Speaking to global business leaders at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, social activist and U2 frontman Bono made an interesting comment about capitalism.
Capitalism is not immoral—it’s amoral. It requires our instruction. Capitalism has taken more people out of poverty than any other ‘ism.’ But it is a wild beast and, if not tamed, it can chew up a lot of people along the way.
Bono, not always a fan of capitalism, is one of a growing number of social activists that are beginning to see this much-despised economic system as the solution to poverty. In a 2013 talk at Georgetown University Bono said jokingly, “A Rockstar preaches capitalism…Wow…sometimes I hear myself, and I just can’t believe it.”
Capitalism as a Medium for Flourishing
The positive impact of capitalism is not just a famous activist’s opinion but a historical fact. The World Bank reported last fall that the number of people in extreme poverty dropped to under 750 million for the first time since 1990 when the World Bank began collecting global statistics. In fact, over the last 25 years, more than one billion people around the world have been raised out of extreme poverty—defined by living on less than $1.90 a day.
This historic economic movement was not the result of government redistribution of wealth, the United Nations’ national debt forgiveness, or even Christian charity. It was brought about by the spread of capitalism in places where there is at least some economic freedom. This should not surprise us; this economic system has a significantly positive historical track record.
It is this system and, more specifically, the “Protestant work ethic,” says historian Niall Ferguson in his book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, that supported the meteoric rise in the standard of living over the past five centuries. Jonah Goldberg, in his book, Suicide of the West, calls capitalism “the Miracle,” and argues it was the reason for both the emergence of liberal-democratic political systems in both modern Europe and America and the unprecedented explosion of wealth and freedom that followed.
Yet a recent Gallup poll shows that among those aged 18 to 29, 51 percent say they favor socialism, compared to just 45 percent who favor capitalism. This explains the rise in popularity of politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who openly advocate for a more socialistic government here in the U.S. Some in this camp argue that capitalism is immoral and should be replaced by a kinder and gentler economic system.
As Christians, we need to look at this debate from a biblical perspective. We are called to live out our lives based on God’s design and desire, not what is popular. To do this, we need to turn to the scriptures as our guide for faith and practice. The Bible has over two thousand passages that speak to the principles of work and economics. These principles are woven into the fabric of God’s creation. They are like gravity―they work whether you believe in God or not.
For example, look at two of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not covet,” both imply private property rights (Exod. 20:15, 17). This prohibition against taking someone else’s property without his or her permission is repeatedly emphasized throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The idea of property rights is an example of one of the principles woven into creation and when honored provides a rich blessing. As Dr. Art Lindsley writes:
The biblical respect for the property and possessions of others has been key in establishing human well-being throughout the modern world, and societies that have heeded these principles have been one step closer to experiencing prosperity and growth for all.
For believers, we should look toward economic systems that most closely align themselves with the principles found in the scriptures. Historically, particularly after the Reformation, free-market capitalism reinforced by the “protestant work ethic” was steeped in religious virtue and more in line with biblical principles than other comparable economic systems. Over the years that has changed, as Kenneth Barnes, writes in his new book, Redeeming Capitalism:
When capitalism emerged from the primordial ooze of feudalism and mercantilism, it was rooted in a religiously inspired ethic. As it has evolved over time, however, it has drifted further and further from that ethic, morphing into the postmodern capitalism I have described previously as “devoid of a moral compass and resistant if not impervious to ethical constraint.”
Moral Foundation for Freedom and Flourishing
Free-market ideas grew in a religious and moral soil. We need to replant them there. This brings us back to Bono’s quote that capitalism is amoral. It is a tool that can be used for great benefit or great harm; it is not capitalism itself but some of its practitioners who, as of late, have used the system toward selfish and destructive ends.
Marred as capitalism can be when uprooted from a religious and moral foundation, it has still proven to be vastly more conducive to spreading prosperity than its alternatives. Every other system has resulted in making more people poorer; Venezuela is just the latest example.
This is a great debate that will continue in the years ahead. Where it ends up will determine the long-term economic outlook of our country. As Christians, we can bring a timeless, critical perspective into this discussion. We can look to biblical principles for wisdom on governance and stewardship of our resources and be confident that it is the way that leads to flourishing.
Editor’s note: To understand more about the moral foundation needed for capitalism to function best, read about IFWE’s religious freedom project in partnership with the John Templeton Foundation, “Moral Foundations of Freedom and Human Flourishing.”
To further explore Christian views on capitalism, check out IFWE’s latest book Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism. Get 15% OFF when you use code: CTC15.