A Biblical Critique of Capitalism – John Boruff

Puritan Capitalism vs. Adam Smith’s Agnostic Capitalism

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) laid the philosophical foundations for what we today call capitalism. While there were truthful facts to be found in its pages, it was nothing really all that new, at least in the Puritan sense. About a century earlier, Richard Steele’s The Religious Tradesman (1684) taught Christian men to provide for their families through the virtues of diligence (hard working productivity), contentment (frugality, thrift), and retirement (which no doubt involved saving and investing). All of these things Smith continued to agree with as determinants of economic growth. But the ethical difference between Steele and Smith was very great. While Steele the Puritan taught people to temper their working lives with things such as prudence, justice, truth, and the Christian faith, Smith the agnostic and rationalistic economic philosopher, taught people to ignore Biblical ethics about money and instead be motivated completely by self-interest and competition.

Self-Interest and Competition: Shaky Motivators for Economic Growth

The vices of self-interest and competition are still found today in American business practices. No sales team is thought to be good that is not motivated by these things. Sales managers train their sales reps to be self-interested, to look out for number one, and be competitive. In so doing, by advancing the idea that “greed is good,” they motivate people with greed, with the desire for sales commissions, for more money. Maybe even with the desire for a hot car like a Lamborghini. During sales meetings they did this when I was with Lincoln Heritage Life Insurance Company. They actually motivated their sales reps to “get that Lambo,” in their pursuit of finding clients for burial insurance. Knocking on their houses door-to-door unannounced, and pressuring the elderly to buy insurance policies on the spot. Yeah, Smithian capitalism is still very much alive today: its self-interested. But its also competitive: why? Its competitive not only externally with other companies that are selling similar products (which I can’t really condemn altogether), but its competitive internally with other co-workers, in the same company, who have been assigned with the same tasks that you have. Back to sales as an example, if your sales manager wants you to sell 5 policies a week, pressure will be put on all the sales reps to reach 5 sales a week. Then when we come to the meeting at the end of the week, and it is announced by the sales manager that I made 7 sales that week, while everyone else made 3-5 sales, here we have a competition between co-workers. Now, it is always couched in terms of being a “friendly competition,” where contests and awards are given. But a lot of that is deceptive. The reality is, the best sales rep is isolated from everyone else socially; and everyone else feels jealousy and resentment about that guy, because he makes them look lazy. Not only that, the best sales rep has more money and possessions than everyone else; and in a culture of greed and self-interest, this makes them even more jealous. Smith didn’t really think that part of it through. I like what Art Gish had to say about this:

Adam Smith was wrong. Human egoism is not an adequate basis for economic development because private self-interest is seldom consistent with general social interest. When the self-serving elite control the means of production and distribution, we can expect that resources will be used for short-run profit rather than in harmony with the kingdom of God. It seems self-evident that a system built on internal competition will eventually destroy itself (Wealth and Poverty, p. 144).

Totally! Jesus said that a house divided cannot stand (Matt. 12:25). When we allow demons to enter into a company’s leadership, the company is now haunted, the business is now demon-possessed; and a house such as this will not stand for long, it’s only a matter of time. That’s why so many companies today have such outrageously high turnover rates. Nobody is content with their job: they want more money, they fear losing their jobs due to self-interested and competitive co-workers, and they try their best to assuage these fears through worldly office politics, adulterously flirting and swearing because everyone else does, and they lose their souls in the process; and most likely, still lose their jobs, because of self-interested and competitive co-workers. These vices of self-interest and competition are opposed to the Bible! The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines SELF-INTEREST as “a concern for one’s own advantage and well-being,” and further defines it with synonyms such as egocentricity, narcissism, self-absorption, self-centeredness, and selfishness. It defines COMPETITION as “a contest between rivals,” and uses synonyms such as having a bout, a contest, or a tournament. What is a bout? Its a fight. Fighting, in other words, is what capitalism is based on. That’s why competitive team sports are such an important part of American culture. Somewhere in the past, people must have decided that in order to beat their enemies in the workplace, they must first learn to beat their enemies at sports games. So lets train up a child in the way he should go. Teach him to beat an enemy senseless at football, basketball, or baseball.

Everything is about winners and losers in this economic system. But what does the Bible have to say about this? The total opposite. Jesus tells us to love our enemies: in other words, to resist and push back against the idea of having rivals and competitors (Matt. 5:44). Paul says, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:10). But by adopting Adam Smith’s capitalism, the result is hate, all in the name of looking out for your own well-being. You have to make a choice. This might be why Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Probably because the vices of self-interest and competition are of the flesh; and have always been at the heart of business practices, even in Jesus’ day. In business, either the unrestrained love of money will win your heart, or your love for God will win. But you can’t have both. If you choose God, sure you might not make as much money as you would if you didn’t use Biblical restraints, but at least your salvation is likely intact! Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Could the Scripture be anymore plain than this? This command is in direct contradiction to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Do nothing out of self-ambition! No self-interest. Have humility! Rather than pride over your accomplishments, which are acquired competitively. Consider others as better than you! Don’t look out for your own interests! Look to the interests of others! “What anti-capitalistic nonsense is this?” says the modern businessman. Well, if he didn’t know who was saying it, or that it was coming from Paul’s letter to Philippians, he might not have been so quick to blaspheme the Word of God, if he is a Christian. 

Image result for enron jpegTake the Enron Corporation as recent example of unrestrained self-interest and internal competition among co-workers. This used to be a $100 billion natural gas company. It no longer exists. What happened? It went bankrupt through long, drawn out accounting fraud. Somebody in the accounting department got greedy and dishonest; somebody was motivated by self-interest; and somebody didn’t care a hill of beans about what happened to all of the families employed by Enron, because they were looking out for number one in the spirit of self-interest and competition with others. The house was divided, and as Jesus said, it did not stand. Oh, it stood for a while. It lasted from 1985 to 2007: a whopping 22 years. That company could have lasted for 100 years or more. But it collapsed because of self-interest, internal competition, greed, and dishonesty. That’s what happens when you don’t run a company by Biblical principles. It eventually implodes. The failure might not always be as dramatic in terms of numbers, which is why the Enron scandal attracted the attention of the media some years back, but I don’t think any business will last for very long if the Bible and Christian faith are not guiding principles among management.

Biblical Capitalism: The Journey Back to Richard Steele’s Economics

If we are followers of Jesus and Biblical principles, there must come a time when we judge Corporate America and reject its worldly ideas. Reject what your family has told you; and follow Biblical principles no matter if it costs you your job, your career, perhaps your marriage. Because even if your marriage ends for following the Bible, it is proof that it was based on money and not on Christ anyway. God calls us to Christian business activity, a Christian marriage, and a Christian family. He expects us to be different: not to compromise with the world system, but to reject self-interested and competitive business ideas, to embrace universal Christian love, giving to the poor, and above all to seek the glory of God rather than our own self-interest, and to cooperate and unify with people rather than compete with them as rivals. Acts 2:44: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” The Amish and the Catholic monks are onto something here. When the Church becomes an economic refuge in times of crisis, there we have the opposite of Adam Smith’s views. When Christians seek to live in community, koinonia, and friendship, there we have the opposite of competition, self-interest, and rivalry. There we have the Holy Spirit, love, and joy. There is no “keeping up with the Joneses” when everyone is part of the Jones family! When all of the church “has everything in common.”

I’m not talking about atheistic communism obviously. I’m talking about Christian people sharing with one another; and enjoying each others’ company. When believers meet together in homes; and share their toys with one another; when they love, serve, and joke around with each other. This is the opposite of self-interest and competition. The opposite of pride, greed, and hate. It is the kingdom of God and is not of this world. That leaves us with Richard Steele’s Religious Tradesman, in which he taught Christians to be prudent, diligent, just, honest, content, faithful to God, and retiring. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations will lead us to be productive, frugal with our money, and invest (especially in farming, trucking, and manufacturing), and we can thank him for his scientific analysis of these things. But we can’t allow self-interest and competition to seep into our view of economics, because the moment we do this, is the moment we cease to be truly Christian. It is hard for me to see true Christianity as workable in any employment situation other than jobs that are solo, or in businesses that allow you to say in an interview, “I’m a Christian guy and I don’t use profanity,” or in actual Christian businesses that publicly claim to operate by Biblical principles like Interstate Batteries and Chick-fil-A. It is hard for me to sit here and thoughtlessly consecrate 90% of the jobs that exist out there on Indeed.com, because they are mostly driven by self-interest and competition. At least its that way in the sales force, of which I’ve been a part for 5 years. Whatever your job situation is though, try your hardest to avoid the demons and self-interest and competition. You will not go to Heaven if you don’t resist them. If you keep telling yourself that they are “means to an end,” you will find your end to be in Hell! (Luke 16:19-31).

Bibliography

Bauer, P. T. Dissent on Development.

Baxter, Richard. A Christian Directory, Parts 2 and 4.

Chilton, David. Productive Christians.

Foster, Richard J. Freedom of Simplicity.

Gish, Art. Wealth and Poverty.

—. Beyond the Rat Race.

MacArthur, Kathleen. The Economic Ethics of John Wesley.

Mandeville, Bernard. The Fable of the Bees. The origin of self-interested economics.

North, Gary. Puritan Economic Experiments.

Ryken, Leland. Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were.

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations.

Spengler, Joseph. “Adam Smith’s Theory of Economic Growth, Parts 1 and 2.”

Steele, Richard. The Religious Tradesman.

Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Wilbur, Charles. “The ‘New’ Economic History Re-examined.”

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About John Boruff

John Boruff is a husband, father, blogger, and insurance agent.
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