A lot of people claim that Jesus was a socialist. They justify this by talking about His instructions to give away wealth and follow Him, and alluding to our being commanded to do our bit for the poor by giving charitably. As well, we find in Timothy's first letter that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’
. And let's be reminded that although we have Jesus' call to ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’
, there is clearly no repudiation of State as a mechanism for governance.
So it's all pretty clear, right? Jesus endorses a system in which the means of production and distribution are owned by the State, but where the common welfare for everyone is to be achieved through the establishment of a socialist redistributive system.
People who think this way must be reading a different Bible to me. They think it's obvious that Jesus would have rejected capitalism and been a staunch proponent of socialism. It may be obvious to Christians and atheists alike. Nevertheless, it isn't true.
While I hold the view that scripture is too low-resolution to distil any explicit political or economic framework applicable to the modern age - if people would take Christ's teachings as He instructed, and not as they want them to be, they would see more of an endorsement of laissez-faire monetary exchanges and voluntary giving than they would a heavy State-controlled command economy.
Clearly God sees a world full of suffering, and calls for us to work hard to earn the money*
to be charitable, influential, and campaigners for social justice. But by its very definition, being generous means giving away something of your own accord. It doesn't mean being forced to give away something over which you have no control.
If I draw out a quarter of my month's earnings and give it to WaterAid, I have been generous - but I have been generous because I wanted to do my bit to help out some desperate people. If, however, the government taxes me with the threat of imprisonment and gives the money to WaterAid on my behalf then I have not been generous, because I had no say in the matter.
Charitable foreign aid donations obtained from taxpayers' money are something to endorse, but foreign aid is not the same as voluntary giving, because foreign aid involves the government giving away other people's money, not their own. If the UK actually was full of Christian charity then it'd be full of people giving of their own accord.
I remember a couple of years ago when David Cameron was defending the governmental increase in the foreign aid budget because 'Britons are generous people'. I'm all for greatly increasing the foreign aid budget and helping the world's neediest more than we currently do, but David Cameron had his reasoning backwards there. The governmental increase in the foreign aid budget must have been necessary because too many Britons are not that generous of their own volition. Giving to the world's neediest of your own accord is more generous than the government giving to them on your behalf after taxing it from you. If Britons were increasingly generous people it would lessen the need for governmental foreign aid, not increase it.
Compulsory aid transference through enforced taxation subverts God's desire that people are generous of their volition. If the government is having to take our money and give to the poor then that's every suggestion that we are not being Christian enough in our generosity, and that others are having to be generous on our behalf. Given that the market of supply and demand and the efficiency of price theory have been proven to be the primary vehicles that will enable us to earn the money with which to be generous, I'm confident that God, being omniscient, supports things that yield to logic and empirical evidence.
At the risk of this article getting misrepresented, I want to reiterate what I said above - that the Bible is too low-resolution for water-tight contemporary political theory, so we must not speak beyond our station. But as the book of Proverbs (and John for that matter) evinces - accounts of truth are favourable with God. Moreover, Jesus being God means He isn't confined to the past - He is an active personality in the current age too, so cares deeply about how we do things.
Empirical evidence is one of those qualities. Empirical evidence shows that the Smithian invisible hand acts as a social mechanism that channels collective objectives toward meeting the needs of the people that make up a society, by ensuring competition between buyers and suppliers, which channels the profit motive of individuals into providing products that society desires at prices which are rarely above cost.
This is what makes laissez-faire economic philosophy (with light regulation) so compelling - it is that markets automatically channel self-interest toward socially desirable ends. Where there is still poverty and need, it is not because of the markets, it is because they haven't been able to partake in the qualities the market facilitates. Or to use a simple illustration I often use:
A) Inequality occurs not because trade is bad but because some cannot participate in trade.
B) Hunger occurs not because food is bad but because some cannot participate in eating food.
One big assumption that needs correcting is the assumption that the free market is a heartless system that causes lots of poverty, corruption, exploitation and maltreatment and that it needs endless tweaking to make it less repugnant. Alas, the only people who would say such a thing are people who don’t understand what the free market is. The free market is literally the sum total of all the billions of units (pounds, dollars, Euros, etc) that have been exchanged in mutually beneficial transactions. Consequently, the free market cannot be a bad thing - and save for some necessary light regulation from the government (anti-monopoly regulations, health and safety laws, Pigouvian taxes, etc) there is nothing the government can ‘tweak’ to make the market any better than it already is, because no politician knows the incentives and desires of the individual better than they know themselves.
Critics of the free market are only criticising instances where the free market has not been allowed to operate. Where there is poverty, corruption, exploitation and maltreatment, there is no freedom, and thus the qualities related to those mutually beneficial actions dissipate.
Finally, on Christians in the political arena - in the wake of the recent elections, I've been hugely disappointed by the Christian parties trying to gain some political ground. Instead of seeing refreshing calls to do more for the poor, engender social justice, and generally promote kindness and tolerance, we've seen only prejudice and passive-aggressive spiritual intimidation - which means a whole lot of 'my way or the wrong way' proclamations. No wonder they remain outside of the periphery of mainstream politics. Unless there is a Christian presence that yields to reason and evidence-based rationale, then the truths being spoken will not impact as they should - and that will be a huge shame. Let us do our bit to see that that doesn't happen.
* You'll note the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-27
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.
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