God, Socialism, and the Free Market

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The "V&V Q&A" is an e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. This latest edition of “V&V Q&A” is an intriguing look at the biblical basis for the free-market economy, dispelling the popular notion among many “social justice” Christians that Scripture supports a socialistic, collectivist, redistributive economic system. Dr. Shawn Ritenour, economics professor at Grove City College, offers an insightful biblical defense of free markets. Ritenour has just released a compelling new book, Foundations of Economics: A Christian View. Here, Ritenour responds to questions from Dr. Paul Kengor, executive director of the Center. This topic will be discussed at length by several speakers at our coming April 15–16 conference on “The Progressives.” Click here for more information.

Dr. Paul Kengor: Dr. Shawn Ritenour, before we get into more detailed questions, give us a synopsis of your book and your motivation for writing it.

Dr. Shawn Ritenour: Foundations of Economics is an introduction to economic principles, showing there is no conflict between Christian doctrine and sound economics. The book demonstrates that the foundation of economic laws are derived from a Christian understanding of nature and humanity; explains basic economic principles of the market economy and applies them to various economic problems; and shows that Christian ethics regarding property implies a free economy.

I wrote the book because I had not found any other book that satisfactorily integrated systematic economics rooted in human action with the Christian doctrines of man and creation as well as the Christian ethic of property. Professors at Christian colleges and universities are mostly left to supplement one of the standard works with articles from an explicitly Christian perspective. Many of these materials do not advocate biblical principles in the area of the state and economic policy but merely offer interventionism dressed-up in Christian language.

Kengor: That’s indeed a major problem, which is why I’m so excited about this book. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the very foundation of economics, not to mention the American republic in some respects, is the right to private property. Do you agree? If so, is that Scriptural?

Ritenour: The foundation of economic activity and policy is private property. All action requires the use of property and all economic policy is about how people can legally use their property. To benefit from the division of labor, we must be able to exchange our products, which requires private property. Private property is definitely Scriptural. The Bible explicitly prohibits theft, fraud, moving property barriers, debasing money, violating labor contracts, as well as coveting. These prohibitions apply to both citizens and rulers. In my text, I apply this conclusion to issues such as confiscatory taxation, government subsidies, business regulation, and monetary inflation.

Kengor: I find it very telling that Karl Marx was first and foremost against private property, not to mention against God as well. In the Communist Manifesto, he wrote plainly: “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” And yet, there are some religious left Christians who claim that the Bible, especially in certain Old Testament passages, preaches a form of socialism and even communism. A student of mine had a teacher at a private Christian school in Ohio who instructed the class that as Christians they should be communists. Can you address this argument?

Ritenour: Communism can be condemned strictly on the basis of the Christian ethic of property (among other reasons). Nothing in Scripture either commands or implies that the means of production should be controlled by the state. There are passages in the early chapters of Acts that are often cited as promoting “Christian communism,” but, in fact, actually illustrate Christian sharing. The various Christians still owned their property, but were generous in sharing whenever they saw a need. When Peter rebukes Ananias in Acts 5, he explicitly says that both the property that Ananias and Sapphira sold and the monetary proceeds from selling it were theirs to do with what they wanted. That is not the gospel according to Marx.

Kengor: I like the way you turn the religious left’s thinking on private property on its head. You note that “God prohibits our coveting the property of others.” With that being the case, isn’t it wrong for the government to use the mighty arm of the state to forcibly remove property from one person to give it to another?

Ritenour: I see no other way around that conclusion, especially when we realize that, in our day of mass democracy, the state usually accomplishes policies of wealth redistribution by inciting envy and covetousness among the populace.

Kengor: What about profits? Reconcile the profit motive with the God of Scripture. We have people in this society who portray profits as greedy or unjust.

Ritenour: Profit is the reward entrepreneurs receive for more successfully producing what people want. This is no easy thing to do. Entrepreneurs must invest in present production of goods they sell in the future. Neither entrepreneurs nor government bureaucrats know exactly what future demand will be. Therefore, production necessitates bearing risk. If the entrepreneur forecasts future demand incorrectly, he will waste resources and reap losses. If he forecasts the future correctly, he serves his fellow man by producing goods people want. It seems only right that such producers are rewarded with profit. In a free market, the only way entrepreneurs earn profits is to serve customers better than anyone else.

Kengor: What about the redistribution of goods? Surely, God wants us to share, to help our fellow man. “Love thy neighbor” might mean more than simply giving him a hug.

Ritenour: Certainly the Scriptures are clear that when we see our neighbor in real need, we are called to do more than merely wish him well. We are called to share our material possessions whether that is food, clothing, and shelter, or money he can use to pay for such goods. However, the Bible never calls upon the state to force people to do so. All of the charity we see provided by Christians in the New Testament was exactly that: charity. It was voluntary sharing by caring Christians. That is how we truly love our neighbor.

Kengor: Indeed, that’s the parable of the Good Samaritan in a nutshell. On a separate point, near the end of your book, you make a statement that’s especially appropriate right now, given the prevailing view by President Obama and the Democratic Congress. You write, “We simply cannot grow the economy into prosperity by resorting to government spending. It cannot be done.” Are you arguing from a strictly economic standpoint or also biblically?

Ritenour: Both. Forcibly taking money from someone to give to another in an attempt to “grow the economy” is a violation of Christian ethics. It also fails to achieve the explicit goal of its advocates. Government spending must be financed by taxes, borrowing, inflation, or some combination of the three. Economics teaches us that all three ways hamper the market economy and result in capital consumption, which causes relative impoverishment, not prosperity. As recent economic events teach us, trying to achieve permanent prosperity by ignoring the economic laws that God has created is a fool’s game. Violating the morality of private property has disastrous consequences.

Kengor: Shawn Ritenour, this book is much needed. It’s a blessing that students who come to Grove City College can learn this perspective. It’s my hope that students at other colleges, and especially Christian colleges, can read this book as well. Where do you recommend that readers go to buy a copy of your book?

Ritenour: The book is for sale at the usual places on-line like Amazon.com. If readers want to learn more about the book, they can look at the book’s website.

Kengor: Thanks for talking to “V&V Q&A.”

Ritenour: Thank you. It has been a pleasure.

Dr. Shawn Ritenour [send him mail] is an associate professor of economics at Grove City College, contributor to the Center for Vision & Values, and adjunct professor at the Mises Institute in Auburn, AL.

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