Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Do So Many People Hate Capitalism? Are Christian Ministers and Theologians Being Irresponsible in Their Teaching?

The reason I ask is that I have encountered so many Christians who reflexively hate capitalism, businesses and the whole apparatus of modern economic life. They tend to blame the recent recession on "greedy bankers" and they believe modern, socialist, redistribution of wealth by government coercion to be mandated by the Bible. They are sure that business people are evil and greedy because they exploit the workers by stealing what rightfully belongs to the workers in the form of profits. They think that the profit motive equals greed and that everyone ought to be willing to work for the common good without the incentive to keep what they earn.

When you study economics and approach economics objectively and rationally, you realize that all these beliefs are false and destructive. Capitalism has done more to raise living standards, lift poor people out of poverty and improve the quality of life than any other economic system in the history of the world. Capitalism is a recent innovation - less than 4 centuries old - in the grand scheme of human history. Profit is not evil, private property is a pillar of civilization and is rooted in Biblical revelation, specifically in the Eighth Commandment. And government intervention in the economy is unfailingly harmful to ordinary people including workers and the poor.

So what gives? Why are so many Christians so poorly informed? Why do so many people accept emotionally-driven myths about the evils of capitalism and the virtues of socialism? Why do even those Christians who recognize the massive failures of socialist systems in the 20th century still persist in believing that the Marxist critique of capitalism is valid?

The Social Gospel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a movement within liberal Protestantism to turn the Churches into vehicles for the promotion of socialism. Liberation Theology in the 1960s to 1980s was an attempt to revive this movement and revive socialism. But since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, socialist systems have crumbled, socialist dogmas have been exposed as fraudulent and socialism as a political-economic option has receded.

Yet, even as the the grudging realization that socialism as an economic system might be Utopian and unworkable in practice has penetrated the consciousness of most Christians, the myth that the Marxist critique of capitalism is valid has persisted. What is forgotten is that Marx assumed the mantle of an 8th century Hebrew prophet both in the sense of "forth-telling" and also in the sense of "fore-telling." He uttered a prophetic word of judgment on capitalism as morally evil and he also predicted its imminent demise as a result of its own inner contradictions.

But whereas the predictions of the 8th century Hebrew prophets came true when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, and they were accredited as prophets whose prophecies came true, Marx's predictions failed to come true and he thus stands discredited as a false prophet.

What one ought not to fail to notice is that Marx's analysis of capitalism's moral shortcomings has also been rejected both by most modern economists and also by the Judeo-Christian moral theology. The social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and the moral theology of historic, continuing Protestantism (as opposed to the liberal sectarian offshoot that is currently dying), has re-affirmed the goodness of private property.

The problem is that there has been confusion for the past 150 years over how to understand the implications of the doctrine of private property in the context of the capitalist, industrial revolution in which Marx's labor theory of value challenged the idea that capital derived from profits is genuinely the private property of the capitalist owners of the business enterprises which generated those profits.

The essence of the labor theory of value is that these profits actually belong to the workers and not to the business owners, so they have been unlawfully stolen from them. So the dispute is not technically over whether the doctrine of private property is true, for both sides recognize that it is; rather, the dispute is over whose property profits in a capitalist system actually are.

The moral basis for the redistribution of wealth in a modern socialist or social democratic welfare state is Marx's labor theory of value. If the profits belong by natural right to the workers (if Marxists can stand to put it that way - I'm just trying to express it in the strongest possible terms), then to have democratic votes on levels of taxation and redistribution makes sense. Nobody is stealing the business owners' profits, we are just returning stolen property to its rightful owners.

On the other hand, if the profits do not actually belong to the workers in the first place, then the only way to justify redistribution of wealth is the doctrine of Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic and of Nietzsche in many of his writings, namely, that the strong should exploit the weak if they get the chance. Ironically, this doctrine justifies both capitalist exploitation and socialist redistribution. Whoever has the guns should take what they want from the other.

Christians, naturally, are somewhat uncomfortable with how the big fish eating the little fish philosophy meshes with the Golden Rule and the Greatest Commandment of our Lord. So it is imperative for Christian anti-capitalists to believe that their redistributive policies are merely rectifying injustices by returning stolen property (in the form of profits) to their rightful owners (poor workers).

So it appears to me that the whole left-wing Christian argument (whether in the forms of the old-fashioned Social Gospel, the now mostly defunct Liberation Theology, or the newer Evangelical Left) for wealth redistribution by government coercion depends directly on the now-discredited Marxist labor theory of value. Am I missing something here? Is there another basis for redistribution?

Of course, there is the moral argument for charity. That is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition but it is irrelevant to the question of social justice. Charity is no more a matter of justice than grace is a matter of merit. Of course Christian ought to care about the poor and given money to help them. No one would deny that. But is government redistribution of profits in a capitalist system to the workers and to the poor a matter of justice? That is a separate question from the issue of charity. But I find Christians confusingly conflating them all the time.

The question I am raising in this post is whether or not there is a moral basis for Christians advocating for coercive government redistribution of wealth as a matter of justice or not. If the only basis is the labor theory of value, then the argument rests on a flimsy reed. In the next post, I will discuss Robert T. Miller's recent criticism of Alasdair MacIntryre's critique of capitalism, which addresses this issue head on.

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