Can Christians be capitalists?

November 18, 2011 | John Roberts, Newspage Editor

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by Zachary Treu '13, Contributing Writer

On a chilly Thursday night, Jay Richards addressed a crowd of about 50 in the Conservative Students for a Better Tomorrow Cultural Life Program "Can Christians Be Capitalists?"

Richards, a theologian and Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, sought to prove to his audience that the principles of capitalism and of Christianity do not contradict but rather complement each other.

Richards’s talk, held in Johns Hall, was calmly and attentively received. He began with an explanation of his development as a Christian capitalist, and then listed and discussed four “economic myths” from his 2009 book Money, Greed, and God, which, he informed his listeners, had been submitted prior to the debt crisis.

The first was the “piety myth,” which leads to the “ignoring [of] unintended consequences and trade-offs.” The most important question any economist can ask, Richards declared, is, “And then what will happen?” The action taken must be considered along with the reasons for the action, Richards said. “Both matter to God.”

He brought up the Child Labor Deterrence Act of the 1990s, which required American-style child labor laws in America’s trade partners. “What happens when you impose child labor laws in a country with less development? What happens?” he asked the audience. “If they’re working in what we think of as sweatshops, it’s probably out of economic necessity.” Richards then cited studies showing that children who left their manufacturing jobs would sometimes turn to prostitution, eliciting quiet gasps from the crowd.

The second economic myth was the belief that the essence of capitalism was greed, which Richards described as the “most pernicious.” In his response to this idea, he rejected the opinions of Wall Street character Gordon Gekko and of philosopher Ayn Rand, instead offering a brief close reading of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which described the “invisible hand” of capitalism as guiding business “in spite of avarice.”

Richards supports self-interest as the basis of capitalism, rather than greed: “There’s a domain of rational self-interest that is morally good,” he said. “It is a part of our creative nature. That self-interest will be channeled in a way beneficial to others.

“Even if people are fallen and sinful and greedy and selfish, in a free economy, they can’t steal their neighbor’s money. They must produce something their neighbors will want to buy.”

The third economic myth was that of the zero-sum game, the idea that for one person to gain wealth, another must lose it. “By definition, a free trade, if it’s really a free trade, is win-win,” Richards said.

Related was the fourth myth, of materialism: the belief that wealth isn’t created but merely transferred. Richards invoked the concept of imago dei – that man was created in the image of God – to challenge this myth. “God freely creates the world. He creates things that weren’t there before,” Richards explained. Thus, “We are free creators ourselves. . . . He creates the sand, but gives us the liberty to transform it.”

After wrapping up his lecture, Richards answered a few questions, during which he further emphasized his belief in the capitalistic messages of the Bible. “In the book of Acts, people are voluntarily selling and sharing their stuff,” he explained to one inquisitor. “Peter explicitly articulates the principle of private property,” he said to another. Capitalism is not grab-all-you-can, he clarified, but “competition according to very specific rules.”

Richards dismissed his audience with one final commendation of capitalism: “Free market is the best of all viable alternatives,” he said. “No other economic system can lift entire cultures out of poverty.”