Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why Christianity Is At Peace with Free Markets

At the website of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada, Tomas Salamanca wrote a piece entitled "Why Christianity Will Never Be At Peace with Free Markets." It claims that there are certain things in Christianity that are clearly incompatible. I write this piece not only to refute some of these claims but also to clear up some things and show that Christianity is in harmony with the free and unfettered market (not the fascist order we live in today, which is falsely connected with the free market).

Let's look at his first claim:

1. Other-Worldly focus: Christianity holds that the world we currently inhabit is an imperfect place where our souls are sternly tested in the quest for paradise after death, where our complete fulfillment awaits. Other-worldly concerns, it is true, are now less emphasized than they were prior to the 17-18th century Enlightenment period.  Christians today talk more about the dignity of the person and social justice in the here and now than they do about preparing for eternal life. Still, a regard for the next world lies in the background with respect to the charge that free markets encourage people to falsely place their happiness in material goods rather than spiritual values.
I will address this strong concern that Salamanca seems to have; that since Christianity focuses more on spiritual concerns than the concerns of this world, this would be in contradiction to the free market, since it is "worldly." This is one of two extremes: the glorification of the free market because it is materialistic (as for me, my view is that the free market is neither purely spiritual nor purely materialistic; it is neutral in a sense). The world we inhabit is an imperfect place, and that is something that almost everyone agrees on, even libertarians. I don't see how this dissuades us from a support for free markets, for free markets can do a lot of good through their voluntarism, their supply-and-demand mechanisms, their price systems, their utter lack of coercion and top-down central planning, and other glories of free markets. And as to the lack of emphasis on other-worldly concerns in our society, I hold that it has done a great deal of harm. While we are rightly concerned with how to improve this world until Jesus comes back, the lack of spiritual clarity has led to much harm, sometimes even leading for people to create heaven on earth through offensive and interventionist warfare, laws criminalizing immoral actions (such as drug usage, prostitution, sexual immorality, etc.), minimum wage laws, central banking, militarism, welfare statism, and worse. In fact, a focus on spiritual matters should lead us to support a free market, for is not statism in all forms an attempt to create a utopia that is virtually impossible? The kingdom of God is not of this world (John 18:36), and thus we should not attempt to make out a kingdom of God (though this does not in any way discount evangelization or repeal of unjust laws).
2. Solicitude for the Poor: While not necessarily closed off to the rich, Christianity offers a belief system that is especially appealing to the poor. After all, its promise of bliss in the next life enables the poor to accept their plight in this life, which is why Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. It is no coincidence that Christianity originally grew mostly by gaining adherents among the urban proletariat in the Roman Empire. Inasmuch as the poor have been a key market segment, as it were, for Christianity, its theologians and priests have always had a strong motive to retain the loyalty of less advantaged groups by supporting political ideologies that seemingly favor the working classes. Add to this the cognitive bias that predisposes the mind to conclude that the way to make a poor person better off is by simply redirecting resources towards them from wealthier members of the community. The net result is the state of affairs that we’ve witnessed since the ascent of capitalism in the 19th century — that is, one in which any set of ideas that justifies restricting, or even abolishing, private property rights finds avid followers among Christianity’s most influential thinkers. 
This is also one issue that Christians, especially those of the libertarian and classical-liberal kind, had to struggle with. These Christians are ostracized by the likes of left-wing thinkers such as Jim Wallis for allegedly ignoring the poor people that are hurt by the evils of laissez-faire and greedy businessmen, while the evils of government's economic policies and interventionism is gleefully neglected. I will say this: poor people can be more receptive to the Gospel than rich people, for poor people seem not to focus as much on material goods as the middle-class and wealthy might. This is not an indictment of the free market, of capitalism, of the bourgeoise, of the middle class, of the upper class, or any thing of that sort. Rather, it is an honest acknowledgment as to why wealthy people often struggle with the Gospel. "After all, its promise of bliss in the next life enables the poor to accept their plight in this life, which is why Marx called religion the opiate of the masses." I will say that the promise of bliss in the next life is important, but not central in the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of Life. It is the promise of unfettered fellowship with God, with fellow believers, and the presence of perfection in heaven that motivates many Christians to endure their sufferings and tribulations. 

As the Apostle Paul says:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed— 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So then death is working in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, NKJV)

The Christian does not neglect the fact that the world is in peril, but rather he acknowledges that these sufferings are but sharing in the suffering of Christ. And even when we may feel discouraged and alone, we know that God is ultimately with us, and we have victory in Jesus Christ, for faith "is the victory that overcomes the world." (1 John 5:4) 

As to how this translates to the Christian reaction to the free market and political freedom, I believe that the use of these biblical doctrines to attack laissez-faire is a misguided attempt by Christians as it misses the whole point of the doctrine of suffering: to help us grow strong in our faith. And statism in the economic sector does not help the poor but rather hurts it. For the State's restrictions on markets restrict those who do not and are not able to follow its rules; for example, let's say that a poor man wants to start a business selling hoodies. But the government of the region he lives in restricts starting a business until a license is received. The poor man cannot pay for the license, since he has no money. So when he just sells it without official permission, the government steps in and shuts it down. If the poor man resisted, he would either be in prison or lying dead. And the minimum wage laws, which we are all told help the poor, are in actually shutting jobs out of the marketplace. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I could go on and on about the glories of free markets and the evils of statism, but others have went further into that, and they have showed that not only is capitalism compatible with the Gospel but also that laissez-faire is compatible too. I will delve into such topics in future articles and writings. But this is to show but a few examples in which interventionism is harmful for poor people. We also oppose the evil of refusing to give to the poor from one's own heart and pocket while lobbying for the government to support these old poor people. 

3. The Ethic of Self-Abnegation: The New Testament is pretty clear that we are obligated to overcome our selfish impulses and constantly help others with a self-denying love.  Free markets collide with this injunction by sanctioning the notion that people can legitimately interact with others via trade and exchange whenever it is in their self-interest to do so. Observing alongside the authority of Adam Smith that this pursuit of self-interest redounds to the public good does nothing to get around this fundamental opposition. For the Christian demand to love others involves a moral criterion that judges people on the purity of their intentions, rather than the over-all consequences of their actions.  Steve Jobs may have generated more prosperity than Mother Theresa, but a good Christian will insist upon the moral superiority of the latter because she consciously sacrificed herself to assist others.

This is one of the most complex arguments against the concept of the free market: that since it allegedly encourages selfishness through its promise of prosperity, it is in complete contradiction to the ethic of self-denying agape love that motivates one to give his life for Christ in the same way Christ gave His life for us (and for the whole world). This is false, as I will show, but it seems to resonate a lot with many Christians. The image of innovators, entrepreneurs, and capitalists advertising their goods and services through mass media and social media showing how good their goods and services are, and how terrible (or at the very least inferior) their competitors are is horrifying to many people. They see that the opposition to free markets is the opposition to immorality (in this case, competition). I argue that this is clearly not the case, for competition in the market not only improves people's lives through the improving of products for consumers but also it does so in a voluntary and moral way, not through coercion but through voluntary cooperation and individualism. While it is true that bad things would exist in the free market (things such as gambling, cigarettes, usury, trashy novels and movies, etc.), it is also true that the free market, when used for good purposes, outshines all methods (with the exception of voluntary charity) of attempts at doing good.

As to the issue with Steve Jobs and Mother Teresa, I will say this: while Mother Teresa did wonderful things for the poor and downcast, Steve Jobs (even if he was far from a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ) gave us innovative technologies such as the iPhone, the iPad, the Macintosh computer operating system, and other things. What is the point of this? Is not technology ruining us all? I would say that it is not the technology that is ruining us but rather the sinful nature of man. Other than that, it is a wonderful and glorious achievement on the part of Steve Jobs (as I, a former PC guy, have converted to owning an iMac). And Christians, while they are rightly concerned about proper motives and true love, are somewhat mistaken when they harp about how Steve Jobs is somehow inferior to Mother Teresa and to Christian missionaries simply because he was neither poor nor as sacrificial as she was. I say "Baloney!" to that. Steve Jobs, while he was not a Christian, wasn't a man who escaped risks, but rather he was an entrepreneur who took risks to bring us a wonderful technology that even with potential for abuse can be amazing and liberating.


The free market and Christianity are at peace with each other, in stark contrast to what Tomas Salamanca claims, and in contrast to the claims of both anti-Christian libertarians and anti-libertarian Christians. I have shown that the free market should not be shunned by the Church but rather accepted. I am not saying we should all become soulless materialists, but neither should we be socialistic and statist altruists who demonize successful people while celebrating (and sometimes idolizing) missionaries and ministers for being altruistic and giving up his wealth. 

The free market and the Gospel are complimentary and harmonious, despite what some will tell you to the contrary.

Some Resources on Christianity and the Free Market:

"The Myth of the Just Price" by Laurence M. Vance: This lecture refutes the "just price" theory that many Christians seem to hold and makes the biblical case for laissez-faire capitalism.
"Why Economics Should Be Important to Christians" by Shawn Ritenour: A Christian laissez-faire libertarian, Shawn Ritenour deals with the question of economics and Christianity, and he shows why they are both important.
"Profits and Morals: A Non-Catholic Assessment of Centesimus Annus" by Larry Reed: A non-Catholic Christian analyzes an important defense of free markets by Pope John Paul II.
"Christian Anti-Capitalism" by Laurence M. Vance: This review of a book entitled The Economy of Desire smashes some anti-capitalist myths told by Christians.
"Just Nonsense" by Laurence M. Vance: Laurence Vance reviews Ronald Sider's book Just Politics.
"The Source of All Blessings (And Curses)" by Gary North: Gary North refutes some Christian anti-capitalist nonsense.

Addendum: As a reminder to those who would point to the story of the rich young ruler as an example of biblical anti-capitalism, I would send them this excerpt from James Redford's long essay "Jesus Is An Anarchist" (which, while I am not an anarchist yet, I find interesting but have not read in the full):

Jesus on the Rich 
Jesus had this to say about the rich:Luke 18:18-30: Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: "Do not commit adultery,' "Do not murder,' "Do not steal,' "Do not bear false witness,' "Honor your father and your mother."' And he said, "All these things I have kept from my youth." So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. 
And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." And those who heard it said, "Who then can be saved?" But He said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God." Then Peter said, "See, we have left all and followed You." So He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life." (See also Matt. 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31.)Some have given this as anti-libertarian commentary. But first of all, in analyzing this statement by Jesus it needs to be pointed out that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for any person whatsoever to enter the Kingdom of God. But Jesus also said that "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God" (verse 27). It is standard Christian doctrine that it is impossible for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God on their own--that the only way in which anyone enters the Kingdom of God is through the saving grace of Jesus Christ alone (see John 14:6). Thus, the rich are by no means unique in this particular aspect. And so also, from this alone it cannot be claimed that Jesus had it in for rich people per se more than any other group. 
Second, when Jesus counseled this particular rich person to sell all that he had and distribute the proceeds to the poor, this was in fact an exceedingly libertarian thing for Jesus to advise this person. For this was not just any kind of rich person--this was a rich person of a particular type: a ruler, i.e., one who has some variety of command over an Earthly, mortal government. And thus, the riches that this particular rich person was in possession of had been obtained through extortion and theft, i.e., by the threat and force of arms and might--this particular ruler's opinion to the contrary (verse 21) not withstanding scrutiny: almost no rulers throughout history have ever regarded their wealth as having been obtained through stealing:Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, "What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor." (St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 4 of The City of God.) 
Thus, when Jesus offered this counsel to this particular rich person, He was merely telling this person what any good libertarian would have said in the same situation--particularly a natural-rights libertarian such as a Rothbardian.