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Can a Biblical Case Be Made for Free Markets?

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Would God prefer that our wealth be controlled by free people exchanging goods and services in a free market or by government? By a system that maximizes individual opportunity or by a system that minimizes the individual? By us or by the world around us?

If you ask these questions of millennials (the 83.1 million Americans born between 1982 and 2000), you’ll get a surprising answer.

Harvard polling reveals that 51 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 (the bulk of the millennial generation) reject capitalism, which is another term for free-market economics—the economic system that has shaped America and fuels the world’s progress. Characterized by high levels of free enterprise and private ownership of property, this way of organizing the economy and meeting the needs of society, though imperfect, has proven better for the flourishing of individuals and societies than anything else humanity has tried.

Indeed, economic theories like socialism and its cousin, communism, have been tried and have failed repeatedly. Yet Pew Polling finds that more millennials hold positive views of socialism—an economic system characterized by high levels of state control, government intervention, and collective ownership—than hold negative views of socialism. Even more worrisome, only 55 percent of millennials think “communism was and still is a problem.”

Perhaps it’s time to make the case for free markets. As Christ followers, I believe we can make that case with a clear conscience.

Promises, Problems, and Poverty

The Bible never explicitly endorses free-market economics. It does, however, have much to say about freedom and work and property and wealth—and how we should manage and use those things to serve our fellow man, improve our world, and reflect our Lord.

Genesis tells us, “God created mankind in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). He gave mankind a vast garden to tend. And he gave mankind free will. From this, we can gather that we, like our creator, are made to be creative and productive, to do good work, and to be sovereign and free.

In other words, in the beginning, freedom was the natural state of man, which helps explain why God so detests man’s tendency to usurp the freedom of his fellow man. God cares deeply about freedom. He wants us to be free—free from the shackles of sin, free from Pharaoh and Haman and Caesar, free from Lenin and Hitler and Stalin, free to decide how he wants us to use the wealth generated by the work we do.

To be sure, government has a role to play in helping those in need. The very idea of a safety net is to provide some measure of security when circumstances overwhelm us. But government doesn’t generate wealth. Individuals and businesses do. So, there must be limits on what government takes to maintain that safety net, or else government runs the risk of discouraging enterprise and driving creators to stop creating, producers to stop producing, builders to stop building.

Governments—some well-intentioned, some downright evil—have been promising to end poverty for centuries. All of them have failed. Why? The problem of poverty is surely a function of the broken, fallen nature of man. Some people are poor because of their own terrible choices; some because of the selfish choices of others (including the state); some through no fault of their own and no direct or apparent fault of anyone else.

There is an inherent unfairness and unjustness in our fallen world. As Jesus sighed when he gazed upon our brokenness, “The poor you will always have with you…” (Mk. 14:7). And so, one of the constants of scripture is a challenge to pursue justice and to help the poor escape poverty.

The redistribution of wealth by government fails on both counts. Consider that Washington has appropriated and redistributed some $22 trillion since 1964, waging war on poverty, and yet “the percentage of Americans dependent on government has remained virtually unchanged,” according to Heritage Foundation research.

As to fairness and justice, scripture’s repeated message is that it is wrong for a neighbor or even a king to take what is not his. In the Ten Commandments, God tells his people, “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15, 17). There are no qualifiers on this command; it applies to the rich, poor, and in-between.

Proverbs adds, “He who tends the fig tree will eat its fruit” (Prov. 27:18). Likewise, Paul writes that “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops” (2 Tim. 2:6). In short, the one who works the land, catches the fish, makes the sale, designs the operating system, repairs the air conditioner has earned the right to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Although I am advocating here on behalf of the wealth creator, this is not a rationalization for selfishness. Selfishness is a sin against God and against our fellow man, especially against the poor. God cares deeply about helping the poor and promoting justice, which means we should as well.

Deuteronomy calls on God’s people to “Be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy” (Deut. 15:11). Proverbs 29:7 declares, “The righteous care about justice for the poor.” Jesus equates himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the poor (Matt. 25:34). He asks us to see him in their needs—and to use our wealth to help them. Importantly, he doesn’t compel us to do this; he asks us, invites us.

Consider the church of the book of Acts. In Acts 4:34-35, we learn that individuals shared with one another in need. Acts 11:29 adds, “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.”

As socialists often point out, these verses are echoed in one of Karl Marx’s most famous slogans: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” What they fail to notice or note is that Marx envisioned the state—the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—compelling people to hand over and redistribute wealth, while the early church simply asked people to give freely out of love for God (2 Cor. 9:7).

There’s an enormous difference between these worldviews. Just as God wants us to love him because we choose to do so, he wants us to share our blessings because we choose to share them.

Editor’s note: This blog is an excerpt from a new IFWE article by Alan Dowd, “Dear Millennials: The Free Market Is Still the Best System to Meet Humanity’s Needs.”

Read more about Christian concerns about capitalism in Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism.

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