Capitalism: An Economic System that Requires Us to Think and Act As If God Does Not Exist
In my immediately preceding post I asked whether a Christian ought ever to think, decide and act as if God does not exist. Ever since Hugo Grotius, the great seventeenth century Dutch theologian, philosopher and statesmen, modern societies have increasingly asked people of faith to set aside their religious belief in God when they enter the public, pluralistic spaces of life and think and act in a secular way.
In that post I argued that a Christian ought not to do that but admitted that pressures of modernity make it nearly impossible to do otherwise. However, I argued, a Christian ought never to internalize the “as if God does not exist” method. The Christian, dedicated to God and regarding Jesus Christ as Lord of all, ought at least to feel such as a crisis. Too many, I fear, do not.
I have come to believe that American Christians especially have become comfortable with this inner pluralism, internalizing a kind of practical atheism, laying it alongside belief in God and acknowledgment of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. With the unintended but inevitable result that God gets pushed into smaller and smaller inner spaces.
Naturally, people want examples, so I’ll offer one here: capitalism.
When I say “capitalism” I do not mean merely the freedom to start one’s own business. I’ll call that “the free enterprise system.” That existed before modern capitalism. By “capitalism” here I mean the economic system we presently have in America which is the free market and market-driven economy. Theologian Emil Brunner rightly called it “economic anarchy.” Our government does sometimes and in some ways function as a kind of “umpire” in this economic game, but, for the most part, it is a kind of “everyone for himself and against others” economy that encourages greed, competition, unfettered consumerism, individualism, and a growing gap between rich and poor.
Adam Smith, an early philosopher of capitalism, argued that such an economic system is ethically justified because an “invisible hand” will regulate it to avoid its otherwise natural excesses. Many conservative Christians (and others) have appealed to Smith’s “invisible hand” as a reference to God so that participating in the rough-and-tumble of the free market in which there are many losers as well as winners does not require belief in Social Darwinism as ethical justification for cut-throat economic competitiveness.
Smith’s “invisible hand,” however turns out not to exist. Markets left to themselves tend to lead to monopolies crushing the weak under their power. God is nowhere in it. Capitalism is a thoroughly secular economic system where participation requires thinking, deciding, and acting as if God does not exist. Most American Christians have internalized that and do not feel it as a crisis.
In fact, much more than that, many, perhaps most, American Christians have enshrined free market capitalism as part of Christianity. Criticizing it is, in many Christian spaces, tantamount to heresy. Why that should be puzzles me greatly. The Bible delivers no “Christian economic system” and free market capitalism contains so many ungodly features that I am stunned that so many Christians regard it as the one and only Christian economic system.
Now, of course, there are many Christian capitalists who try to Christianize capitalism. I admire and applaud them. They do it by means of (for example) profit-sharing, paying a higher-than-necessary wage, looking out for the welfare of workers beyond what law requires, refusing to target weaker competitors for elimination by using mechanisms like “loss leaders.” But these individual efforts are like band aids on a cancer; capitalism is a system that naturally encourages the strong to oppress the weak. It’s only philosophical justification is Social Darwinism. As a system it requires participants, capitalists, to think, decide and act as if God does not exist. If they think Smith’s “invisible hand” exists and deify it they are deluding themselves and verging close to idolatry. I’m not sure that free market capitalism can be “fixed,” but steps can be taken to ameliorate its excesses. Steps such as government regulation that bans “loss leaders”—charging less for a product than it cost in order to drive competitors out of business.
I see great ironies in many Americans’ consciousnesses about economics. One is obvious every Christmas. A favorite movie that runs on television annually during the Christmas season (which is already beginning in “big box stores!”) is “It’s A Wonderful Life.” People don’t pay attention to the details. The movie is a critique of laissez-faire capitalism. The “bank” the Jimmy Stewart character began that is (in the movie) being crushed by the fat-cat banker is a cooperative bank, a credit union. Many people who regard any criticism of capitalism as heresy applaud the movie’s portrayal of the wicked banker, but he is just doing what any capitalist must do if he is to play the game rightly—drive the weaker competition out of business. What was he supposed to do? Be nicer about it? The same people applaud the Jimmy Stewart character even though he is trying to start a non-capitalist-based “bank” and calling the fat-cat banker greedy just for doing what any good capitalist would and should do (if playing the game rightly by its implicit rules).
So what am I arguing Christians should do in relation to capitalism? Well, that’s not my agenda here. I have ideas but expounding them would take another post. All I want to say here is that when Christians support and engage in modern, free market capitalism, as it exists in America, they ought to feel it as a crisis within themselves and not comfortably internalize its methodologically atheistic foundations and impulses. Beyond that, insofar as it’s possible, they ought to support cooperative businesses and government regulations that soften the “blows” to the weak built into capitalism.