The Religious Justification of Capitalism
By Rabbi Aryeh Spero
No one would ever have expected that in a Republican primary the single biggest complaint among candidates seeking nomination would be that its frontrunner had taken success and capitalism too far. His success and achievement were tarred as a prima facie indication of something unethical and immoral. President Obama and other redistributionists must be rejoicing in vindication now that their assumptions regarding capitalism and “those 1%” have been given legitimacy and credence. But the real long-term casualty of this “too much capitalism” bashing may be not only Mr. Romney but the morality of capitalism itself and with it our vitality, prosperity and national defense.
More than any other nation, the United States was founded on broad themes of morality rooted in a specific and unique religious perspective, that which we call the Judeo-Christian ethos, and within it resides a ringing endorsement of capitalism’s morality. Religion is man’s attempt to ascertain from Scripture, God’s guidance toward that which is best for men as individuals and for general society. One thing is for sure: God desires the best for mankind, but, as with everything else in life, its realization requires hard work, the acceptance of periodic setbacks, and the ability to overcome sentimentality in favor of enduring and sometimes uncomfortable principles.
Moral is another way of stating that which ought to be. Something is moral if it is in itself, or leads to, that which ought to be. In otherwords, that which is virtuous. The entitlement, welfare state is a paradigm which undermines the noble goal of achieving personal responsibility. Regarding mankind, no theme is more salient in the Bible than that of the morality of personal responsibility, for it is through personal responsibility that man cultivates the inner development leading to his own growth, good citizenship, and happiness. The Bible’s proclamation that “Six days shall ye work” is its recognition that on a day-to-day basis work is the engine which, more than anything else, brings about man’s inner state of personal responsibility.
Work develops the qualities of accountability and urgency, including the need for comity with others as a necessary means for the accomplishment of tasks. It ameliorates man’s inner development by making him learn and live by those habits conducive to success. He becomes imbued with the knowledge that he is to be productive and that his well-being is not an entitlement, thereby engendering the virtue of gratitude toward those that make his well-being possible. And it keeps him away from idleness that Proverbs warns leads inevitably to actions and attitudes injurious to himself and those around him.
Capitalism is not content with people only being laborers and holders of jobs, indistinguishable members of the masses punching in and out of mammoth factories of routine or as service employees in government agencies. Nor is the Bible. Unlike socialism mired as it is in the static reproduction of things already invented, capitalism is dynamic and energetic, cheerfully fostering and encouraging creativity, unspoken possibilities, and the dreams of the individual. Because the Hebrew Bible sees us not simply as “workers” and members of the masses but, rather, as individuals, it heralds that characteristic which endows us with specific individuality: our creativity.
At the opening bell, Genesis announces:” Man is created in the image of God” -- in otherwords, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence. Unlike animals, human is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our Universe. The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, paves the financial groundwork facilitating our partnership with God by bringing to surface and disbursement that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation. Capitalism makes possible entrepreneurship, which is the on-the-ground realization of an idea birthed in human creativity. Whereas statism demands that citizens think small and bow to a top-down conformity, capitalism, as has been practiced in the United States, maximizes human potential and benefits those close to it. It provides a home for aspiration, referred to in the Bible as “the spirit of life”.
The Bible speaks positively of payment and profit, “For why else should a man so labor but to receive reward? “. Laborers get paid wages for their hours of work and investors receive profit for their investment and risk. The Bible is not a business school manual and, while comfortable with wealth creation and the need for speculation in economic markets, has nothing to say about financial instruments and models such as private equity, hedge funds, or other forms of monetary capitalization. What it does demand is honesty, fair weights and measures, respect for a borrower’s collateral, timely payments of wages, resisting usury, empathy for those injured by life’s misfortunes, and charity.
It also demands transparency and being upfront regarding one’s intentions. “Thou shalt not place a stumbling block in front of the blind man” goes beyond its literal understanding to include not acting deceitfully and obscuring the truth from those whose choice depends upon the information you give them. There’s nothing to indicate that Mr. Romney breached this Biblical code of ethics, and his wealth and success should not be seen as automatic causes for suspicion.
No country has achieved such broad-based prosperity as has America, nor invented as many useful things or seen as many people achieve personal promise. It is not an accident, but the direct result of centuries lived by the free-market ethos embodied in the Judeo-Christian outlook. It has led to unmatched liberty and, as the Bible attests, nothing is more important to society than liberty: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land”. Political liberty is, indeed, dependent on economic liberty. Furthermore, only a prosperous nation can protect itself from outside threats, for without prosperity the funds to support a robust military are unavailable. Having radically enlarged the welfare state and hoping to further expand it, President Obama is validating his cuts to our military under the assertion that defense needs must give way to domestic programs.
Countries that were once economic powerhouses, with abundant jobs for all, atrophied and declined once they, as England after WW II, began adopting socialism. Even King Solomon’s thriving kingdom crashed once his son decided to impose onerous taxes. At the end of Genesis, Joseph decides that his country’s economic security lay in citizens trading-in freedom by giving the state their property in return for food. Not only did the Egyptians become bondsmen to the ruler and state but Joseph’s descendants ended up enslaved to the state.
Those on the religious Left who invalidate capitalism because all do not end up monetarily equal – or as Churchill quipped, “all equally miserable” -- are well aware that the Bible’s prescription of equality means “Equality under the Law” and not a utopian equality contrary to human nature and one never achieved in the ruling-class socialism they promote. At the root of capitalism’s detractors is a quest for their own power and an envy of those who have more money. But envy is a cardinal sin and something that ought not to be. God begins the Ten Commandments with “I am the Lord your God” and concludes with “Thou shalt not envy your neighbor, not for his wife, nor his house, nor for any of his holdings”. Envy is corrosive to the individual and to those societies that embrace it. Nations that throw over capitalism for socialism have made an immoral choice.
Originally printed ( most) in the Wall Street Journal.
Rabbi Aryeh Spero has led congregations in Ohio and New York and is president of Caucus for America.