The relationship between Christianity and capitalism is a perennial topic, one taken up recently by the New York Times’ Room for Debate feature. It’s important to distinguish between different economic forms, and labels like capitalism can sometimes obscure rather than clarify points of dispute. As the contributors to the Times’ debate illustrate, capitalism can mean anything from an emphasis on the need for the rule of law, property rights and freedom of association and trade to the privileging of moneyed interests and tyranny of cash over all of life. Here are three key distinctions to keep in mind when deliberating various views of the way that the Christian faith and market economies intertwine.
First, support for markets as praiseworthy venues for human interaction, trade and community is not the same as preference for the interests of “capitalists” - that is, large business or commercial firms. It is a standard insight of classical economic theory that the centralization of economic power in large businesses or industry groups has the tendency to produce corruption and make markets less free. The political economist Adam Smith, often called the founder of modern economics, put it this way: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Those who have been successful in market economies often seek to find ways to shore up or increase their advantages, even when it means scheming against the interests of smaller competitors and consumers. This results in oppression and corruption of the system, particularly when privileges conferred by kings or Congressmen are used to maintain power.
A second distinction to recognize about markets is that just as those who engage in commercial behavior are usually not simply acting out of narrow selfishness, those who engage in public service are not driven by pure magnanimity. It is a caricature of economic activity that it is driven only by greed or selfishness. In some cases this is true, but Gordon Gekko’s mantra from the film Wall Street, “Greed is good,” is a bad parody of what more often really motivates people to serve others in the economic realm. As the economist Paul Heyne observed, “People who pursue their own interests are behaving selfishly only if their interests are selfish.” Likewise those who serve in government are not free from potentially selfish motivations and actions. “The line dividing good and evil,” said the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “cuts through the heart of every human being.” A good way to understand Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors is as a call to align our interests with theirs, to expand our cares beyond ourselves to those of our families, friends and even our enemies. The interests of the self need not simply be interest in the self.
A final thing to keep in view when thinking about economic realities is that people pursue their interests in a wide variety of arenas other than the economic and the political realms. We are not simply creatures suspended between the opposite poles of the market and the government. Instead, we live, move and have our being on this earth in the context of a plethora of institutions, notably including families and churches, but also including little leagues, book clubs, charitable organizations and educational institutions. Sometimes these communities are described as “mediating” institutions, which is meant to highlight their function as guards and buffers against overweening economic or political powers. But they are also rightly understood as organizations of “civil society,” which highlights their foundation in the plural interests of human society, which must be acknowledged to be as diverse as those people who comprise it.
Keeping these three distinctions handy will assist us to better discern where the demands of market and state begin and end, and even more importantly how to determine the ways in which the Gospel speaks to commercial life in the context of our broader Christian calling.