How Should Christians Think About Socialism?
No doubt because Bernie Sanders is making a serious run for the presidency here in the United States, this question is on the minds of some podcast listeners. One, named Christian, writes in to ask, “Hello, Pastor John! How should Christians view socialism?”
Well, I suppose I should put all of my misgivings up front to say I am not an expert in political science or economics. So take it for what it’s worth. Here we go.
God Loves a Cheerful Giver
I think the first thing I should say is that in the church no one should go hungry. No one should be without a place to stay. No one should fail to get the healthcare they need. No one should go without a job if it is possible for believers to help them find one. And so on. All of this should happen through the free and uncoerced help of other believers.
When Luke writes in Acts 2:44–45, “All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need,” what he means is that every need was being met by other believers, even if they had to sell things that they owned in order to help meet them — and this was done freely. It didn’t remove but rather presumed the ownership of private property. Indeed, all of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, assumes both the legitimacy — and, I think, the necessity — of personal ownership.
“Thou shalt not steal” makes no sense where no one has a right to keep what is his (Exodus 20:15). The reason I stress that all of this is uncoerced, free, not forced, is because of a heavy emphasis that Paul puts on giving to the poor in 2 Corinthians 8–9 freely, cheerfully, not under compulsion. I remember I had a big debate when I was in Germany with a professor and other students because of the way they fund the state church there through taxes. I said, “That just doesn’t fit — without compulsion, cheerfully and freely.
In other words, there is built into the Christian faith an inner impulse by the Holy Spirit through the gospel to make sacrifices so that others have their needs met. And there is no such impulse built into human nature or the human heart apart from God’s grace. It is so vital that this kind of love and mercy and sacrifice be free and uncoerced that this is laid down as a principle by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9 and by Peter in 1 Peter 5 as he instructs the elders.
Now socialism as I understand it (and I don’t know much about it) refers to (1) a social and economic system that through legal or governmental or military coercion (in other words, you go to jail if you don’t do this) establishes social ownership at the expense of private or personal ownership, and/or (2) uses coercion to establish social control — if not ownership, at least control of the means of production in society. And thus, through control, you effectively eliminate many of the implications and motivations of private ownership.
In other words, 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. Socialism, therefore, gets its attractiveness at certain points in history where people are drawn to the entitlements that socialism brings, and where people are ignorant or forgetful of the coercion and the force required to implement it — and whether or not that coercion might, in fact, backfire and result in greater poverty or drab uniformity or, worse, the abuse of the coercion, as we saw in the murderous states like the USSR and Cambodia.
Failing Socialist Systems
It may be that Bernie Sanders is naming things in our society that need addressing. I don’t doubt that is the case. There are, no doubt, real injustices that make it harder for the poor to move out of poverty and make it easier for the rich to do wrong and get away with it. But I doubt that holding up Denmark’s economic model as the way forward (which he does) is the path of wisdom.
Forbes, for example, reports that out of a total population of 5.6 million, a little more than 2 million are state pensioners, unemployed, sick, or on social transfer payments for other reasons. And another 800,000 are employed by the public sector. That’s half the population employed by the state or sustained by money channeled through the state.
Or, to put it another way, out of 5.6 million people in Denmark, there are only about 1.8 million that are not directly dependent on the state for payments of some sort. And even among this group, there is high focus on cheap subsidized childcare, free healthcare, child bonus payments, subsidized housing, and a large number of other ways to secure additional income from the state. Just an example: Students get five years of free tuition at state universities and I read of a married student who gets a $900 stipend from the state and free childcare. So basically, some people are living totally off the state for those university years.
Now, political liberals analyze this all over Europe right now, and everybody says, “These systems are under pressure.” That is the word that is used by liberals. They are under pressure, like most of the entitlement states of Europe. Conservatives say it’s a ticking time bomb. In other words, almost everybody says it can’t go on. The crisis in Greece is the forerunner, and no matter how angry people may get when their entitlements are threatened or taken away, you can’t create tax income out of nowhere. And the support base is not going to be there indefinitely — not to mention other disincentives that plague socialist economies over the long haul.
Compasion, Justice, Freedom
So for Bernie Sanders, or anyone else, to commend a socialism like that of Denmark as the system that is going to do things well for us is shortsighted, to say the least. So, in general, I would say that the impulses of biblical Christianity include:
- compassion for the disadvantaged;
- justice under law without respect to status;
- freedom to create and produce; and
- private property.
And 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 wellbeing, 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.