Daniel Day Lewis, in his oscar winning performance in the movie There Will Be Blood, plays the role of an aspiring oil tycoon named Daniel Plainview who becomes consumed with success and greed. The film is a stellar work of art, a parable of the depravity of the human heart. Though the film does have some nihilistic under tones, the movie illustrates the inherent dangers of capitalism gone awry. The time period movie is accompanied by an eerie sound track, reminiscent of horror movies creating tension as Plainview spirals into a religious devotion to greed, money, and success. This election year has brought economics to the forefront of our national conversation, particularly with the surprising support for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialists. Many of his supporters have vocalized together, a populist movement of young people, who have expressed disillusionment by the corruption and injustice they see in American capitalism. Though the field of economics is well outside my arena of expertise, I believe many conservative capitalists (like myself) have dismissed their concerns a little too quickly. Though their solution (socialism) is naive and misguided, their diagnosis (greed) is spot on. Capitalism was birthed in a Christian worldview, as some historians have traced its roots to the Puritan work ethic. The puritans brought dignity and honor to secular vocations, seeing labor as an act of worship done unto the glory of God. The Puritan vision of vocation and worship no doubt contributed to the importance of economic productivity and prosperity that has accompanied so much of capitalism. In many ways capitalism has brought wealth and prosperity to the Western world.
However, capitalism can have an ugly underbelly. The increasing secular culture has eroded the puritan vision for work as worship. The puritans saw work as a means to a doxological end, while many Americans see work as a means to a materialistic end. Both Bernie Sanders and movies like There Will Be Blood identify the inherent and increasing danger of capitalism—the enslaving greed and lust for more. In this fallen world, there is no perfect economic system. Yet, a common Christian worldview through western society has protected us like guard rails on a highway, keeping the capitalistic impulse from driving off the cliff into a pit of avarice. As American culture continues to dump any remnants of a common Christian worldview, a secular replacement will only accelerate our economic engine into greater greed.
The Christian worldview curtails the greedy human heart from excess via the virtues of humility, generosity, sacrifice, and love for neighbor. Only the Christian worldview can put work, success, and money in their subordinate place, under the rule of Christ. Only the Gospel can motivate the human heart to radical generosity and self-denial in order to care for the destitute. Only when the population is compelled by the Gospel can Paul’s words be put into practice:
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:17–19, ESV)
Paul does not chastise the rich for being wealthy, rather he charges them not to “set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches.” The issue isn’t how much a person makes, but how much he keeps. A Christian may strike oil economically through diligent hard work, but the Christian ought to take that wealth and “to do good.” They are to exchange their financial wealth “to be rich in good works.” The Scriptures place the burden of generosity upon the individual not upon governmental institutions.
Thus, socialism does not provide a solution to capitalism’s current problems, rather it consolidates the problem into a more efficient and streamlined governmental control, a system already prone to corruption and cronyism. Government imposed benevolence not only violates the dignity of human work, but will take away incentive for people to work at all. Having the government play Robin Hood will only increase poverty and stunt economic growth.
So then what’s the solution? I would suggest the recovery of the Christian worldview. Only a societal buy-in to the Puritan vision of work as worship will keep the evils of capitalism as bay. As we witnesses the dissolution of the Christian worldview in our country, time will reveal that a secular worldview will only accelerate the corrosion of justice. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” (1 Timothy 6:10, ESV). Sure, the economic incentive to make money will stick around for a while, but don’t be surprised when we see more souls in the ditch of greed once those guard rails are removed. Society does not need an economic revolution but a spiritual awakening—a return to an absolute dependence on Christ’s redemptive work and societal adoption of his kingdom’s values.