Rethinking Christian Economics, Part 2: Capitalism

The following piece is republished from In Praise of Folly. It is part of a short series on Christian economics. Footnotes will be provided with the final installment.


Many Christians today either favor modern free-market capitalism or “crony” capitalism. Crony capitalism is distinguished between free-market capitalism in that the ‘crony’ capitalist earns wealth with the aid of government. A true capitalist succeeds solely in the basis of his entrepreneurial talent. Modern conservatism seeks to conflate crony capitalism with free-trade. Modern conservatives often assume that what we have in the US today is “free-market” capitalism when in fact it is no such thing. It is legalized mutual corruption of both the corporate and state apparatus. Such an economic model is based on nepotism and is obviously in conflict with Christian principles.

Free-market capitalism, which is endorsed by Classical Liberals, Randians, and libertarians, is a much more competitive and just system than crony capitalism, but is not with out its flaws. As a disclaimer I do not reject the laws of economics (Say’s Law, Greshems Law, etc.), but I do reject the certain philosophical mindset that is often held by people who support free-markets.

The leading philosophical thinkers in free market ethics are, among others, Ayn Rand, Murry Rothbard, and Walter Block. Both Ayn Rand and modern libertarians are very hostile to the notion of charity and altruism. For example, Ayn Rand bases her ethics on rational egoism/self-interest, which is defined here:

“The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.”[2]

Rand also rails against altruism and charity:

“What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: ‘No.’ Altruism says: ‘Yes.’”[3]

“My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”[4]

We see an atheistic man-centered worldview in the writings of Rand. She takes the liberal dictum of “do whatever you want as long as it hurts no one” to its logical conclusion. Or in other words, man has no positive obligations to anyone other than himself. Rothbard, though he does not trumpet selfishness and shout down charity as Rand does, still affirms the former and agrees with Rand’s views on the latter, (i.e. that man has no positive obligation other than to himself).

“I must here again comment on Professor Averitt’s statement about ‘greed.’ It’s true: greed has had a very bad press. I frankly don’t see anything wrong with greed. I think that the people who are always attacking greed would be more consistent with their position if they refused their next salary increase. I don’t see even the most Left-Wing scholar in this country scornfully burning his salary check. In other words, ‘greed’ simply means that you are trying to relieve the nature given scarcity that man was born with. Greed will continue until the Garden of Eden arrives, when everything is superabundant, and we don’t have to worry about economics at all. We haven’t of course reached that point yet; we haven’t reached the point where everybody is burning his salary increases, or salary checks in general. So the question then becomes: what kind of greed are we going to have, ‘productive greed,’ where people produce and voluntarily exchange their products with others? Or exploitative greed, organized robbery and predation, where you achieve your wealth at the expense of others? These are the two real alternatives.”[5]

Rothbard monstrously redefines Charity as a self-interested greed:

“In fact, in the long run, the greatest ‘charity’ is precisely not what we know by that name, but rather simple, ‘selfish’ capital investment and the search for technological innovations. Poverty has been tamed by the enterprise and the capital investment of our ancestors, most of which was undoubtedly done for ‘selfish’ motives. This is a fundamental illustration of the truth enunciated by Adam Smith that we generally help others most in those very activities in which we help ourselves.”[6]

We see also in Walter Block in his Defending the Undefendable that charity is criticized, among other reasons, because:

“One of the great evils of charity, and one of the most cogent reasons for refusing to contribute to it, is that it interferes with the survival of the human species. According to the Darwinian principle of the ‘survival of the fittest,’ those organisms most able to exist in a given environment will be ‘naturally selected’ (by showing a greater propensity to live until the age of procreation, and thus be more likely to leave offspring). One result, in the long run, is a species whose members have a greater ability to survive. This does not imply that the strong ‘kill off’ the weak, as has been alleged. It merely suggests that the strong will be more successful than the weak in the procreation of the species. Thus the ablest perpetuate themselves and the species thrives.”[7]

We can see that modern capitalist philosophy is based on what is called “enlightened self-interest” or egoism. The problem for a Christian in this view is that man is the agent that determines value, goodness, and morality. The egoist asks himself first how does this act benefit me, and if it does not then I will not perform it. Such a view is contradictory to the Christian requirement to love thy neighbor; see Matthew 19:9, Matthew 23:39, Mark 12:31, Mark 12:33, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:8-9, Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8, accepting wrong Romans 12:17, 1st Corinthians 6:7, 1st Thessalonians 5:15, and 1st Peter 3:9.

The notion of loving one’s neighbor cannot be made compatible with running someone out of business in unlimited competition for the sake of personal gain. Is it in accord with Christian values to actively seek to drive your brother out of business and render him unable to sustain himself and his family? This does not mean that one should not produce the highest quality goods possible which in turn might drive people out of business. Quality work should be produced not with the intent to destroy livelihood, but in order to do all things for the glory of God—see Colossians 3:17. For the egoistic capitalist the world is seen in terms of conflict, i.e., between competitors. If people look at the ruthless competition that is present in today’s marketplace as a kind of bloodless Darwinian struggle, it is plain to see that the ruthless desire to win at any price is the rotten fruit that necessarily grows out of this “enlightened” self-interest. If self-interest becomes the basis for morality, why stop short of gratifying your self-interest at the expense of physically harming others? For example, in the 19th century American West the competing railroads would hire thugs to prevent each other’s crews from laying tracks, going so far as to tear up each other’s tracks in order to get the upper hand.[8] [9]

In short, such a competitive mindset is inimical to the love of one’s brother. We see the ideal of Christian love towards brothers expressed in the Amish. The products that the Amish are well known for, wood work and dairy products, are of the highest quality, but their goal is not to destroy the livelihood of their brothers. One could argue that this form of Christian economics is actually more efficient than traditional capitalist competition. Donald Kraybill explains in Amish Enterprise: Plowshares to Profits that while most small business fail, most Amish business succeed. The success is traced to numerous individual causes, but the major cause is that the Amish are a closely knit and disciplined community that helps its members out in times of need and trouble.