I read another interesting American take on Socialism yesterday. Given it was on Doug Wilson’s blog, the article was coming from a harder than your average libertarian position. But he made a few missteps that I thought worth at least engaging.
In his first of his attempts at a Biblical cases against Socialism, he argued – as many are wont to do – that the eighth commandment necessarily presupposes property rights. And, of course, that it does. ‘Do not steal’ makes absolutely no sense if there is no such thing as ownership of things. So, at the most basic level, this assertion is certainly right.
But it is something of a leap of logic to then insist that Socialism is necessarily undermined by that command. There are several reasons why not. First, if everybody agreed to pool all their wealth, then there isn’t any real problem here. Let’s just say there is some world in which an entire population agreed to pool their resources by unanimous consent. Socialism would pop into existence without undermining any property rights. Those who privately owned things would have pooled them by consent and implemented the system without undermining anything.
Second, the presumption of property rights in the eighth commandment doesn’t reckon with the concept of public ownership. Whether we want to advocate for state ownership or some form of co-operative (the former favoured by communists, the latter something closer to traditional British socialism) is neither here nor there. The fact is that property rights can be recognised as existing under public ownership. The presumption that one shouldn’t steal can equally be applied to stealing one’s share of public ownership, or stealing from the state, as it can be to private ownership of property and wealth. That the commandment necessarily assumes property rights doesn’t necessarily equate to private property rights, that goes beyond what is assumed. This means that, despite what Wilson wants to claim, Socialism is by no means ruled out simply by virtue of what is assumed in the command.
Third, unless the particular form of Socialism being envisaged is literally forcing everyone onto communes in which all property is to be held in common – even down to one’s now communal toothbrush – the point fails anyway because private property rights are being upheld. There is nothing in the eight commandment – even if we insist it demands private property rights rather than merely property rights in general – to insist that such rights extend to everything without exception. So, whilst the commandment may affirm that private property is legitimate in principle (cf. point 2 above), it does not presuppose that all things may legitimately be held privately nor that all things must be held privately.
Wilson himself noted the existence of tithes as legitimate taxes in scripture. If we accept that there are any circumstances under which public ownership (whatever form it takes) may be legitimate, then we have sold the principle. If there is the ability to own any private property, there is no reason to assume that the property rights established in the eighth command have been abandoned. To insist that Socialism necessarily undercuts the eighth commandment is to overstate the case, the presumption of property rights is nowhere said to extend to private ownership of everything.
In his second argument, Wilson charges the Socialist with the politics of envy, but capitalism is driven as much by the politics of greed. Greed is simply the product of an envious heart that says there is more that I need even though I am perfectly comfortable combined with the callousness of a heart that has no concern for those who are uncomfortable and in real need. Even should the charge of envy stick to Socialists, capitalists hardly escape the charge. It would be a case of choosing which envious approach is less appalling to you – envying what others have because of your need or envying what you don’t have and ensuring you grasp it so nobody else may get it.
But it is my experience that most Socialists are not driven by envy. Most are driven by needs. They see the needs all around them and simply wish to create a system whereby those needs are met. Most are not concerned that the wealthy are rich, they are simply convinced that those who are rich ought to use their wealth to meet the needs of those who have no such wealth. Total depravity tells us that the rich will not – out of their generous and good nature – simply share what the Lord has gifted to them. Socialism merely attempts to insist upon what the greedy, sinful human heart naturally will not.
Wilson insists, thirdly, that competence stands against Socialism. There is much we might say – not least including Britain (which he denounces as Socialist) – being the world’s fifth largest economy. But, there is no need to say much here because there is zero scriptural content in his third argument. It may well be that Socialism doesn’t work, or is less effective, or isn’t credible for a whole host of reasons. The same might well be true of capitalism or any other system. But none of those arguments are biblical and therefore none of them mean that believers cannot and should not advocate them.
I am not convinced Wilson has proven his case. By all means, don’t advocate Socialism. Feel free to say it doesn’t work or make your own arguments as to why whatever you advocate is better. But please, can we stop insisting that the Bible says it is evil and ungodly. It just doesn’t.