Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

A Jewish rabbi explains what the Bible teaches about capitalism

A Jewish rabbi explains what the Bible says about economics, in the Wall Street Journal. (H/T Tom)

Excerpt:

More than any other nation, the United States was founded on broad themes of morality rooted in a specific religious perspective. We call this the Judeo-Christian ethos, and within it resides a ringing endorsement of capitalism as a moral endeavor.

Regarding mankind, no theme is more salient in the Bible than the morality of personal responsibility, for it is through this that man cultivates the inner development leading to his own growth, good citizenship and happiness. The entitlement/welfare state is a paradigm that undermines that noble goal.

The Bible’s proclamation that “Six days shall ye work” is its recognition that on a day-to-day basis work is the engine that brings about man’s inner state of personal responsibility. Work develops the qualities of accountability and urgency, including the need for comity with others as a means for the accomplishment of tasks. With work, he becomes imbued with the knowledge that he is to be productive and that his well-being is not an entitlement. And work keeps him away from the idleness that Proverbs warns leads inevitably to actions and attitudes injurious to himself and those around him.

[...]At the opening bell, Genesis announces: “Man is created in the image of God”—in other words, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence. Unlike animals, the human being is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our universe. The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, helps facilitate our partnership with God by bringing to the surface that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation.

Capitalism makes possible entrepreneurship, which is the realization of an idea birthed in human creativity. Whereas statism demands that citizens think small and bow to a top-down conformity, capitalism, as has been practiced in the U.S., maximizes human potential. It provides a home for aspiration, referred to in the Bible as “the spirit of life.”

The Bible speaks positively of payment and profit: “For why else should a man so labor but to receive reward?” Thus do laborers get paid wages for their hours of work and investors receive profit for their investment and risk.

[...]Many on the religious left criticize capitalism because all do not end up monetarily equal—or, as Churchill quipped, “all equally miserable.” But the Bible’s prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy’s saying that “Judges and officers . . . shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not . . . favor one over the other.” Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved.

The motive of capitalism’s detractors is a quest for their own power and an envy of those who have more money. But envy is a cardinal sin and something that ought not to be.

God begins the Ten Commandments with “I am the Lord your God” and concludes with “Thou shalt not envy your neighbor, not for his wife, nor his house, nor for any of his holdings.” Envy is corrosive to the individual and to those societies that embrace it. Nations that throw over capitalism for socialism have made an immoral choice.

I think that Christians are sometimes attracted to socialism because they think that the only way to help the poor is by state-controlled redistribution of wealth. Socialists might have the right goal of helping the poor (I actually believe that socialism is just the happy-face on fascism, but let us be charitable), but capitalism is the right way to achieve that goal of helping the poor.

Here is an article by Jay Richards for the American Enterprise Institute.

First, his introduction:

If you’re like me, when you think of wealth and poverty, you picture its material manifestations. To have wealth, we imagine, is to have money, stocks, real estate, or valuable commodities, which, in turn, gives us the means to achieve various material ends, such as food, clothing, cars, housing, and healthcare. Poverty, in contrast, is the lack of such goods, which, in turn, leads to a lack of food, shelter, basic medical care, and other such items. These mental associations can make it hard to discover the preconditions of wealth creation, many of which are immaterial, even spiritual, rather than material.

For most of human history, discovering the sources of wealth creation would have been devilishly hard, since most economies, such as there were, tended to be static. If a Mesopotamian farmer or Greek shepherd in the second century BC ever asked, “Where does wealth come from?” he would have assumed that wealth came from rain, common labor, good luck, or some combination of these. He probably also would have assumed that to get really wealthy, you need to plunder other people.

But we now have concrete examples of cultures that have created vast new wealth, moving the majority of their citizens from poverty to relative prosperity. And when we look at these cultures retroactively, we discover answers that, for most of us, are counterintuitive. I’ve argued elsewhere that we’re able to discern ten crucial features allowing such cultures to alleviate poverty and create wealth. The more of these a culture has or does, the more likely it is to be prosperous.

The Top Ten Ways to Alleviate Poverty

  1. Establish and maintain the rule of law.
  2. Focus the jurisdiction of government primarily on maintaining the rule of law, and limit its jurisdiction over the economy and the institutions of civil society.
  3. Implement a formal property system with consistent and accessible means for securing a clear title to property one owns.
  4. Encourage economic freedom.
  5. Encourage stable families and other important private institutions which mediate between the individual and the state.
  6. Encourage belief in the truth that the universe is purposeful and makes sense.
  7. Encourage the right cultural mores.
  8. Instill a proper understanding of the nature of wealth creation and poverty.
  9. Focus on cultivating your comparative advantage rather than protecting what used to be your comparative advantage.
  10. Work hard.

There is a striking correlation between societies that exhibit these traits, or some subset of them, and the large-scale wealth creation. But notice that only one of them describes a material good. All the others are intangible, immaterial, spiritual. You can’t find economic freedom or cultural mores on a map or put them in a safe. You can’t bottle diligence or weigh the ingredients for stable families and voluntary institutions on a scale. These goods involve beliefs, social conventions, institutions, commitments, virtues, and creativity. Having listed them in brief, now I want to hold each of the ten immaterial ingredients up to the light and consider how each helps a society move from poverty to prosperity.

If someone has a spiritual or moral sickness that is preventing them from working, then the solution is not to hand them someone else’s money. That’s not going to make them happy. They need to earn their own pay and be responsible for their own independence.

Jay Richards on Christianity and Capitalism

Jay Richards actually wrote the book on Christianity and capitalism: “Money, Greed and God“.

To understand what capitalism is, you can watch this lecture entitled “Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem” by Jay W. Richards, delivered at the Heritage Foundation think tank, and televised by C-SPAN2.

If you can’t see the Richards video, here is an audio lecture by Jay Richards on the “Myths Christians Believe about Wealth and Poverty“. Also, why not check out this series of 4 sermons by Wayne Grudem on the relationship between Christianity and economics? (a PDF outline is here)

And you can listen to Ron Nash’s course on Christianity and economics.

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3 Responses

  1. As a Christian, I’m definitely in favor of Capitalism as the best economic system ever conceived. But I don’t think it is without its flaws.

    One particular flaw I’m noticing is a natural consequence of it. As capitalism flourishes in western nations, it produces products designed to make life easier. Some theorize of replacing human beings with machines, and not in just hazardous industries. Some believe within the next fifty years doctors, musicians, teachers, and other positions will be replaced by technologically advanced equivalents. Already the internet is replacing publishers, distributors, authors, and software engineers by providing extremely low cost (or free) alternatives.

    I’m afraid in the end because of technological advancement, we will replace the work of man with the work of machine, ironically ending the best system in the world for man to work in with a system in which man has nothing to do.

  2. David says:

    People might have said the same about buggy whip manufacturers or makers of Fedora hats. New technologies rise and free up humanity to pursue other kinds of work and to create new kinds of services.

    • True in part. That is usually what I hear from friends of mine who consider themselves libertarian or hard-core conservatives. I think of myself as fairly conservative as well.

      The difference between our current technology and ‘buggy whips’ and ‘fedora hats’ is the type of technology. I’m a Computer Scientist, and I watch almost every day as someone in my field replaces human beings with machines doing the same work more efficiently. There is a threshold when machines can do most of what human beings do and this threshold is coming very quickly.

      With the advent of digital computing, we can replace not just repetitive tasks, but very complicated tasks that used to require very smart people.

      CEO’s and other big names in Silicon Valley call it “the singularity”. They have a university dedicated to it with a website if you are interested in learning more. I’m not a fan of it; the fact that human beings will lose one of their core reasons for existence (good old work) is a bad idea in my opinion.

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