Christianity and the Free Market

In recent decades Christian theologians and ethicists have raised a host of objections against capitalism. From Gustavo Gutierrez’s Marxist-influenced liberation theology to John Milbank’s neoplatonic Christian socialism, the academic tendency is to blame the free market for the curses of individualism, greed, materialism, commercialism, and exploitation. Christianity is the religion that proclaims good news to the poor and woe to the rich, Gutierrez reminds us. And while the great theologians of the past wrestled with the implications of Christian teaching for just lending, fair prices, appropriate wages, and distributive justice, Milbank and others point out, today Christians too often simply resign themselves to the ruthlessness and impersonality of the market.

There is some truth to these claims, of course. Many Christians, especially American Christians, do seem to think that a laissez-faire government approach to economics, absolute property rights, and freedom of contract is pretty much all that Christianity has to say about political economy. And there certainly is a need for much greater self-criticism among Christians about our own infatuation with materialism, security, and the American dream. But if conservative Christians tend to err in the direction of selling out Christian theology in subservience to (classical) liberal economic and political theory, the theologians on the left are often guilty of erring in the opposite direction, ignoring economic reality in the name of theological purity.

The reality, of course, is that for all of the problems associated with free market capitalism, this economic system has lifted more people out of poverty – giving them at least the opportunity for a fuller human flourishing – than has any system of political redistribution or religious charity in the history of the world.

A few statistics about economic development help to tell the story. For most of history the vast majority of human beings have lived their lives at or below a very bare subsistence standard of living. In the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, for instance, this was true of some 60% of the population. Over the many centuries of history up to the 19th, average economic growth ranged between 0.05% and 0.15%, while average life expectancy rarely exceeded 36 years. In 1820 average incomes in the world in contemporary U.S. dollars were about $1,050 (in Europe they were less than twice that, at $1,950).

Today, of course, virtually no one in the West experiences genuine poverty and average annual growth rates top 1.5%. General life expectancy hovers around 80 years and average income in the United States is around $43,200. More people may have escaped poverty in the last generation in India and China alone, due to those countries only half-hearted embrace of free market principles, than in the entirety of human history preceding.

What is the reason for such prosperity in the past two hundred years? In simple terms the answer is simply economic growth. As late as the 17th Century the idea that wealth can be expanded, that property and money are fundamentally productive, and that the earth has the capacity of supporting an ever increasing population at an ever rising standard of living was alien to the assumptions of theologians and men of the world alike. Material wealth was viewed as a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain was inevitably another person’s loss. The power, honor, prestige and citizenship of the few, philosophers from Aristotle to those of the antebellum American South assumed, depends on the labor of the many.

Free market capitalism changed the game entirely, unleashing the forces of productivity and trade by means of the division of labor, supply and demand, and competitive markets. New technology, largely spurred by economic forces, maximized the production and movement of goods and services to levels earlier generations would have consigned to fantasy or the miraculous. Longer lives, better education, and improved health have both resulted from and contributed to this progress. They have made possible political and cultural systems built on representation, equality, and freedom, all of which redirect their beneficiaries back into the system of economic growth and prosperity.

One would expect that the basic realities represented by this bare sketch of the data would temper the criticisms Christian theologians so often launch at free market capitalism. It is all fine and good to say that property is a post-fall institution, that human beings were made to have all things in common, and that economics based on self-interest or greed represent the way of the world rather than that of Christ. But if Christians are serious about walking in genuine love toward our neighbors, surely we can only do so by recognizing that the world is fallen, that we cannot yet live as we one day will in the kingdom of God, and that people should be motivated for their own sakes, if not for the sake of others, to live productive and responsible lives. To put it another way, if we are serious not simply about symbolically helping the poor, but about actually helping the poor, the success of the free market in the modern world, unimaginable only a few centuries ago, must bear some normative weight.

That does not mean we should abandon all Christian and moral reasoning about economics, which was the result of much of the laissez-faire economic thinking during the 1800s. The social teaching of the Catholic church since the late 19th Century is an excellent model here. The Catholic tradition embraces basic free market principles expressive of the values of human dignity and prosperity, while at the same time calling for the moderation of the free market via laws that protect the poor and the weak and uphold basic principles of justice and solidarity.

There is a way forward here, a path to consensus that would help to mitigate the political-economic polarization among thoughtful Christians, if not of American society generally. The left stresses its concern for the poor while the right stresses the liberty necessary for prosperity. But if the two actually go hand in hand, then so much of our political and economic conflict is off the mark. The free market may not always function perfectly, and it needs to be regulated and supplemented with basic social welfare, but it is nevertheless necessary and must be protected, both from corruption and from state manipulation, if the poor are to be helped. The question is, will we figure this out before it is too late?

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 18, 2013, in Conservatism, Economy, Liberation Theology, Welfare State and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Christianity and the Free Market.

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