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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

A flawed design

Why is socialism suddenly attractive?

A flawed design

(G. Ronald Lopez/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Who might have guessed that already, right here in the U.S. of A., we’d be at a point where a growing number of candidates for public office seem to think it’s advantageous to refer to themselves as socialists?

For all of my lifetime, that’s been a putdown. Call someone a socialist, and you mean nothing good. You’re deliberately putting your opponent on the defensive.

But apparently we’ve now reached the place where so many voters have become so smart and sophisticated that you can offer them a real-life socialist—and be rewarded with a victory on Election Day. 

These days, in fact, in more and more settings, any positive reference to the “free market” may carry you to defeat. For many of these people, to equate free market principles with the law of God is close to blasphemy.

Yet I think it’s even more demeaning to the character of God to say what many Christians blithely claim—that any one system of economics is the same in God’s eyes as any other system. To claim though, as a growing number of Bible-believing Christians do, that God is all-wise but has no evaluative opinion about what He knows is the ultimate putdown. Does God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, have opinions about what is beautiful? Is the One who created the musical scales and the chirps of the birds tone-deaf when it comes to deciding whether some music is good and some is forgettable?

These days, in more and more settings, any positive reference to the ‘free market’ may carry you to defeat.

If such people mean to say that Christians should be prepared to live under any kind of economic system, just as they should under any political system, I agree. But that’s a different argument. Recognition of God’s creation ordinances, mind you, never implies slavery to them. Real obedience bears the fruit of glorious freedom.

The free market that I think God has established as a basic building block of human society is pretty elementary. It refers to two (or more) parties making a voluntary and lawful agreement to exchange an item of value. When they do so—in a context of good will—God has planned things so that both parties can walk away from that exchange happier, or more fulfilled, than when they approached it. And both of them actually have the opportunity, through that exchange, to be wealthier! It makes no more sense than the flight of a bird—but it works. It works everywhere, in every culture, in every era of history. It works, not because Adam Smith said it would, but because God planned that it would be so.

Can this simple scenario be abused? Of course it can be—and regularly is. But the abuse of anything is no signal that the thing itself is wrong, or even that it’s suspicious. Take sex, for example. The whole mystery in which our sexuality is packaged is a textbook case of God’s having designed something to perfection, only to have us muck it up with a zillion kinds of abuse. Yet the foulest of our abuses takes nothing from the glory of God’s original design.

The same is true with the market economy. Its beauty can be obscured with greed, with laziness, with impatience, with pride, and with failure to love our neighbor as ourselves. But none of these sins is a refutation of the magnificence of the original model.

All of which is not to say that the GHP (Gross Heavenly Product) in God’s eternal kingdom will be measured in U.S. dollars. One of the problems friends of the market economy always face is that they’re asked to defend historic American abuses of the free market system. What’s partly odd about that is that the United States is no longer a very pure example of a free market economy at work. Thousands of restraints have been tacked on, and any resemblance between a classic market economy and what you see today in America is almost coincidental.

A Christian’s responsibility is to learn to distinguish between the obedient use of God’s systems on the one hand and the disobedient abuse on the other. Putting a railing around a 100-foot-high ledge is an obedient response to God’s law of gravity. Jumping off that ledge is a disobedient use. 

Similar responses need to be spelled out for virtually all of God’s marvelous systems—including his economic systems. If we’d been doing that a bit more thoroughly over the last couple of generations, voters would be a little less attracted to the socialist label.

Comments

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 02/14/2019 10:17 pm

    May I opine that those who opine about God's opinion should buttress their arguments with God's Word?  I see no such reference in Mr. Belz's column.  Maybe he can remedy this deficiency in his next column.

    I cannot think of any set of passages that show that God endorses any particular economic system.  He says to love Him first and foremost, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Everything else grows out of that.  One can just as easily say that Socialism has been abused as that the free market system has been.  In fact, the early Church practiced a form of socialism, albeit freely chosen by its participants and with private means of production.  So while I share Mr. Belz's sympathies, I personally keep my distance from claiming Heavenly endorsement for them.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Tue, 02/19/2019 01:50 am

    Brendan, Jesus parables are filled with references to capitalism. 

    Matt. 21:33-41 Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers: Here is an example of a man starting a business (vineyard) and he leases out the business where the owner expected a portion of the fruit as his payment. The wicked vinedressers, like socialists and communists, wanted to steal the rent payments by beating up the servants sent with the task to collect the payment!  Clearly, communists and socialists would not be looked at with favor! 

    Matt. 25:14-30 The parable of the Talents: Here money was entrusted to different servants and they were expected to make a return where the unfaithful servant buried his talents and received judgment. As socialists and communists view profits as immoral so we see an opposite view in scripture! We are expected to work and make a profit. A slightly different version of the parable is found in Luke 19:12-27. Here again they are expected to carry on business and make a profit! We see the right to own property and have a business.

    Luke 16:1-11 Parable of the Unjust Steward: here we see the right to collect on a debt and the right to fire a dishonest employee. 

    Matt. 20:1-16 Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: Here we see the employer has the right to hire who he wants at the price he wants.  The worker, once he accepts his wage, should be content with the work and the wage. 

    Acts 4:32-37 Sharing All Things: The early believers were generous and shared what they had together where they were expecting Jesus’s return. This is not a blessing of communism but it was an example of loving generosity between believers in the church and in no way is supposed to represent the economic system we should have for communism is the forced theft of the rich and does not represent a willing gift! It is forced by the state. 

  • Bob R
    Posted: Tue, 02/19/2019 08:17 pm

    Socialism isn't simply an economic system, but, as the term implies, a structural revamping of society itself.  The basic problem with it is that it’s based on a fundamentally flawed premise; that people are basically good and generous at heart, and, given the right economic environment will unselfishly work as hard for the interests of others as they do for their own! 

    Given this false premise, the only way to make it “work” is through coercion and the power of a totalitarian state.

    The free market presupposes that each individual will work harder and more diligently when doing so results in greater personal gain of some kind.  

    Even the definition of faith, given in Hebrews 11:6 confirms this inherent natural inclination.  According to this verse, it pleases God when we, first, believe that He is, and secondly, that He rewards those who diligently seek Him!  In other words, if we are going to truly surrender ourselves into His care, we have to believe that it’s worth it!  That’s how we’re designed to operate, God’s design.  Worth it doesn’t necessarily refer to financial gain (often quite the opposite) but that doing so represents a worthwhile investment of our lives.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Wed, 02/20/2019 06:15 am

    Paul gave us a perfect example of diligence and the Christian life. Not a specific economic system but a mindset discipline that certainly stands opposed to Socialism and Communism. AOC would be opposed to such a practice of making those unwilling to work not eat, but the Apostle Paul is very clear.

    2 Thess 3:8-10 - nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us. For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.

  • Bob R
    Posted: Tue, 02/19/2019 08:12 pm

    I might also point out that our real error as a society is having abrogated the responsibility of teaching and training our children, and allowing a “god-neutral” (i.e. godless) state institution to fill the vacuum.  Socialists have long understand that to change the minds and hearts of adults is far more difficult than to “mold” the thoughts and feelings of children.  Those “children” who have been thus “molded” are now beginning to vote. 

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Wed, 02/20/2019 03:15 am

    Calling the free market “God's economy” is similar to the error of calling America “God's country”.  How do you know?  Is commercialism, which is mostly lies, God's design?

    Socialism is the desire to create heaven on earth, with the consequence of always creating hell on earth.  The Lord's Prayer says, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  That is the socialist's dream.  To be occupied only by what you desire, to have no bills or ills, no worries, no inane marketing every three minutes and so on...

    The desire for Utopia is not wrong.  A “heavenly life” is the desire of all mankind.  Where it goes wrong is that it ignores the Fall.  It ignores the Prince of this World.  It ignores the evil in the heart of man.  It ignores that power corrupts.  It ignores practically all rational thought.  It advances only through lies. 

    And yet, I hesitate to condemn my so-called "liberal" brethren of their desire for heaven.  Let us point them there and show that their goals are real, just not in this life.  In this life, all who would use the end of gun to create the perfect society will eventually use that gun to shoot in the back all who try to escape.

    A free market is merely the lesser of evils until Christ returns.

  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Wed, 02/20/2019 11:16 am

    Joel, I notice that in your lengthy article you never define what you mean as "socialism." You assume that we all know what that term means in 2019 and that we are all on the same page as to definition. I think not.

    "Socialism" in today's political market does not mean what it meant back in 1933. My impression of a socialist agenda is that it doesn't have to do with free markets or free trade or sharing your paycheck with a group of others who worked less than you.

    I believe the concerns of "socialists" today have more to do with correcting the enormous gulf between the rich and poor; that our society is structured so that 1% receive 99%; that medicine, drugs, and dental care are beyond the reach of so many; that poor people cannot afford to send their kids to college; that older people on limited income are often forced out of their homes because they cannot keep up with taxes; that a father must work two or three jobs at minimum wage to support his family--and that's with his wife working also. By the way, none of those jobs offer medical benefit, because retail companies limit the number of hours they offer each employee--they purposefully keep the hours per job beneath the legal minimum requirement of medical insurance.

    And if you want to talk about Scripture--God in Scripture loves the poor. The OT is filled with God's commands on how to take care of the poor among you. And let's not forget Jesus's advice to the rich young ruler, "Sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and come follow me." I mean Jesus himself was homeless. Do you think it was accidental that God Almighty Owner of the Universe chose for his Son to be born in a stable? If it weren't for the rich women following Jesus around sharing their wealth to feed him and his disciples, would he have eaten at all? What does Scripture teach us about the very first Christians? They sold their possessions and shared with all, so that there were none among them who had need.

    I wish English had a larger vocabulary to discuss politics and political systems. "Socialist" is an old word that rings up horrible connotations. There is nothing wrong with desiring to level off the gross inequalities built into our American economic system. We just need a new word to describe some of the plans more modern politicians have.

     

  • Bob R
    Posted: Wed, 02/20/2019 01:52 pm

    Gramma,

      To infer, as you do that only Socialists are concerned about the struggles and difficulties many people face today is both unfair and inaccurate, and frankly an affront to the many conservatives, especially Christian conservatives who are far more personally concerned about and involved in helping hurting people than the headline-grabbing “socialist” politicians.  They are more concerned about using those hurting people in order to gain and maintain political power by buying votes with handouts.

     And please be careful about the 1% / 99% lie; it is a gross exaggeration, intended to appeal to peoples’ emotions in order to confuse their thinking.

    The main difference between the two philosophies is how to solve these problems; Socialist doctrine demands the force of government be used to redistribute wealth in a manner that the elite feel is “equitable” (and obviously, more equitable to themselves!)  This solution has, and will continue to fail for the very reasons I stated in my earlier comments.

    The only real solution, the one you actually identified in Scripture is not government coercion, but personal transformation.  The inexorable moral decay of our culture is part and parcel with the economic inequities you describe.  Individual people transformed by a life-changing personal relationship with Jesus Christ are the only way society can be changed.

      Socialists and atheists don’t build hospitals, homeless shelters, and the myriad of private food banks and helps agencies; those are conservatives, and as a rule, Christian conservatives.  Such organizations can offer far more real help than “one-size-fits-all” government programs handing out money with little to no accountability or “life assistance”.

    (By the way, for those who would wish to write these comments off as coming from the “one-percent”, I am retired, my wife and I living on a modest fixed income.)

     

  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Wed, 02/20/2019 07:51 pm

    Bob R:

    Why is it then that predominantly House and Senate Republicans passed one of the largest tax giveaways to the already-wealthy in America? How can you say that corporate and lobbyist sponsored Congresspersons don't pass laws favorable to themselves? By your reasoning, that makes them socialists.

  • Patriot46
    Posted: Wed, 02/20/2019 12:40 pm

    Thank you Joel for this: Real obedience bears the fruit of glorious freedom!

  • nxlcsdeo's picture
    nxlcsdeo
    Posted: Wed, 02/20/2019 07:52 pm

    I always love looking in on these erudite exchanges between (in my opinion) people whose experience and commitment to Christ make them titans and "generals" in the culture wars! As long as we have the right to vote, and a system which allows the peaceful transfer of power, understanding what "socialism" and "capitalism" really mean, and recognizing how politicians often manipulate these words to produce an "effect" in naive voters, becomes increasingly important.  Talking about these things with the young people in your life is one place to start having vital influence.