Smith, Keynes, Marx & Jesus Walk Into a Bar

“The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Gordon Gekko).

Capitalism, liberalism and socialism are competing economic/political/social philosophies but they share the same inherent bane. Wherever one lands on the spectrum neither philosophy can assuage the very thing that cripples economies: greed.  Adam Smith (capitalism), John Maynard Keynes (liberalism) and Karl Marx (socialism) might be mortal political enemies but they all attempted to answer the same question: how does a civil society restrain greed so the largest part of the citizenry enjoys the most possible prosperity?

What system best prevents social, economic and political power falling into the hands of the few?

Smith encouraged self-interested (not greedy) capitalism, where everyone is free to produce and provide goods and services at whatever price the market would afford. Smith’s corrective for greed was sympathy or self-control.  In a flood, all boats rise. The self-interested must also be governed by virtue or self-restraint so that one’s wake does not sink the other boats.

Kaynes encouraged heavy government involvement.  Kaynes’ corrective for greed was big government.  When owners/producers reduce output (and thus employment) the government should borrow money to create projects (and thus employment).  The government creates competition to stimulate the economy and restrain exploitive profiteers.  The increased profits can then be taxed and government debt repaid.

Marx encouraged a classless society where everyone owns their own labor.  Marx’s corrective for greed was revolution.  Eliminate the “ruling class” so the working class has influence over how their efforts are bought and sold.  Capitalism was a necessary but slight improvement over slavery and feudalism.  Labor, not ownership, should dictate market value through common ownership.

Despite the merits or faults of each philosophy, they all suffer a fatal flaw.  None of them have been able to restrain greed.  A speed limit sign can do many things but it cannot make anyone do the speed limit.  The rich do get richer and the poor do get poorer.  And that not always from mere economic laws.

Self-interested executives/owners become corporate “fat cats” who make as much as they can while paying as little as they can.  They decimate whole towns in search for the cheapest labor, leaving hard-working families in the lurch.

Liberalism gives way to special interest groups and politicians who borrow, tax and spend but never pay the government debt.  They become a permanent political class who keeps borrowing against the production of the next generation.

Socialism ironically hijacks individual greed to encourage social revolution; and once revolutionized the strong survive at the expense of the weak.  Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In the end, they all fall prey to what Aquinas said succinctly, “Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.”

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true corrective to greed.  Ultimately, we need a change of heart, not a change of corporate by-laws, tax codes or labor unions.  The kingdom of Christ, of which the church is the visible manifestation, is the alternative world where hard work, generosity, justice and sympathy work in concert with one another, not in competition to one another.

James says to the greedy executive lounging in his third vacation home while his employees work overtime to pay down the ER bill:

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.  Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten.  Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!  Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.  You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (Jas 5.1-5).

It’s not illegal in a free market economy to make all you can, buy all you want and keep all you can.  It might not be illegal, but it might very well be sinful.  It might amount to thievery.  Jesus, not markets, governs your wealth.  Christ’s people do not earn all they can for the sake of retirement, but for generosity and ultimately worship of God (2 Cor 9.6-13; Eph 4.28).  There may not be any office higher than yours in the building, but there is in eternity so be generous and fair (Eph 6.9; Col 4.1).

Paul says to the “working class” who clocks in everyday with little encouragement, acknowledgement or control:

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are you masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eye service, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.  With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free” (Eph 6.5-8; cf. Col 4.22-25).

Christian workers don’t revolt.  They work hard because Jesus sees them even if the boss never does.  They don’t work harder when the boss makes his rounds because Jesus never leaves them.  Whatever you might be shorted in this life will be more than compensated in the next.  So you make your boss as much money as possible. God will hold him accountable as to how he handled the profits. God will hold you accountable as to how “good willed” you worked unto the Lord.

Paul says to those espousing “big government” as the answer to greed:

“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2.1-2).

The government will never restrain greed.  The government, rightly ordered, will protect the citizens so they can lead tranquil, quiet, dignified lives of industry on their own.  God will hold them accountable as to how they managed their freedom.  God will hold you accountable to how little you meddled with it.

Paul says to those who want something–or everything–for nothing:

“. . . make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you; so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need” (1 Thess 4.11-12).

To such undisciplined busybodies he “exhort[s] in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread” (2 Thess 3.10-13).

Christians work.  They work hard.  They don’t aspire to live long on the public dole. They are givers, not takers. The church, as far as they’re concerned, is the welfare system.  They help those who cannot work, not those who will not work.  So they don’t wait for their dream job in front of the Xbox at Mommy’s house. They’d rather start at the bottom, and stay at the bottom, than not start at all.

In the end, neither capitalism, liberalism or socialism can create the sort of community where no one competes, but everyone joyfully works, modestly lives, liberally gives, joyfully shares, and daily rejoices together (Acts 2.43-47; 4.32-35). Only Jesus creates that sort of community–not through the “invisible hand,” shovel-ready projects, or revolution–but through resurrection.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8.9).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *