A Christian Perspective on the Morality of Capitalism
In this essay the moral assumptions behind laissez faire Capitalism will be examined and critiqued from the viewpoint of a Christian morality, culminating in a conclusion as to what, if any, forms of Capitalist society are morally acceptable from a Christian perspective. When I speak of Capitalism what I mean is an economic system where the industries of a country are controlled privately for profit, and when I say laissez faire Capitalism what I mean is that system wholly powered by self interest with little to no social regulation or redistribution of profit. For our purposes, we will focus on the two uniting moral principles of laissez faire Capitalism. The first of these principles is that each individual acts in a way that most clearly benefits him and him alone. This is necessitated by the very concept of what drives the market encoded in the idea of laissez faire Capitalism. As Adam Smith said “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” This focus on the individual self-interest is the driving force behind and the motivation in these Capitalistic ventures. It is the reason the butcher, the brewer, and the baker are in business at all. As such, the virtue rewarded by Capitalism is not a virtue of charity or even really self-interest alone, but success in behaving in a way that is self-interested. It is clear that if a system is based around economic reward for selfishness then, if it is to be successful, the majority of people must behave in that way. The second principle is that this behavior is just on grounds related to private property. That is to say, that each individual has an absolute and unassailable right to that which they have created, earned, or been given. The society itself has no or else very little right to the fruits of their labor, whether for redistributive reasons, for the alleviation of poverty or any other altruistic reason.
In regards to what a Christian perspective on private property ought to be, theologian Gary DeMar is representative of one school of thought, he says “God gives His creatures possession of the earth to extend the boundaries of the kingdom as they fulfill their calling in obedience to His Word; therefore, the confiscation of property is an attack upon the kingdom and its advance.” The idea here seems to be that God gave creation to Adam and Eve in an absolute sense to have dominion over. As such to place constraints on someone’s property is to limit their autonomy and disrespect God’s will. However, this claim seems dubious at best. This is because from a Christian ethical perspective the absolute right of the individual to do as they will with their own private property is by no means clear. This can be demonstrated by reference to the Mosaic law, such as Leviticus 25:10 where every fiftieth year is designated a “Jubilee” in which lands acquired by one tribe from another are to be returned. Similarly, in Leviticus 23:22 those who harvest fields are commanded to leave some wheat on the edges for the needy. Furthermore, in Matthew 25 Jesus speaks of giving to the poor as a requirement for entering the kingdom of heaven. Indeed, it is not just that charity is something good for the rich to exercise as a virtue, rather there are grounds for thinking that the poor have a moral right to property that the rich have. St. Augustine, in expounding Jesus parable of “The Rich Fool” in Luke 12:16-21, says of the Rich Man “He was planning to fill his soul with excessive and unnecessary feasting and was proudly disregarding all those empty bellies of the poor.” St. Basil is even more blunt, saying “The bread in your hoard belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.” What seems to lie behind this sentiment is that extravagant inequality grants those in dire need a moral right to some of the excess kept by the wealthy. This is because, for the Christian, no single person can own something in an absolute sense. Rather, all that is is created by God for His own ends. One of God’s major purposes being that creation is for the benefit of all mankind. As such, the person who claims vast resources as their exclusive private property is analogous to an individual who arrives early at a charitable food pantry, claims all of it for himself, and proceeds to drive off any hungry person who tries to take “his” food away on the grounds that he has “earned” it. He has simply not been given the right to lay claim to an indefinite amount of what is being offered as a gift. Rather, the food in the pantry belongs to someone else whose will it is that it be given to all. As such, according to St. Basil, each should receive an equal amount from God, as he says, “if everyone took for himself enough to meet his own wants and gave up the rest to those who needed it, there would be no rich and no poor.” This is in stark contrast to the laissez faire understanding of private property. It is also dissimilar the Lockean account of property where unowned goods become the property of a person following the mixture of their labor, and thus themselves, with the material after which they then gain an absolute right to it. The Christian must deny that private property as such exists. An individual neither has an absolute right to themselves and their labor, nor to what they mix it with. Raw material is not unowned. It has a Telos that is disregarded by hoarding and refusal to engage in equitable distribution. That is why Thomas Aquinas said that “according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means,” continuing that because of this, should there be sufficient need “it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property.” It is therefore clear for Aquinas that, while certain goods may be entrusted to certain individuals for the purpose of using and stewarding them, this “property” is not property in the sense that the laissez faire capitalist would say. As such, it is more akin to a stewardship that one is morally obligated to exercise in a certain way.
There is also the consideration in regards to Christian virtue that must be taken into account. It says in 1 Timothy 6:11 regarding the Christian life “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (ESV). This Christian understanding of ethical development is not just that the person acts in the morally correct way. Rather, it is about what the person becomes and the dispositions they cultivate. That is why the doctrine of sanctification is important in Christianity; holiness is about both what you do and what you are. This flows from how we become part of Christ’s body through our faith and baptism. Through this union with God we share in his nature through Christ and become more and more God like as we grow into “the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). This teaching is consonant with the teaching of virtue ethics. Virtue is here understood as a multi-track disposition, or a dispositions that operates according to multiple cognitive processes and therefore influences the entire person, inclining them towards a morally correct action or good. Virtue is not merely about something a person does; rather, it is about who they have developed themselves to be through careful practice. Like an athlete who has trained their body to perform a certain task well, the virtuous person has trained their mental and emotional dispositions to react in a certain way. Therefore, a virtuous Christian must be growing in Christ and as a result, their dispositions must be being trained in a correct way as well. The problem with the laissez faire understanding of how Capitalism is to work is that it actively rewards the vices of greed and selfishness, thereby destroying the virtues of selflessness and generosity. As Ayn Rand said of her individualistic view of Capitalist society “An Individualist is a man who lives for his own sake and by his own mind.” This system is predicated on the idea that people are trying, like the “Rich Fool,” to amass ever more of whatever they value, usually larger yet amounts of material possessions, because they exist only for themselves. This assumption that people live from themselves only is not Christian, but secular to the core in that it is an extension of the secular humanism that makes man the measure of all things, going further by making each man the measure of all things. If such a system is to succeed what it inevitably must do is teach us to succeed by selfishness and mistrust. The operating assumption in this arrangement is that people behave in accordance with their self-interest. If this is not followed, the entire economic theory falls apart. It is then at best a concession to human evil or at worst an ideology based around encouraging evil. There seems to be more reason to think it is the latter in that this form of Capitalism must be seen as a corollary to enlightenment individualism, as opposed to the ancient conceptions of corporate identity, whether in city state or village, and the modern versions of that through Fascism or Communism. These social formations, both ancient and recent, show that people can live in societies where the individual exists primarily for the good of the collective, not for his own self-interest. Surely no concession can be made to something which is not a necessity, and so it is more reasonable to assume that Capitalism must be actively attempting to inculcate greed instead of merely assuming it. However, even if it is the case that this form of Capitalism is merely a concession to greed it does not follow that Christianity ought to allow such a vice merely to stand. Rather, virtue must be created to combat it. A Christian system must be devoted to cultivating virtue. As Thomas Aquinas said “Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” If the very engine of an economic system is at odds with what Christianity is trying to create in people, then Christianity and that system must be in opposition. One cannot pursue the goods that God has told us to if the concerns of Capitalism cause us to be in a constant state of sinning against God.
This does not mean that private property as such is evil. Indeed, in many ways the sinfulness of the system of Capitalism depends largely on how one approaches the moral obligations of property ownership. One must realize first that God has ordained private property not as something that one has an absolute right to, but rather it is something that God gives to humanity as to a steward. As a steward, however, God attaches conditions to how we are to behave with this property. This, of course, is the key difference. The existence of private property should be seen primarily as a responsibility given to the individual and an opportunity to act justly. One of the conditions which God has attached to how we are to act with this property is a devotion to an equitable distribution, as Thomas Aquinas says “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” Similarly, those who conduct business should be seen to operate under a sacred duty. They have been tasked with the distribution of goods. To gouge prices and take advantage of the poor would be to fail in their social responsibility. Therefore, just as when a person fails in their civic responsibility as a journalist by printing lies they are subject to libel, and when a soldier commissioned by the state abandons his post he is subject to desertion laws, so to such a wicked business man ought to be subject to the society he has defrauded. This is because these are public, not private vices. The distribution of goods, like the national defense and the existence of a truthful press are integral to the proper functioning of a society. A person may have an inclination toward gluttony, but for the most part it is his own affair. His propensity toward moderation has little to no effect on the operation of society. As such, his responsibility is only to himself and to God. Conversely, those who are tasked with the operation of social goods bear a responsibility to society in addition to those to God and self. These must therefore be answerable to society. However, a laissez faire system with no regard to equality and whose primary engine of operation is the harnessing of human greed and selfishness has no such check, and is therefore not consistent with Christianity. It is not Capitalism, defined as an economic system where the industries of a country are controlled privately for profit, that is a therefore the problem. Rather, it is the individualist moral approach mentioned above to this system that sees its ultimate aim only in the benefit of the individual. This is as wrong an approach to the market as would be the approach of a soldier who kills indiscriminately for profit. Such a soldier is merely a mercenary and such a capitalist is merely an extortionist. Rather, much of the profit he generates by rights must be distributed to all levels of society. A virtuous man will be happy to thus exercise his civic duty. However, we must not be naïve about it. As a society we have an interest in insuring that justice is carried out, which is why state regulation of the market to ensure fairness and social distribution of much of the income from higher earners into welfare programs for the benefit of the poor must be enforced. We of course hope that a soldier will stand his ground and do his duty, but we by no means assume that he will do it automatically. We must therefore begin using force, in the hopes that in the future he will do willingly what he was before compelled to do. Therefore, a system of Social Democracy with a commitment to sharing much of the wealth generated by Capitalism through a welfare state along with heavy regulations to insure that there is no egregious extortion by business of the poor. In regards how best to formulate such an economic system, it is a question beyond the scope of this paper and a problem I leave it to those with greater economic expertise than myself. The project I have undertaken in this essay is not one of practicality, but the question of what is just and what is Christian. It seems clear to me that the form of society mentioned above is the only form of the Capitalist system consonant with Christian values.