by David French
When it comes to considering the arguments of newly resurgent Christian progressives, we hold these truths to be self-evident: Jesus was not a socialist, the Bible is not an economics textbook, and while scripture commands believers to help the poor, it also commands the poor to help themselves. As Pope Francis gains rock-star status on the economic left, Christians would do well to remember not just scripture, but the economic reality of recent world experience.
This morning, the pope addressed Congress with relative restraint. Rather than decrying the perceived excesses of global capitalism — calling it, as he once did, the “dung of the devil” or the “new colonialism” — he used more measured language. He urged American politicians to exert their primacy over “the economy and finance,” creating a community that shares its goods:
If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.
While the words may be less fiery than those Francis has used in the past, their meaning is still clear: Politicians exist in part to mandate public economic sacrifice in the name of a nebulous “common good.” Yet one must take great care when making religious claims about political management of the economy, never forgetting that ideology can’t trump human nature and outcomes matter more than intentions. I can agree wholeheartedly with the Pope’s calls for an ethical capitalism in which great wealth carries with it great responsibility. I remain wary of the rhetoric of redistribution.
One can scour the entire Bible without finding any example of progressive taxation or any endorsement of large-scale government redistribution of wealth.
Instead, the default position is that the individual owns his property and the worker deserves his wages. While charity is an unquestioned obligation, scripture also places responsibilities on the poor that would make any good progressive blanch. The Apostle Paul condemns idleness, saying,
“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
In the book of First Timothy, he goes even farther:
“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
The bible even conditions church aid to widows on their age and reputation for good conduct: Young widows are excluded for fear that they will grow “idle.” These words sound extraordinarily harsh to modern ears, yet they reflect divine insight into fallen human nature — rewarding idleness will breed more idleness.
Indeed, in the only government God did establish — ancient Israel — the “welfare” system stood in stark contrast to modern custom. Here’s how He commands the Israelites to use their possessions to care for the poor:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.
Not only is private property recognized (“your land”), but the welfare that does exist requires the poor to actually engage in the harvest to collect the gleanings. God commands nations to strengthen the hand of the poor, and outcomes matter. Recent history demonstrates that capitalism, not socialism, is the great engine that lifts people out of poverty.
In 2013 The Economist asked,
“How did the global poverty rate halve in 20 years?”
The answer wasn’t redistribution, but economic growth: Fast-growing economies in the developing world have done most of the work. Between 1981 and 2001, China lifted 680 million people out of poverty. Since 2000, the acceleration of growth in developing countries has cut the numbers in extreme poverty outside China by 280 million. China grew, incidentally, when it became less socialist and more capitalist, and almost a billion people have joined the middle- and upper-class as a result.