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Christian Capitalism? How Faith Informs Economic Theory

Posted on February 1 2010 12:36 pm
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Money is a metaphor; our monetary dealings shed light on aspects of our human condition that, rightly understood, tell us something about how we might relate to God.

– Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

An agnostic friend once asked me how I squared my Christian faith with capitalism; an honest question deserving an honest answer, as Francis Schaeffer once said.  I told him that, of all economic theories, capitalism granted humans the greatest possible worth across the board.  Presupposing a fallen world, I reasoned that the best economy is one which sees no color or creed, only human ingenuity and private ownership of capital.  If I believe in certain communicable attributes endowed by our Creator, this includes the distinct pleasure of work and creativity which we share, in part, with God.  When an individual works for their own livelihood, they are not only fulfilling the cultural mandate, but satisfying that which is uniquely human.

Being a Christian requires me to respect my fellow man and, by extension, his property and fulfill all that I have pledged to do; this is how we arrive at a form of Natural Law.  By adhering to certain Natural Law principles, we have proper ethical underpinnings in all areas of life regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.  Capitalism can then work freely with little to no government intrusion, allowing for prosecution of those who violate the basic principles of Natural Law, which forms the basis of the laws government enforces.

Furthermore, I reject the oppressively narrow Marxist caricature of capitalist economies, pitting rich vs. poor.  Certainly global injustice is rife, regardless of political or economic persuasion, class or creed.   The frequently called-for prescription for such economic abuse is tighter governmental regulation of business and greater taxation, thus penalizing all business instead of the guilty few.  Yet, how does this answer fundamental questions of man’s nature and injustice?  We’ve merely shifted control to another master’s hand.   I’d rather trust a secular, Darwinian-infused survivalist system rather than an oligarchy inhibiting the work of man based on its own ideological agenda and a police force to back it up.

With my own theories in mind, I read Rowan Williams‘ contemplative piece in Newsweek which demanded an ethical, even theological, perspective on economic theory.  Regarding consumerism, he wrote:

In our culture, we have become used to an attitude in which economic motivations, relationships, and conventions are fundamental: the language of seller and customer has wormed its way into practically all areas of our social life, even education and health care. The implication is that the most basic interaction between one human being and another is the carefully calibrated exchange of material resources.

While I cede his point that our lives have been increasingly dominated by consumption, logic and (yes) my faith tells me this is not the fault of the medium of exchange itself, but rooted in individual choice.  Personal responsibility and subsequent accountability is fundamental to a free man’s capitalism.  We agree that our choices affect others, yet, we maintain the right to also freely choose what we accept within the marketplace.  In essence, we dictate by dollars.  Does this assume a lesser view of man as mere consumer?  Or, does it dignify man, elevating his status to a free agent, fully capable of creating and purchasing products while impacting culture?  Williams suggests the former:

But we must hang on to the idea that not everything reduces to one standard of value. Treat economic exchanges as the only “real” thing that people do, and you face the same problems confronted by the evolutionary biologist (for whom the only question is how organisms compete and survive) or the Freudian fundamentalist (for whom the only issue is how we resolve the tensions of infantile sexuality).

I grant that reductionism, by definition, falls prey to oversimplification and rejection of situational nuance.  However, there are immovable laws of nature and economics.  Some things can, indeed, be reduced to the sum of their parts.  I find it interesting that Williams cites biological and psychological reductionist theory whilst arguing for a more ethical economic system.  Yet, he fails to note the incredibly rudimentary Marxist dichotomy of bourgeoisie vs. proletariat.  Interesting omission of a relevant theory.

Ultimately, one must ask Williams what his prescription is.  If he believes certain biblical doctrine to be objectively true (an unresolved question where the Archbishop is concerned), why not in economics?  And could that fundamental economic system, in the end, best correspond with reality as perceived by God and the best possible situation for every man?  I believe so.  I also believe that some theologians might be more interested in the endless questioning of weightless minds as opposed to the anchored surety of foundational truth.

A penny for your thoughts.

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