Is capitalism good for the soul?

In this essay from the Australian magazine Policy, Peter Saunders argues that while capitalism lacks romantic appeal, it “offers the best chance we have for leading meaningful and worthwhile lives.” Socialism’s history, he writes, “is littered with repeated failures and with human misery on a massive scale,” yet it is attractive to “people who never had to live under it.”

Is there any sense in which capitalism might be said to be good for the soul?

The Judeo-Christian tradition doesn’t offer much help in building such an argument. The Christian idea of the ‘soul’ refers to the spiritual essence of a human being created in the image of God, and there has been no shortage of theologians claiming that capitalism is incompatible with the full development and expression of this spiritual essence. For some church leaders, the basic principles of capitalism (private property rights, competition, and the pursuit of profit through free market exchange) seem incompatible with Christian ethics. Their arguments are familiar—inequality is immoral, the pursuit of wealth is ignoble, private property is selfish—and these claims are commonly backed up with the authority of scripture. Didn’t Jesus preach that it is ‘easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’? Doesn’t the first epistle to Timothy warn that ‘love of money is a root of all sorts of evil’?

However, not all theologians interpret the scriptures in this way. Some suggest that it is not profit, private property, or free markets that the Bible condemns so much as individual greed and covetousness. Paul taught that ‘greed … amounts to idolatry,’ but his message was not that riches themselves are bad. He simply warned rich people against allowing the pursuit of money to eclipse what is really important in life. Much in the Christian tradition emphasises God’s desire that we should be innovative in developing and improving the world. In the parable of the three talents, for example, the master rebukes the servant who buried his money, but praises those servants who invested and created more wealth—which is precisely what modern capitalism is about.

It is not difficult from within the Judeo-Christian tradition to argue that capitalism is ‘a highly moral system, nourishing the best that is in us and checking the worst.’ But as Michael Novak reminds us, the revelations of God recorded by Jews, Christians, and Muslims centuries ago were intended to be universal, and were not tied to any one system of organising human affairs. Therefore, it is probably a mistake to trawl through the scriptures searching for nuggets that might support this or that system of political economy, for the word of God was never intended to be used as a blueprint for designing socioeconomic systems.

Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily.

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