I always get two questions whenever I offer a strong defense of capitalism: How can you claim to be both a staunch defender of capitalism and a Christian? And how can you cite Ayn Rand’s work so frequently when she was such a devout atheist? These are fair questions. I have good answers.
I don’t read a lot of novels, but my favorite is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The Atlas characters—from Dagny Taggert to the infamous John Galt—tell a story of an America that rejects capitalism. The movie is due in a couple of years, but the times in which we live demand that you read it now. When you do, you’ll see the U.S. today in the middle of the story.
You’ll also wonder how a 50-year-old novel can provide such an accurate depiction of the U.S. under Obama. The answer is simple. Contrary to his conjectures, the “change” Obama seeks is nothing new. Socialism has already been tried numerous times before and has proven unworkable. The former Soviet Union gave up the experiment 20 years ago. China’s still a largely socialist nation, but its recent economic gains are directly linked to the country’s shift toward capitalism. Cuba continues to adhere faithfully to a strict form of socialism and remains destitute. In essence, Rand’s depiction of a U.S. shift toward socialism says less about her prophetic ability than it does about her keen understanding of history and human nature.
Some argue that mixing capitalism and socialism need not result in the crisis Rand described in the novel. They argue that our European and Canadian friends seem to be doing OK with such a blend. I tend to agree, but I want an America that’s better than OK. One of the reasons the U.S. has led the free world is its ability to stay closest to the capitalist ideal.
I disagree with Rand and the adherents of her philosophy (objectivism) on one important issue, however. Because Christianity teaches individual obligations to others, Rand believed that it runs counter to the individual freedom and choice associated with capitalism. Objectivists see a conflict between the two major influences on the development of our nation, the intellectual and rational tradition of the Greeks and the morality of Christianity.
Rand is right to an extent. Forms of mysticism and religion can undermine the foundation of liberty that is necessary for capitalism to function efficiently. Indeed, some cite religion to defend redistribution economics, even suggesting that because Jesus was a socialist because He downplayed material wealth and commanded his followers to share with those less fortunate. Rand seems to have accepted this consistency between socialism and Christianity. She missed a key point, however, in part because some Christians also miss it. Neither Jesus nor any of the New Testament writers advocated any form of redistribution by a centralized government. Jesus never forced anyone to convert or follow any particular ethic. His commands were directed at individual believers who were to make allocate their individual time, energy, and resources accordingly.
This is an important distinction. Whereas Rand saw faith as an obstacle to liberty, rational thinking, and capitalism, others like Dinesh D’Souza (in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity?) see it as the “glue” that holds capitalism together. I agree with D’Souza. The moral foundation of our Judeo-Christian heritage has shaped our culture by teaching that we—as individuals—should not “take advantage of the system” and should be concerned for the well-being of others. It provides a means of addressing social concerns such as poverty without involving the government, which explains why assistance to the poor was available in the U.S. long before a federal government began redistributing income.
Many liberals completely miss this point. They chalk up guys like Bernie Madoff to a crisis of capitalism when in he really reflects a crisis of ethics. The broad Christian influence that helped shape our national culture has helped minimize corruption over the years, enabling capitalism to reach its full potential and spread prosperity. By the way, the current ethics crisis is by no means limited to business. Have you taken a close look at the hall of Congress lately?
The point here is that Christianity and capitalism are quite consistent. Those who ask how Christianity can be compatible with capitalism need to explain how it can be compatible with socialism’s basic denial of personal property rights. And my faith disagreement with the objectivists aside, I think their rational perspective represents a powerful way of thinking. They draw clear distinctions between liberty and socialism, as Rand depicted in her novels and essays. If you’re not familiar with her work, Atlas is a great place to start.