John Frame on Socialism, Capitalism, and Poverty

The following is from Frame’s Doctrine of the Christian Life:

To enlarge on these remarks about government welfare, I will say a bit more about socialism and capitalism as systems of economic organization. Since the eighth commandment presupposes private ownership of property, it rejects systems of economics that deny that principle. Marxism, in particular, argues that property belongs to the nation as a whole, represented by the state. Therefore, on that view, the state has the right to control all means of production, all products, and all the wealth. In other words, the state should control the whole economy. In fact, then, for Marxism, the state replaces God as the ultimate owner and controller of the world. This view full under the biblical description of idolatry.

We have seen in recent years the collapse of the Soviet Union, a huge experiment in Marxian communism. China remains totalitarian as of this writing, but it’s economy has become less and less socialist over the last few decades and more open to individual enterprise. The remaining Marxist strongholds of Cuba and North Korea are impoverished. So the pragmatic argument for Marxism is no longer credible. Nor is the moral argument, that socialism brings people out of poverty. Capitalist economies in the West have been far more efficient at the alleviating poverty, though that task is not over by any means.

Further, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the rest of the world breathed a sigh of relief. For socialism has an inner drive toward world conquest. Since the economies of nations are interdependent, a state cannot fully control it’s own economy without controlling the economy of the whole world. Another way to say this is that once the state replaces God as the owner and controller of the world, the deity of the state must be expressed universally, just like God. So the state becomes omnipresent, as well as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

The main ethical argument for socialism is that it is more compassionate than capitalism. Short-term gains in equality do sometimes result from socialism. Literacy has increased in Cuba, but Cuba was the most literate nation in Latin America before communism, and it is not clear how much of the advance is due to socialism.  Socialist states have decreased the gap between rich and poor, but more by impoverishing the rich than by enriching the poor. [Frame’s FT: And before we praise socialism for its compassion, let us not forget the millions of people who have been murdered because they resisted, or even disagreed with, socialist doctrine] But selfishness abounds in socialist states as much as in capitalist. The main difference is that in socialism the way to accumulate benefits is political rather than entrepreneurial: by supporting the policies of the governing party. There is no reason to suppose that politicians are any less selfish than entrepreneurs.

Capitalism is often said it to be built on selfishness, and there is truth in that statement. But there is also a moral case for capitalism, as developed in recent years by writers such as Michael Novak and George Gilder. A successful entrepreneur is one who discerns a need or want among people and seeks to fill that need. [Frame’s FT: We must, of course, grant that often entrepreneurs create needs and wants for their own advancement] So there’s an altruistic spirit that accompanies the selfish desire for profit. One cannot say, surely, that capitalism is purely altruistic. But neither can one say that it is purely selfish. And of course individual entrepreneurs are usually better able to determine the material needs a fellow citizens saying our government economic planners. So whatever the motives of entrepreneurs and companies, a capitalist system is more efficient at supplying needed goods.

The Bible does not directly address the question of how a society should organize its economy. As we have seen, it does affirm private property and the principle that one should meet his own needs and his family’s through work. When it deals with civil government, it presents it as limited, both by divine sovereignty and by other institutions. The Bible’s doctrine of divine sovereignty rejects totalitarianism. But among nontotalitarian systems, the Bible leaves various options open to us. Our choice among these should, however, take a larger biblical values into consideration.

I tend to vote for conservative candidates, because conservatives tend to have more respect for Christianity can do liberals. And I honestly believe that free enterprise is better for the poor, on the whole, then is a government management of human welfare. In the last section, however, I argued that government welfare is not wrong in all situations, and in some cases at least can be defended. So I cannot believe that government involvement and welfare is wrong per se. And if I believed that a liberal government program would improve the condition of the poor, that would go along way toward persuading me to vote accordingly. The issue is empirical and pragmatic more than specifically theological, does a particular political program seem likely to help the poor? If that program is in accord with a generally biblical view of the scope of government, then it may well deserve the support of Christian voters.

Pundits and politicians, even Christian writers, often assume that anyone who cares for the poor will vote liberal. I do not believe that argument is fair. But the issue is important, perhaps one of the most important. We should not equate the Scriptures with any political program. But as Christians determine who to vote for, the issue of poverty should be one of their central concerns.

-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 825-828

Agree or disagree, Frame leaves us with lots to think about.


Posted on September 20, 2012, in Economics, John Frame, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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