Biblical Economics and Killing Flies with Vinegar
A few days ago there was a blog post by Bojidar Marinov critiquing a recent article in First Things by Dr. Peter Leithart entitled “Capitalism and its Contradictions.” This article was an addendum to Dr. Leithart’s initial post-election piece, “The Religious Right after Reaganism.” It might be an understatement to call Marinov’s critique scathing. Let’s just say it’s clear the recipe for Marinov’s fly-killing solution contains no honey and more than enough vinegar to drown a cat.
But before we delve into Marinov’s lengthy critique, it’s worth taking a look at what Peter Leithart said.
As a starting point, let me clarify that the term “capitalism” here refers to the actual economic form that has evolved over the past several centuries. It does not refer to a theoretical ideal of a “free market.” Capitalism as a historical ordering of economic life has not taken shape in a “state-free” zone. In many places (including the US), industrial capitalism was promoted if not created by the state. Whatever the theoretical virtues of a state-free free market, it is not the economy we have or have ever had. One may reserve the word “capitalism” for the ideal free market; that is anyone’s semantic prerogative. But I don’t.
This definition puts us in a particular stance toward capitalism from the outset. If “capitalism” means an ideal of economic freedom, one might give it unqualified support. One might even say that the American economy might be far better off if it conformed to the capitalist ideal. Theoretical models can be pure, historical societies and economies are not. Since we’re talking about a historical form, we have to discriminate between goods and lesser goods and evils, pluses and minuses and things in between
Looking at this section, if one were to read it charitably, giving Dr. Leithart the benefit of the doubt that he isn’t actually a Marxist in conservative Reformed clerical garb, we should read a critique by Leithart of crony capitalism, corporatism, fascism, or what Dr. Leithart probably unhelpfully calls “capitalism.”
Further down Leithart references self-described socialist (as Marinov notes in his critique) and sociologist Daniel Bell.
[Bell] identified some real tensions in capitalist democracies – structural tensions between the aims of economic life and the aims of politics and culture, and tensions between the virtues needed for capitalism to succeed and the desires that its success tends to arouse. He worried that capitalism is so good at responding to and meeting consumer desires that its slick efficiency inhibits the development of settled public moral standards.
As Bell argued, the capitalist system has had a corrosive effect on families and traditional societies. Sometimes the structures that it destroys need to be destroyed, and the benefits are worth the costs. But when, for example, the notion of consumer choice infiltrates families and sexuality (which it has), then big social problems follow. Sometimes the corrosions arise because the wealth capitalism generates enable people to pursue morally questionable fantasies. Sometimes the corrosions have happened because the state broke up traditional patterns of life in the name of “modernization” or “industrialization.” Capitalism’s infatuation with novelty spills over beyond the economy. (That image is a problem, since the economy is never bounded off from the rest of life in the first place.) Whatever the cause, my goal was to point out that promoting capitalism might inhibit other goals of the religious right.
Of course, Bell is a left-liberal critic of capitalism (it is likely Bell does not make a distinction between actual free markets or phony-crony “capitalism”), but from what Leithart refers to Bell seems to agree with no less than that proto-Marxist, Cotton Mather, when he said, “prosperity beget faithfulness, and the daughter consumed the mother.”
In his conclusion, Dr. Leithart says:
The question is: What social and economic order best promotes the good of the poor? It’s clear that the massive American welfare system is not the way to take care of the needs of the poor; quite the opposite. Any statist system is dangerous, if not outright evil. Some of the basic features of capitalist economies are crucial to forming a just economy: Free markets and protection of property rights are good for the poor (as Henando de Soto has emphasized). Elijah, Isaiah, and Amos stood up for the property rights of small landowners against the machinations of the wealthy. Further, Scripture provides various models for how the church can address poverty – gleaning laws and even the Old Testament slavery laws offer much food for thought. The economic system that best secures and protects families is also the best economic system for the poor; family breakdown is often a cause of poverty, and even where it is not a cause, it regularly accompanies poverty.
Of course, there’s no either-or choice. In a just society, there are opportunities for expanding wealth and also opportunities for the poor to rise from poverty as well structures for the relief of poverty. Both are social goods, but the test of whether the society is just is the latter not the former.
Here Leithart leaves the question mostly unanswered (characteristic of a scholar rather than an ideologue). To me it seems rather obvious. The church should have a vision for society that respects the Spirit’s moving in the hearts of men. That is, after all, what the law of supply and demand is. Because Christians are not anarchists, this vision should include a state; a state that seeks out justice as God defines it, which precludes any type of redistribution of wealth by the state. A Christian society is one where goods and services are exchanged freely. Implicit in this arrangement is a refusal by the wealthy to use the power of the state to crush the poor, but rather a gratitude to God for His blessing them and charity towards the poor in response. A society like that is truly the only way that the poor can be taken care of. This is, of course, only possible with a society filled with mature Christians. The kind of society we pray God will bring whenever we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Now, as to Marinov’s critique, not much needs to be quoted to get a feel the tone:
In reality, far from clarification, Leithart leaves a trail of confused, illogical babble that is self-contradictory at best. But at the end, the call to action is firmly Marxist.
Far from proving some “inner contradictions” characteristic to capitalism, Peter Leithart has only demonstrated the true inner contradictions of his own thinking.
Not content with demonstrating his own logical contradictions, Leithart is also demonstrating his and the Federal Vision’s abandonment of the Covenant Theology of the Reformation. Sinful desires do not come from the heart, they come from the economic environment of man; and capitalism must be blamed for the dissolution of the “settled public moral standards.” It’s the wealth it created that is the moral problem. Without that wealth, and without the “slick efficiency” of capitalism, our society would have been much more ethical and just.
Leithart’s call at the end is entirely without justification in the Bible but is in harmony with the common socialist and statist leanings of the modern church. The new model for “justice” is re-distribution of wealth, not obedience to the Law of God. Subsidizing poverty is what defines a “just society” for Leithart; encouraging obedience and therefore economic productivity and freedom are only a second thought. Theonomy has been replaced by a new Social Gospel preaching.
I think I can understand why Marinov is a little bit jumpy when notable conservative Reformed Evangelicals seem to be attacking biblical economics in favor of some kind of socialist scheme. It isn’t like Bojidar Marinov is creating conservative Reformed Evangelical (who-are-kind-of-okay-with-socialism) boogeymen—N.T. Wright and James K. A. Smith are prominent names that come to mind. It is certain that a biblical formulation of economics is coming under attack, and this is what Marinov is reacting to, and I have considerable sympathy for him in this regard. This is a battle that I think will be brewing in conservative Reformed circles during and beyond my lifetime, a battle over the answer to the question, “what economic system does Jesus want?” I think Bojidar and I are kindred spirits with regard to the answer to that question. The problem is that we can be absolutely correct and lose that battle, and set the maturation of our corner of the church back quite a bit. We can either deal with men who disagree with us on that question in a charitable way and try to win them, or go down the road of the Christian Reconstructionists and stop speaking to one another because we disagree with what the blood on the doorposts at Passover really meant.