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The Capitalist and the Christian Hedonist

Does Scripture Support Self-Interest?

ABSTRACT: To some, capitalism and Christianity seem to have little in common: Christianity teaches selflessness and generosity; capitalism promotes self-interest and greed. The self-interest that Adam Smith proposed, however, is not the same as selfishness; in fact, in some ways it overlaps significantly with Jesus’s vision of self-love. At its best, capitalism rests on unselfish self-love, the kind that serves our neighbors’ good rather than smothering it. Of economic systems to date, capitalism may hold the most potential for human flourishing — provided it operates in a culture abounding in the biblical virtues of trust, honesty, obligation, and cooperation.

Adam, Adam, Adam Smith,
Listen what I charge you with!
Didn’t you say
In a class one day
That selfishness was bound to pay?
Of all doctrines that was the Pith.
Wasn’t it, wasn’t it, wasn’t it, Smith?

—Stephen Leacock1

Did Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century moral philosopher and so-called father of capitalism, share with Jesus, Moses, Paul, James, and Jonathan Edwards a reasonably similar view of an unselfish self-love? And if so, why is capitalism in our day the alleged perpetrator of such villainy and the object of a rising generation’s fiercest scorn?

Adam Smith never used the word capitalism, but many regard his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, as the seminal articulation of an economic system in which private owners — rather than the state — control a nation’s trade and industry for profit. The embrace of Smith’s ideas created an unprecedented explosion in human productivity and flourishing that reverberates to this day.

“Capitalism enables the kind of culture-making, the forming and filling, of Genesis 1.”

Capitalism supposes a world in which the greatest good extends to the greatest number of people through free exchanges between men and women who are otherwise in pursuit of their own self-interests. Smith famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”2

On the surface, what could seem more contradictory to Jesus’s teachings on unselfishness? Jesus said,

Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25)

One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15)

Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old. (Luke 12:33)

Jesus . . . saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.” (Luke 21:1–3)

But God said to [the man who built even bigger barns], “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:20–21)

At first pass, Jesus hardly seems sympathetic to the butcher’s, brewer’s, or baker’s self-interested needs to push his respective wares. The Christian ethic eschews ego and unbridled aspiration, and venerates self-denial and sacrifice.

But are Jesus’s teachings on self-love entirely at odds with the capitalist doctrine of self-interest? In fact, they are not — not entirely. In some ways, the terms may be considered largely synonymous. The capitalist coin may be seen to have two sides: self-interest and other-interest. Together they spend. P.J. O’Rourke has written, “Smith wasn’t urging us to pursue wealth in the free enterprise system. He was urging us to give thanks that the butcher, the brewer, and the baker do. It is our good fortune that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are steak, beer, and hoagie rolls.”3 And a system in which people love each other the way they love themselves is not all that foreign to the teaching of Christ. William McGurn observed recently, “The voluntary relationship between buyer and seller at the heart of the free market isn’t the love of neighbor commanded by the Gospel. But in making market success depend on anticipating the needs of the other, it’s perhaps not as far removed as we might think.”4

What men and women make with and of the world, as opposed to what they take out of it, may be the idea that most distinguishes capitalism from the mercantilism that preceded it as the world’s preeminent economic model. Capitalism, more than any economic system to date, enables the kind of culture-making, the forming and filling, of Genesis 1. God gives grain. Man makes bread. Labor has fruit.

Theist with Calvinist Reflexes

Adam Smith came of age in what may have been the most thoroughly Calvinist culture apart from Geneva: eighteenth-century Scotland. Smith’s parents and grandparents lived within historical earshot of the Reformer John Knox, and in the Scotland of Smith’s day, “Calvinism seemed as easy as breathing.”5 Though a man of the Enlightenment who sought to understand and cast the world’s workings apart from God’s sovereignty, Smith was nevertheless the progeny of a Calvinist household, education, and society. He knew the principles and doctrines of Reformed Christianity, whether he professed them or not, and they seasoned his views of how humankind ought to cooperate in the pursuit of mutual well-being.

James Boswell, regarded as the greatest biographer in the English language, referred to Smith his contemporary as an “infidel in a bag wig,”6 but Smith is more rightly regarded as a theist with intellectual reflexes resident in a Calvinist’s muscle memory. Adam Smith believed in a big, superintending God interested in his creatures’ happiness. He observed, “The care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man.”7 This happiness, as it did for many eighteenth-century moral philosophers, encompassed not just well-being and contentment, but virtue as well. It is the happiness cited in the American founders’ trifold declaration of unalienable rights.

Smith also was mindful of human depravity and saw the activity of humankind as that of “squeezing good from sinful tendencies.”8 He believed in a Creator God who at least had been involved in authoring the laws that govern the world’s workings. “The very suspicion of a fatherless world must be the most melancholy of reflections.”9

Although he attached no religious authority or biblical proof texts to his writing, he nevertheless constructed a framework of economic exchange that depended upon, even assumed, biblical virtues of trust, honesty, obligation, and cooperation. Even his concept of an “Invisible Hand” that promotes ends that are imperceptible and unintentional to those seeking their own gain (which, by the way, he referred to but once in the nine-hundred-plus pages of The Wealth of Nations10) seems indistinguishable in some respects from the active ministrations of the sovereign God of the Bible, whether or not Smith was willing to say so from the certainty of a regenerated heart.

Harvard professor David Landes, himself an unbeliever, has written that the main factors in the 244-year flowering of capitalism were at root religious: the joy in discovery that arises from each individual being an imago Dei, called to be a creator; the religious value attached to hard and good manual work; the theological separation of the Creator from the creature, such that nature is subordinated to man, not surrounded with taboos; the Jewish and Christian sense of linear, not cyclical, time and, therefore, of progress.11

Capitalist self-interest in its original form also confronted the greatest human injustice of his day: human slavery. Smith was “woke” before Wilberforce. For Smith, such self-interest entitles one to the fruit of one’s own labor free from coercion in either its production or exchange. The capitalist concept of entitlement to the fruit of one’s own labor seasoned Abraham Lincoln’s public remarks in opposition to slavery more than any other concept. Slavery could not be more antithetical to self-interest. “Coercion destroys the mutually beneficial nature of trade, which destroys the trading, which destroys the division of labor, which destroys our self-interest.”12

“Adam Smith’s capitalism was not a call to selfishness.”

When late in his life Smith entered a room in which were gathered the great abolishers of Britain’s slave trade — Wilberforce, Pitt, Grenville, and Addington — the statesmen rose from their chairs. Smith bid them be seated, but Pitt is supposed to have said, “No, we will stand till you are first seated, for we are your scholars.”13

Unselfish Self-Love

Smith drew closest to Reformed orthodoxy, even Christian Hedonism,14 in his appreciation of the biblical concept of self-love, but then tragically veered away from God in the eventual unbiblical outworkings of his economic model in the lives of people and nations.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34–40)

The second-greatest commandment consists of two elements, love of neighbor and love of self — and love of self characterizes the quality of loving one’s neighbor. Most reference works accessible to laypeople, such as study Bible footnotes and online search engines, explain this second commandment in terms of the love extended toward neighbors, straying not far from the conceptual elegance of the Golden Rule. It requires some digging to find definition of the proper self-love that gives such reciprocity its quality. Here Adam Smith is in some agreement with John Piper and Jonathan Edwards on the idea of self-love, though an eternity apart from them on self-love’s origin and aim.

Adam Smith believed in a God committed to the greatest degree of happiness in his creatures. In his view, our love one to another embraces “the immensity of the universe.” He wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (published before The Wealth of Nations):

This universal benevolence, how noble and generous soever, can be the source of no solid happiness to any man who is not thoroughly convinced that all the inhabitants of the universe, the meanest as well as the greatest, are under the immediate care and protection of that great, benevolent, and all-wise Being, who directs all the movements of nature; and who is determined, by his own unalterable perfections, to maintain in it at all times the greatest possible quantity of happiness.15

“In Smith’s capitalism, humans do not flourish if self-love can’t freely find a partner in other-love.”

As it is the intention of God himself that his creatures be happy, and because men and women, as the highest order of creation, are made in his very image, therefore it stands to reason that humans come into the world equipped with an impulse to happiness. This impulse to happiness is that to which Moses, Jesus, Paul, and James refer (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39; Romans 13:9; James 2:8) when they speak of the self-love that informs the character of love of neighbor. Such love, it may be said, puts the “hedonism” in Christian Hedonism.

Adam Smith’s capitalism was not a call to selfishness. If in its contemporary practice it has become so, it corrupts what Smith intended, and ought to be the object of reform. Smith believed “that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity.”16

For all that is pinned on Smith as the progenitive advocate of “self-interest,” again this is a term he used only once in The Wealth of Nations, and even then only to refer to the “industry and zeal” of the Catholic clergy in its mendicancy.17 Indeed, the opening words of The Theory of Moral Sentiments refute the idea of selfishness as the wellspring of human motivation.

How selfish so ever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.18

In Smith’s economy, God designed neighborly affection to enable a self-interest through which God extends his common grace. No man is an island. Smith wrote, for instance, of the spontaneous cooperation required among vast numbers of people in the simple production of a seamstress’s pin.19 A contemporary acolyte of Smith has done the same in describing the vast cast of people who are involved in the creation of a common #2 pencil.20 In Smith’s capitalism, humans do not flourish if self-love can’t freely find a partner in other-love.

Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavours by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will. He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion. In civilized society he stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.21

All Men Want to Be Happy

Capitalism is anchored in a conviction that one ought to love one’s own happiness. Jonathan Edwards, writing well before Smith, shared this conviction:

It is not contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man’s love to himself, and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity. . . . That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is, and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them.22

John Piper has written, “Jesus assumes that every human being by nature loves himself. He doesn’t command it; he makes it the measure and model of neighbor-love.” This self-love is not at all the self-esteem that so many contemporary safe-space makers encourage. “It does not mean ‘esteeming,’” says Piper.

It means taking care of. No one ever hates himself, in the sense that all men want to be happy. The sparks fly upward. Men love themselves. It is a given in nature. I feed myself and give myself rest and take vacations and hug my wife and do a hundred other things all day long to provide for my needs and make my life fulfilling. I love myself. And this is true even if I think I am a heel and have no self-esteem. Self-esteem is not a given in humanity; self-love is. One can be taught self-esteem. No one has to learn self-love.23

Capitalism Redeemed

The capitalism we have today is neither entirely the capitalism we inherited, nor the capitalism we desire. As with all things drawn down by the world’s gravity, contemporary capitalism is shackled today by too many mercantilist side deals between governments and corporations; too many cartels; more selfishness than self-interest; and a cultural coarseness increasingly untethered from biblical moorings, which results in greed and oppressive behavior on the part of the rich. It needs to be reformed, or as author Kenneth Barnes has better suggested, “redeemed,” but not replaced.24

Capitalism’s flaws are not all contemporary. Smith and his Scottish Enlightenment peers pushed against the grain of the Calvinism of their day, seeking to explain the world’s workings and its virtues apart from the sovereignty of God. Smith erred in regarding true virtue as emanating from social interaction — that is, in positing that morality takes definition amid the manifold sympathies exchanged between self-lovers and neighbor-lovers.

“The capitalism we have today is neither entirely the capitalism we inherited, nor the capitalism we desire.”

To be sure, much good blossoms amid an environment of reciprocal goodwill, but to suggest such beauty emanates from social reciprocity is tantamount to regarding the stem as the source of a flower. This is where Edwards and Piper, and biblical Christians, necessarily part ways with Adam Smith. Goodness, excellence, beauty, delight, deliciousness, melody, ecstasy do not spring out of the loving interactions of men and women; they have their source in the supreme value of excellence: the God of the Bible. It is at this intersection that Smith left the glory road and likely became stranded in a man-centered cul-de-sac.

We should pray for a Christian Hedonistic capitalism. Piper has written,

Christian Hedonism teaches that all true virtue must have in it a certain gladness of heart. Therefore, the pursuit of virtue must be in some measure a pursuit of happiness. And the happiness that makes up an essential part of all virtue is the enjoyment of the presence and the promotion of the glory of God. Therefore, if we try to deny or mortify or abandon the impulse to pursue this happiness, we set ourselves against the good of man and the glory of God. Rather, we should seek to stir up our desire for this delight until it is white hot and insatiable on the earth.25

There is no reason that an extrabiblical system of economic affairs like capitalism cannot flourish even the better in an environment in which God is elevated not just as the author of love, but as love sublime, love itself.

Indeed, capitalism has flourished most in societies in which the church has flourished most as the cultural foundation beneath it. It has been said that were visitors from another planet to have explored the earth five thousand years ago, these space aliens would have reported to their extraterrestrial leader that earth creatures lived just above the style of the brute. Were such aliens to return every thousand years for the next four millennia, their report would be much the same, but for a few tools and some larger tribes. Indeed, most of what has happened in the world in terms of invention, discovery, education, disease eradication, public safety, mobility, improved life expectancy, and so on has happened since the publication of The Wealth of Nations in 1776 and the embrace of its framework by Western, largely Christianized, societies.

It may be fairly stated that the United States of America has been exemplary in this regard. Without respect for human life and dignity, moral order, reciprocal goodwill, individual freedom, and the disdain of tyranny, capitalism has borne woefully little fruit. But when moral order, representative government, and free enterprise have been in relative equilibrium in Christian societies, as they have been in much of the West during the last two centuries, more people in more places have been lifted out of slavery, famine, poverty, squalor, ignorance, and drudgery than at any other time in the history of the world, thanks to a graciously benevolent God and his sovereign deployment of the comparatively meager contributions of an eighteenth-century Scottish moral philosopher.

Rejecting Coercion

Through the ages, devoted Christians have believed that this unfair world can be radically corrected. This inclination has enticed many believers, particularly among the always-idealistic young, toward socialism. Piper warns us of the limitations of both extrabiblical systems of economic activity, socialism and capitalism:

Socialism borrows the compassionate aims of Christianity in meeting people’s needs while rejecting the Christian expectation that this compassion not be coerced or forced. . . . My own sense is that history and reason and further biblical reflection lead to the conclusion that freedom and property rights lead to greater long-term well-being — or, like we say today, flourishing — for the greatest number. And it should not go unsaid, lastly, that every economic and political system will eventually collapse where there are insufficient moral impulses to restrain human selfishness and encourage honesty and good deeds even when no one is watching.26

The late Warren T. Brookes, longtime economic columnist of the Boston Herald American, wrote of “Christian Socialists”: “[Such socialism] seems to rest on the Christian ideal of the essential spiritual brotherhood, equality, goodness, and perfection of man, and which theorizes that it is only the iniquitous and discriminatory economic forces of capitalism that make men behave badly. Remove these forces, the Christian socialist promises, and mankind’s inherent goodness will flourish in a kingdom of heaven right here on earth.”27 Experiments in socialism have enticed Christians since the first century and “almost without exception have foundered on the shoals of human nature.”

Reformed Christians would scoff by default at such confidence in a human-engineered perfectibility and would well understand the risks of human flourishing left to the designs of a small number of, well, human central planners. Capitalism has its excesses, vulgarities, oppressions, and inequalities, to be sure, but the alternative systems of state-centered control of human action seem frightfully distinguished throughout history by their ultimate trajectories toward gulags, killing fields, and long marches. No, thank you.

“Better that we should breathe freely of a chastened capitalism than to gasp on the thin air of a coercive socialism.”

Elsewhere, Piper, at his provocative best, has commented more recently, “I am one hundred times more passionate about creating the kind of Christians and the kind of churches that stand with unshaken, faithful, biblical, countercultural spiritual-mindedness in a socialist America than I am in preventing a socialist America.”28 Piper’s emphasis here has less to do with economics and political freedom, and more to do with an aspiration for the beauty of the bride that Christ will claim on that day when the knees of every “-ism” and ideologue are bowed before him. We should all be so passionate in such an order of magnitude.

But that which we have seen of human flourishing, enabled by the workings of democratic capitalism in societies in which the church is ascendant, compels us as compassionate followers of Jesus Christ to rise to capitalism’s strong defense. Better that we should breathe freely of a chastened capitalism than to gasp on the thin air of a coercive socialism.

  1. Stephen Leacock, Hellements of Hickonomics: In Hiccoughs of Verse Done in Our Social Planning Mill (New York: Dodd Mead & Company, 1936), 75. 

  2. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 1:136. 

  3. P.J. O’Rourke, On the Wealth of Nations, 5th ed. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), 41–42. 

  4. William McGurn, “Making Capitalism Great Again?Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2019. 

  5. Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), 15. 

  6. James Boswell, Boswell: The Ominous Years, 1774–1776, ed. Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 337. 

  7. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 6th ed. (1790; repr., New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 279. 

  8. Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 353. 

  9. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 277. 

  10. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1:475. 

  11. David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998), 58–59. 

  12. O’Rourke, On the Wealth of Nations, 6. 

  13. Nicholas Phillipson, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 268. 

  14. “What Is Christian Hedonism?” Desiring God, August 1, 2015, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-christian-hedonism

  15. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 277. 

  16. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 31. 

  17. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 2:309. 

  18. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 13. 

  19. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1:8. 

  20. Leonard Read, “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E. Read,” The Freeman, December 1958, 32–37. 

  21. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1:18. 

  22. Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits or Christian Love as Manifested in the Heart and Life (1738; repr., New York: Robert Carter and Bros., 1854), 229. 

  23. John Piper, “As Yourself,” Desiring God, August 24, 1982, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/as-yourself

  24. Kenneth J. Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018). 

  25. John Piper, “Was Jonathan Edwards a Christian Hedonist?” Desiring God, September 29, 1987, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/was-jonathan-edwards-a-christian-hedonist

  26. John Piper, “How Should Christians Think About Socialism?” Desiring God, October 20, 2015, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-should-christians-think-about-socialism

  27. Warren T. Brookes, The Economy in Mind (New York: Universe Books, 1982), 209. 

  28. John Piper, “Why Does Piper Avoid Politics and What’s Trending?” Desiring God, October 15, 2018, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/why-does-piper-avoid-politics-and-whats-trending