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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.