Many Christians are of the mind that socialism is inherently incompatible with Christianity while capitalism is the most optimal solution. While some people will go so far as to argue that capitalism and laissez-faire markets are inherently consonant with Christianity, others will simply say that they are the most effective system humans have devised for running our economic life.
The primary issue Christians tend to identify with Christian socialism, then, is not its moral foundations—that is, the desire for economic egalitarianism and care for the poor—but rather with the concept of freedom. This is meant in the particular sense of the individual’s ability to act without coercion. Just because we want to care for the poor, the argument goes, does not mean we ought to force people to give their money to the poor. I think this argument has multiple problems.
First, all economic orders are coercively enforced. Were there not a government with the threat of force, there would not be any free market capitalism. Right now, all across the country, there are massive commercial buildings stuffed to the gills with food (much of which will end up being thrown out). As a society, we’ve produced more food than we can even eat! So if a hungry person with no money were to walk into one of these massive stores, take what they needed, and left, what would happen? The coercion of the state would swiftly be upon them, because the state’s definition of what belongs to who says that the even if you’re hungry and don’t have any money, the massive stores of food we’ve produced do not belong to you—you have to purchase food with money.
How does one get money? Unless you own a whole lot of wealth, the only option you have is to sell your body and mind to do the will of someone who does have wealth. Our economy relies on this fundamental coercion to ensure people produce things: if you don’t sell yourself to someone else for significant portions of your living hours, the government will prevent you from getting food, will evict you from your house, and will have your car taken away.
The second problem with the socialism-as-coercion argument is that it argues too much. If we take it at face value, coercing people to give money via taxes for any purpose, and not simply for welfare or redistribution, could be construed as wrong as long as someone loudly and vocally resists. I know quite a lot of Mennonites who do not want to pay income taxes because these fund the military, an institution to which they are fundamentally opposed. Is this enough reason for a country to say that they ought not fund the military with taxes? Since modern countries already do, in fact, have taxes (and could not conceivably exist as taxless societies), it is not obvious why adjusting tax rates or allocating tax dollars to different use would require additional coercion.
I think part of the issue here is that many Christians fundamentally believe care for the poor must be out of individual will and private charitable giving, but Christians throughout history have called giving the poor the material means for their life “justice,” not “charity.” This reflects how God portrays material care for the poor throughout the Bible: it’s not simply a matter of internal desire to be kind, but a matter of having a just economic life before God. Insofar as government coercion is an unavoidable part of the economy and Christians are encouraged by the Scriptures to pay their taxes, there is no reason why those taxes ought not be used to create a more just economic order.
The difference between more capitalist and more socialist forms of economic life is not whether they use coercion, but what arrangement of our common life that coercion enforces. Because it only distributes income to workers and owners, capitalism will always result in poverty because, in the US at least, about half of the human beings who live here do not and will not ever make any money this way (that is, children, the elderly, those with work-preventing disabilities, those who care for family members). Since the 1960s, the proportion of US Americans who would be poor without any sort of transfer programs in place has hovered around 25%, hitting lows of about 22% and highs of almost 30% according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
Further, there are plenty of other socialist institutions beyond welfare transfers that aren’t even covered under this argument: unionization, for instance, is the primary way that workers in many countries ensure fair returns for their labor (to the point where some countries no longer have need for a minimum wage). Worker cooperatives, state-owned enterprises, and social wealth funds are much less obviously coercive (though social wealth funds are usually seeded with taxes), and certainly it seems a stretch to claim that these are fundamentally opposed to Christianity.
On the other hand, it seems clear to me to perpetuate a system that continually accumulates wealth to a small number of people exacerbates the vice of greed and fundamentally fails to do economic justice. Capitalism’s tendency to create poverty in the midst of plenty is a sign of its brokenness as a system, and Christian opposition to it is well founded.