Monday, January 4, 2010


Although there is nothing especially biblical about capitalism, it has been raised to the level of an inerrant religion among some economic and political communities of this and other nations. (And why, I wonder, this curious link between what might be called conservative Christianity and conservative capitalism, when a literal reading of the New Testament calls for an economy that sounds like communism or socialism?) Therefore it may be appropriate to point out that the adherents of capitalism apply the same pick-and-choose literalism to their holy book (Adam Smith) as many Christians do to the Bible (as discussed in an earlier post). One oft-cited case in point is the recent bail-out of high stakes bankers and investors (including the subsidizing of enormous bonuses for those who lost the money). Ironically, truly conservative capitalist thinkers point out that this violates capitalism's tenet of "moral hazard," which holds that the only way to keep a capitalist honest is if true risk is involved. Those who proposed (perhaps for good reason) and those who accepted the rescue money must of necessity overlook this aspect of capitalism.

Another conveniently overlooked part of Adam Smith's work has to do with fair taxation. The "no-new-taxes" crowd of politicians (including our Minnesota governor Pawlenty) are simply catering to our selfishness. The idea of fair taxation -- or the degree to which taxation contributes to the good of a balanced society -- is never mentioned. Adam Smith, however (in a recent "interview" in, states directly that
It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.
(Smith, in "The Wealth of Nations" as well as "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" also suggests that the rich will want to care for the poor simply as a matter of kindness and charity, but one recent study has shown that 80% of estates valued at a million dollars or more give nothing to charity.)

When comparing the economic and social systems of today with those of Jesus' time, it is appropriate for Christians to consider taxation as being included in our theology and practice of stewardship, and to see both our taxes and our church contributions as parts of the same whole: care for the poor and the good of society. To this point, St. Paul agrees with "St. Adam Smith" when, to the Corinthians, Paul writes (speaking of his appeal for contributions for the poor),
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)
I emphasize that I am speaking of Christian stewardship here, and do not mean to imply that a Christian analysis of capitalism necessarily applies to citizens in general. But to the degree that a citizen or a political leader claims a Christian basis or a Christian audience, it is wrong-headed or cynical to undergird a politics of no new taxes with an appeal to Christian faith. And, seductive as it may be to promote the lowest tax possible, let us call that philosophy what it is. There is nothing Christian about it. It is selfishness. (Which is a different matter entirely than what Adam Smith meant by "self-interest.")

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. ~ Adam Smith, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" (1759)

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