James O’Donnell: Jesus — Socialist? Capitalist? It’s complicated

Some of our Lord’s harshest statements were about wealth and the rich:

  • “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24)
  • “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” (James 5:1)
  • “There were no needy persons among [the Christians]. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)

Karl Marx adapted that last one: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

With such strong statements by Jesus against wealth, it might seem like a contradiction that He could be a free-market capitalist. But capitalism is only a few hundred years old. Its major contribution to economics is the idea that markets should be allowed to function based on freedom, cooperation and decentralization, not centralized governmental control. It allows people to take risks to create, innovate, satisfy others’ wants and needs and, thereby, build wealth.

Back in Jesus’ day, however, wealth was evil. In Jesus’ day, different assumptions informed economic behavior:

  • A zero-sum approach to wealth.
  • A coercive economic system wherein wealth was intertwined with “extractive imperial policies.”

Under Rome, only about 2% or 3% of the population ruled. And they did so largely by hereditary control of land and labor, consuming most of the production and confiscating most of what’s left for peasants.

No surprise, then, wealth was seen as theft. Add to this exploitative picture the grim fact most of the non-wealthy were slaves and it’s not hard to understand why the rich were hated. Every poor person was oppressed, and every rich person was an oppressor — or the willing recipient of the fruits of oppression.

Such systems of oppression produce only limited amounts of goods. They obstruct innovation and dull the motivation for personal profit. There is only so much to go around, and the powerful take most of it. Surviving — let alone thriving — without free markets really is zero-sum.

By contrast, private property rights, unbiased rules and free trade create the conditions for upward mobility. Those at the bottom have opportunities to advance. Wealth grows and is spread around, even to the poorest.

In the short life of capitalism so far, these principles have borne results beyond what any ancient could have imagined. Bailey and Tupy, in “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know” refer to capitalism creating “The Great Enrichment,” because the world’s economy has grown more than a hundredfold since 1820.

Compared with the stagnation of the previous 1,800 years, this number is incredible. Despite critics’ frustration, growth has transcended the wealthy. Consider Baily and Tupy’s data:

  • Nearly 84 percent of humans suffered extreme poverty in 1820. But by 1910, only 66 percent;
  • By 1950, only 55 percent;
  • 1981, 42 percent;
  • and by 2018, 8.6 percent.

In short, capitalism builds wealth. And human flourishing.

But too many today, even among Christians, begrudge capitalism. We need better language to convince people of capitalism’s successes. Milton Friedman tried. How’s this: Be “pro free-enterprise,” not just “pro-business … ”

Businesspeople too often favor free enterprise for everybody else but want special governmental protection for themselves. Much like the Roman elites of Jesus’ day, corporations that lobby politicians try to rig the system.

Of course, there are limits to what even free enterprise can do. Illness, disability, disaster and other unforeseen challenges happen. But if we’re serious about alleviating the hardships of others, free markets are essential.

James O’Donnell is the retired, emeritus, Luke J. Peters Professor of Business and Economics and executive-in-resident at Huntington University in Huntington. Before becoming a professor, he was an executive vice president at Fidelity Investments in Boston. This commentary previously appeared at indianapolicyreview.com. Send comments to [email protected].