The trouble with capitalism

I’m pretty happy to live in a country with a free market economy. I’m thankful to work, spend, and save under capitalism’s umbrella. I prefer it over any other modern economic system. But while I prefer it, I must add that I also find it troubling.

The trouble with capitalism is that it’s not Christian.

Capitalism (like colonialism, communism, or even socialism) isn’t Christian. No economic system functions as a religion; we don’t place our faith in them, they make no claims about the afterlife, and none of them, not even capitalism, offer us God. In many ways, capitalism is a lot like the internet, TV, or even a gun: incredibly useful when used correctly, vast potential for destruction when abused.

But I get the sense from time to time that free competition, supply and demand, and private commerce have been canonized within Evangelicalism. I often hear that capitalism is the most biblical system, that biblical principles lead down but one path; the path of capitalism. Which is honestly kinda funny, because the NT is mostly silent about what type of economic system we should employ. Except (ironically) for the description of the distinctively socialist practices of the Acts 2 church.

Capitalism rewards individual work ethic, fosters ingenuity, and enables us to change our lot in life. But capitalism is also an accessory to the deaths of over 600 factory workers in Bangladesh, just as it is an accessory to creating wealth for Disney, Walmart, and Gap. Capitalism provides the grants that pay for some of the greatest medical breakthroughs in the history of humankind. The same mechanism also channels more resources into curing male baldness than malaria. Capitalism creates opportunity through shared interest, cultivating the global economy. The U.S. State Department seized this opportunity when it pressured the Haitian government into cutting the Haitian minimum wage down to $3/day.

That’s not a typo. $3 per day, not hour, thanks to Haynes, Levi Strauss, the U.S. government, and the power of capitalism.

But the trouble with capitalism isn’t just what it does with our money, the trouble is what it does to our hearts. Capitalism used to govern the buying and selling of commodities, but what happens to our hearts and values when literally everything is for sale? Harvard professor Michael Sandel claims at least part of the cause for our country’s moral decay is the shift from a market economy to a market society. “A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.”

“A place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.” I confess that I’ve seen the seep of market values into my own life far too many times. I see it every time I size up a person based on what they have to offer. I see it every time I devalue someone because they’re less gifted, bring less to the table, or are just awkward. I see it when I judge a homeless person, “It’s their own fault,” or “They should have been more disciplined.” I see it when I say, “I’ll forgive them when they prove they’re sorry.”

I see it every time I exchange the biblical virtues of self-sacrifice and love with the capitalistic virtues of self-centeredness and greed.

What happens when everything is for sale? What happens when mercy must be earned? What happens when grace is chained to expectation? What happens when forgiveness is calculated according to whatever the market will bear?

I’m pretty happy to live in a free market economy, but I’m terrified of the free market economy living in my heart.

 

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About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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6 Responses to The trouble with capitalism

  1. Johnny Wilson says:

    Free markets more closely resemble God’s creation of life than any other man-made system. We can see it reflected in life and death, success and failure, and evolution. Of any system, whether governmental or religious, capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty. (Look to the tens of millions lifted in China since the gov’t there has introduced more capitalism into their society.)

    The US, both gov’t and individuals, give more, both per capita and overall, than any other gov’t or people, especially in times of crises.

    Capitalism may not be Biblical, but any system that more closely reflects God’s creation in flow, is better than the ‘heaven on earth’ systems ‘worshipped’ by many. Even with death, atrocities, and seemingly general unfairness, nothing else works better. Creating opportunities in life for people, just as God gave us opportunity with the gift of life, allows us to better exercise our free will in society, just as we can with God’s gift to each of us in our lives, or not. Without it, even if we tend to spend more on Viagra and breast implants than we should, we would not have the medical cures that benefit the world.

    Perfection, or heaven on earth, is our own internal peace on earth, and for the afterlife, and ‘The poor you will always have with you’. Our job is to reduce suffering, not eliminate it – we can’t. History shows us that capitalism works, not crony capitalism, and not perfectly, but best.

    • Tim Owens says:

      Johnny,
      “I’m pretty happy to live in a country with a free market economy. I’m thankful to work, spend, and save under capitalism’s umbrella. I prefer it over any other modern economic system.”

      Glad to see we agree!

      • Johnny Wilson says:

        In that, we do. 🙂

        BTW, thank you for your insightful articles. Depth, but easy to follow, and I believe God smiles when we use our second greatest gift, conscious thinking, but so too for the ones who cause it.

  2. Tyler Mann says:

    I would add to what you said. You mentioned that Acts 2 demonstrates some socialistic ideals. i think many things Jesus did, as well as much of what Paul abdicates for is socialistic in nature. It is certainly much more socialistic than capitalistic. Look in 1 Corinthians and the scolding on the Lord’s Supper. The wealthy were saying “I earned this, i will eat my meal in private before the communion meal” leaving the poor without food. Paul rebukes this and tells them they should be eating together or else they are defaming the Lord’s Supper. Maybe I am just ignorant, but that sounds like a much more socialistic command than a capitalistic one.

    I completely agree with you that looking at what we are willing to sell is sad. I saw one recent craigslist page in which a woman was literally willing to sell her body to a man to have sex for the man to be the father of her child. No strings. No commitment. Just have sex with her so she becomes pregnant and for money. That to me is this idea of everything… and i mean everything… is viewed as for sale

  3. Daniel Vance says:

    I want to start by stating unreservedly that I agree with Tim: I am happy to live in and reap the benefits of a capitalist, free-market system.
    But I’m probably a hypocrite, because I am funding of making this argument, and have never heard it cogently refuted:
    Agreed: Capitalism is the most effective form of economic system ever tried. It’s well-nigh impossible to argue against the historical data.
    Why does capitalism work? It takes a realistic look at humanity, perceives that we are hopelessly fallen, and concludes that every person will primarily look out for their own interests. This is a correct analysis; it is also not new–read Hobbes’ description of natural man sometime; our forbears, even the irreligious ones, new this full-well.
    The problem, of course, is that a Hobbesian state of nature, letting each one looking to his own interest, is the exact opposite of Christian ethics. Capitalism works because it concludes that we are selfish and self-interested. Insofar as this is correct, it is an effective economic system.
    However, please consider this analogy: Imagine a young man–a putatively Christian man, mind you–surveyed his environs and concluded that humans are lustful; deeply lustful. Suppose such a man then invested his life into creating a multitude of pornographic websites, a chain of brothels, and small army of prostitutes. The man never engaged in sexual immorality himself and gave roughly 10 percent (or the evangelical “tithe:” 3.6%) to his local church, of which he was an active member. If such a man tried to defend himself by saying, “my empire is based on a realistic look at the state of fallen man” would anyone in the world consider him credibly Christian? Can you meaningfully parse this cipher from any believer who has say, over 500K in the bank? How?

    By the way, lest you consider this example too absurd, I personally know a someone, nominally Jewish, who deals drugs as his primary income–except on Friday nights after sundown. Gotta keep that Sabbath!

  4. Daniel Vance says:

    ..”***fond*** of making this argument”

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