Is Capitalism Christian?

I'm delighted to pass on the baton of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion this year to my friend Michael Novak. It was Novak's vision of a free society that inspired Czechoslovakian dissidents to throw off communism. His writings were studied by leaders of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Margaret Thatcher was influenced by Novak's ideas. They're even echoed in the writings of the pope. What is this remarkable message? Simply that the free market of capitalism is morally superior to the controlled economy of socialism. A free market is based on a biblical vision of human nature, Novak teaches. It respects individual initiative and unleashes human creativity—by which we reflect the character of the Creator Himself. In other words, Novak has reconnected markets and morals. This is a revolutionary accomplishment. Since the last century, it was communism that claimed to have a moral vision for a just society. Even though actual Communist regimes are always tyrannical, the moral vision of communism has continued to attract idealists around the world. Capitalism, on the other hand, has been regarded as a purely pragmatic system. Even Adam Smith, capitalism's founder, did not present it as a means of creating a just society. Instead, he presented it as a practical means of controlling self-interest—of providing a socially useful channel for an anti-social impulse. Hardly a stirring vision to engage the hearts of social reformers. But Michael Novak articulated the moral basis of capitalism. A free market expresses a high view of human dignity, Novak argues, because it requires individuals to be creative and responsible. It does not set apparatchiks over everyone telling them what to do. A free market requires self-sacrifice and delayed gratification, as entrepreneurs invest their time and money into enterprises whose rewards are not immediate. A free market requires sensitivity and courtesy to others, because if you don't please the customer you're out of business. Most of all, free markets are an effective tool for helping the poor. Historically, free economies have the best record of empowering the poor to climb out of poverty. These things may seem obvious to you and me—especially since communism lost the Cold War. Yet intellectual leaders in academia, journalism, and the arts are still heavily left-leaning. To be sure, they're been forced to concede that capitalism works better on a practical level—that it produces more consumer goods. Yet they still maintain that socialism is superior in its moral vision for a just society. This is why we need to continually defend the moral basis of free-market capitalism. As Michael Novak so brilliantly demonstrates, capitalism rests inescapably on the high view of human creativity and responsibility expressed in the Bible. You can acquaint yourself with Novak's seminal work by reading his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. And together we can pray that his receipt of the Templeton Prize this year will give an ever-widening forum to his ideas. The world desperately needs to know that, in a just society, markets depend on morality.


Chuck Colson


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