Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Inbox: Is Socialism Biblical?

Jeff says:

“Hey, long time lurker of your site here. With all the recent debate in the US about the ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘democratic socialists’, I was curious about what your thoughts are regarding socialism and capitalism from a biblical perspective. I immediately think about the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-13 and about the early church described in Acts.”

Well, we love long time lurkers. We have a bunch. Thanks for a great question, Jeff. Here goes …

The Capitalism Question

For the purposes of this post I’m going to stick mostly to the question of socialism. This is not because capitalism is problem-free, but because its overall morality or lack thereof seems to hinge more on the rightness or wrongness of the various other features that have been imported into capitalism than it does on the essential nature of the system itself. In principle, there is nothing biblically wrong with the concepts of private property, accumulating capital, voluntary exchange, labor for hire, a price system or competitive markets. However, usurious capitalism is fundamentally anti-scriptural. Moreover, a debt-based economy is not only unsustainable, but also robs future generations to benefit those living today. Crony capitalism and other forms of rigging the game are dishonest and quickly become oppressive. And adding globalism, open borders and so-called “free trade” to the economic mix is a guaranteed recipe for destroying families and nations in a fruitless homage to the spirit of Babel.

So yes, our current system is by-and-large morally bankrupt, but that problem is not so much intrinsic to capitalism itself as it is related to the various ways men have found to exploit capitalistic systems to their own benefit at the expense of others. Corruption, in other words. That’s a problem for every system, including socialism.

The Nature of Socialism

Right, then: Let’s talk about socialism. Is it intrinsically flawed, or is its repeated historical failure to produce good results worldwide merely evidence that all systems, good and bad, are open to corruption? Is socialism antithetical to the principles of scripture, or does it better represent them?

Here we run into a problem. Few statements about socialism apply to every possible theoretical socialist model. Socialist ideas exist across a spectrum, which makes them a moving target for their critics. For example, Jeff mentions “democratic socialism”, which in theory sounds much nicer than Mao’s China or Lenin’s Russia. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a kinder, gentler nation that democratically agreed to share its wealth around?

However, one consistent feature of all socialist models is higher-rate forcible redistributionism. Now, to a certain extent all systems of government make use of force. They can hardly do otherwise. Likewise, almost all systems of government, including capitalism, require some contribution from the individual to the greater good, usually in the form of taxation, which Christians are urged to pay without complaint.

So while we cannot consistently argue that either force or redistribution are intrinsically evil, it should be obvious that the more a society takes forcibly from high-producing individuals, the less incentive they have to continue to produce at the same rate. History has demonstrated that while high-producers will accept taxation up to a certain point, beyond that they will either relocate to a place where they can be taxed more reasonably, or cease producing. That hurts everyone.

The Laffer Curve

What is that point? Nobody knows for sure. The Laffer Curve attempts to identify the tax rate above which total tax revenues begin to decline. Most American economists speculate it is somewhere between 26 and 34% of income. In theory you could go much higher, and some socialists advocate that. Barack Obama thought a combined federal and state tax rate of 62% was reasonable. His father thought 100% was feasible, though it would mean the end of land ownership and private property.

A higher-taxation, higher-redistribution system is not necessarily evil, even if it might not be more productive overall (unless it includes other more coercive measures such as stripping the assets of high-producers who try to relocate). However, as you can see, socialism takes away both responsibility and authority from the individual and assigns it to the State in much greater measure than does capitalism. And the more the State controls the property and income of individuals, the less opportunity they have for stewardship or voluntary giving. You cannot manage or give away what you never receive, and you certainly cannot be credited or rewarded for stewardship you don’t exercise and generosity for which you are not responsible. Nor do the recipients of confiscated tax revenues have reason to be grateful to those whose hard work provided it. Their “benefactors” could not possibly have done otherwise.

Societal Self-Defeat

From a Christian perspective, such a societal structure quickly begins to self-defeat as the tax rate goes up and State control of resources increases. What, for instance, would be the point of telling the former thief to “labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need,” if the work of his hands is destined to be forcibly seized and used however a socialist government sees fit? You might still tell him to work hard, of course, but you’d need a different incentive, an incentive much more like that which Peter gives to household servants: “Be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” Socialist principles applied at their upper limits reduce men and women to effective servitude. Peter may teach how to correctly respond to servitude, but neither he nor the other writers of the New Testament in any way endorse such a system.

Moreover, how does the Christian employer treat his employees “justly and fairly” when salaries, benefits, hours and conditions of work are all fully State-controlled? What does he do when the State imposes conditions he deems to be unreasonable, unfair or unhealthy? He must either become disobedient himself, or else tyrannize his workers in whatever way he is instructed to, becoming an evil cog in an evil system.

Does this sound like an arrangement any Christian would choose voluntarily?

The Early Church Described in Acts

Let’s come back to the first century believers in Jerusalem for a moment, whom Jeff also mentions. Those early chapters of Acts are often taken by less-observant readers to describe things they do not in fact describe. In True to the Faith, David Gooding speaks to the subject of early Christian generosity:
“Luke does not say that every believer who happened to own his or her own home immediately on conversion sold it and gave the proceeds away. For if they had, where would any of them have slept the night? On that principle all five thousand converts plus their wives and families would soon have been destitute of shelter.

No, the phrase, ‘those who owned lands or houses’ is describing people we would call nowadays ‘landlords’ or ‘property owners’ …”
I believe Gooding is correct here. Those who could afford to be generous were indeed generous, and exceptionally so. What the early church engaged in was not socialism but nearly unprecedented generosity. Their sharing was, again in the words of David Gooding, “perfectly spontaneous. There was no compulsion. It is nowhere said that this was a necessary and indispensible condition … for being accepted as a genuine Christian. It was a natural, voluntary reaction.”

While there is certainly the element of redistributionism on display in the first few chapters of Acts, there is no element of compulsion to be observed at work in the early church at all. The threats of force, shame or loss of status are entirely absent. Early Christian giving was not tactical or ideological. It was practical, personal and loving.

The Year of Jubilee

I’ve previously written on the Jubilee here and here, including discussing the tendency of Progressives to use it as a biblical license for introducing redistributionism.

The year of Jubilee was predicated on the idea that the land belonged to neither the State nor the individual, but to God. This being the case, every Israelite got his assigned piece, and was to work it to the best of his ability according to reasonable laws and limitations given by Moses. In theory, all Israelites started on equal footing. Given similar weather conditions and effort, all would have been equally able to profit from that land.

That said, it was understood from the moment land was distributed that human nature would quickly disrupt that initial equity. Some people do better with assets placed in their hands than others. Some Israelites, God recognized, would do very badly indeed.

The Jubilee in Practice

An example: If Avram had a drinking or gambling problem and failed to work his property, it would naturally lie fallow. Meanwhile his next-door neighbor Eli had six hard-working sons and never slept. Within a few short years, Eli might be coming to Avram with an offer for his unworked property that would fix Avram’s burgeoning debt problem brought on by his tendency to burn through everything that passed through his hands while producing nothing of value. Eli could make productive use of the land, whereas Avram could not. Avram could use the cash, and would surely jump at Eli’s offer.

And yet, how fair would that be to Avram’s young sons and wife? Their only crime was having an out-of-control dad in charge of the family affairs, and here their inheritance was being sold to a neighbor. Hence the need for the Jubilee. The Jubilee did not in any way restrict Eli from using every opportunity to become as rich as he liked by working hard and being smart. But it prevented losers like Avram from impoverishing generations of their own families because of incompetence, laziness or foolishness. Eli could indeed buy Avram’s property and profit from the crops grown on it, but that property reverted automatically to Avram’s family in the Year of Jubilee.

Thus, the Jubilee served as a brake on capitalist excess, but only once in fifty years. Hard work was rewarded, while the worst depredations of unearned poverty were carefully prevented.

Opportunity and Outcome

But it can quickly be seen this was nothing like socialism. It started from the premise of equality of opportunity, but in no way did it produce equality of outcome. It was never intended to. Lazy men and incompetents still became poor, and the extent to which they were propped up by the system was limited by the assets they had available to sell. Meanwhile, the rich got richer, but on the basis of their hard work and intelligent use of money, not because of usury or abuse of the poor. At least, that’s how it was designed to work. How strictly and consistently Israel observed the Jubilee and whether it was observed much at all are very much open to scholarly debate.

Could something like the Jubilee work today if we all started from the premise that everything we have is really God’s, and we are only borrowing it? Absolutely. Does that seem a likely thing? I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

Far from being an example of enforced equity or biblical socialism, the Year of Jubilee serves as a testimony to the importance of stewardship and individual responsibility, the benefits of hard work and the value God places on family.

Original photo courtesy Senate Democrats [CC BY 2.0]


  1. Hmm, times have changed too much though. Most people no longer are property owners. The question then is how does the modern way of employment and wealth acquisition and distribution translate to a Jubilee situation? In my opinion, property has to be replaced with a more realistic and honest assessment of the true value of labor. E.g. it is absurd to suggest that the compensation of corporate leaders and management compared to the compensation paid the grunt is fair. It is a (biblical) scandal. This is of course tightly correlated with endless unequal opportunity (education, e.g.), influence peddling, and favoritism.

    Here is a short example of what I mean. If I live on the fifth floor of a city tenement building and lean out the window and observe people walk by in the street below and my intent is to fill a corporate CEO level position that has just opened up then all I have to do is pick someone from the street at random meeting these criteria - mature male or female adult, obviously not intoxicated or drugged, determined and busy manner of walking, in short making a fairly good impression from a distance. I then talk to that person and confirm that they are in charge of a family and household and then convince that person to become my new CEO after an initial 3 months of training. It is absolutely certain that they because of their lifelong family level management skill set can be just as effective a CEO applying the same decision making skills they use daily to the new work situation. Naturally they will know how to delegate the more technical decisions to their aids but they will absolutely know how to run the business as they have run their family their whole life. You have heard the story that by throwing darts at the New York Times stock pages you can pick winners just as effectively as the expert analyst in his Wall Street office. If you don't believe that, well, my neighbor across the street gave up running his Chinese restaurant in favor of stock day trading and now is a multimillionaire.

    The point is that the horrific disparity in value we place on business leadership as one category compared to what the ordinary person does equally well in their daily living is simply driven by an entrenched system of greed and self-seeking enrichment. And that disparity and absolutely shameless and self-serving way of obtaining, justifying, and maintaining unjustified differences in stature that translates to obscenely unfair disparities in compensation is at the heart of our current social problems. In short our assessment of the value of labor has to be revisited and renewed every 50 years as our current Jubilee.

  2. The real problem is there is no "our". No theocracy, no Law, and no common agreement about God to appeal to when the Powers That Be overlook -- or worse, benefit from -- systemic corruption. So I'm a little cynical about any human-engineered system working long-term, modified Jubilee or no.

    All the same, I'll cast my vote for the system that leaves the most after-tax dollars in the hands of the individual. All bureaucracies tend toward incompetence, and centralized bureaucracies most of all. As corrupt as capitalism has become, confiscatory redistributionism is worse, as Venezuela is currently demonstrating.