by Rod D. Martin
October 2, 2015
The Pope’s continued attacks on Capitalism raise important questions Christians should consider. Certainly unbridled human activity of any sort is fraught with sin: it is our nature. But the Pope’s critique misses the mark, Biblically, historically and practically. Christians must understand why.
1. Nothing in human history has done so much to alleviate human poverty and suffering as free market capitalism. Nothing. This shouldn’t even be a controversial statement. Before capitalism took root 250 years ago, the entire world lived in vastly greater poverty than the Pope’s slum-dwelling parishioners in (socialist) Argentina. And they had lived in exactly that level of poverty since at least Noah’s flood.
Were there redistribution schemes in Rome? Pharaoh’s Egypt? Ancient China? Yes there were. Did they lift anyone out of primitivism? No, they did not.
Just as God created the world in several steps, capitalism’s greatest achievements haven’t come all at once. Someone invented a steam engine. Someone figured out to attach it to boats and trains. Some other people put up their hard-earned capital to invest in building boats and trains. Someone else thought of using the new technology to can food and to store it in warehouses.
Thus ended famine. Two thousand years after Roman welfare programs couldn’t.
No one did this on purpose. Nor was it charity, or even ministry. It took the genius of the market to conquer want: millions of people acting freely in their own interest collectively wiped out the greatest material scourge plaguing the Earth.
The same is true for everything from the conquest of diseases to the availability of toilet paper. The poorest in capitalist countries live better than kings (or popes) just a century or two ago. Though rare mere decades ago, indoor plumbing is now almost universal; there are even more cell phones than toilets. African children living in huts take courses and read Bibles on iPhones. The Economist reports that a billion people were lifted out of poverty in just the last 20 years, with a billion more rising in the next 20.
Socialism produced none of this. Indeed in many cases, socialism kept it from happening a great deal sooner.
2. The Bible precludes every other system. Socialism requires that I covet and demands my government steal. This seems virtuous, in the same way that it seemed virtuous to Eve to take God down a peg or two. It results in a culture that creates little and oppresses all. As one famed Muslim scholar taught, “it is more virtuous to be a looter than a merchant, because at least the looter must fight the man from whom he takes.”
Two out of Ten Commandments address this directly: not only shall you not steal, you shall not even think about it. When King Ahab nationalized Naboth’s vineyard, the Lord roundly condemned him. And when Jesus taught economics, in two separate parables He commended the entrepreneur who multiplied his money while condemning the employee who buried his stake.
At this point someone will always protest on behalf of giving. But that misses the point. You can’t give what you don’t have. And government gives nothing it does not first take.
3. Capitalism is the economic fulfillment of the Golden Rule. In capitalism, for me to make a single penny, I must first stand in the shoes of my potential customer. What does she need? What does she want? How could I make her life better?
I can’t create a solution for her until I do. And even then, she does not have to buy it! I can invest my entire life savings in solving her problem and still be paid absolutely nothing. But if I do my job well, I can make a tiny fraction of the far greater benefit I’ve provided to her and to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others.
This is the Golden Rule: I put others before myself, they are free to reject it, and I cannot gain by any other means. It is a system that requires even those who reject the Golden Rule (and its Giver) to act upon it.
Pope Francis is absolutely right to call on the wealthy to be more compassionate with what they have; but he is dangerously wrong to ignore the benefits of the system he critiques. His argument is no different from condemning the church because it contains hypocrites.
His teaching would hobble Christianity. It demonizes the sort of wealth creation Jesus demanded, and thus all the good works that could be done as a result. And those works are not limited to charity: as Ronald Reagan used to say, “the best jobs program is a job.”
The Church – and the world – would do well to learn this.
This article was originally published as part of my Beyond the Church Door series in the Florida Baptist Witness.