If the difference between capitalism and communism is clear—one is based on scriptural truth, and the other is not, can you articulate a pro-property rights/capitalism position from Scripture? It follows that you should be able to give a basis for capitalism via God’s Word. This study is designed to aid you in that regard and also to help you form personal and political convictions based on God’s guidance as explicated in His revelation.
Read on, my friend.
I have chosen to depict the subject of this week’s study with a powerful and emotive scene from the movie Far and Away when Tom Cruise is on a wild horse racing westward on the morning of the great and historic Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. To underscore the subject of this study, at this time in history the American government granted unassigned land that was open to settlement to its citizens. All that to say, America has historically believed in private property rights, which is the single greatest reason why it has grown to become the world’s largest economy in a relatively short period of time.
The Bible is pro private property. There are many passages that support this; all governments should be pro private property. Further, according to Scripture, personal private property ownership is fundamental to every person’s ability to express being created in His image. (I will develop that idea later in this study.) In addition, private property rights are fundamental to personal and national fruitfulness. (We will see examples of this in what follows.)
Biblically based private property ownership is the basis of capitalism. Capitalism stands in absolute and distinct contradiction to the ideology of communism. As Karl Marx said in his Communist Manifesto:
“The theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: the abolition of private property.”
Before building a scriptural case for private property and capitalism, let us first begin by investigating the precedent that God is the ultimate owner of everything.
II. PASSAGES ON GOD’S ULTIMATE OWNERSHIP OF ALL PROPERTY
Scripture teaches that God is the ultimate owner of the earth and all that is therein— not governments, be they communist or otherwise—and that He desires individuals to be His stewards of it. Note this first point in Psalm 24:1 and Deuteronomy 10:14 respectively:
“The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.”
“Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it.”
In granting stewardship, He entrusts the responsibilities of management to the top of His creative order: man, whom He created in His image, unlike any other segments of His creation. This fundamental idea is conveyed in Genesis 1:26–28:
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
Incumbent in man’s stewardship role over all of creation, God uses the descriptive word subdue (kabash) to encompass what He specifically intends for man to do. This Hebrew word kabash specifically means “to bring into servitude.” In Numbers 32:22, 32:29, and Joshua 18:1, this same word is used in the sense of parallel contextual meaning: Israel is to subdue the land of Canaan so the land would serve Israel. Importantly, the contextual usage of kabash in Genesis 1 pertains to God instructing those in His creation who are made in His image to discover, understand, develop, utilize, and enjoy all the earth’s over-abundant resources. Implied in God’s command to man is this: man is to carry out his God-appointed stewardship responsibility with respect and thanksgiving to God. Having first established this principle of God’s ultimate ownership, the following point need now be made:
In God’s ultimate ownership, Scripture repeatedly communicates that He intends for individuals—not His institution of civil government— to steward His property.
In the aforementioned quoted Genesis passage, emphasis need be placed on the word them, which refers to individuals. Civil government is not in view here. From this first book of the Bible all the way to through to the book of Revelation, Scripture makes it clear that God conveys property ownership to individuals, not to totalitarian regimes, democratic civil governments, or any other kind of a nation as a whole.
III. PASSAGES ON PERSONAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
Reinforcing the aforementioned, a myriad of passages evidence God’s expectation of personal ownership of His property—versus implications of governmental or societal ownership of His property. Here are some of those.
A. THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not steal.”
Exodus 20:15 presumes that people own something that can be stolen. For instance, I am not to take my neighbor’s cart because it belongs to my neighbor. It is impossible to steal something from somebody if they don’t own it in the first place. Or, as a modern example, you cannot search through my email files and give them to whomever you choose unbeknownst to me; to do so is to steal intellectual property. Rightfully so, capitalism necessitates title deeds, copyrights, trademarks, and patents in order to keep others from stealing what belongs to you.
B. THE TENTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Exodus 20:17 above addresses the heart. Covet (chamad) in this Hebrew passage and epithumeo in Greek (cf. Romans 7:7) means “a strong desire; wantonness.” As used in this context, it is the desire to take from another what rightfully belongs to him. Note specifically that the passage does not say those things belong to the community or the government; three times the passage uses the word neighbor (rea), meaning “a person, friend, or fellow.”
C. IRRESPONSIBLE OWNERSHIP
“If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.”
Exodus 21:29 above, uses the word owner (baal) in relation to, in this case, being an irresponsible steward of what Moses (the author of Exodus and all five of the first books of the Bible, known as the Torah) implies he already possesses. To own something means you are legally connected to it, to the extent that one can be found personally liable for damages. Such laws today, stemming from the Torah and its assumption of personal property rights, prove motivational to a person being a good manager! Save pride of ownership, such laws in turn breed personal asset management skills and its upside: the creation of responsible value-added products, a biblical, economic virtue unknown in biblically ignorant or biblically defiant communist nations.
D. MOVING A LANDMARK
“You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary mark, which the ancestors have set.”
Deuteronomy 19:14 above speaks to the sin of moving the boundaries of land owned by another person. Proverbs 23:10 adds in this regard:
“Do not move the ancient boundary or go into the fields of the fatherless.”
Each of the two stanzas of this Proverb serve to give insight into the meaning of the other. Private ownership is the object here: it is wrong to steal another person’s property just because he is unable to defend what is rightfully his.
E. THE YEAR OF JUBILEE
“You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25:10)
Our subject of study becomes increasingly interesting. I am afraid that as proud Americans, we are often guilty of thinking that capitalism is a perfect system of governance, but no economic system is perfect in a fallen world! Churchill once quipped, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others!” It is only when Christ returns and sets up His rule as the King of kings that there will be a perfect government and a perfect, totally just economic system on the earth.
The Old Testament (OT) book of Leviticus informs us that every fifty years Israel’s people were to hit the restart button on their personal property/capitalism-based economy. Akin to playing the game Monopoly today wherein one or two players in time will monopolize all the properties, in a fallen world, some people inevitably become economic juggernauts while others who are less gifted, far less far-sighted, or less competitive can and will fall to the wayside. Some are not as strong or able as others and cannot compete or gain wealth even though they live in a personal-property-based culture. This is one of those realities of living in a fallen world.
It is not that capitalism is perfect; it is just that it is the best alternative in a fallen world.
Personal property ownership is not a perfect cure-all; no capitalist should try to make that argument. That is evident from Leviticus 25:10. But the point to be underscored from Leviticus 25:10, relative to this study, is this: “each of you shall return to his own property.” As in the other aforementioned passages, God’s endorsement of an economy with “his own property” (even with its faults) is in view here.
F. SUMMARY OF PASSAGES ON PERSONAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
The Bible speaks repeatedly regarding the economic creation and well-being of a nation and how that best occurs in what will always be until Christ returns, an unfair, disproportionately talented, fallen world. The best system, says God’s Word, is via a government based upon and one that respects personal private property rights.
With the inclusion of the Year of Jubilee (an occasional adjustment mechanism in a private property economic structure), it is safe to say that God is a capitalist, not a communist.1
Given that summary, one can also extrapolate from the aforementioned five passages that:
One of God’s fundamental principles is for civil government to respect and facilitate the private ownership rights of its citizens.
The economic principle that stems from the Torah is this: necessary for achieving a proper functioning, fruitful, and prosperous nation in a material sense is personal property ownership. (The Bible does not deem material things as evil; such thinking is a faulty dualism and the subject of other studies.) To violate God’s principle of private ownership and enact some form or level of communism in a state is patently unbiblical and will ultimately lead to the demise of a nation’s motivation, economic engine, growth, and overall material well-being of its people.
IV. THE NATURAL TENDENCY OF GOVERNMENT TO OVERREACH
In a greater-than-just-material-concerns sense, God has ordained four other separate institutions that He intends to function simultaneously and independently of government in order to best achieve His purposes and herald the riches of His grace (cf. Ephesians 2:7) in a fallen world prior to His second coming. Government is only one of five coequal institutions. And within that five-institution spectrum of each institution’s God-given responsibilities, government does what it does better than the other institutions: suppress evil. But keep in mind the other four institutions—marriage, family, commerce, and the church—do what they do better than government! Government cannot accomplish for a nation what the other four can and do achieve much more expeditiously and efficiently: marriage promulgates; the family cultivates; commerce invigorates; and the church translates. Those theological pillars of institutional understanding are fundamental to a biblical worldview and serve to qualify the role of government. What is also in view, given this contextualization and the focus of this study, is this:
The institution of government is always on the prowl to invade the sandbox of every other institution.
But it makes a mess of things whenever it does! Left to its predilection to roam, it soon wanders outside its God-designed purpose: it perverts marriage; it stymies the family; it encroaches on the church; and left to its self-centered ways, it begins to overstep commerce by eroding or attacking private property rights! Government, it seems, finds the physique of Jabba the Hutt to be attractive! Left unchecked, government will eclipse God’s separate institution of commerce, which must function with personal property rights in order to flourish institutionally in order to materially invigorate a nation.
The dominating tendencies of government in a fallen world is nothing new. The prophet Samuel spoke to Israel about the increasing pervasive nature of civil administrations when Israel first mentioned to him that they wanted their own king. Notice his sage response to the nation Israel in 1 Samuel 8:10–18:
“So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who had asked of him a king. He said, ‘This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. He will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards and give to his officers and to his servants. He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys and use them for his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’”
When government goes unchecked, it begins to take from the people, confiscating more and more for itself. The word take appears six times in this passage! Be on guard: runaway government is normative in a fallen world! Therefore, as exegetically substantiated in the previous point:
It is God’s blueprint for a nation’s people to possess the bulk of property and wealth of the nation— versus the government.
It follows that government, according to the Bible, must be kept in check lest it begin to think it can achieve for its people tasks that are better suited for fulfillment by God’s other ordained institutions.
The role of government is limited to and most efficient when, according to 1 Peter 2:14 (ESV), it is about “[praising] those who do good” (i.e., in part, those who provide jobs for others due to their giftedness should be rewarded and not penalized so as to encourage them to create more jobs and wealth for the nation) and “punish[ing] those who do evil” (provide a strong judicial system internally and a strong military force externally) (cf. Romans 13:1–8). When government begins to step outside its biblically specific purposes, it becomes ghastly and monstrously inefficient, resulting in the eventual if not immediate eclipse of its citizens and their liberties, thereby lessening their motivation, personal abilities, and resourcefulness to reflect the attributes of God to others.
V. PERU, PRIVATE PROPERTY, AND POVERTY
Peru is a good example of how the violation of private property principles entraps a nation in poverty. The denial of private property rights does not always rest on the shoulders of communist ideology; sometimes it results in supposed capitalist countries such as Peru (what I call CINO countries: “Capitalist In Name Only”).
The brilliant work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto serves to substantiate the aforementioned biblical principle of private property, and its absence being the root cause of poverty. When governments deny private property rights by making their attainment next to impossible, they stymie the creation of wealth among their own people. Such policies are extremely short-sighted. The root cause of poverty is this: with no ability to gain working capital due to a lack of collateral from property ownership, entrepreneurs do not have the means to enter the capital market and create a product or service. De Soto’s team attempted to build a house in Peru. Here is what they went through:
To obtain legal authorization to build a house on state-owned land took six years and eleven months requiring 207 administrative steps in 52 government offices…. To obtain a legal title for that piece of land took 728 [additional] steps.2
States Grudem regarding de Soto’s similar attempt to obtain a permit to build a small garment workshop on the outskirts of Lima:
They worked at the registration process six hours a day and it took them 289 days! The cost was the equivalent of $1,231 U.S. dollars, or thirty-one times the monthly minimum wage equivalent (approximately three years’ salary for the ordinary person living in Peru).3
In addition, our Capitol Ministries ministry leader in Peru informs me that all too often, due to a lack of integrity and corruption in the title industry, property titles are often found to be illegitimate.
De Soto has documented similar roadblocks in the countries of Egypt, Philippines, and Haiti. Property ownership is next to impossible in many third world countries, which traps its citizenry in poverty! It is as if these country’s citizens are living in a communist country. This is not God’s design for a nation! Such backward, biblically negligent, manifest governmental ideology serves to illustrate the wisdom of God’s ways. Likened to the American government’s 1889 land grant, as the individuals prosper from private property rights, so does the whole of the nation and its administration.
Unfortunately, however, as America jettisons its trust in the Torah, it follows that there would be and are increasing threats and erosion of private property ownership:
VI. AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM, PRIVATE PROPERTY, AND POVERTY
After taking ten years to develop and only twenty-five years of operation, the much-needed San Onofre nuclear power plant in San Clemente, CA, is now closed. Blaming incessant lawsuits and subsequent delays caused by environmental groups, the executive of Southern California Edison, which championed the project, said the utility would never again create another nuclear power plant. As a result, the utility has not attempted to build another power plant on its own private property.
When environmentalists and their choking, imbalanced regulations descended on the logging industry in the Northwest, claiming the spotted owl was an endangered species (an owl that is identical to the California spotted owl, which is in abundant supply), it nearly destroyed the industry. Fifty thousand lost jobs later, owners can no longer harvest lumber at will from their private property.
GOVERNMENT AND SECULAR ENVIRONMENTALISM
Having majored in Ecosystems at UCLA and climbed extensively in the High Sierra since my childhood, it is evident to the objective student of this subject that it is sometimes biblically uninformed policies that lead to species endangerment. To illustrate, the bighorn sheep of the Eastern Sierra are rightfully classified as an endangered species. But the reason is because three national parks eclipse a large portion of their natural habitat. The National Park Service (NPS) is governed by a preservationist philosophy (whereas the U.S. Forest Service operates under a conservationist philosophy, a tension that stems from the historic debates between Mather and Pinchot during the formation of the NPS). The outworking dictations of a preservationist philosophy in our national parks means one cannot hunt any wildlife. (And boy do the animals know it!) In the case of the bighorn sheep, that means man cannot glean its predator, the mountain lion. The uninhibited growth of the mountain lion population is the reason the sheep are endangered. Make no mistake, it is the secular environmental policies of the government—uninformed about Genesis 1:26–27—that represent the real threat to the bighorn sheep in the Sierra.
In Santa Cruz, CA, environmental policies make it impossible to trim the trees on a homeowners’ own private property even when the overgrowth is a serious fire threat or quite often causes power outages during rainy, windy weather after their heavy limbs fall on power lines.
These three vignettes serve to illustrate the encroachment of government on commerce and private property.
In California, where our family has resided for four generations, there has been a huge stagnation in development (especially compared to Texas) since the adoption and requirement of Environmental Impact Reports. The bottom line is that even though private property exists, the economic benefits God intends for private property ownership have been greatly diminished. Viewed through the lens of developable land, it is the government that now, in essence, owns the land! What a huge philosophical about-face from the days of the Great Oklahoma Land Rush! The present overly regulatory policies of our nation’s government, biblically speaking, pave the way for the road to poverty.
Additional erosion of private property rights occurred under President Bill Clinton, who issued executive order 13061 which seized ten additional rivers per year, making them federal property even if they flow through private land. Both Presidents Clinton and Barack Obama enacted orders that confiscate millions of acres of private land that will be effectively removed from private use forever. Fortunately, and most recently, President Donald Trump has enacted orders to reverse this trend. In summary of this point:
It is the private ownership of land that best serves the continuing prosperity of any nation!
We only need to study or visit regressive Russia or inalterable India. Both are lands of plentiful natural resources yet are stuck in the plight of poverty due to the fact that their cultures are not informed by what the Torah teaches concerning private property rights! Israel, on the other hand, a much younger nation informed by the Torah, has experienced huge economic development in a relatively short period of time. Therein lies the difference between nations of similar resources. No wonder Thomas Jefferson said the United States would be different, stating, “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property, and in their management.”4
It is hard to imagine that our nation would ever even contemplate changing horses after having ridden an Old Testament stallion for so long—and having experienced the absolutely incomparable thrill of riding it for so many years!
VII. BIG GOVERNMENT, PERSONAL LIBERTY, AND REFLECTING THE IMAGE OF GOD
As government grows, it eclipses personal liberty. As personal liberty diminishes, so does the individual’s ability to reflect the glory of God to others. What do I mean by this? One example is personal wealth. When an individual prospers, he has more to share with others: he has the opportunity to reflect, in this case, the grace of God by giving to others in need. Often such expressions of love lead to the gospel and salvation. This is in juxtaposition to government taxing the wealth of individuals, thereby denuding them of their personal resourcefulness with the belief that it can meet the needs of others more effectively. But in truth, God did not ordain government to play this role, and it is woefully wasteful and inefficient when it attempts to meet the needs of citizens—especially their real, spiritual needs for regeneration in Christ.
When government sticks to its God-ordained job description, “for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14), it achieves what other institutions cannot, and it simultaneously empowers its citizens with individual liberty to reflect the glory of God to other people. The purpose, role, and limitations of civil government and its leaders must be informed by the Scriptures—not self, not secularism. It is to serve its citizens so they can best serve their fellow citizens.
The right to personal property, also known as free enterprise or capitalism, is the governmental economic system supported by Scripture. Scripture does not support communism. One need look no further than what has happened in Venezuela in just several short years—once a prosperous, thriving capitalistic country, millions of its citizens have now been forced into exile in order to escape the resultant poverty of a communistic takeover. Whereas the former leads to a prosperous nation, the latter leads to a poverty-stricken nation. Historic America serves as a wonderful illustration of this biblical axiom. Accordingly, as lawmakers and public servants, do not even consider making an ideological shift at this point in our history. Do not jettison our prosperous past that has been so beautifully informed and made possible by adherence to the Mosaic law contained in the Torah regarding personal property rights! cm
1 Historically and presently, Congress, in essence, enacts the principle of the Year of Jubilee every time it acts to bust up or curtail the formation of a monopoly.
2 Dr. Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
4 Merrill D. Peterson, Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1398. [Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval ( July 12, 1816.)]