• Dawson Vosburg

Socialism and the Role of the Government

Frequently, when the question of whether capitalism or socialism better aligns with Christian values, socialists are said to put too much value on the state, making it almost an object of worship. I want to claim here that nothing could be further from the truth. For Christians who are economic egalitarians, the state is not automatically a good institution that should simply made bigger—rather, states are particular, modern institutions (just as factories and boards of directors are modern institutions) and ought to be given their proper place in society: under the control of regular people primarily tasked with the things most practically done at the scale of the state. It should neither be the repository for all our sacred values, nor should its role be simply to protect the wealth of the rich. States are not automatically good. They must be made into the kinds of institutions that maintain justice rather than injustice.

Many countries have placed sacred values in the state, which comes to represent the whole of life within the society—not simply a practical set of goods in common. Since countries routinely send young people to kill and die on their behalf in order to protect their interests, they can sometimes create a mythology and a ritual structure, transforming the flag into a symbol of idolatry. This sort of nationalism isn’t tied to how involved the government is in economic life at all, but it does ask for a kind of allegiance Christians cannot give to any but Christ. This kind of worship of the state, in the United States at least, is largely undertaken by political conservatives rather than socialists. To be sure, some socialist societies have participated in this kind of distortion, but I believe it is not the role the state ought to play for Christians.

Some say, then, that the government ought to be very small in order to let individuals live their lives and make free economic choices. This sounds like a thoughtful, limited role for the state, but it covers over the great deal of government involvement a capitalist economy requires. At the bare minimum, it requires a military and police force as well as a bureaucratic set of property laws, offices, and courts to maintain the definition of whose property belongs to whom. This is an incredibly invasive part of the government essentially given the power to protect the rights of those who have the most from those who have the least. But far more infrastructure than this is required for private capitalism to be possible: roads, the education system that supplies competent workers, and contract and intellectual property laws that create the possibility for capitalists to create more wealth for themselves would all be incredibly difficult to collectively organize without a government. The state has grown in places like the United States even as capitalism has become more dominant. That is because the state is not inherently the opposite of the capitalist market. The government makes capitalism possible.

And in the lives of ordinary people, such a government does provide some benefits—but it doesn’t do a lot protect those who have little from the predations of those who have much. Under capitalism, if you don’t already own a lot, your only choice is to do someone else’s will for most of your day if you want to be allowed to get food for yourself and your family. At the workplace, you’re not a democratic citizen—you’re beholden to what is at bottom a dictatorship, even as you and other workers make the value that gets the dictators so rich in the first place. The government’s role in all of this is to protect the property of the dictators, not to ensure that you have freedom in your workplace or freedom from worry about whether you’ll be able to get the material means for your survival and wellbeing.

As I’ve argued before, the question is not whether government will use force to back up a distribution of property, but what distribution of property it is just for a government to enforce. The government is currently tasked with defending and upholding a distribution of property that means the majority of people have almost nothing at all and must work for the gain of those who already have much. What Christian economic egalitarians propose, then, is not aggrandizing or worshiping the government, but pressing it to serve its correct role: ensuring justice in the way only it is able to do, and to be an instrument by which ordinary people have a say in the big decisions that affect their lives and well-being.