Another day, another Christian denouncing Socialism. This time Rick Phillips offers his thoughts at the Reformation 21 blog in the piece titled Socialism is Evil. It was also linked via the Challies A La Carte feature for today. I have already discussed the nature of Socialism from a Christian point of view, in response to comments from John Piper here and John Stevens here. I will here address Phillips points directly.
Phillips offers three reasons why he believes the Bible deems Socialism evil. They are:
- Socialism is a system based on stealing
- Socialism is an anti-work system
- Socialism concentrates the power to do evil
As I have noted both here and here, in response to RC Sproul Jr and John Piper respectively, Socialism is clearly not predicated on stealing. At the heart of most forms of Socialism is a high tax redistributive system. The state typically tax the rich at higher rates and redistribute their wealth through public services which can be accessed by the poor. Certainly such taxation – which still exists in some form even under Capitalist systems – neither amounts to theft nor sin. The Bible is quite clear on this issue (cf. Mark 12:17; Rom 13:6-7).
Phillips argues “The whole point of socialism is for the government to seize control of private property, mainly involving the proceeds of peoples’ work, in order to give it to others.” I can only presume Phillips is alluding to the taxation of individual salaries when he speaks about seizing private property “mainly involving the proceeds of people’s work”. If so, the Bible is utterly clear that this is neither sinful nor stealing. If Phillips is alluding the the commandeering of other private property which is systematically given to others – which may be true of Communism but not necessarily Socialism – I am unaware of any Western Socialist advocate within the last century advancing a case for the compulsory acquisition of private property for the purposes of simply handing it to others. As such, the first of Phillips arguments is both biblically weak and, given the existence of taxation under his preferred system, would apply to Capitalism (they merely “steal” less in tax, if one wishes to make such an argument).
Second, Phillips argues Socialism is “anti-work”. He argues:
Today, Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders promises to give free education, free health care, and free vacation time, etc. (Of course, since government does not create wealth, these things are only free as the money to give them is taken from others.) As I listen to Senator Sanders, I wonder what incentive there would be to work hard. Why would I put myself through the ordeal of discipline, sacrifice, and sweat, much less risk-taking business endeavors, if I can have a wonderful life without working for it?
Regarding his comment about government wealth creation, I have made the point clearly enough above. Capitalism similarly taxes people and the Bible is abundantly clear that taxation is not theft. Unless Phillips wants to argue that all taxation is stealing and thus sinful, he will find himself special-pleading for the existence of governance at all, defence spending, and any number of areas he feels it is appropriate for states to spend. If not, he is left in the unenviable position of arguing that taxation is not theft when it is spent on the things he deems appropriate but it is stealing when it is spent on the wrong things. The only way out of the bind would be to advocate out and out libertarianism, but as an advocate of Capitalism – which suffers from many of these same claims as defined by Phillips – he is left with the problem.
However, his second point is primarily this (I paraphrase): if there is such a thing as free health care, education and the rest who is going to bother working? As not working goes against the ethos of scripture, this makes Socialism anti-work and therefore sinful. Let me briefly unpick the logic.
Firstly, plenty of Western states have free education and tax-based funded healthcare and it is fair to say, in the case of the UK, 5.4% of the population are currently unemployed and receiving benefits and this is on a par with the 5.5% of American citizens also currently unemployed. If it were true that these free-at-the-point-of-use systems encouraged slackness and were indeed “anti-work”, as Phillips claims, we would expect to see dramatically different levels of unemployment. The statistics for the USA and UK simply do not bear this out. Even those states who have worse unemployment figures, amongst the worst of the states that offer free healthcare and the like Austria and France have a c. 10% unemployment.
If it really were true that these systems were “anti-work”, we would expect to see dramatically higher results than these. Even in the countries with the highest levels of benefit claimants, 90% of the population still recognise the value of work. It is, therefore, clearly garbage to suggest that the offer of free education, free healthcare, free vacation time, free maternity leave, etc leads to an anti-work ethos. None of the countries that offer such things bear that out in their unemployment statistics. In fact, it is worth noting that in the USA where there is no free healthcare paid for by taxation, less vacation time (none of which is free), less social security, and fewer available paid-by-tax services than in the UK, the USA has a higher unemployment rate (albeit only by 0.1%).
Second, Phillips begs the question. He presumes nobody would work under such a system (which is evidently not the case) and therefore claims that the system is “anti-work”. Rather than look at actual levels of employment in states that – whether you wish to label them Socialist or not – provide tax-payer funded services such as those listed by Phillips, he simply assumes nobody would bother to work. The unemployment stats do not bear this out. These systems are only anti-work if indeed the citizens of those states won’t work and prefer to receive benefits. The only way to make this point is to do a comparative study of unemployment levels across various of these systems. Even then, one would have to prove that the cause of the unemployment was specifically the offer of benefits rather than the lack of work available. Phillips fails to cross even this first hurdle on the statistics, let alone the second and third. Therefore, his second point is entirely question begging.
Finally, he argues that Socialism concentrates the power to do evil. Again, the point is a poorly made one. In Communist systems the point may hold but the variant forms of Socialism approach the centralisation of power in all sorts of divergent ways. For example, many UK Socialists are vehemently against the European Union specifically because it is undemocratic and centralises, rather than devolves, power. Even within the UK, many avowed Socialists advance a move away from central powers at Westminster and are keen to see devolved parliaments akin to those already existent in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (as opposed to the current proposal for devolved Mayoralties). It is simply lacking nuance to claim that Socialism – as if there were only one form thereof anyway – seeks only to centralise and concentrate power.
Nonetheless, let’s indulge the suggestion anyway. Let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that Socialism does look to centralise power. Does scripture anywhere suggest power shouldn’t be centralised? I don’t recall the prescribed periods of Judges and Kings particularly devolving powers to the people. Nor was Moses’ period leading the people a democratic endeavour. If the centralisation of power is inherently sinful, God’s prescribed measures for leadership throughout the history of Israel would rather fall foul of this. As such, Phillips would again find himself in the difficult position of arguing either God sinned in prescribing this method or that centralisation of power is somehow sinful now but not then.
The arguments Phillips actually offers in respect to his third point are entirely practical, rather than Biblical. As such, it is difficult to maintain that this point in any way feeds into his thesis that “Socialism is evil”. If he wishes to make a practical, preferential case for Capitalism over and above Socialism, of course he can. But Phillips doesn’t even try to co-opt scripture into this third point. To jump from potential benefits/drawbacks of a system – which are a matter of wisdom and preference – to matters of sin and evil is quite a leap!
Similarly, Phillips does nothing to prove that centralising power amongst a few makes sin more likely. Indeed, that exact argument works precisely the same in reverse. If those who hold the power are good men, they actually limit the likelihood of evil compared to decentralised systems where a greater number of people are involved. Of course, if the men in the centre are evil then things are worse. The point is then, as would be true of any system, if the people whom the system revolves around are (subjectively) good or bad, the system will follow suit. It makes no difference if the system is centralised or decentralised, evil will be limited or extended based on those around whom the system revolves.
All of that aside, note again that Socialism does not necessarily centralise. Phillips fails to show that Socialism necessarily centralises nor that centralisation is necessarily sinful. Biblically, it is not at all clear that the centralisation of power is any more sinful than devolving it. Similarly, it is not clear that centralisation of power necessarily makes sin more likely. It is surely fairer to argue that sin is more or less likely based on the people the system revolves around. It is therefore a stretch for him to claim that this amounts to a biblical reason why Socialism is evil.
If you want a positive case for Socialism that offers biblical reasons why it may be preferable to Capitalism, you can find an effort to do that here and here. Nonetheless, that is outside the scope of this article. Phillips argues “For these biblically-based reasons, I would urge Christians to refrain from giving praise (and political support) to socialism and candidates who promote it.” By all means, Phillips is entitled to his preferences and is welcome to present a case in favour of Capitalism as a better system of governance. Nonetheless, Phillips fails to provide a legitimate biblical case that Socialism is evil and should be shunned by believers.