9.26.2009

Can Christians Be Capitalists


The American Enterprise Institute provocatively asks, "Can Christians Be Capitalists," in an upcoming forum in Washington later this month. Alas, I will not be able to attend; but I can chime in with my answer: "YES!"

To be sure, capitalism is by no means bullet-proof: it can lead to or impel the greed, gluttony, and deceit that left-wingers love to hate. I'm not so sure, though, that its political or economic opposites are any more or less prone to being used for evil. Is not capitalism, like money itself, simply a neutral tool, its users on the hook for praise or judgment?

One may argue, though, that, at its core, capitalism is about more more more, the unbridled pursuit of maximum profit above all else. Again, this may be an unfair indictment of capitalism on the basis of a minority of its most nefarious proponents.

Furthermore, consider what gains result from deploying assets, whether labor or capital, to their highest and best use. Once upon a time, a large chunk of our jobs and our money were devoted to agriculture and manufacturing. Advances in human ingenuity and physical technology have rendered these necessary tasks much easier to accomplish, freeing us up for other pursuits. Anti-capitalists may bemoan the loss of jobs in symbolically important industries, but very few would argue that we would be better off if 100 percent of us had to do back-breaking labor to coax enough food out of our plot of land to feed our family, or that we should get around by horse, carriage, and steamship.

Might it be that capitalism, if rendered properly, could be the gateway to lifting hundreds of millions of people from desperate poverty? Could the mechanism of capitalism translate into medical and agricultural breakthroughs that we cannot even fathom today, but that greatly enhance our ability to feed and care for what will be a global population of 9 billion by 2050? Would the good intentions of our left-leaning leaders instead shackle an economic system from achieving these kinds of outcomes that Christians ought to universally hope for?

To be sure, while Christians can be capitalists, they ought to be a certain kind of capitalist. Given our marching orders and our life purposes, our approach and tools should look fundamentally different than the world's. But just because we may have different metrics for success - we want to maximize gain for the poorest among us, we want to minimize global human suffering - does not mean we cannot use the same means and mechanisms to achieve them.

This is, of course, just my opinion. Let's hope for a balanced discussion in Washington later this month, one in which capitalism isn't dismissed out of hand by good-hearted Christians as worldly and evil, or defended by equally good-hearted Christians who are resigned to accept its flaws and not challenge it and its proponents to a more enlightened use of it.

[Hat tip to Marginal Revolution for the link.]
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