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Response to “Are Christianity and Capitalism Compatible?”

Source post is here.


Thanks for the link back to my post.

A comment on the history of economics (see Nasar’s “The Grand Pursuit”), motivated primarily by the principle that just as we should not hold Christ responsible for all the terrible things done in his name, so we should not hold Adam Smith responsible for all the things done in his name.

At the beginning of the 19th century, economic thought was dominated by Malthus. The “dismal science” held that there was no escape from widespread poverty, because the growth of systems of production appeared incapable of keeping pace with population growth at the subsistence level. This meant that, no matter how freely owners distributed profits to the workers, population would continue to grow until poverty imposed a constraint on lifespan. This justified much of conservative thought of the era, which held that sustaining the institutions of the state in the face of ravenous poverty was essential, lest the entire body of humanity be reduced to barbarism

Capitalism found a way out of this dilemma, essentially by supplementing the productive capacity of individual workers with machinery. The upshot was that, while wages per piece produced fell (as decried by Marx), the cost of goods fell even faster. This instituted an era of enormous growth in the global standard of living and average life span.

Unfortunately, this boon comes largely from our harvest of the bounty of the Earth – in the West, each of us consumes energy equivalent to 200 man-years of labor. This has been indulged without a mind to sustainability, so it looks as though we are likely to return to Malthusian economic outcomes in the near future.

I would note that the economic practices of the early Christian communities did not focus on the mechanisms of production or the issues of sustainability. These were beyond the ken of all except the most sophisticated members of society. In fact, the Fall of Rome and the ensuing deurbanization and decay of the social order was so traumatic to the Church fathers that they spent the next 1500 years trying to reestablish the Roman Empire, which they saw as the first Christian nation and therefore “God’s kingdom on earth.”

So I would suggest that capitalism, with its hopeful, rational and scientific view of productive processes, is not incompatible with Christianity. We are still left with two problems to confront: maturity regarding procreative opportunity (each of us needs to ask “can I actually love a child into the future he/she deserves?” and discipline ourselves accordingly), and fairness in the distribution of wealth, which currently is seriously out of whack in America.

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