Socialism is growing in popularity among young people in the West, including Christians. They seem to have forgotten—or never learned—the violent history of socialism in places like the Soviet Union or that taking place today in countries like Venezuela.
Of course, there are new varieties of socialism on the rise, such as “democratic socialism.” This is still a form of socialism, and it is really just an extension of what Western countries have been doing for years. Thus, more common than outright socialism in the West is quasi-socialism.
In full-blown socialism, the government owns the means of production and is the central planner of the entire economy. In quasi-socialism, the government only runs part of the economy, such as healthcare (Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare), retirement savings (Social Security), and education (public schools and universities). (Is it just coincidence these are some of the most poorly run and debt-ridden parts of the American economy?)
Many Americans are unaware that the United States already has a heavily socialistic system and is only quasi-capitalistic at best. In other words, the United States does not currently have a “free market.” The government has extensively interfered in the market since the early 20th century.
The Failure of Socialism
The common argument against socialism is that it simply does not work. It is an inefficient system that has destroyed societies and resulted in famine and death. This of course is true.
Socialism’s impossibility results from its lack of a price system. In a free market, prices are subjective and determined by consumers. This results in the mutual exchange of goods and services by buyers and sellers. A socialist government attempts to set the prices of goods and services, but it is unable to set prices that will satisfy supply and demand (and thus socialist governments may look to the prices of capitalist societies). This is known as the socialist calculation problem, which was first introduced by economist Ludwig von Mises in 1920.
In contrast to socialism, quasi-socialism does “work” in a sense because it only ruins part of an economy. For example, the United States economy has been able to survive and even thrive with socialistic programs and a large welfare state. This is because there is still a free market in which businesses can function, and these businesses in turn fund socialistic programs. This is only possible because of increased societal wealth from improved technology and capital goods. In other words, quasi-socialism is only possible because of capitalism.
Furthermore, even the socialist industries of the United States have not been fully socialistic. For example, even with Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and heavy government regulations in healthcare, there are still cash-only doctors and private clinics that operate with some freedom. In spite of Social Security, many Americans still have private retirement accounts. And despite the ubiquity of public schools and universities, there are still many private schools and universities that compete for students.
Therefore, there is a need to critique not just socialism but quasi-socialism. There are certainly strong economic arguments against socialism and quasi-socialism. However, I here want to make biblical and theological arguments against these economic systems, particularly because they have become politically popular among some Christians. Socialism is more than impossible or inefficient. Socialism is immoral because it is government-sanctioned theft.
All Forms of Socialism Are Theft
Central to the moral argument against socialism and quasi-socialism is the 8th commandment:
You shall not steal (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19).
This command teaches the concept of private property and forbids the taking of property from an innocent person. God added to this condemnation of socialism by prohibiting envy in the 10th commandment:
You shall not covet (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21).
God is a capitalist, which we know because God endorses private property. This is inferred from the 8th commandment. The prohibition of theft assumes that people own things. Of course, everything in this world belongs to God. Yet He has delegated control and responsibility of things to individuals. We call this private property rights.
Everyone understands this concept. No one likes others stealing their belongings, and they therefore do things to prevent theft, such as lock their door at night. It is also the case that every civilized society prohibits theft. People have property rights, and the government should protect such rights.
Yet this all breaks down for many people when the government gets involved. It is wrong for Bob to take a quarter of your income. But if Bob and his friends lobby the government, politicians pass legislation, and the government gives one quarter of your money to Bob, then all is right.
This is exactly how the typical Western welfare state works. The government enacts a variety of taxes (sales tax, income tax, FICA, tariffs, etc.) and then redistributes the money to a variety of classes (the poor, students, elderly, disabled, politically well-connected, etc.). But this is not called “theft” because, well, the government says so. This situation exposes one of the chief flaws of democracy, a system where two wolves and a lamb vote on what to eat for dinner.
Thus, modern societies have made an exception to the 8th commandment—“You shall not steal, except by majority vote.” One person cannot take your stuff, but if enough people vote to take your stuff, then it is “legal.” And if it is legal, then it is morally acceptable.
Christians are enabling this problem by limiting the 8th commandment to individuals instead of societies. However, the 8th commandment provides no such limitation. Groups are made up of individuals, and stealing is still stealing when done by a group.
Is Taxation Ever Allowed?
Some will respond, “Following this logic, are not all taxes and government programs theft?” One possible response is yes, which has some appeal due to its consistency (the view of anarcho-capitalism). However, a more biblical response is that some taxes are legitimate because some government functions are legitimate. Thus, we need to understand the proper role of civil government.
It is important to understand that God designed government to enforce what are known as “negative rights.” You have a right to not be killed or stolen from. Hence the “negative.” But you do not have a right to food or shelter or anything else that belongs to someone else. You have to work for these things and buy these things through voluntary exchange. Thus, it is warped when it is said that humans have a “right” to things like healthcare or education.
The only “positive rights” are those which are owed you out of a contract (such as the benefits of an insurance policy if certain conditions are met). And government does have an obligation to enforce such contracts. This is the only role of government in regard to positive rights. The government does not owe you any good or service, contrary to what socialists like to claim.
God’s institution of civil government has a purpose, and that purpose is to protect property rights. In other words, God has designed the state to enforce the 8th commandment (as well as the 6th, 7th, and other commandments). It is all great when nobody steals. But people are sinful and steal/murder/destroy, and that is where government comes in. Of course, we have a problem when government is the one doing the stealing.
If government is to protect property rights, then government is going to need enforcers of the law. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate for government to have police, judges, a court system, governors, and a military. Taxes that fund such things are taxes that uphold property rights. These taxes go to benefit all of society and in no way “redistribute wealth.” These are legitimate taxes and are not prohibited by Scripture.
These are the sort of taxes Paul has in mind in Romans 13:1-7 when he speaks of the governing authorities that God instituted to “punish evil” and “reward the good.” Paul ties taxes here to a civil government that punishes crime. He says nothing about the morality of taxes at a high rate as part of a governmental redistributory scheme.
Some cite Jesus’ words to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” as an all-out endorsement of government taxation (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). However, that is not what these words teach. The Jewish leaders were seeking to trap Jesus among the Romans (who required the tax) and the Jews (who opposed Romans taxation). Jesus outsmarted His opponents by making reference to Caesar’s picture on the coins—“Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (Matthew 22:20). The answer was “Caesar’s.” So Jesus responded, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
This was not a wholesale endorsement of Roman government, nor was this a discourse on the morality of taxation. Rather, Jesus actually endorsed property rights by distinguishing between that which belongs to Caesar and that which does not. Contrary to popular claims, Jesus was not a socialist.
It should also be noted that there are biblical limits on taxation. When the Israelites demanded a king in 1 Samuel 8, God warned them that there would be a tyrannical king who would tax their income at 10% (1 Samuel 8:14, 17). The king would set himself up as God with this “tithe” to his kingdom, which was to make the point that a 10% tax was oppressive. Of course, we have taxes far exceeding this today. How we long for such limited oppression!
There are also general principles for taxation that are not as explicit but should guide our thinking. First, taxation is best done at the local jurisdiction so as to provide accountability to the most proximate constituents. This means the federal income tax is a bad idea. State taxation would be far better in this regard, and county and city taxes would be better than state taxes.
Second, a flat income tax would be preferable to a progressive income tax (meaning the tax rate increases for higher incomes). However, a sales tax would be preferable to a flat income tax. Incomes taxes are difficult to restrain, and voters are tempted to vote to tax the rich at a higher rate. Under a sales tax, everyone pays the same rate, and the more you buy the more you pay in taxes. Income tax punishes making money, which means it hinders saving and investment.
The Destructiveness of the Welfare State
The welfare state and quasi-socialism are immoral because they involve civil government exceeding its bounds and usurping the role of other governing spheres, particularly that of the family and the church. Sphere sovereignty is an essential concept in discussing the role of civil government. God has designed the family as the basic social structure of society. Parents are to provide for their children, and family (as well as friends and neighbors) should help one another out in times of need. The church too is a great source of charity and benevolence.
In contrast, socialism makes people dependent on the state. Government handouts disincentivize (and thus ruin) work ethic, independence, and integrity. While they may seem like they are helping, government handouts are actually demeaning to humans. True charity is voluntary. It gives people the free opportunity to give and help those in need. Charities, churches, family, and friends are better able to discern whether it is a good use of their time and resources. In contrast, the state tends to give indiscriminately, in turn leading to dependence. All the while, politicians buy votes by promising more handouts.
Furthermore, true charity involves a person in need looking someone else in the eye and asking them for help, as well as thanking them and repaying them later if possible. This is not how the government works. The welfare state does not help the poor. It ruins them and creates debilitated peoples. It is an affront to humans made in the image of God.
You get more of what you subsidize and less of what you tax. And while it may seem like a good idea to give money to single mothers, such a policy encourages single motherhood. Women become less careful about out-of-wedlock pregnancy (and thus less moral) when they know the government will provide for them (rather than a man). No one should be surprised that America has a 40% bastard rate, which such a policy has certainly contributed to.
Socialism is theft. A majority that votes to redistribute wealth at gunpoint does not make it any less so. It is a violation of the 8th and 10th commandments. It should therefore come as no surprise that support for socialism has grown among an increasingly secular and godless people. A fatherless people will look to the state for provision, and a churchless people will look to the state for charity. Socialism will bring utter ruin on society, and Christians should have no sympathy for such a wicked system.
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