Bad Arguments Against Christian Socialism
a longer engagement with Thaddeus Williams
I recently wrote at Evangelical Labor Institute about some of the big-picture problems with Thaddeus Williams’s arguments against socialism in his book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. Though the purpose of my initial article was to take a wider view, I’d like to dig a little deeper into the details of his arguments here because they’re ones that come up a lot when Christians argue against socialism.
As I said in my initial piece, one of the biggest problems with Williams’s argument is that his only real interlocutors are the Christian college student socialists he describes at the beginning of his argument. He says that their logic is that the Bible says to care for the poor, socialism does that better than capitalism, and that therefore they like socialism. Of course this is not a sophisticated argument, but it’s also an argument Williams is assigning to a group of people who get no chance to even represent their own views. It’s the weakest possible version of the Christian argument for socialism. To be fair, there are few evangelicals who have written strong arguments for socialism (though there are plenty of orthodox Christians from other traditions who have done so), but it’s typically a bad sign for your argument when you begin with the weakest rather than the strongest case for the other side.
Let’s get into, then, Williams’s five problems with socialism. They are:
- Socialism takes the joy, charity, and humanity out of helping the poor.
- Socialism often confuses its way to help the poor with the way to help the poor.
- Socialism overlooks the world’s complexities, offering simple noble-sounding solutions that often inflict unexpected harm.
- Socialism tends to reduce humans to homo economicus, elevating the government to God status.
- Without God, we lose the transcendent moral reference point we need to make an accurate and humble assessment of our own moral powers—or lack thereof.
I’ll address the first two points together, the third on its own, and then the last two together.
Poverty and Charity
The objection behind Williams’s first two points is that government-enforced redistribution is not the Christian way to help the poor, private charity is. This is conceptually, biblically, and factually confused in several places.
The big conceptual confusion here is about government coercion: charity from private individuals is not coercive, while the welfare state is said to be coercive. What this logic covers up is that all distributive regimes are coercive. The way incomes and property are distributed right this moment is “by law on threat of prosecution.” Law and threat of prosecution is how what belongs to whom is defined. You may argue that it’s based on more than this—that people have a moral right to what belongs to them. Yet this is precisely what’s in question: what, in the sense of moral right, belongs to whom? Ultimately this argument is simply one that enshrines the status quo as the correct distribution: it argues that the current distributive structure ought to be enforced by law on threat of prosecution, and to enforce a different distribution by law on threat of prosecution would be unjust. The only other way this argument is convincing is if you think, along with many libertarians, that taxation is a special kind of illicit coercion. But that line of argumentation doesn’t really work for Christians—the Bible commands multiple times that we ought to pay our taxes, and makes no indication that taxes as such are bad.
What Williams fails to recognize is that how many people are poor in society is not just a given, it’s the product of how a society designs its distributive institutions. There is not a natural number of poor people in any given place who must then either be aided by charity or by welfare. Poverty results from how you divide up labor and the products of that labor in a society. If you design your distributive institutions such that only people who do market labor or people who own assets make incomes, you are going to exclude a lot of people from any income (around 50% of Americans make zero personal market income). A lot of those people live with others who do make a market income, but this does not even come close to eliminating poverty: if all we had were the institutions of market income, just over a quarter of Americans would be poor at any given time. Even with our under-designed welfare institutions, final poverty is typically closer to 18%. It’s important to recognize that neither the 25% or the 18% are just naturally poor—they are poor because we don’t design institutions to give people sufficient income.
Williams quotes Deuteronomy 15:10 which advises to give to the poor generously and without a grudging heart as an argument for charity over law-enforced welfare, but in fact Deuteronomy 15 is one of the best biblical cases for understanding poverty as produced by distributive institutions. The first verse reads: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” This is a distributive law, backed by threat of God’s exile of the people from the land (a threat he made good on). The Torah includes many other distributive laws, including the gleaning laws which essentially confiscated the edges of the field from that field’s owner and redistributed them to the widows and fatherless. God declares that in verses 4–5 that there will not be poverty if they abide by his commanded distributive institutions: “there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” God says there need be no poor people in the land; when, at the end of the passage, he says “there will always be poor people in the land,” it is because he recognizes the inevitability of disobedience to the law, not because there is a natural number of people who are poor.
But Williams does not only say that welfare is the morally wrong way to help the poor, he also claims it is a bad way to help the poor, implying that it would not succeed in its goal—and we’re left to presume that charity would succeed in this regard, since he precedes this claim by outlining many ways Christians give charitably. Would charity do better than welfare? I’ve discussed this before at ELI, but here’s the upshot: if we replaced welfare with charity, even if every single dollar of charity currently given in the United States to any nonprofit whatsoever were redirected straight into the pockets of the poor with zero overhead or inefficiency, there would still be a poverty gap of over $80 billion a year. Even in this absolute miracle scenario, in which giving to churches and organizations that directly helped the poor swelled by the entire amount currently given to all charities and not a single dollar of that went anywhere but the wallets of the poor, there would still be poverty. In the real world, then, such a scheme would inevitably fail much worse and leave a much, much larger poverty gap.
There are yet more problems with the idea of charity rather than welfare. Charity still relies on the distribution from people who have more to people who have less. But people who have more generally do not live in social proximity to people who have less, for reasons that are ultimately structural and not personal. Thus, the churches with the least material needs among them are the ones with the most material resources, and vice versa. Ultimately this means, if we’re primarily relying on churches to provide for the poor, that an AME church in a poor area is dependent on the recognition and generosity of Episcopal and Southern Baptist churches in well-off areas to be able to care for its people. This would be an acceleration of an already unacceptable power imbalance between rich and poor churches.
Aside from the major problems with the workability of a charity-only approach, there are problems in the other direction: welfare has been proven around the world to dramatically reduce poverty. Williams argues here that the welfare state had “noble intentions” but that welfare doesn’t work because “it denied government checks to intact households.” It should not take much thought to recognize that this is not useful as an argument against welfare as such, but an argument against a particular welfare design—one that I am not much of a fan of either. The most effective and generous welfare programs around the world are not designed this way. To say all welfare is bad because this one welfare design was bad while ignoring all other welfare designs is a basic logical error.
We can very easily check the numbers (all according to the OECD) as to whether welfare reduces poverty. Let’s start with an international perspective: Finland, if it only had market income and no taxes and transfers, would have a poverty rate exceeding 30%. With taxes and transfers (that is, the welfare state), Finland’s poverty rate is 6.5%, one of the lowest in the world. Meanwhile, the US is starting off with a lower market poverty rate, again around 25%—but once you factor in taxes and transfers, we have a poverty rate of 18%. The massive difference between the poverty rate here and the poverty rate in Finland is entirely due to the fact that Finland has a generous and well-designed welfare state and the United States has a stingy one that has been slapped together and gutted several times.
But we don’t even have to go outside the US to see that welfare reduces poverty very effectively. In a market-income-only world, an overwhelming number of the poor would be the elderly—the elder poverty rate would be around 40% in that scenario, according to the CBPP. One single program, social security, cuts US elder poverty to below 10%. That is a 75% reduction in poverty. All it would take to make that a 100% reduction in poverty would be to raise the minimum social security benefit above the individual poverty line. All of a sudden, there is virtually zero elder poverty. (As a side-note, claims of social security’s insolvency are grossly overstated—very small adjustments to the social security tax could very easily make it solvent into the infinite horizon, even with below-replacement fertility rates.)
Is social security unjust? It’s a distributive institution that relies on government-enforced taxation rather than individual charity. Is the Christian solution to remove social security, making millions of non-poor elderly Americans instantly poor overnight, and then hoping that private charity is able to pick up the slack? What about in Finland—should Christians there advocate to get rid of the welfare state and thrust almost a quarter of the population into poverty so we can try to make them not poor through charity?
What Socialism, Which Complexity?
Williams’s third objection—that “socialism overlooks the world’s complexities, offering simple noble-sounding solutions that often inflict unexpected harm”—suffers the most from definitional confusion about what socialism is. In the first two objections, we can fairly easily see that he’s criticizing the welfare state (though he doesn’t appear to recognize the difference between redistributing wealth and income). I would agree that welfare is one kind of socialist institution, even though others might not. It’s far less clear, though, what vision of socialism Williams has in mind in this objection: none of his examples of noble-sounding solutions encountering the real world are actually socialism.
The first example he gives of the real world impinging on socialism is the relief of debt for a third-world country. There are a lot of people who understand this issue much better than I do, but I don’t think the dividing lines of this argument are clearly socialist vs. non-socialist. As far as I can gather, socialists generally do take the side of remitting third-world debt, but that does not make it a uniquely socialist position. Most people arguing specifically about this issue in forums that actually make a difference, however, are likely not noble but simple-minded college students who don’t understand what’s going on.
The second example is perhaps the most bizarre: Christians leaving their shoes at church to be shipped off to a third world country. It’s especially jarring because private charity was just a moment ago Williams’s alternative to socialism, whereas now it is playing the role of socialism. It should go without saying that donating shoes is not socialism if the word has any meaning, but apparently it does not go without saying.
The final example he gives is a contrived scenario in which the government attempts to cap the price of eggs, leading to the egg industry hemorrhaging money and spiraling, followed by further regulation of the egg industry and culminating in “state control” over the entire industry, while “people keep getting poorer.” This is probably the most preposterous of the three examples. First, if the government wants the price of a food commodity lowered, there is already a mechanism for that: agricultural subsidies. This entirely fixes the problem that a price cap introduces. Similarly, if the government wants poor people to be able to purchase food, there’s also another mechanism for that: SNAP. This just gives farmers another paying customer. Neither of these are very complex solutions, they just work better for the given context. The fact that Williams had to imagine a boneheaded policy rather than critiquing a real one does not lend confidence to his argument. But it bears repeating that this is still not socialism. This is simply a government regulation.
I would say that Williams’s working definition of socialism appears to be “when the government does stuff,” but it seems to be even less coherent than that in light of his shoe donation example. Given that fuzziness, this objection doesn’t land at all and we’re left only with the admonition to push for policies that are informed and well thought-out rather than ignorant and hasty. This is good advice, but does nothing to demonstrate that socialist policies are usually poorly thought out.
Socialism and Human Nature
The final pair of objections to socialism Williams puts forth are about its view of human nature. The first is that socialism reduces humans to homo economicus and elevates the government to God, and the second is that socialists believe human beings to be perfectible creatures. Williams argues that though Christian socialists might claim to reject these ideas, “Christians with great intentions welcome socialist ideas into the gates of their faith, only to have their Christian worldview—their doctrines of Scripture, sin, and salvation—plundered from the inside out.” This starts us out on a rather bad foot: a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument. In his anecdotal observation, Christians who have “welcomed socialist ideas” (which ones? What counts as a socialist idea?) have later abandoned Christian orthodoxy. We can therefore conclude that socialism causes that abandonment, and that if you adopt any socialist ideas, you’re endangering your faith.
Having been a Christian socialist of one kind or another for about a decade, this argument is hollow in addition to being fallacious. You’re free to read ELI’s statement of faith, which I wrote, to see if my orthodoxy on Scripture, sin, or salvation is out of whack. I say this not because it proves that no Christians abandon the faith because of socialism, but because there is no necessary connection between socialism and abandoning orthodoxy. In part, this is because socialism does not have a singular, definite answer to the most important questions of Christian orthodoxy. It’s a contemporary political economy, not a theology, and as I said in my original response to Williams, it is a conclusion that can be validly reached by a wide number of premises. With this in mind, let’s examine each of the ideas Williams claims to belong to socialism.
The first charge, that socialism reduces human beings to homo economicus, is quite strange to me. Homo economicus is typically hurled as a pejorative against capitalist economists, and the central feature of this construal of human nature is the capacity to make perfectly rational self-interested decisions. Whatever flawed anthropologies socialists may have advanced, I don’t think this is one of them: on the contrary, socialists often say that people frequently do not actually act in their own interests—see Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire for one example.
Williams seems to mean here that orthodox Marxism reduces human beings to their membership in their class. Though there may be some rather more vulgar Marxists of the kind he describes, I once again think it entirely misses as a critique of Marx. Marx’s concept of alienation is founded on the idea of a human nature, or “species-essence,” that class society alienates people from. Far from class membership being fundamental to human nature, for Marx it constitutes an alienation from that nature as multifaceted, creative beings with minds and wills. Christians certainly might have interventions to make into this account: for instance, what we’re alienated from is not just our essential nature but our telos as image-bearers of God, and that class society is not the only sin that alienates us from our nature or end. Nevertheless, I think Christians can and should agree with Marx that life in a class society alienates us from the way we are meant to be. (I hope these last two paragraphs encourages critics of Marx to read more of his work than dismissive summaries or a quick skim of the Manifesto. There is plenty to disagree with in Marx, but an embarrassing number of his Christian critics accuse him of believing the opposite of what he actually wrote.)
The second half of this objection is that under socialism, the government is elevated to God-status. This is because, according to Williams, the only and central problem with human beings for socialists is economic injustice, and thus the state becomes the savior. I’m sure you could find the occasional socialist who thinks this way, but it is by no means a universal principle among socialists. For Christian socialists in particular, it is easy to dispense with this line of logic: we don’t actually believe that economic injustice is the only problem with human beings, but just one of many problems stemming from the sinful desire to rule the world on our own terms rather than God’s. Thus any government action to make a more economically just society is not “salvation” in anything like the way Jesus saves us. It is a limited but real good solving a partial but real human problem. As I’ve written before, for Christian socialists, the state is not automatically good, but just another modern human institution that can be ordered toward justice or injustice. There are, in fact, whole groups of socialists who ultimately want a stateless society. Though I find that overall philosophy a bit unrealistic this side of the eschaton, it yet gives the lie to anything so simplistic as “socialism makes the government God.”
Finally, Williams quotes Harry Schaffer as saying, “Socialists and Communists of all shades and leanings believe in the perfectibility of all mankind.” Not a single inch of room is given for the possibility that some shades and leanings of socialism—namely, Christian socialism—might not think human beings are perfectible. I’ve encountered this argument dozens of times, but as I wrote in my original response to Williams and yet another ELI article, I don’t think it lands at all. Being a socialist has made me more skeptical of human goodness, not less. If you think capitalism is just overall, you live in a world much sunnier than I do. I am reminded daily of the human desire to rule the world on our own terms rather than God’s. I see the material immiseration of millions to be a result of sin, not a natural part of the course of things or an unfortunate accident. Exploitation and poverty are not unfortunate exceptions to the overall just way we run the system. They are the result of hearts hardened against their own brothers and sisters, their fellow bearers of the image of God. Those who believe an economic system predicated on the pursuit of self-interest are required to make a much greater theological leap than are Christian socialists: that human self-interest will ultimately result in the good of all. I have no faith that we will rid human beings of evil before Christ returns to make all things new, but in the resurrection of Christ we have seen that the spring flower of justice and righteousness is poking through the snow of evil and death. We don’t have to pretend that evil and death are immovable. Even as they appear to rule the world, it is my duty of faithfulness to the resurrected Christ to stand against them with every fiber of my being, even if I die long before justice arrives. It is my duty as a Christian to complain on behalf of every stomach left empty and every diabetic who dies because their GoFundMe for insulin didn’t raise enough money because those things are the result of sinful human choices. They are not the only sinful human choices, but does the idea that there are sins other than economic exploitation make socialist politics automatically invalid? I certainly don’t think so.
Truly and honestly, I wish nothing other than to have a real conversation about this in good faith and rigor. I want to earnestly work through the arguments without the straw opponents or misrepresentations. I hope that Christian capitalists can recognize that maybe they have not thought things through as deeply as they had assumed, and that Christian socialists do not hold their positions out of ignorance. What grieves me most about Williams’s argument is his assumption that Christian socialists (or socialism-curious Christians) have just not considered the issue enough. But I think this is precisely backwards. Socialism, especially among evangelicals, is a marginal position—supporting capitalism is taken for granted. Support for capitalism encounters little challenge, and when it does, you can rattle off boilerplate arguments in its defense and most people will nod along. In contrast, I have had to think long and hard about the counterarguments to socialism. I have had to read deeply in order to understand arguments that I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with. If you think that bringing up the Soviet Union or Venezuela will be a real “gotcha,” you have severely underestimated how much intellectual work it takes to become a socialist as a practicing evangelical Christian.
All I ask is that Christian critics of socialism assume we are not ignorant. It is deeply unfortunate to me that, without a hint of irony, Williams himself recently published an article in the Gospel Coalition titled “The False Gospel of Assuming the Worst of Others.” I don’t think his assuming the ignorance of Christian socialists was out of any malice, but malice is not the only way to assume the worst about others. I pray that we will have better arguments going forward.