Here’s a question: Which is better – socialism or free enterprise? Which seems more sensible? That the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned and regulated by the community as a whole, or that a society of free agents should compete for them?
Before I go any further, and before you report me to the authorities as a socialist sympathizer, let me say for the record I am not a socialist, nor am I trying to persuade you to become one.
Like most Americans, I would naturally say free enterprise is better. I personally prefer, on grounds both practical and ideological, the idea of free individuals having control over their own lives.
Yet I think it’s a question that deserves a fresh and fair hearing in the times we live in, from a Christian perspective.
A strong case could be made for free enterprise by pointing out that socialism tends to take away personal initiative and responsibility. Or one could simply point out the obvious historical failures of socialism. Some who have lived long enough to remember the deprivations of socialists regimes of the last century would answer, without hesitation, that for all its problems, free enterprise is better, both ideologically and practically.
Others, looking at the more recent prosperity and well-being of people living in Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, would say with equal fervor that socialism is better.
They would correctly point out that in a competitive system like free enterprise, there will be winners and losers. Some will have more than they need and others will not have enough.
To be fair, it could be said by many measures, the quality of life for the average person in those countries is better than in a society built on a model of competition.
We Americans rightly argue the free enterprise system is rooted in a Judeo/Christian work ethic based on personal responsibility.
People living in Scandinavian countries with socialist governments would rightly argue their form of government is rooted in the Christian ideals of compassion, sharing, and mutual care.
If both free enterprise and socialism have roots that can be traced, at least in part, to Christianity, then who’s right?
You could only say it would depend on your definition of a good society, and good and reasonable people would disagree on that definition.
I’ve made my peace with the question, and my imperfect answer is I’m a Christian who believes in free enterprise.
But as a Christian, I am troubled by the ever-widening chasm between modern free enterprise and its Judeo/Christian underpinnings. Without its Christian tradition to guide it and place compassionate limits on it, free enterprise will descend into savagery.
As a person of faith, steeped in the tradition of both personal responsibility and care for the weak, I see merits for both systems.
As an observer of modern culture, I shudder to think of the world we will bequeath to the future. Both socialism and capitalism, severed from their ethical taproots in Christianity, will be disastrous.
Neither, I fear, will bear much similarity to the ideal of the good society formed in the wake of Jesus’ exemplary life and described in the book of Acts: local, joyful, organic sharing; intentional simplicity of heart and life; and at its core, a nobler vision of communal life, driven not by fear of scarcity or desire for control, but by love itself, which, in the midst of our frantic striving, I fear we have forgotten to even want.
David Pannell describes himself as a recovering farmer and a retired preacher.