to keep it public, I automaticcly default to side with the oppressed.

So in terms of public vs private health care let's say for just now. (You're gonna have to correct me where I'm wrong in defining this). Where public health care seems to allow more equal access to basic human necessity and private health care seems to more allow the wealthy better access. Would an all capitalist system not support private and a socialist not support public? So on strictly this issue right now, can you not see why I would want to take some of the socialist tendencies and move them into capitalism?

I see benefits of both systems still, and I don't think capitalism that has thus far allowed corporations to buy and patent almost everything, including seeds and hand gestures, bailed out rich wall street workers and not let poor countries off the hook, put their financial gain ahead of caring for their environment and people in their employment, profits of billions being made of of education and pills, to put the individual in debt...the list goes on. I don't think that's a system I want to get behind and support fully just because it enables people to have the freedom to be moral.

There are still hidden rules of capitalism that need to be followed in order to make it. While those on the wealthy side of the equation enjoy it's freedom, those on the poor side, who have been poor for a few generations, have no concept that this side even exists, all they feel is oppressed and unable to enjoy the freedom that you say exists.

Craig Carter said...

Freedom for the sake of freedom is not a good thing. Freedom as freedom from constraint - freedom to do whatever you feel like doing at the moment- is a modern corruption of the Christian idea of freedom. In Christianity, freedom is freedom to realize fully one's nature, freedom to be what God created you to be.

So the kind of freedom in Capitalism is a negative freedom, which simply must be guided and defined by Christian morality. If a country is not Christian, it will not have any way for people to practice self-restraint and soon chaos will lead to the heavy hand of the State.

Capitalism and Christianity can co-exist as long as Christian faith is strong. But take a vibrant Church out of the mix and capitalism cannot last. Negative freedom alone will degenerate into a contest of wills with the strong exploiting the weak.

On health care, the best system would be private health care for most and charity for the poor. The goal would be to provide basic health care for all regardless of ability to pay. This might or might not involve local governments, but hopefully never the Federal government.

This system can ensure that everyone gets treated when sick, but it cannot make everyone get exactly the same amount and type of health care. For that you need socialism. If there was no Medicare in Canada, don't you think Christians and other concerned citizens would ensure that the poor were taken care of? Or perhaps there could be a government subsidy for a private health care insurance plan for those with low incomes. This would be seen as a temporary solution for the unemployed and there would need to be incentives for people to get more training and eventually a job.

A lot of things are possible without the government taking over the entire health care system and making all the decisions. Again, you only need that if your goal is to make as many people dependent on the State as possible.

You mention inter-generational poverty. Studies have showed that impersonal, automatic welfare programs - though well-intentioned at the time - have imprisoned poor inner-city people into a lifestyle of poverty and pretty much destroyed the black family in the US. Welfare hurts people; it isn't a panacea.

We need to distinguish temporary relief of people in need from permanent government support of broken families. Christians are duty-bound to help widows and orphans, but a system that pays you more as a single mother if the father does not live with you is wicked and destructive even if it was designed and implemented in the name of compassion.

Help the poor - yes. Socialism - no.

NathanColquhoun said...

Agreed on what you said of freedom. I was confused because it seems like you were saying that capitalism is better because it allows for more freedom. What it seems now is you are saying is capitalism is only better if it is paired with Christianity. Would you then take the stance that countries should adopt a faith system? Can a country really be Christian? I find this still an odd system to work within, especially as a Christian.

As for your comments on welfar, I agree, I don't see it as being even remotely close to a healthy system.

I think all Christians should be able to effectively live within any system. By looking from the outside, they would probably look very socialist, but it would be a freely decided upon socialism amongst christian communities spread throughout whatever national system they find themselves in.

Maybe this is what you are saying. Are you saying that these good christian communities are limited in their helping of the poor and distributing wealth because of their government controlling everything for them? If you are saying this, then I can concur.

If you are saying that having a socialist ethic amongst local christian communities is somehow immoral, I still don't understand. I see socialism (and communism for that matter) good systems at their heart that have been corrupted by power and the need for control. Socialism as I see it has good roots, it says all should be equal, which can be good, it isn't good when it's forced by anyone. Capitalism as I see it has good roots also, it says let everyone work and create and generate as much wealth as possible, it isn't good when that wealth is horded and the poor suffer from it.

Craig Carter said...

We are making progress here. But you keep calling voluntary Christian community socialist and this is confusing because socialism involves State coercion.

Yes, I am saying that Christian communities sharing and helping the poor is hampered by the Big State and high taxation. You know that the capitalist US has the highest rate of charitable giving in the world, right? Whenever socialism is implemented private charity is destroyed. People think the government will take care of it and the taxes are so high they feel justified in not giving.

There is a kind of community that places a high value on economic sharing and caring for the poor that is not socialist. We see it in Acts. Peter says to Annanias "Annanias how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?" (Acts 5:3-4). No socialist government ever says that to taxpayers. It says, "We demand that you give us x% of that money you got for the land so we can give it to whoever we think needs it more (usually that would be government employees).

I don't think everyone should have an equal income. Rather, hard work and talent should be rewarded. But I think that a rich society should ensure that people who are sick, handicapped, young, old or otherwise unable to work and provide for themselves are kept out of absolute poverty. They should be given charity. This is a Christian duty.

One last point, what we need is not Christianity as the official state religion, but rather a society salted and influenced by a vibrant and growing Church. In other words, the US not 19th C Christian Europe and certainly not 20th C. secular Europe.

(I have enjoyed this discussion and will keep checking this post if you want to continue. Thanks for contributing.)

NathanColquhoun said...

I have also enjoyed it!

I think what I'm starting to see is me not understanding these terms very well then. When I say socialist all I basically mean is an ideal that people should strive to be equal, take care of the poor and that be an ethic for living. You talk about it form real life examples of how socialism ends up and what it has become; very controlling, government sanctioned and eventually something that leads to a lazy and unchartiable people. So like you said, I'm calling a voluntary Christian community socialist. However, I'm not doing that because I think it rings true of how a socialist government has worked in the past, rather it resonates with what I see as the ideal of socialism.

So I concede, I'm not talking about socialism and supporting some flawed system or trying to make excuses for where socialsm has failed.

I do see though, some values of socialism that could be helpful amongst Christian communities. For instance, if you had a community of ten families and it was mutually and freely agreed upon that all ten families would give $100 a month into a pot, and then there was a few people who was in charge of making sure that the pot money went to helping the poor wherever need be. I can see how that would look capitalist because everyone makes their own money and freely chooses what to do with it. I can also see how it would look socialist because they are no longer in control of their money and would be expecting that someone else takes care of the poor with that money for them. I don't see either view as very flawed, I just see us having to live in that tension that both systems do have something to teach us and maybe offer some help to us.

I feel like I'm getting a class for free. Thanks Dr. Carter.

Craig Carter said...

You wrote:

"I do see though, some values of socialism that could be helpful amongst Christian communities. For instance, if you had a community of ten families and it was mutually and freely agreed upon that all ten families would give $100 a month into a pot, and then there was a few people who was in charge of making sure that the pot money went to helping the poor wherever need be."

Let me make a few comments.

1. First, what you are describing is not even a little bit like socialism. It is no more Socialism that life insurance is or relief and development ministry is.

In fact, it sounds exactly like what we have at Westney Heights Baptist Church (which is not exactly known as a hot bed of Communist agitators!). We passed a budget in February with, I believe, $7,000 in the Benevolent Fund. The Pastor and a sub-committee of Deacons are in charge of distributing it to widows, orphans, beggars, street people etc. This is totally compatible with Capitalism and totally opposite to Socialism because it is completely voluntary.

2. If you define Socialism as loosely as you have been doing here is what happens. In the actual political struggle between Socialists and Capitalists (or Free Enterprise, the term I actually prefer), what happens is that all those who care about the poor are defined as Socialist, even the ones who oppose Big Government, high taxation, huge deficits, and a bloated welfare state. Your choice then is to be a money-grubbing, uncaring, evil Capitalist or a Socialist.

But then what happens is that Socialism, the economic system, gets all the credit for Christian compassion. The work of World Vision? That is socialism in action. Micro-finance? Socialism again. Medical missions? More Socialism. But none of these things involve Socialism at all and all of them are totally compatible with free enterprise. But having all compassionate ministry associated with Socialism enables the real Socialists to demonize the market and to advocate the destruction of the free enterprise system in the name of Christian compassion! (In their spare time they also attack the family and the sanctity of life as well.)

Once free enterprise is abolished in a given country the government becomes absolute and controls all economic decisions. Does Christian charity lead to that? Of course not, but when you use the term "Socialism" as loosely as you do you allow this rhetoric to function as Socialist propaganda.

Why not use "Socialist" to refer to an economic system in which the Government sets prices, interferes in economic activity by arbitrary administrative regulations, redistributes wealth through taxation and guarantees equality of wealth to all citizens?

Why not recognize that Christian ministries of compassion can occur under any economic system but flourish best under free enterprise, limited government and low taxation?

Why should Socialism and the State get the credit for what is done in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church?

One last point: Karl Marx or J. J. Rousseau did not invent ministries of compassion. Christianity did, or rather, OT Judaism did. You don't need to read Marx to become socially concerned; just read Moses and James.

NathanColquhoun said...

Your past comment I think helped me understand this the best. I don't have these laid out ideas in my head of what socialism and capitalism are like you do. So when I think socialism I think group effort to work towards equality. When I think capitalism, I think freedom to seek your own wealth. That's really about it. So the way you explain it here helps enlighten me, at least in terms of the language I use.

So thanks!