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Biblical Critical Theory Is Not Biblical. It’s Watered-Down Marxism

Christianity Today magazine, founded by Billy Graham, chose Christopher Watkin’s book, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, as one of its 2024 Book Awards and the book most likely “to shape evangelical life, thought, and culture.” Other Christian organizations promote the book too.

Nonreligious readers won’t care, but they need to keep in mind that most people won’t take a class or read a book on economics. I can clear a crowded room just by mentioning economics. But they do read books like this one or listen to pastors who do. Evangelicals make up about 25 percent of voters. So, any plan to change the direction of the country’s economic policies requires reaching them.

Watkin, a lecturer in French studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, trudges through the Bible applying his interpretations to his perception of modern Western culture. He calls his method “diagonalization,” in which he identifies extreme cultural views and places biblical principles in the middle.

But his diagonalization forces him to see only extremes, many of which don’t exist. Much of what he writes is reasonable, but his train derails when writing about the market:

The market paradigm constructs us as producers and consumers of tradable commodities, each with its calculable price. This is, after all, how many religions in the world work.

[Michael] Sandel argues that we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society because now everything is negotiated, bought, and sold, including love, security, and identity. . . . Our relationships with our families, with our partners and with the world we live in are all business deals calculated to bring us profit. . . . We compete for finite resources . . . and those with nothing to exchange or no discretionary time to build up capital or networks are left behind.

Is the “market” the grocery market, the stock market, or the convenience store? Those aren’t frightening and the “market” must be terrifying. But no creature called “the market” exists. The market is merely the process by which buyers and sellers find each other and negotiate prices. But that doesn’t terrify anyone. And if Watkin would read his Bible, he would learn that most of the evils he finds the market making us commit are detailed in the book written sixteen hundred years before the advent of capitalism.

Following the Marxist portrayal of capitalism, Watkin wrote,

The market paradigm of excess, by contrast, is a surplus of overproduction, overconsumption, and limitless profit that become necessary for the maintenance of economic growth and that issue in increasing wealth for some and increasing inequality between all. . . . [It] contents itself to scratch around in the broken cisterns of limitless accumulations.

Had Watkin read any economics book by good economists, meaning Austrian, he would know that general overproduction of all goods and services is impossible. It happens in specific industries just before a recession, due to earlier money printing by central banks, and is temporary. But what does overconsumption look like? Some claim it destroys the environment, but the environment in the West has never been cleaner, not counting the hysteria over carbon dioxide. General overproduction and overconsumption don’t exist.

Given the biblical emphasis on relieving poverty, one would think Watkin would see “overconsumption” as a good thing, far better than starving. Reducing production and consumption means becoming poorer. What standard of living does he prefer? Does he admire the Amish? Or should we return to the natural standard of living the world suffered from prehistory until the advent of capitalism in which millions died of starvation in frequent famines?

Inequality measured by the Gini coefficient is about the same level today as it was 150 years ago, around 50. From 1950 until the 1980s, it averaged around 40. There are many reasons for the rise since 1980. One is that confiscatory taxes on the wealthiest between 1950 and 1980 forced them to take less of their wealth in taxable income by sheltering it in tax-free investments, such as municipal bonds. The rise in the Gini coefficient since then is largely the result of lower marginal tax rates that encourage wealthy people to report more taxable income.

A second cause is the aging of the population. Older people have more wealth and higher incomes than younger people. Another cause is the explosion of poor fatherless households due to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society socialism that increased the likelihood that homes would not have both parents. Finally, increased immigration adds to the ranks of the poor. In sum, the slight ascent of the Gini coefficient is due to changing tax laws, an aging population, a growing number of poor households due to single-parent homes, and immigration, not the market.

In another section, Watkin assaults the labor market, going far beyond the Marxist straw man of wage “slaves”:

Modern humanity sacrifices to machinic efficiency using the currency of its labor, just as the ancient Carthaginians sacrificed to Moloch using the currency of their children. The Moloch Machine shapes and figures the bodily movements of workers that tend it, just as our own habits, attitudes, and movements are increasingly molded by the human-shaping power of smartphones and social media.

Socialists compete to invent the most outrageous descriptions of capitalism. Watkin wins a prize with his comparison of working for wages to burning children alive on an altar to a pagan god. But how does he want people to exchange services? Would he have us go back to feudalism or actual slavery, which the ancient Greeks thought imperative for a good society?

Had Watkin read Frédéric Bastiat, he would know that when a businessman pays a worker his wages, he isn’t buying the worker’s body and soul. The manager is paying the worker only for the services he renders for a period. Paying him for doing nothing would be theft by the worker. Not paying him would be theft by the businessman.

Finally, Watkin dredges up the ghost of the tyranny of markets without laws:

The right fails to acknowledge that when freed from regulation and government, individuals and institutions become prey to the harsh, brutal lordship of the market. As John Milbank argues, the market imperative breaks down and co-opts any spaces of resistance to its logic such as families and local associations based on trust, and leads not to a new egalitarian freedom but to “a far worse hierarchy than in the past,” namely “a hierarchy of sheer money, force and spectacle; a hierarchy without even any pretensions to virtue.”

No advocate for free markets has promoted a society without laws prohibiting theft, fraud, murder, and kidnapping, not even Murray Rothbard’s anarchocapitalism. From the theologians at the University of Salamanca during the Reformation, who distilled the principles of capitalism, until today, all capitalists have insisted on the rule of law and punishment of those who violate the rights of others to life, liberty, and property.

What Watkin is concerned about is greed. But Adam Smith demonstrated that competition in free markets suppresses greed better than any government regulations. Why? Because greedy businessmen can buy politicians cheaply to write regulations that satiate their greed. But competition in free markets forces greedy businessmen to supply the wants of their customers or risk losing them to a competitor.

Does Watkin offer any evidence that markets have created the world he describes? No, he merely quotes another socialist making that assertion. The US and the West are nowhere near as horrible places as Watkin and other theologians and philosophers claim. How do I know? One reason is the number of people coming here legally and illegally. Another is the US’s record of charity. These countries led the world in charity from 2009 through 2018: United States, Myanmar, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. Except for Myanmar, those are Western countries.

Most of Watkin’s book doesn’t deal with markets and makes some valid points. But his egregiously sloppy sections on markets destroy any confidence in the rest of the book.

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