there any conflict between the tenets of Christianity and
the free market economy?
presented at the workshop on Religion and Economic Growth
organized by the Institute for Public Policy Analysis, Lagos,
at the Jabita Intercontinental Hotel, Ikeja, on February 28,
OLUFEMI AWONIYI, PHD
This paper is divided into three sections. In Section I, I
will present the conventional arguments for and against free
market economy. The presentation, which will be reportorial
in approach, will conclude with personal observations and
In Section II, I will present the arguments for and against
the Biblical basis for and against free market economy, after
which I will offer some comments. For the conventional arguments
in both sections, I have relied on Craig Gay's For Liberty
and Justice for Whom?, 1991, for much of the materials.
Section III is a distillation of my reflection on free market
economy and the present Nigerian situation.
ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST FREE MARKET ECONOMY
The debate over free market economy occurs at different point
of engagement. We will highlight three areas for the purpose
of this section, namely, the nature of the market, free market
politics, and the free market and culture.
of the Market
According to its advocates, the free market is an efficient
method of private production for the market. It is a system
where production of wealth has transformed the world for the
better. Not everybody is convinced of this proposition, however.
Some critics regard the free market economy as a comprehensive
sociopolitical-economic system in which a small business elite
exploits and oppresses the majority of people in modern society.
Free market advocates, however, reject this criticism. They
insist that capitalism is not a comprehensive system, arguing
that although the free market system represents the institutionalization
of economic relationships, the market system is just one of
a number of institutions that make up the social order. Other
primary institutions, they argue, include the family, schools,
religious bodies, etc.
On the question of oppression, free marketers argue that both
parties to an exchange engage in their transaction in a peaceful
atmosphere and perceive their exchange to be beneficial to
the two parties. It is voluntary. Critics reply that equality
of the parties is only on the surface. In real life, they
suggest, there is hardly ever equality. On the accusation
that free enterprise benefits only a tiny business elite,
free market defenders make bold that there is a degree of
inequality in all societies and systems and therefore it should
not come as a surprise that free enterprise benefits some
people more than others. Furthermore, they contend that the
small degree of inequality is offset by the benefits of the
market practice of consumer sovereignty. With reference to
profit, free market exponents suggest that by equating the
profit motive with greed, critics confuse selfishness with
legitimate self-interest. What precisely is legitimate self-interest
is, however, a matter of debate even among free market economists.
Critics contend that monopoly and a relatively high level
of unemployment are intrinsic to the free market process.
Market champions however see monopoly and unemployment as
serious problems in contemporary societies, and not a product
of the market per se. While they admit that there is some
level of unemployment in the system, they blame it on a number
of factors, especially disincentives to unemployment created
by government welfare programs.
Internationally, critics of free enterprise blame Third World
poverty on the practices of transnational companies. Free
market exponents reject the accusation stating that although
multinational make huge profits, they transfer skills to the
Third World so multinational corporate involvement in the
Third World is not totally exploitative. According to free
market exponents, the real impediments to Third World business
enterprise are internal factors such as political instability,
population growth, and cultural patterns.
According to its promoters, capitalism promotes peaceful and
voluntary social interaction and that the system of private
ownership of property provides and important defense against
the concentration and misuse of power. Critics of the market,
however, denounce he democracy engendered by the market because
according to them, it is illusory. What is really happening,
according to them, is the domination and direction of the
political process and the political agenda by a small elite
for maximizing their own profits at the expense of the public
good. For example, they mount puppets, fund their electioneering
campaigns, win elections, and thereafter line their pockets.
To this free marketers contend that far from being dominated
by a business elite, modern governments tend to be controlled
instead by bureaucratic political elites that are largely
unaccountable to the electorate and have grown increasingly
hostile to business.
Market and Culture
Decadence in society is a problem that analysts on both sides
of the debate of free market economy are concerned about.
Critics of the market see a connection between decadence and
the prevailing climate of materialism in poor economic relationship.
According to them, social change will occur when changes in
economic structures occur. Free market proponents, however,
suggest that this line of argument is a mix up. The breakdown
in morals, in their view, is a result of the failure of other
primary institutions such as the family, schools, and religious
bodies. For social change, therefore, we should not speak
primarily in socio-structural terms. Rather, efforts should
be directed at individual moral and spiritual renewal.
ON THE ARGUMENTS
It is perhaps important to purse at this juncture to make
a number of observations and comments on the foregoing. First,
the foregoing arguments over the merits and demerits of free
market economy are advanced at the hypothetical level. In
other words, they are not with reference to any particular
country. Most of the scholars are Westerners - specifically
Americans. Therefore, in terms of assumptions, the undisclosed
assumption in these arguments is that the arguments are about
the situation in America. If this assumption is correct, then
the arguments are at a hypothetical level with respect to
Second, we have seen that free market supporters are not short
of refutations, cute answers, to their critics. Nevertheless,
some free market economists such as Hill and Doner (Gay: 1991,
p.71), admit that the real issue goes father than the logicality
of arguments - that the free market system has some problems
or weaknesses. According to them,
to the five areas of concern by Hill and Doner is the question
of inequality, namely, that full-blown market operation worsens
inequality in community. One of the basic tenets of the Christian
faith is the equality of persons. Some analysts may conclude
that, to the extent that free market economy has these foregoing
problems, it conflicts with and is opposed to the tenets of
the Christian faith. However, based on some considerations that
I will draw our attention to in the course of this paper, I
am prepared to argue that the problem is not so much of conflict
as much as failure of the free market to live up to its vision.
poverty and unequal income distribution pose problems for
property rights are subject to abuse
has a tendency to become an end in itself
mechanism is largely impersonal and abstract
market's inability to value certain public goods necessitates
some degree of public intervention.
OVER THE SCTRUTURAL BASIS OF FREE MARKET ECONOMY
Christians who take seriously freedom and justice, two imperatives
of the Christian faith, have found themselves locked in a
rather bitter dispute over the scriptural basis of free market
economy. The debate over the scriptural basis of free market
economy is important because if those who are opposed to free
enterprise can show that the capitalist economy has no Biblical
basis, then they can then declare that free market economy
conflicts with the tenets of the Christian faith. Those on
the right also take the argument over the Biblical basis of
their system seriously because if they can ward off all the
attacks against free enterprise and establish a scriptural
basis for capitalism, then they can conclude that capitalism
is a Christian system.
of free market system assert that private accumulation of
wealth which they say is at the heart of the free market is
roundly prohibited in both the Old and New Testaments. With
reference to the Old Testament, free market economy is at
variance with (1) the Mosaic legislation concerning the release
of Hebrew slaves (Ex. 21: 2-6; Dt. 15: 12-18), (2) the Sabbatical
Year (Ex.23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7), (3) the periodic cancellation
of debt Dt. 15: 1-11), (4) the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25: 8-17),
and (5) the pursuit of the knowledge of God which is mutually
exclusive of accumulation of wealth (Pro. 8:10). They emphasize
what they regard as Old Testament sanctions of the ideal of
equality among brethren and Old Testament prohibition of private
accumulation for any purpose other than that of meeting basic
With reference to the New Testament, first, Jesus' announcement,
"blessed are the poor (Lk. 6:20) and the corresponding,
"woe to you who are rich (Lk. 6:24) as well as Jesus'
encounter with the rich young ruler (Mk. 10:17-24; Lk. 14:33),
illustrate Jesus rejection of accumulation of wealth. Second,
according to the critics, the early church communism described
in Acts 4 and 5 and Paul's determination to return to Jerusalem,
Acts 20, for income distribution constitute a warrant for
the equalization of capital then and now. Third, the prophets
and Jesus call for sociopolitical-economic structural change
as typified by Jesus message in Lk. 4: 18-21. Lastly, there
is the confrontation with the quasi-demonic economic principalities
and powers (Ro. 8:38); 1Cor. 2:8, 15:24-26; Eph. 1: 20ff;
2: 14ff; 3: 10; 6:12; Col. 1: 16; 2:15).
Free market champions accuse those on the left of flouting
widely accepted rules of Biblical interpretation in order
to discredit the market system. According to them, Christians
in favor of free market alternatives quote the Bible but they
arrive at their conclusions a priori along Marxist lines.
For example, first, they deny that oppression is a Biblical-theological
category. Second, they reject the idea that the exodus is
a paradigm for today. According to them, the exodus was an
event in which God fulfilled a specific promise to the nation
of Israel. Third, they agree that God cares for the weak but
He is not on the side of the poor in the sense that He perverts
justice in their favor. Third, the Jubilee legislation could
not have been intended as a scheme for expropriating the rich
for that would fly in the face of the eighth commandment,
"thou shalt not steal". Rather, the Jubilee was
intended to safeguard equal opportunity for Israelites to
earn income without destroying the incentives to work and
to invest through normal economic activities.
Fourth, free market exponents object to socialist use of the
prophetic literature. They point out that Biblical prophets
were not social analysts as such but rather, they were concerned
with what they call the ethical lapses that took place in
their societies and the impact of those lapses on he innocent.
They accuse socialists of manipulating the message of the
prophets to call for class warfare.
Furthermore, fifth, they argue that it is impossible to deduce
any economic system from Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom. On
the much flaunted statement in Lk. 4: 18, they contend that
it is not right to view Jesus mission primarily in socio-political
terms because the poverty spoken of in the passage is spiritual
service and not material poverty. They concede that wealth
can be an obstacle to one's entrance into the Kingdom of God
but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with private ownership.
On the socialist insistence that Acts 4 and 5 constitutes
the warrant for equalization of capital today, those on the
right assert that those on the left are misled because communalism
described in Acts 4 and 5 was temporary and was not made mandatory
by the apostles.
Christians for free market economy not only seek to refute
leftist interpretations of the Bible, they have advanced a
positive Biblical case for capitalism. In particular, first,
they argue that because mankind is created in God's image,
(Gen. 1:26), the capacity to see new possibilities for products,
services, and labor-saving devices to create wealth which
lies at the heart of a growing economy is basic to human nature.
Second, God's command to have dominion over the earth (Gen.
1: 28) reflects God's economic expectations of humanity. In
particular, they interpreted this passage individualistically
rather than collectively. In other words, domination is with
respect to individual ownership limited only by the concept
of stewardship understood to mean hard work, diligence, thrift,
prudence, sobriety, and honesty. Third, they accuse command
economists of dubious exegesis and evasion of clear texts
such as 2Thes. 3: 6ff, "if anyone will not work
let him not eat". Fourth, free market advocate stress
Jesus parable of the talent (Mt. 25: 15). They base their
justification of profit on Jesus' praise of those who through
wise management and careful stewardship created wealth.
Lastly, they draw attention to 1Sam 8 and Rom. 13 as the basis
for a limited state. They suggest that based on these two
passages, the state is to limit itself to the areas of (1)
national defense, (2) adjudication of disputes, (3) defense
of private property, and (4) monitoring of certain public
goods. It is not the business of the state to use coercive
power to force people to love their neighbors.
each side of the debate accuses the other of not interpreting
the Bible correctly. What actually goes on is the fact that
although each side quotes the Bible, they cite Bible passages
only to illustrate the ideological positions which they bring
to the Bible.
Second, it is possible for each side to set their respective
premises, supply relevant passages, argue logically, and arrive
at their respective positions. Therefore, therefore we cannot
categorically state that free market economy conflicts with
the tenets of the Christian faith based solely on selected
Third, free market economy and its alternatives are entrenched
in the struggle for freedom and justice respectively. It is
not as if those fighting for freedom are ipso facto opposed
to the struggle for justice. Indeed, those at the vanguard
for justice are hoping to reap freedom at the end of it all.
Similarly, those who are campaigning for freedom are aiming
at justice at the end of the day. So, we can say it is a question
of method, to some extent.
Fourth, freedom and justice are two Christian ideals and Christians
have no choice between the two. They are morally bound to
pursue the two. As methods for achieving these ideals, Christians
are forbidden to bow to the methods.
Fifth, despite the orchestrated differences between free market
economy and its alternatives, they have some things in common.
Karl Marx' original communist idea was modified by Lenin, whose
brand was also modified by Stalin. Then came Prestoika, and
the free market economy in present day Russia. In a different
development, Britain, Adam Smith's country has been a bearer
of capitalism for years. Then came World War II and its aftermath.
It became obvious to the British who did not contemplate the
loss of their empire before the commencement of the war that
their oversea colonies were going to demand independence in
a way that Britain could prevent. Coupled with post-war unemployment
and the logicality of reducing the social gap in a population
in which virtually everybody contributed to the war effort,
Britain had to go the socialist way! The major sectors of the
economy were nationalized in order to create employment for
the masses. The socialist mix persisted until Margaret Thatcher
took over and reintroduced free capitalist economy. In a twist
of events, the Labour Party under Tony Blair ditched it distinctive
socialist Clause 4 in order to win the election that brought
the traditionally socialist party to power, 1997. Since then
all socialist talk has been a matter of rhetoric because Tony
Blair has been correctly as been more right wing than the Tories
in practice. Lastly, free market economy in USA functions as
though it has come to accept the unionist principle of collective
bargaining and the social security system as reality. What is
really on ground is the woof and warf of free market and its
are human creations.
find scriptural warrant, therefore it is inaccurate to say
that free market economy is opposed to the Christian faith.
forge their own chains of enslavement.
to a lesser or greater degree are responsible for the structures
that create poverty, injustice, and oppression.
lack the transcendental principle of critical self-reflection
and therefore fail to live up to their visions of freedom
of them, its pure form has or can retain the loyalty of
any given country indefinitely.
In the light of the foregoing, therefore, are we to conclude
that free market economy and its interventionist alternatives
are equally beneficial? We have noted that the conventional
debate with reference to the nature of free enterprise, politics
and culture is conducted at the hypothetical level. They may
be logical but because of their purely hypothetical level, they
can be misleading.
Similarly, if we restrict ourselves to Bible thumbing, it will
be difficult to conclude that they are equally beneficial or
otherwise based on the passages cited by each because of the
usual mutual accusations of bad hermeneutics. One way to break
the logjam is to ground the arguments in a given context - notably
Nigeria - and look at it from the historically perspective.
Another reason for placing the arguments in a historical perspective
is to ensure that this workshop addresses itself to genuine
issues than pander to the urge for sheer intellectual stimulation.
MARKET ECONOMY IN THE NIGERIAN CONTEXT
economic history is a long story. We can blame the British
for virtually everything before 1960. We know that they stage
managed the hand-over of power from 1947-1960 in order to
maintain British economic interest in Nigeria after 1960.
Though imperfectly, 1960 marked the beginning of opportunity
for the Nigerian people.
The new administration maintained the economic status quo
throughout the First Republic and the Civil War years. At
the end of the war, the military government of the day took
steps to ensure a stronger indigenous grip on the economy.
Besides, several publicly owned companies were nationalized
the tackle the problem of unemployment. Although the intention
was morally sound, the implementation was riddled with corruption.
Military dictators who had nothing to offer but leprous management
of the economy and the promotion of regional cronies especially
since 1985 compounded the situation further. Beginning with
the Babangida dictatorship, corruption became official policy,
albeit unwritten. Merit was sacked and droves of unmotivated
mediocre and parasites were thrust into management positions
in the commanding sectors of the economy. The outcome of all
of the foregoing has been the virtual collapse of the Nigerian
Since the inception of the present dispensation under President
Olusegun Obasanjo, and his free enterprise program, no person
of integrity will deny that the quality of live of Nigerians
have improved, as the economy has started picking up. For
example, it is possible to count the number of Nigerians who
bought a car between 1985-1999 on one's fingertips. In contrast,
the roads in all our cities are congested with Tokunbo.
Similarly, the liberalization of the telecommunication sector
is welcome development by ordinary Nigerians. There is an
insatiable demand for its extension to cities nation-wide.
Therefore, in the light of the turnaround that the Nigerian
economy is experiencing, I endorse free market economy for
Nigeria of 2002. Left to the hypothetical level, my instincts
go for the socialist line of thought. Looked at historically
and empirically, I have to admit that free market has performed
better than socialist prescription.
However, if human wellbeing is the goal of economic practice,
then my endorsement of free market economy is not uncritical
because of two reasons. First because it lacks transcendental
principle of critical self-reflection just as its interventionist
alternatives. Second because no country has ever adhered to
it indefinitely in its pure form. Since there is hardly any
reason why Nigeria may be treated as an exception, free market
system in Nigeria may need its alternatives inputs in due
course just as it has occurred in Britain and USA. In other
words, the woof and warf of political economy makes it unlikely
that it will run totally unencumbered. But there is no doubt
that I wish free market to have the commanding heights in
present day Nigeria. It is not opposed to the Christian faith
but it fails to live up to its vision.
Awoniyi(firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Director, Centre for Religion
and Public Issues, Lagos.