You’ve seen it happen. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. You’re in a restaurant and the waiter is doing a less than superb job. Perhaps it’s near the end of his six-hour shift, or he’s covering more than his share of tables. But whatever the case, you’re not getting the service you expected, and that’s just a tragedy.
“This guy’s getting a meager tip from me tonight,” you tell yourself. Perhaps you ask him, with bubbling frustration, “Can we get those refills about now?” You not only want him to step up the service; you want him to feel bad about it.
Now this is awfully presumptuous of me to place you in the shoes of a self-centered customer. I’ve been there myself, so if it’s helpful, just picture me as the penny-tipping schmuck who’s making a scene. If you’re a sincere Jesus follower—or a fair-minded unbeliever, for that matter—you know that the schmuck’s self-centered attitude here is morally wrong. Yet our consumer society seems tailor-made for this attitude, and some would even say it fosters and rewards it.
Is this really true? Does capitalism encourage this mentality of consumer entitlement, and thereby discourage human virtue? And is capitalism fundamentally dependent upon this consumer-entitlement mentality?
The Undeniable Merits of Capitalism
Capitalism is the world’s most productive model of economic organization. It has by far created more wealth than any other economic system, and it has enabled countries like South Korea, Chile, Poland, and Botswana to rise to prominence in their respective regions. Capitalism is the game-changing factor that has set these economies apart from their regional counterparts—and often their next-door neighbors. (Consider Chile vs. Venezuela, or Botswana vs. Zimbabwe, or Poland vs. Greece, or South Korea vs. North Korea.)
We could go on to list the failures of socialism, but suffice it to say that when it comes to producing material prosperity and economic efficiency, capitalism is the colossal winner.
But as that old saying goes, “Money isn’t everything.” Sure, capitalism produces wonderful prosperity, but is it conducive to human virtue? What kinds of people does it mold us, and even require us, to be?
Capitalism is premised on the reality that people pursue their self-interest. That’s why it works so seamlessly. It organizes our desires into mutually beneficial partnerships, and before you know it, the “invisible hand” has satisfied those desires or given some of us the monetary means to go and fulfill them. Those who deny the fact that people seek their self-interest will end up constructing an economic system based on false premises—and the ugly result will be something like Cuba.
But even as self-interest makes capitalism work, is that pursuit of self-interest inherently sinful? Is it a result of the Fall? This is a massively important question for Christians, because if capitalism is fundamentally dependent on sinful human inclinations, then our own growth in holiness will have to correlate with a conscientious move away from capitalism. Theoretically, then, a mass revival of Christianity would ultimately produce an alternate economic system, one based on selflessness and the pursuit of communal interest. Almost in a Marxist fashion, we would gradually transition out of the capitalistic paradigm into a new system rooted in the emerging human virtues.
But this is not at all the case. Capitalism is not dependent upon sin, because the pursuit of self-interest is not intrinsically sinful. It is, rather, a mere function of our finitude and our individuality. Because I’m an adult, I naturally look after myself—I buy the food I need, I mow my own lawn, I tie my own shoes. If I need something, the person who notices and who seeks to satisfy that need is none other than me. This is not sinful at all—though it can certainly be twisted into sin, as everything can. It is simply a necessity in nature.
Our problem is not that we are self-interested, but rather that we ignore the needs of others in our midst—the people who we can help, who God calls us to help. Our problem is not self-interest, but social indifference. The apostle Paul essentially affirms this when he says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). And in just the previous verse, he says to “consider others more significant than yourselves.”
The call to Christian holiness, then, does not eliminate self-interest—and therefore, it does not eliminate the engine of capitalism. Instead, it is a call to go beyond self-interest and to value the well-being of others over that of ourselves. Moreover, because self-interest is a necessity of nature, it is the unavoidable premise of economics—and given this unchangeable premise, capitalism remains the ideal economic system, even for Christians who are being transformed.
Christianity and Meritocracy
Let’s go back to the restaurant example. The customer’s self-centeredness was obviously sinful—yet admittedly, it may have produced better economic results. It may have tightened the customer-server partnership, and therefore resulted in better material outputs in that particular circumstance. Given this likelihood, we need to ask ourselves: Does the virtuous Christian customer—who graciously interacts with the underperforming waiter—create a drag on capitalism? Another way to ask the question is: Does the extension of grace toward our economic partners weaken the capitalistic meritocracy?
In this case, perhaps, yes—but the tradeoff is well worth the marginal material loss. In exercising Christian virtue in the marketplace—in showing patience and grace with the waiter—the customer may not maximize the waiter’s output, but he creates new value—spiritual value—that far outweighs the loss. The waiter will perceive his kindness and patience, and in being edified, the Christian customer will get joy. Material gain is not the only metric for measuring value. Social harmony and spiritual virtue are also important metrics, and they often more than make up for material losses.
We must also note that Christianity affirms a kind of meritocracy—and an economic one at that. Paul is recorded as having said, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Paul was not into slacking and mooching! This means that there is an appropriate place for withholding rewards from those who perform poorly due to negligence. This, in turn, fuels capitalism all the more by incentivizing high performance. The key for Christians is to show love, patience, and grace to our economic partners within the meritocracy, particularly appreciating the fact that they are serving us.
Capitalism and Christian living are not at odds. We do not move away from the laws of self-interest as we become more holy; we simply learn to focus on others and to value their welfare over our own. A Christian economic ethic must combine material goods with spiritual goods, and appreciate occasional tradeoffs between the two. And yet, even as we grow in virtue and in love for our neighbors, capitalism remains the best paradigm for economic life.