A few months (?) ago someone emailed me and asked about the apparent socialism that the early Church practiced, as described in Acts of the Apostles. I told him I’d talk about that in a Sunday blog post. Unfortunately, I can’t find the conversation in my gmail now, so I might be doing a poor job addressing what the poor guy wanted me to discuss.
I think this is probably enough to get us going, though. Right after explaining how Peter gives a heart-rending sermon that wins some 3,000 converts, Acts 2: 42-47 says:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. [Bold added.]
So it’s obvious why many people would think that true Christianity goes hand in hand with socialism. Now there have been many erudite essays and sermons from top-flight theologians on this topic. I am therefore going to focus on this as a free-market economist and libertarian theorist who is also a born-again Christian, since that’s where my comparative advantage lies.
==> As I explain in greater detail in this lecture, it is undeniably true that the message of the gospel is for you to trust in Christ, not in material goods. However, the Bible does not teach that riches per se are a mark of a bad person.
==> There is nothing anti-libertarian about living in a commune, so long as everything is voluntary. You can’t at all take this example and conclude that State-sponsored redistribution is Christian, anymore than forcing people to confess Jesus as Lord under penalty of torture is Christian.
==> The obvious retort to the above is this story, but even here the two people involved deceived the community of believers. The apostles didn’t go out to non-Christians and kill them for not donating their property. Furthermore, strictly speaking Peter didn’t kill them, either God did and/or their consciences killed them. So even if you want to be really hardcore about this harder story, you see it doesn’t violate libertarian ethics (since God owns everything if the Bible is true).
==> Now you might say, “OK Murphy there’s nothing inherently unlibertarian about this example of the early Church, but surely it ignores economic principles. What about the calculation problem?” Yet hold on a second. What did it say the early Christians did? They sold their property for money and then used the proceeds to buy necessities for their group. So that’s not eschewing markets, that’s taking advantage of them. (In contrast, when the children of Israel would occasionally have a wave of reform, they would destroy their idols–they didn’t sell them to their neighboring pagans.)
==> I think that if more of the world actually followed the Sermon on the Mount (or the 10 Commandments for that matter), then one offshoot would be an unbelievable increase in human productivity. For an analogy, it’s not “ignorant of the work of Mises” to think that restaurants in a libertarian society would give out tap water and bread for free. So by the same token, I imagine a world where people really did a much better job of living up to Christian ideals would be so inconceivably wealthy by our standards that it would look to socialists like their utopia–even though there would be no systematic violations of property rights.