We all think in shorthand. Because we tend to be in a hurry, we have to file thoughts, propositions, arguments in a hurry. That is, we carry with us sundry mental shortcuts that move us from one thought to another. These give us license to dismiss some ideas quickly, or to answer objections swiftly so that we might be free to mull over other ideas. Which is why these shortcuts, when they are wrong, can be so wrong and destructive. We use the shortcuts over and over again, embedding them in our worldviews until they become recalcitrant, bedrock to what we think is our thinking. This in turn explains why we are called to be deliberate, why we need from time to time to examine our presuppositions, to test our assumptions against the Word of God. We need to hold them up to the mirror and see if they are true, likely to help us, or more likely to hinder.
Consider this nugget of conventional wisdom: Free markets are fueled by greed, whereas socialism (sometimes called social justice, progressivism, leftist thought) is fueled by compassion. This notion we use to judge political rhetoric. We use it to evaluate—quickly—sundry policy proposals. We carry this idea of ours into the voting booth with us, to help us decide which lever to pull. It is bad enough that non-Christians think in these terms. They, after all, have no Bible to test their notions against. They have no reason to be deliberate. The trouble is Christian too often find themselves caught up in this folly. This fundamental presupposition was first given to us in the state’s schools. It is reinforced with Hollywood’s wisdom. And, because the devil is more crafty than any of the beasts of the field, it finds a foothold in the church. We Christians, after all, in submission to our Lord, rightly oppose greed. We, in submission to our Lord, rightly cultivate compassion. Given a sound heart on greed and compassion, taken right from the Bible and a misguided mental shortcut , taken right from the wisdom of this world, we will find ourselves turning into the ditch every time. Perhaps we should take a closer look at this nugget, to see if perhaps it might be fool’s gold.
First, is it true that free markets are fueled by greed? No, not true. I am more than happy to concede that one can find greedy people where one finds free markets. Greed exists, and there is plenty of it among men engaging in free trade. On the other hand, one will also find greed in controlled markets. There is plenty of it among the socialists. Consider the former Soviet Union. This worker’s paradise did not signal the death of greed. Instead what we saw there was, to paraphrase George Orwell, some animals were more equal than others. Greed exists not because of this economic system or that, nor because of the possibility of great wealth or the hardship of great poverty, but because of sinful hearts. In short, we have fond the enemy and he is us. Getting rid of liberty, or getting rid of wealth will not rid the world of greed. Only ridding the world of us will do that. A free market, we should remember, is not fueled by greed, but by service. That is, the only way to succeed in a free market is to serve your customers better than others. You can only win insofar as you help your customers win, by meeting their needs and desires. Under free markets we prosper only insofar as we love our neighbor. (Remember that when businesses lie and cheat, or use the state for special favors, we have left the free market and entered controlled markets. Corporate welfare isn’t free market, not crony capitalism, but crony socialism, also known as fascism.)
But what of compassion and socialism? Don’t they go together? Nope, not in the least. I’m not clear where this reputation came from. The Berlin Wall, after all, was not built to keep westerners out of the compassionate state of east Germany. Cubans do not risk their lives in rickety boats to escape compassion in Cuba. Socialism is anything but compassionate. Here are three simple reasons why. First, taxing one group of people to give the money to another group of people is bad for the people who receive the money. When Paul says, “If anyone will not work neither shall he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10), he isn’t being mean, but gracious to those who would not work. He isn’t assaulting their dignity but protecting it. Work, fulfilling the dominion mandate, is part and parcel of what it means to be human, to bear the image of God. When we subsidize laziness (recognizing that not all the poor are poor because of laziness) we discourage men from being men. We gild the cages we build for them. It is, in addition, also harmful to the recipient because it is damaging to the economy, which hits those on the lowest rungs first. When we tax one group to give the money to another we create disincentive for everyone to work, which leads to greater poverty for everyone.
Second, taking from one group to give to another fails the compassion test because it is not compassionate to those who are having their wealth taken. We surely aren’t showing grace when we come to take what we will later give. We tend to be okay with this, however, because of the shortcut we’re examining. We think it’s okay to not show compassion to the person with more than us because their having more than us is a sure sign that they are greedy. But we are all wealthy compared to someone. If having more than someone else is a sure sign of greed, we are all guilty, including even those to whom we give money. If we want to keep what is ours, being understanding of others would mean we would want them to keep what is theirs, no matter how much they have.
Finally, and most importantly, asking the state to take from one group to give to others isn’t compassionate because we are not the ones making the sacrifice. We can’t really give what we first took. I am not demonstrating a giving heart if I steal my neighbor’s car, and give it to a struggling single parent. You can’t, in short, be compassionate on someone else’s dime. Christians are called to be compassionate, which means we give what is ours, not what is our neighbors’. We give in the name of Jesus, not in the name of Uncle Sam. Christians are those who sacrifice themselves, not those who use the state to sacrifice others. This is why the President was so wrong in arguing that Jesus’ concern for the poor means we ought to support his social programs.
The next time you are tempted to take this mental shortcut, remember that the Bible is our map. It says we all struggle with greed. And it says we are called to give of our own wealth, not the wealth of others. This in turn, leads to prosperity for those who have less than we do, for us, and for those who have more. And that is solid gold.