Is Capitalism Compatible With Christian Values?

Michael Novak participated in a recent online discussion in which the New York Times - Room for Debate asked: “Has contemporary American capitalism become incompatible with Christian values?”

Most Moral of a Bad Lot of Economic Systems

Published by Michael Novak on June 26, 2014 in the New York Times

In answering the question, much depends on what you mean by capitalism. I like the definition offered by Pope John Paul II: "an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector ... circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality.''

No other has so quickly lifted the world out of poverty, grasped the need for freedom and creativity, and valued sacrifice for the future.

With a polity and a culture that honor and promote the creativity and flourishing of humankind, capitalism is the most moral of a bad lot of economic systems known to humans.

First, no other system has so quickly and so globally lifted the poor out of poverty. If you look at a chart of population and income since the beginning of the Christian era, the line of growth is nearly flat for 18 centuries, and then with the introduction of invention and discovery it shoots upward.

Second, no other system has so deeply grasped that the cause of the wealth of nations is, as John Paul II said, “the possession of know-how, technology and skill,” “disciplined and creative human work and, as an essential part of that work, initiative and entrepreneurial ability.”

Third, no other system has so depended both on law – to set clear rules and to protect and guide liberty – and on moral virtues, a concrete vision of how to improve the common good by discovery and invention. It requires the willingness to make sacrifices for gains only future generations will see, to persist through many setbacks and to surrender many pleasures in exchange for disciplined, self-adapting work.

Fourth, in the two centuries since the birth of capitalism the average life expectancy has risen from 26 to 67. Earth is teeming with human life as never before. In 1800, there were fewer than one billion humans on the planet; today there are over seven billion. In at least that sense, capitalism has vastly expanded the domain of life.

Pope Francis decries an “economy of exclusion.” Similarly, John Paul II emphasized the moral obligation to include every woman and man in “the circle of development.” To include all of the forgotten people of Latin America (let alone Africa and Asia), some 20 million new small businesses need to be formed, each employing three to six workers at decent wages. In many jurisdictions this would mean changing laws, to allow new small businesses to be registered at minimal cost and without the need to pay bribes to officials. It would also mean building new organizations to specialize in micro-loans for small businesses – and also in providing practical advice so that new businesses more easily succeed.

Nearly the whole world is much in favor of this inclusion. No one should be excluded from the global circle of development.

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