November 08, 2005

A New Piece of Writing

I also recently posted a new short story (is it even long enough to be called that?) under the “Writings” section. Let me know what you think. :-)

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It appears that my previous post on capitalism triggered a few responses—including a plea from a fellow blogger that I continue my thoughts. The comments did cause me to do some serious thinking on the subject, and I hope that I can provide some further thoughts for discussion.

First, as has been pointed out, the freedom that I discussed earlier with regards to capitalism and democracy is not the same as the freedom Christians have in Christ. (See Galatians 5:1 for an example of this.) Again, as was pointed out, this freedom is only found in a new life in Christ. Rather, I am talking about a freedom that is much more limited in scope but that would be understood by many more people. It is the freedom to follow one’s own conscience, to accept or reject God between oneself and Himself rather than between oneself and man, to be wise or foolish, to be greedy or generous, to to what is right or to sin. Freedom in Christ, of course, is the only way to escape our bondage to the law and our bondage to sin (discussed more in Romans). Freedom in capitalism and democracy, on the other hand, can only externally allow us to do what God’s freedom internally empowers us to do. It’s like a driver’s license. It will allow me to go all sorts of places—but only a good car actually empowers me to travel across the continent. (Or any number of other forms of transportation…)

With that established, the next question is: so what about capitalism? Is it really the Christian way to run an economy?

(As an important side note, for the purposes of this discussion, I am taking capitalism and democracy largely as a single unit. I don’t suspect that they must be taken together in such a way—but I do think they are often found joined because their philosophies and ideals are similar. It is those philosophies and ideals that I most want to discuss.)

Back to the question at hand. The short answer: no, of course not. I have no intention of saying that capitalism is the one true economic system that will exist for all eternity, glorifying God in its monetary exchanges from now forevermore. That’s just silly. What I do say, though, is that capitalism is about the best there is in our world today. I realize that this is a rather contested statement—especially by concerned Christians who see so many being taken advantage of in our culture and in our economy today. Before I try make any defense, however, I’d like to talk about a few of the items that I see as problems with this idea of capitalism.

First, the market only rewards that which it sees as valuable. For instance, a capitalist society is a poor society for a philosopher to make a living in. Since the philosopher (unless he starts participating in the daytime soap-opera talk show circuit) has little to produce that people are willing to pay for, most philosophers seem to end up as service experts at fine grease-food establishments. “Now,” you might be thinking, “there are a few philosophic types that I learned about in college that really should have been selling fast food rather than philosophizing.” And you’d be right. But I also suspect that our society could do with a greatly increased amount of good, practical philosophic training. Yes, to some degree, it happens, in the non-profit thinktanks and other organizations. It is still terribly far from the common person, though, and I would argue that the common person is often the one who would make the best use of solid training in how to think. Capitalism cannot solve this problem—unless the people in it decide to value philosophy in a way that they never have before.

I suspect this also applies to valuing marriages and families. Both are much more important than employment—but they have little economic benefit. And fewer and fewer people are willing to pay the costs of raising a family).

Second, I’m quite cognizant of the fact that capitalism can be both a boon and a curse to those who strike upon rough times. Just as in almost every other society one can think of, those who have a stroke of “bad luck” (most often bad decisions, but not always) at some point in their lives may never have a chance to recover. This is, for instance, the whole point of the Old Testament’s Years of Jubilee. (See Leviticus 25.) As far as I can tell, the whole point of the Jubilee was to make sure that no one got stuck for generation after generation. Bad decisions (or bad luck) would hopefully only affect on generation, with a family’s land being restored after fifty years so that they could have a shot at making a living again. Sure, chances are that the rich man next door bought them out again—but they had a chance, and I think that’s the point. Our society does address this problem some, I think, in public education—we give everyone a chance to make of their lives what they want. Unfortunately, however, poverty still runs in families from generation to generation, and I’m not sure that capitalism has, in and of itself, a good solution for that problem.

As a combination of both the first and second points, how often are the suddenly disadvantaged (disabled or otherwise) taken proper care of in our society? Especially those without families?

Third, and I’m not sure that this is a problem insomuch as an observation, our economy is designed to be pluralistic. We do not discriminate on belief—at least, we try not to. On one hand, this limits us. I don’t think that it would be right for us to try weave too much morality into our economic system. Hear me out here: I am not saying that we try design a culture or an economy on the principle of separation of church and state. Morality needs a foundation, and I’m quite convinced that a Christian foundation works best. However, I also have no desire to require non-Christians to act like Christians, beyond what is necessary for a good society and for my well-being. That’s a terribly difficult line, and I’m not sure that I have any answers yet. But, let’s just take one issue as a case study: generosity. My primary beef with a socialist idea is that it both forces those who would otherwise be greedy to be giving and those who would otherwise be generous to be stingy. The first one may sound like a great thing—but do I really think that, in general, people ought to be forced to give? It seems that the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) shows, indirectly, that this isn’t the way to go. Also, I appreciate the freedom to give to those I deem worthy—and perhaps no one else does. If I was forced to give for government distribution (in whatever form that happened), I wouldn’t be able to give like I would have otherwise.

Could a better system be designed if one was guaranteed that all were Christ-following believers? Perhaps. I suspect that, in the New Heavens and the New Earth, we might find one. But, then again, wouldn’t all of capitalism’s faults be solved if God’s Law was truly written on our hearts?

Finally, and Nate alluded to this in his comment in the previous post, capitalism’s goodness (like all other economic systems), is terribly dependent on the people in it. Just like Israel in the Old Testament: if you have a good king, things are great; but, if you have a bad king, things are very, very bad. I suspect that capitalism has been prosperous largely because the people in it had a basic understanding of right and wrong, and decided to live by it. I would surmise, along the lines of Francis Schaeffer, that capitalism would not help at all in a society formed of people whose sole goal is evil.

With all of those negatives, does capitalism really hold promise? I say that it does. The most important reason in my mind is freedom, as I discussed earlier. I am given the freedom to be an agent of grace in my society—or to not be, if I so choose. Additionally, I find justice to be an idea that capitalism espouses quite nicely: those who work hard are rewarded, and those who don’t, aren’t. Nothing in capitalism promotes one to treat the poor unjustly—but, I will admit, I am quite sure it happens nonetheless. Justice, of course, is a very separate idea from grace. I think we often confuse those terms when we speak of “social justice.” I suspect what we truly want is “social grace.” But I digress…

Finally, I think there is a common misconception about “looking out for Number One,” as Nate mentioned in his comments earlier. As Christians, we tend to insist on complete selflessness. Why is this? Ironically, it is because that is how we are supposed to be as Christians—and because we believe that we will be better off for it. We are being selfless for entirely selfish reasons. (You may think that is just word games—and, in that example, you might be right. But listen for just a bit longer…) Isn’t every decision we make intended to be good for us in the long run? We may torture ourselves with exercise—because we know that being fit will make it all worthwhile in the end. (At least, if you are a lot more disciplined than I…) We may give of our time to disadvantaged children—because we are rewarded by it and believe that it makes us better people. Maybe it will even store up for ourselves treasures in Heaven. I’m hard pressed to think of examples that don’t eventually (when looking at the long-term) boil down to some form of self-interest. Christ seems to acknowledge this idea as He speaks of storing one’s treasure in Heaven (Luke 12:33, etc.). Rather than condemning us serving others for our own rewards, He simply tells us that the rewards will be in eternity, not in this life. I would argue that even His own crucifixion was not so much an act of selflessness, but rather an act designed to show the world how great and awesome of a God He is.

Of course, the rub is that most of the time we need to convince ourselves that we aren’t thinking of ourselves—otherwise, we find ourselves being selfish in the very short term, thinking only of what we can gain in this moment. I think this is where the idea of Christian selflessness comes from—but, if pushed too far, I think it leads to some rather damaging ideas. Why, if you really want to be selfless, why don’t you stop using up our resources and do away with yourself? That, of course, isn’t right at all—but it seems to be the logical conclusion of many people’s thoughts.

So, back (again) to the question at hand. What of this capitalism? I certainly don’t say that it is Christian. But I do say that I deeply appreciate the freedom that it allows. I’m glad to see those who work hard rewarded in this life. I’m happy to know that those who desire to help the poor and disadvantaged can without any restriction but their conscience (and, well, taxes). And, although it is painful, I’m glad that those who are not willing to work don’t receive the same rewards.

Ultimately, I am convinced that Christians in a capitalist society have a deep duty: we must be the exceptions to the rule. We are to be the ones who do not live lives focused on gaining affluence, but rather give of what we have to those in need. Capitalism gives us a unique opportunity to do this. And I am intensely thankful for that—and I pray that, by God’s grace, He will allow Rita and I to truly take advantage of the opportunities we’ve been given.

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