The Economy and Christian Ethics (The Most Boring Title for an Article in the History of Articles)

Due to the current political climate, the lines between liberals and conservatives are cut very deep.  There are various battlegrounds which take place across these lines, and the polarization cannot be overstated.  Examples of these issues include: abortion, same-sex marriage, and gun control.  However, another issue that has become just as prevalent in public discussion is the issue of economics, particularly the debate between socialists and capitalists.

Capitalism and socialism are two ideas on the opposite ends of the economic spectrum.  Capitalism falls in line with what is often called ‘classical liberalism,’ an economic policy popularized during the Enlightenment which prizes individual responsibility and abhors government intervention.  Socialism on the other hand prizes the idea of equality.  Therefore, it becomes the government’s responsibility to ensure that the economic playing field remains even.

There are several problems with capitalism, and these problems are connected by one factor: there is no intrinsic morality governing the system.  In the capitalistic world, the rich man is king—he is viewed as the most responsible and the most hardworking, because capitalism is about personal control.  Any monopolizing that he may achieve is understood as nothing but success.  On the other hand, capitalists often have little compassion for the poor, because it is assumed that the poor are either lazy and/or irresponsible.

Even though capitalism seems to be problematic, socialism is even more so.  What capitalism has going for it is that it provides goods and services to meet needs (which is great until capitalists get wise and start using advertising to get people to desire things he or she really doesn’t need…but you can’t complain about that if you’re a capitalist, because at least you’re making money, right?).  But socialism can’t provide for the needs of people for an extended period of time.  This should be common knowledge now, as we have seen one socialist nation after another collapse.  Another major problem with socialism is that even though it attempts to make all people equal, the people must defer all their power to the government to regulate this equality.  However, as the government gains absolute power, it will inevitably use that power against the people.  So, by attempting to create equality among the people, that government becomes a (often deadly) force of oppression.

It may seem like I am abandoning the conservatives on this issue, but I assure you I am not.  I am merely pointing to a common inconsistency.  It seems like there is a gaping hole in the conservative debate regarding economics: conservatives seem to want Christian morals, but not economic morals.  That is, when it comes to individual decisions, we want Biblical morality to guide us, but in our minds, no one should tell a business what it should or should not do.  It seems as if we become moral relativists the moment we begin talking about business or economics.  This flaw or oversight in our thinking must be addressed.

Though they may seem completely different, the problems with libertarianism, communism, capitalism, and socialism are really all the same.  All of them are materialistic, that is, they look only to economic factors as the measurement of a thriving society.  But as we are living in one of the most financially prosperous periods in history, we are also living in a time where individuals who seem to be thriving on paper are often the most depressed.  Though they attempt to solve economic problems differently, each of these ideologies fail because they are focusing on the wrong goal.

The main problem is that each of these economic systems misunderstand human nature.  Each of them seeks to apply a certain economic equation to achieve human flourishing.  Each whittles down human beings to some sort of quantifiable and predictable element, most often called our “rational self-interest.”  The problem with this idea is that no one really lives out of pure altruism or from pure selfish motives.  People will not always consistently do what is best for society or for themselves.  In trying to apply some kind of equation to human nature, each of these economic systems fail because, as Fyodor Dostoevsky brilliantly put it, “Man, after all, is stupid.”

Note: a great work to read on this is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. He addresses this faulty line of thought and traces it through differing economic systems, revealing why they do not function as designed (that is, because people are not perfectly formed cogs meant to fit within some sort of economic machine, but they are individuals which function based on their own personal volition).

Conservatives often chide liberals for saying things like, “true communism has never been tried.”  But if you point out some of the flaws of capitalism, conservatives will say something that sounds eerily familiar, “Ah, but that’s crony capitalism.”  This is just another way of saying “true capitalism has never been tried.”  The problem with this line of thinking is that, as I said before, capitalism has no intrinsic moral value system.  A capitalist cannot condemn the behavior of a monopolizing business-owner within a free-market system without appealing to a moral value system that is foreign to capitalism itself.

There is an unspoken assumption within Christian conservativism that suggests capitalism is the Christian economic system.  This is a falsehood, not because Christianity has some other economic system, but because it has no economic system.  There is no orthodox economic philosophy for Christianity.

If we can shift from this line of thinking, we can also expand our understanding of what economic progress should look like.  Instead of looking to lawmakers to fix everything, we should begin to ask ourselves what we can do.  A nation’s prosperity is not built from the top down—from the government to individuals—it is built up from individual citizens.  These citizens must be willing to exercise certain individual responsibilities, which include morality, compassion, civic duty, and moderation of personal desires.  The reason, I contend, that socialism is looked to for the imposition of financial limits on people is because people have become too greedy to place limits upon themselves.

Two major elements leading to the general decline in the success of economic policies in the United States and around the world have been the amalgamation of socialism and capitalism, and a deconstruction of individual morality from the bottom up.  The former can easily be seen, as the government seems to reach into economics too far for our system to be purely capitalistic, but at the same time there is not enough governmental regulation to refer to our economic system as purely socialistic either.  Our current economic state is a sort of hybrid which does not function well as a socialist or a capitalist system, because it does shares elements from both.

The latter issue is that individuals have lost any sense of self-restraint.  One obvious example of this can be seen by searching modern economic literature to see how many times the word “enough” is used.  You will likely find that it is never used.  This is because people have become so motivated by greed that all they are capable of asking is, “how much can I acquire?”  But they never ask, “how much should I acquire?”  This has led to a constantly unreachable goal, because the goal is only to make more.

The first step to redeeming our economy cannot be accomplished from the top down.  People today often misunderstand politics because all they see is policy—all they see is how a law will affect the populous.  But they fail to ask what an individual’s responsibility is to society, or how individual behavior can affect the governmental structure as a whole.  In other words, insofar as we only look at problems from the top down, we only understand half the problem.

The question we should all be asking is, “what is the economic responsibility of each individual in society?”  This can be easily answered if we apply Christian morality to our thinking, which, in return, could revolutionize modern economics.  From this perspective, the individual in society would understand the importance of financial limitations, not imposed by the government, but self-imposed.  We would each (whether business or individual) ask ourselves what it means to have enough.  Part of the reason why socialism will never work is because it expects government to do what people are supposed to do for themselves.

What I am suggesting is an economic system called ‘Distributism.’  Distributism is an idea popularized by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and later by Dorothy Sayers.  It is an idea which esteems the importance of personal property, along with the idea that the means of production should be spread as widely as possible.  It implies that people should seek to be self-reliant, but also focuses on loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.  This would be a drastic paradigm shift in our current thinking—we earn money not as an end in itself, but so that we can better help our local community.

Note: when many conservatives hear the word ‘Distributism,’ what they think they hear is ‘socialism.’ In socialism, there is an outside force imposing limitations on individuals within society. But the financial limits in Distributism come from within individuals, they overflow from a desire to help the community around them, and too keep greed from taking over.

This may seem like an empty dream, but the beauty of it is that we do not need to wait for the government to impose it.  Plant a garden, give some of the produce to the poor.  This could be a simple first step.  The one institution this system is ready-made for is the church, because it is local enough to know the needs of its community.  This is a higher path than a purely capitalistic way of thinking.  It would allow us to see the poor as Christ saw them: with compassion.  Instead of seeing the poor as lazy or irresponsible, we can see them as souls in need of aid.  We can work with the poor to help them become productive citizens, so they in return can help others do the same.  In contrast, our current system has produced more dependent people, not less.

As we apply this ideology, we will find that many who call themselves capitalists were advocating for Distributism all along.  They simply did not have the proper vocabulary to express it.  Distributism is, in some sense, really a form of capitalism that esteems financial morality and responsibility, but it is also much more than that.  Conservatives should not be forced to defend a broken ideology just because there seems to be no alternative.  There is another way that prizes personal responsibility, not for the sake of getting rich, but for the sake of being compassionate.  Distributism is less of a combination of socialism and capitalism, and more like what they both strive to be, and yet fail.  Distributism, I believe, is the best idea for economics.  It is a way of living that is better than pure capitalism or socialism could ever hope to be, and it is a way of living that would best contribute to human flourishing.

Noah

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