Mises on Capitalism and Christianity

“Nothing is more unpopular today than the free market economy, i.e., capitalism. Everything that is considered unsatisfactory in present-day conditions is charged to capitalism. The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion and the sins of our contemporaries, and the Protestant churches and sects are no less vigorous in their indictment of capitalist greed. Friends of peace consider our wars as an offshoot of capitalist imperialism. But the adamant nationalist warmongers of Germany and Italy indicted capitalism for its “bourgeois” pacifism, contrary to human nature and to the inescapable laws of history. Sermonizers accuse capitalism of disrupting the family and fostering licentiousness. But the “progressives” blame capitalism for the preservation of allegedly outdated rules of sexual restraint. Almost all men agree that poverty is an outcome of capitalism. On the other hand many deplore the fact that capitalism, in catering lavishly to the wishes of people intent upon getting more amenities and a better living, promotes a crass materialism. These contradictory accusations of capitalism cancel one another. But the fact remains that there are few people left who would not condemn capitalism altogether.” –Ludwig von Mises–

In a superficial and careless manner, there are many Christians who would be offended by Mises’ accusation that, for at least since the late 19th century, Christians have been wholly turned off by capitalism. The Christian unsympathetic to Mises on the basis that he is an atheist might be tempted to dismiss Mises’ viewpoint on the matter as a mere symptom of anti-Christian bias.

This is a grand mistake, and it fails to consider the fact that, for most of western history, the number of pro-capitalist individuals who have also taken up the label of Christian have been few and far in between. It is certainly true that the Protestant Reformation made strives toward a rethinking of man in his relationship with society to an extent that the foundations of individualism (that is, the view the the individual, not the collective, thinks, acts, and is morally responsible); but some post-reformers were better than others, many rejected the very tenants of individualism, and for most of the story, the case for “rugged capitalism” was a rare sight. On a broader scale, the “reformed” world is but a minuscule fraction of all those who claim the Christian label. And considered at this level, most organized Christian groups were hesitant about “unfettered capitalism” at best, and altogether militantly opposed to this idea at worst.

While American evangelicals like to scoff at Mises’ claim that Christians have been bad on the issue of capitalism, what they need to realize is that 20th century American evangelical tendencies toward capitalism and against socialism is a minority position in the context of both the last 250 years and the world at large. The struggle for the defense of capitalism is equally on thin ice among those taking up the Christian label as it is for those who reject Christianity altogether.

Now, it is true that different groups define Christianity differently, and I might personally have a definition of the system that is quite narrow; but the fact remains that, among those claiming to be Christian, capitalism was historically seen as something to be rejected as a “worldly” idea. It was due to the fact that Christians in the United States were historically far more open t capitalism than Christians around the world that the United States has maintained a superior level of economic freedom and prosperity. When Mises observed the “social thought of Protestantism,” one needs to understand what he was looking at. Mises, a social and economic observer of the Old Austrian school, faced the threat of the German intellectual class: the Historicists. It was the impending German socialist philosophy that was used as a bully club against the freedom of first Germany, and then Austria that Mises rightly saw as a great threat to the survival of the benefits of the market system. And, like most movements perpetrated by the University Elite in the Western world, it wrapped its philosophy up in pious religious terminology as shallow justification to overcome pure and unfettered economic freedom.

Most conservative Christians have no problem dismissing as outrageous the German Liberalism that swept through the official Christian churches; but then we should have no problem critiquing their economic and political views as well.

Christendom, to use a broad and accepted (though technically unhelpful) word, has struggled to accept capitalism since its birth. This obviously does not invalidate Christianity as a philosophical system, but it does admit that Christianity, since even the time of the apostles as recorded in Acts and other books, has faced the threat of posers: those who take up the label but do not accept the actual teachings. There is no controversy here; among those “Christian movements” throughout the world since the time of the apostles, few of them were doctrinally legitimate. Thus, in Mises’ criticism of the Christian rejection of capitalism, we can find much truth, especially to extent that those he was criticizing self-labelled Christians who rejected a very Christian view of economic and political freedom.

But even besides Mises’ comments against the social-liberal German intellectual class which wrapped itself in the verbiage of Christian religion as a marketing device, perhaps American Christians, in an attempt at self-reflection, can consider for a moment the extent to which American Christians actually do not like true capitalism. Even among those considered as the most conservative commonly and routinely reject the completely free market in favor of a Federal Government that oversees and regulates the economic system so as to improve it and save it from itself. From the most fundamental issue of money and banking to other important issues (see Brian Jacobson’s response to Russell Moore on payday lending here), Christians and popular Christian leaders are mostly against the completely free market. With some exceptions (notably around these parts, RC Sproul Jr.), Christians and those they look to as leaders of American Christianity, largely do, as Mises observed, blame capitalism for the permeation of “greed,” the danger of “consumerism and materialism,” for the destruction of “Western social values.” They see pure and unfettered capitalism as a great enemy to a flourishing and healthy society. They certainly reject socialism, at least their conception of socialism as exemplified by the Russian Marxists and German fascists. But they completely ignore American socialism, praise the death blows to freedom first enacted by American Presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and others. They reject freedom for what Mises went to great lengths to define as “interventionism,” wherein the state, rather than keeping its hands off the free exchange of property owners completely, seeks to regulate the market and improve upon its flaws.

In the end, Mises is correct in both his historical observation of the nominally Christian church’s rejection of capitalism, but also in the fact that true capitalism, even in 20th century America (and especially in 21st century America), is mostly feared by the Christian world. Few truly accept free markets, and among those Christian leaders who claim to embrace capitalism, one must always look behind the curtain for the list of exceptions to their alleged acceptance of the free market. They will appear to “appreciate” the impact of capitalism on the surface, but once you peel back the layers, the reality of their acceptance of all kinds of regulations, government interventions, state improvements shines forth. And when you expose their non-capitalist viewpoints, you will likely be dismissed as “too radical” and not “realistic.”

Much to the Christian libertarian’s disappointment.

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