John Stevens – ‘Eliminating the Poverty of Nations’: A Response

John Stevens has written a piece titled ‘Eliminating The Poverty Of Nations: Development Through Free Markets, The Right To Private Property, Democracy & The Rule of Law Are The Only Long-Term Solution‘.

I was rather troubled by his ability to speak of Socialism without nuance whilst managing to be more subtle when it came to describing forms of Capitalism. Socialism and Marxism were used interchangeably whilst his own view, a self-stated branch of Capitalism, was tempered and distinguished from other types. Indeed, gainsaying Socialism with reference to Animal Farm – a book written by an avowed Democratic Socialist – is rather like rejecting Christianity based on a critique of the Baptist Union by an adherent of the FIEC. It is simply incorrect to suggest all forms of Socialism are the same. Like it or not, whatever one feels about Michael Foot, he was not advocating the politics of Stalinist Russia!

Stevens comments: ‘The central question concerns the way in which prosperity, and hence economic security and well-being, is to be sought by the state for its people. Should this be through socialism or through a responsibly regulated market?’. However, these things are not in dialectical opposition – most Socialists would argue for “a responsibly regulated market” (as would most Capitalists). The issue is not whether we have Socialism or a regulated market (both sides want the latter), it is where and what we regulate that is in view. This is simply a false dichotomy. Nor is it fair to phrase the question as ‘are “enterprise,” “competition”, “private” and “profit” dirty words, or the engine of economic growth and efficiency?’ as many Socialists are not against those things in principle either. Rather, the question revolves around when and where those things are appropriate and what we do to help those for whom “enterprise” and “profit” do not come so easily.

Stevens’ argues:

If history is anything to go by the reality seems to be that socialism consistently fails to deliver the economic utopia it promises. To me it seems that in a sinful fallen and flawed world Marxist socialism tends to deliver equal poverty for all (with the exception of the privileged party elite who run the system – cf George Orwell’s Animal Farm), whereas a responsibly regulated free market tends to deliver marginally unequal prosperity for the vast majority (with the exception that it tends to create a tiny super-rich elite). Countries that have attempted to implement a fully socialist vision through a state controlled command economy (eg USSR, Eastern Europe, Moaist China, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, many post-colonial African Countries) have impoverished and oppressed their people. On a global level western style liberal property-owning democracy is spreading and delivering greater prosperity for many.

Here, we see Communist regimes used to denote Socialism at large. We may argue Marxist Socialism, or Communism, is not a means to economic growth (though China would dare to be an exception). However, this is not the sum total of Socialism. With the possible exception of Venezuela, whom most observers would recognise is not so similar to the others, all these are examples of Communist regimes, rather than varied forms of Socialism. At best, this suggests Communism is a flawed system rather than showing Socialism is altogether a failure. Of course, this is not a claim with which many Socialists would disagree (cf. George Orwell’s Animal Farm) for not all Socialists are Communists. The 1945-51 Attlee Ministry was avowedly Socialist, yet pursued a series of policies that couldn’t conceivably be compared to any of the regimes Stevens lists. Similarly, several post-war French governments have pursued a Socialist agenda and yet could not be deemed similar to any of the above. Equally, as mentioned, Michael Foot cannot seriously be compared to Maoist China or Stalinist Russia.

Stevens continues by asserting:

Marxism and socialism fail because they do not reflect the aspirations of most people. Human beings everywhere aspire to own their own property, to have some measure of control over their lives, and to be able to better themselves and their families by enjoying the fruits of their labour, initiative and enterprise. They do not ultimately want to find their identity as part of a class collective, except when this is a necessary intermediate stage necessary for the overthrow of a ruling feudal elite who monopolise wealth and opportunity for themselves… 

As Christians it should not surprise us that the model which seems to deliver most prosperity for most people, albeit imperfectly, is liberal free market democracy, because this most closely reflects the pattern established by the creator God and enshrined in his laws for his people in Israel. This is also reflected in the prophetic hope for their future (cfMicah 4v4). These laws embed the fundamental principles of private property ownership, the rule of law and fair justice, the elimination of corruption, regularly renewed opportunity for all (jubilees, debt cancellation and land redistribution), and a measure of ongoing redistribution (both compulsory and voluntary) to care for the genuinely poor and needy. They also reflect the centrality of the family, as opposed to the state, as the basic unit of society. These principles that ought to have led to prosperity, but sadly they were never properly implemented and obeyed.

Whilst Marxist Socialism (as opposed to other forms of Socialism) may not reflect the aspirations of people, why should aspiration form the basis of political policy? The idea that aspiration and “personal betterment” are somehow inherently good doesn’t strike me as Biblical at all. Many aspirations are down right sinful and most Christians would not advocate building a society on such things. Consumerism, materialism and greed are the driving forces of Capitalism and most Christians agree such things are not good Biblical values. As I recently commented here, my conclusion supported by right-wing blogger Archbiship Cranmer (except for the Margaret Thatcher bit), home ownership (a common aspiration) is not a basis for economic improvement nor should it be the ultimate goal for most people. We may argue that people “do not ultimately want to find their identity as part of a class collective” but, whilst not class-based, doesn’t the gospel call us to exactly this sort of collectivism? Are we not called to be a body of believers, based on the gospel, giving to those who have need and taking from those who have means? Such a rejection of collectivism in favour of individualism – the very notion at the heart of Capitalism – seems fundamentally unbiblical and antithetical to the gospel itself.

Interestingly, Stevens concedes that the Biblical model he puts forward – which he states most closely apes liberal free-market democracy – was never implemented properly. Surely, if we are to assess Socialism (more accurately, the Communism being addressed) with reference to the “fallen world”, as opposed to the ideal world, then we must do the same with the model Stevens puts forward. As with Communism, the issue he faces on his model is that it was never implemented properly. Those in power created the system and made it work in their own interests rather than for the benefit of all people. So, his model hardly escapes the same charge as the Communist system. In both cases – on both Communism and Capitalism – the issue is the same, individuals look after me and mine rather than the collective good. On a Communist system, this works itself out by making leading elites prosperous at the expense of the general population. On a Capitalist system, this works out by making those with pre-existing privilege and money more powerful and those without such things increasingly worse off.

Stevens is right to say the irony of the recent Daily Mail hoo-ha, which prompted his post, is that “no serious political party in the UK is really advocating socialism, or indeed untrammelled free market capitalism”. Since Labour dropped Clause IV under the leadership of Tony Blair, the British Labour Party have not advocated wholesale collective ownership and indeed continued the privatisation plans enacted under Margaret Thatcher. Similarly, the Conservatives do no advocate a totally unregulated free-market. None of the major British parties advocate the extremes of either position. As Stevens rightly notes “only small marginal differences in overall state spending, and minor changes to the tax and benefit system, are at issue”.

In a fallen world, it strikes me that free-market Capitalism simply cannot address the needs of the nation. It better serves those with entrenched privilege than those without and appeals to the more base aspirational values of materialism and greed. Any casual observation of the recent recession will show that greed is not fundamentally good and an unsupervised market has significant knock-on effects in global economies. In a system that encourages greed (usually dressed up as “aspiration”), how will the poor and vulnerable be helped? Indeed, how can we subscribe to the doctrine of Original Sin whilst simultaneously suggesting that those with lots of money will naturally be charitable and seek to look after those reliant on their support? The history of business, since the industrial revolution, has broadly not been one of caring support for workers and increased benefit to communities at large. The notable exceptions to this are usually Christian philanthropists, specifically motivated by the gospel which teaches something radically different to the values enshrined in Capitalism. Businesses, as a general rule, are very good at making money and particularly good at keeping it. It is notable that the world’s most profitable companies seem to be amongst those paying the least percentage of tax – this is Capitalism at work!

Capitalism has knock-on effects for the individual. It plunges people into debt because it creates a culture of the “must-have” – again, fundamentally based on aspiration – and encourages people to own what they can’t afford and seek what they needn’t have. Home ownership is the worst culprit but countless examples of debt for goods can be cited. It is a sad product of the system that debt has become a business of it’s own. Payday lending companies use this culture of consumerism to prey on the very poorest who who are least able to handle the debt into which they are plunged. Free-market capitalism creates such a culture – it allows businesses of this sort to thrive (free-market) and encourages the very poorest to utilise these companies because of the greed-led, aspirational, consumerist culture it promotes.

Would Socialism fare any better? Certainly not the Marxist Communism being addressed by John Stevens. However, a system that seeks to redistribute wealth – from those with means to those with need – strikes me as fundamentally biblical. A system that does not rely on good will and philanthropy to trickle down to the most vulnerable seems to be a good response to the issues presented in Genesis 3. A system that publicly owns certain enterprises – determined by fundamental need – and runs them for community benefit hardly strikes me as a bad thing. At heart, Socialism is concerned with collective benefit whereas Capitalism is concerned with the individual. Even when Scripture deals with the individual e.g. personal salvation, it is usually with an eye on the wider community (cf. 1 Jn 1:3,7). 

For my part, I am not so sure free-market capitalism is seen all that clearly in the pages of Scripture. It strikes me when the gospel is preached and people come to know the Lord for themselves the results are rather closer to Socialism than Capitalism (cf. Acts 2:41-47). That is not to say Socialism is necessarily the best system for secular governance nor to suggest Socialism should be implemented uncritically. However, when people are living as they ought, under the gospel, it appears they are closer to a Socialist mindset than a Capitalist one.