by John Frame
In one of the more memorable events of the last presidential campaign, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, later known as “Joe the plumber,” told candidate Barack Obama that Obama’s policies would increase his tax burden. In his reply, Obama commented, “…when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Most likely Obama would not have made that comment in a scripted appearance, but pundits cried “socialism.” The idea of government spreading wealth suggests the slogan of Marx, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
The United States is usually considered to be one of the least socialist countries in the world, a bastion of capitalism or free enterprise. Capitalism teaches that market forces, not government, should allocate wealth. Aid to the poor should be given by families, churches and charities, not by government. Totalitarianism threatens when government presumes to decide who has too much wealth and who has too little. And production declines when working people are not allowed to keep what they have earned, bringing economic hardship on the community at large. On the capitalist view, economic freedom brings economic prosperity. The extreme form of socialism, communism, has been the economic ruination of nations that have tried to implement it, such as the former Soviet Union and present day Cuba and North Korea. Less-extreme forms of socialism, as in European democracies, tend toward economic stagnation.
All parties to the American political debate avoid extremism. Liberals such as Obama accept capitalism as a basic system, but they would use government to promote more economic equality. Conservatives usually accept the need for government intervention to help those in dire need, but they think this intervention should be rare and insist that the best general remedy for poverty is a free enterprise economy, “a rising tide that lifts all boats.”
Nobody should complain that Obama intends to introduce socialism to the United States. The graduated income tax, social security, and the public school system go back many decades, as do government controls on many forms of American business. These are all inspired by the socialist vision of spreading wealth. The only legitimate complaint against Obama is that he wants to increase, perhaps considerably, the degree of socialism already present in American government.
But fear of advancing socialism under Obama has been overshadowed, indeed overwhelmed, for now, by the massive government intervention in banks and industries during the economic disaster of 2008-09. Republicans and Democrats have both used the vast power of government supposedly to avoid a total collapse, but gaining for government a stake in private industry unparalleled in American history.
Certainly that is socialism, in the historical definition—state ownership of the means of production. Moderate capitalists are willing for government to help a few, but today the largest and richest industries have become welfare recipients. One pundit observed that today about 50% of the nation’s GDP is in the hands of government—a percentage similar to the more overtly socialist countries of Europe.
In such times, Christians must ask, what does the Word of God say? Scripture doesn’t provide anything like a detailed economic or political theory. But it does say a great deal about poverty, work, and the roles of family, church, and government. First, it affirms private property, a concept often questioned in socialist and communist theory. The eighth commandment, “you shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15) assumes that although all things belong ultimately to God, he has made a difference between what belongs to me and what belongs to you.
Second, God ordains government to maintain peace by the just use of physical force (Rom. 13:1-7, 1 Pet. 2:13-17). He calls his people to pay taxes to the government (Matt. 22:17-21—here to the evil Caesar), but he never authorizes government to own a nation’s means of production, or to control its economy. The ownership of resources is in the hands of individuals and families.
Thirdly, the poor are a central concern of Scripture. While both conservative and liberal politicians today are obsessed with “helping the middle class,” the Bible calls us to focus our compassion on those who are hungry, naked, homeless, dying. There are a huge number of passages about this, but read these to get started: Ps. 41:1, Prov. 14:31, 19:17, 31:9, Isa. 1:16-17, 3:13-15, 58:6-12. The “poor” in Scripture are not those who are lazy, though Scripture speaks to sluggards in no uncertain terms (Prov. 6:6,9, 13:4, 20:4, 26:15-16). Rather, the poor do what they can, but they are impoverished by famine, disease, injury. Their attempts to gain relief are frustrated by oppressors: rich people who take advantage of them, and corrupt courts biased in favor of the rich. Having no helpers in society, they cry out to God. So in the Old Testament the “poor” are almost coextensive with the “faithful.”
The Mosaic law abounds in remedies for poverty: first, a fair judicial system, not biased in favor of the rich or the poor (Ex. 23:2-3, Lev. 19:15). Then family inheritance (Lev. 25:8-17), the seventh-year release from debt (Deut. 15:1-3), interest-free charitable loans (Deut. 15:7-8), gleaning (Lev. 19:10, 23:22), and many others. The New Testament commends believers who made huge, sacrificial contributions to the poor (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37). Scripture never commands civil government to meet the needs of the poor, nor is there any suggestion that government should control the economy to benefit the poor. Indeed, we should assume that the government in general, like the courts, should not favor any economic group. Government, like all individuals and institutions, should be concerned for the poor. But the best thing that government can do for them is to be economically neutral.
Scripture, then, envisions a free economy, in which wealth is privately owned and the needs of the poor are met by the voluntary (but divinely mandated) generosity of individuals and families.
But what about true emergencies? It can be argued that an economic collapse such as that which began toward the end of 2008 is a true national security concern. Certainly in such a situation America’s enemies will take advantage of our weakness. Government is charged with national security, so it should use its resources to guard against that danger. Indeed, it seems, only the government has the vast resources necessary to rescue bank, financial institutions, and other multi-billion dollar businesses, if indeed that can be done by anyone.
I am not an economist or an expert in business, so I cannot testify as to whether such government action is the only alternative, whether it is likely to be effective, or whether it might worsen the situation. From a biblical view, it is questionable whether government should have been allowed to accumulate the economic power that it has. But given the present centrality of government in our culture, I don’t know of any biblical principle that forbids the use of its resources to help in such an emergency. Although God has not authorized government to take possession of a nation’s resources or to spread the wealth from one group of people to another, he has not forbidden government from using what economic power it has accumulated (rightly or wrongly) to rescue the nation in time of great distress.
But what the Bible would teach us above all in this situation is this: we should not put our trust in government, private industry, or economic theory, whether capitalist or socialist. All of these have failed us miserably in the present crisis, and many times in history. We should not be looking to government to make us wealthy or to deal with the sins that have led our nation to this point in history. Now as ever, we should trust only in “the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7), the name of Jesus Christ.
John M. Frame is Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at the Orlando Campus of Reformed Theological Seminary. He sets forth his views of biblical ethics more extensively in his recently published Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008).