A Judeo-Christian Defense of Capitalism

By Campus Community

Jeremiah Reedy
One frequently sees attacks on capitalism, both direct and indirect, in the Mac Weekly. Although there are many in the community who could do a better job of defending it than I can, they haven’t done so. Hence this “apologia” from a Judeo-Christian standpoint.

In the Biblical tradition God is a Creator, and human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Hence humans are called to be creators. They are called to cooperate with God in the on-going process of creation. Not that the cosmos itself is incomplete (there isn’t much we could do about it if it were), but there are new and creative ways to use nature for the benefit of all humans, and there is certainly plenty to be done in the social realm. The wonderful thing about capitalism is that it stimulates creativity. Capitalism promotes the development of a host of virtues, e.g. initiative, inventiveness, enterprise, prudence, perseverance, diligence, cooperation, practical wisdom, reliability, fidelity, courage. Capitalism does this because it provides incentives.
Richard John Neuhaus gives a couple of neat examples of creativity and wealth production: Extracting from the earth oil which was “nothing but gunk” until human ingenuity refined it and made it valuable is an example of collaboration by humans in creation. “Even more dramatic is the revolution of the microchip. Next to oxygen, silicon is the most abundant item in the earth’s crust.…it is not even worth pennies per ton. Yet the development of the semiconductor has produced wealth that beggars by comparison all the wealth produced from ‘valuable’ resources such as gold, diamonds and copper.”
This cooperation in the creative activity of God is what work is; hence the transcendent dignity of work and workers. Hence too all are called to work, and even the most humble job can be seen to have dignity and to be contributing to the common good. Capitalism, then, is good because it stimulates creativity and work. A joke in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet Union was “They [the government] pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

In the Judeo-Christian tradition humans are endowed with free will and are responsible for their actions. Capitalism respects human freedom by allowing individuals to choose their profession or line of work in the first place and then to practice it freely, provided only that they do not infringe on the rights of others or violate the law. One has only to compare East Germany and West Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall or North Korea and South Korea today to see the difference between socialism and capitalism. Witness too what is happening in India and China, thanks to capitalism, hard work and ingenuity. Pope John Paul II in a 1991 encyclical letter argued that capitalism offers the best hope for poor and developing countries. Instead of the redistribution of wealth, he recommended involving the poor themselves in wealth production.

Everyone knows that the plight of workers at the beginning of the twentieth century was a desperate one. The socialists set out to help them, but as John Paul II said, “The remedy was worse than the disease.” I myself heard Gorbachev say in Minneapolis that socialism was a seventy-year long experiment that was an absolute, total and utter failure. “It never worked and it never will.” A Russian wit put it this way: “The next time people want to try an experiment like socialism, I hope they will try it on animals first.”

That the affluent are expected to share their wealth, to come to the aid of the poor goes without saying. Many have done so and are doing so; consider Rockefeller and Carnegie and today Oprah, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Capitalism stimulates philanthropy and in fact makes it possible in the first place. How many philanthropists are there in Cuba?
There is much more that could be said in defense of capitalism and much more that could be said about the failure of socialism if space allowed. I conclude with a quotation from Richard Pipes, Harvard historian, and a request that those who would replace capitalism will tell us what they plan to put in its place. “Just as the Holocaust expressed the quintessential nature of National Socialism, so did the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia (1975-78) represent the purest embodiment of Communism: what it turns into when pushed to its logical conclusion . . . It was the most extreme manifestation of the hubris inherent in Communist ideology, the belief in the boundless power of an intellectual elite guided by the Marxist doctrine, with resort to unrestrained violence in order completely to reshape life. The result was devastation on an unimaginable scale.” All societies that have adopted Communism have devolved into tyranny. There are no exceptions. Res ipsa loquitur.