Christians, Capitalism, and Ayn Rand

cap-socIf you pay any attention to politics, you’ve been deluged with economic talk for the past, oh, four years. We’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the return of Gordon Gekko, and polarized political views about how to fix a slumping economy. And that barely scratched the surface of what you’ll get in the next three months.

In the midst of it all, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what is an appropriate Christian stance and response.

Capitalism and Christian Economics

Let’s look first at the ardent capitalists. Ayn Rand’s fame has soared in the past few years. People like Edward Conard are writing about how growing income inequality is a sign that our economy is working (see this long but interesting interview with him).

So far as the goal is to increase the number of middle-class people and to increase their purchasing power, I agree with nearly everything the capitalists say. I’m concerned, though, that they seriously underestimate how much people will lie, cheat, steal, and oppress because of their love of money. Rand and Conard clearly don’t believe that the love of money is the root of all evil. Actually, they might say that the love of money is the root of all human ingenuity.

Rand summed up her whole belief system for us: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

The problem: a Christian worldview disagrees with every bit of this. Christ is the hero, who saves depraved humanity from our sinfulness. Holiness, not some secular understanding of happiness, is the moral purpose of life. Service to God is our noblest activity. And reason often fails and deceives.

I can’t get over the feeling that Rand’s (IMHO) bad theology and anthropology led her to develop a bad economic model. She built her model on the assumption that humanity is essentially good and that an individual’s own happiness is the point of life.

Christian theology and anthropology tell me that humanity is corrupt – that without regulation, people will mistreat others to satiate their own greed. Christian theology tells me that greed is at the root of all kinds of evil. Christian theology says Gordon Gekko is wrong – greed is terribly harmful to individuals and society.

I’m not a Socialist

So now you’re thinking I must be a socialist. Or at least a Democrat. I’m not. I’m not going to belabor the point here, but lest all the conservatives begin assuming I’m just another flaming liberal, I’ll admit that I don’t remember the last time I voted for a Democrat.

Governments are run by depraved people, and they’re equally likely to lie, cheat, steal, and oppress. We’ve seen that when we give government more power, they don’t use it all to fight for the little guy. They use a lot of it to pick their own special interests and protect their own power. In a fallen world, socialism is just as flawed as capitalism.

Regardless if your system is capitalist or socialist, it concentrates a lot of power in the hands of the few. That power will rarely be used in the interest of the person without power, status, or wealth. Whether they be at the top of a government bureaucracy or a big business, people love money and power and will fight for more of it.

Chilling for the capitalists is the suggestion that because of that concentration of power, capitalism will lead to socialism.

In the end, I struggle to know what to believe about politics. I think the capitalists’ philosophy only works if humanity is inherently good – or if the goal is creating more middle-class people, often at the expense of the poorest. If humanity were inherently good, socialism would work just fine for those purposes, too.

A Christian Economic View

As economics go, I think Christians should seek to embody an economic culture that reflects new creation — not counting our possessions as our own, selling property and sharing as anyone has need, having no needy persons among us. That’s very different from the goal of creating more middle-class people with more purchasing power, or from forcibly taking from those with more to give to those with less. No policy can accomplish it.

Are Christians today more focused on fixing the secular economy than living out a Christian economy? In a secular world, greed and extravagance will always prevent a new creation economy, regardless of legislation. Someone will always be scammed, oppressed, left on the outside.

Regardless of where we find ourselves in the world — capitalist, socialist, distributist – I wish Christians would give their energy to taking care of the people who got left out of the system. Our culture has been so immersed in the Tea Party-Occupy world of pragmatic, secular economics that I’m worried Christians are forgetting that our economics start from a different place.

If you have the time to read it, the brilliant theologian Jamie Smith participated in a symposium with a Christian economist that is a great depiction of the problem that economists and theologians are having even trying to have a discussion. I think we’re starting with such different sets of “givens” and assumptions that it’s hard to even understand each other in a conversation. Smith’s opening article is great. If you read the whole thing, you’ll see just how much they’re talking directly past each other because of different starting points.

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20 thoughts on “Christians, Capitalism, and Ayn Rand

  1. Love it…had to share it! Thanks for this post! Over the last few months I’ve been thinking of what Jesus’s response would be to all of this political talk and in my heart I just keep picturing him drawing a line above every argument as if to say what you’re arguing isn’t the point! That reference is of course coming from McLaren’s, “A New Kind of Christian.” I think what he was referencing in that book applies well to the republican vs democrat argument at least between Christians. When the republican is on one side and the democrat is on the other I imagine Jesus drawing a line above both sides saying, the truth is up here and both sides are missing it! (I’m including myself in the both sides are missing it at times by the way!)
    Great stuff…keep it coming!!

  2. Robyn,

    Thanks. Great example from McLaren. That’s the point, exactly. It’s as if we’ve put capitalism and socialism on a spectrum and are spending all of our time arguing which is the right system. I’m starting to believe more and more that they’re both inherently flawed – oddly enough because they’re both making a lot of the same false assumptions.

  3. Such a relevant post for this day in age! As a side thought………I came across this quote today:

    “Nearly all men can withstand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln

    I can only imagine what our country would be today if our leaders were truly servant leaders!

  4. Teddy,

    I’m beginning to believe you live in my head, but you’re about three intellectual steps ahead of me. I have often contemplated the idea of a distributionist society without knowing it was referred to as distributionism. I’m going to have to learn a bit more about that.

    Many blessings,

  5. For me, the missing piece here is the politics. You can’t really talk about what effect socialism or capitalism will have on the concentration of power absent the political system to which the economic system is tied. Socialism, because it requires a state apparatus to force equality, will always result in a concentration of power. Capitalism may or may not result in a greater or lesser concentration of power (and thus corruption) depending on the extent to which the political system is or is not protected from the influence of money. I think Churchill nailed it on the head: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.”

    Neither is of course an utterly Christian system. I think capitalism is friendlier to a Christian worldview because it makes charity (read: neighbor love) possible. We ought not be content to let the state do all our loving and justice-building for us. As T.S. Eliot hinted at, the modern project is to create a system so perfect we do not have to be good. That is the opposite of Christian discipleship.

  6. I’m a little behind in my reading and just now read this essay.

    One thing that goes thru my head is that one of the Founding Fathers made the statement that only a God-loving nation (or something to that extent) could expect the tenets of the foundation of our government to work as designed…essentially addressing the point you make that “…capitalists’ philosophy only works if humanity is inherently good.”

    The other difference between capitalism and socialism is that in the capitalist system, everyone is incented to work to get more, where in a socialist system, that incentive isn’t there, as anything that a person makes above what is minimally required would go to others whose need is greater…

    Bill McKinney >

  7. The key to overcoming the capitalism/socialism dilemma, I believe, is to encourage people 1). Toward personally creating something of value and, 2). Supporting small and local rather than large. If I’m a farmer and my friend down the road makes furniture, we support each other rather than WalMart. On a larger scale, for things we can’t do individually, we create local co-ops that are built on a guild-like system rather than employer vs. union. The workers would be partial owners, with the visionaries and leaders within the guild being paid on something more along the lines of a 4:1 ratio as opposed to 1000:1. Chesterton, Belloc, may seem a bit antiquated by the focus on guilds, but the beauty of a guild is that it gives everyone a sense of ownership and, consequently, a sense of responsibility.

    On a personal note, I am seriously beginning to wonder how to implement such a system both personally and on a small scale within my community. One thing I’ve had to come to grips with is that I have not truly “produced” anything of value and I need to transition from the mindset of consumer-only to producer-consumer.

  8. Reblogged this on teddy ray and commented:

    This post has just gotten a lot of hits, apparently from a prominent Facebook share. It (and Jesus and Politics linked at bottom) seemed especially appropriate four days before election, so I’m re-blogging.

  9. Your points are well taken. I would argue that there is no economic system that can replicate Christian values this side of heaven. Philosophically, I buy into the Adam Smith approach that we create a system where people acting in their own self-interest will also benefit the whole of society. I also think that the political goal is the greatest good for the most people. To me, that argues for a democratic capitalist system with intelligent regulation to prevent individual self-interest from hurting society (as was the case in the loan scandal that broke the banks and caused the recession). The Christian overlay, then, is for us to help those who fall through the cracks, who are hurt by the system or unable to “compete” within it. You put it well. Thanks for the post.

  10. Thoughts… Ms. Rand did not invent capitalism; usually it is Objectivism which is attributed to her, but it has, as a component, Capitalism and Free Markets. Capitalism by itself can lead to the issues you mention; Free Markets is a necessary component for preventing abuses of the system. A government just strong enough to ensure the persistence of Free Markets must exists; that, and no more.

    Given this, the tendency of bad players to use capital/wealth to oppress the weak is balanced by competition. Does it work? It seemed to. Now we have so-called crony capitalism – government choosing who wins and who loses.

    So, here’s the question – positing that powerful government is inimical (for whatever reason you choose), what works best with a small government? And yes, I do expect that is purely academic; I don’t think we’ll ever get back there from where we are at now.

    1. D.K.,
      I think the government needs to do more than just assure a free market. There was a free market of mortgage loans, but some people gamed the system (both loan officers and borrowers). There needs to be enough government regulation to ensure that a privileged group cannot game the system. If the average person does not trust the economic system, they will not participate, which sends us back to a barter system or some kind of feudal system.

  11. A guy named Doug Smith wrote an excellent book called “On Values and Value”. He talks about how value, or return on investment for shareholders, has come to dominate just about all aspects of our life and certainly our economy.

    His vision is different. He believes we need to reintegrate values with value in the workplace. Work needs to mean something again instead of just making money for shareholders. Your post reminded me of his work and I think you might enjoy.

    1. Thanks for that recommendation, David. I’ve added Smith’s book to my bibliography.

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