Thou Shalt Not Steal – Private Ownership of Labor and Property Is Implied
Thou shalt not steal … means owners and workers are smart enough to negotiate agreements freely.
It’s remarkable that many Christians think the 10 commandments are valid in some sense and yet refuse to make any applications. Not so with Jesus. Thou shalt not steal … is a great example. Here, we have Jesus describing a vineyard owner who hired workers throughout the day and who, at the close of the day, paid them all the same amount (Matt. 20:1-16). Those who worked all day grumbled at the owner’s lack of fairness, even though he had honored the contracts he had made that day.
The vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable answered his detractors with a question: “Isn’t it lawful for me to do as I please with whatever’s mine?” The implied answer is, “Yes, of course,” Since Jesus used the vineyard owner and his wisdom as a platform to teach spiritual truth regarding God’s kingdom, it binds us to accept the owner’s convictions. Is it lawful for a man to use his property as he pleases as long as he is within the bounds of God’s commandments? Of course. In other words, “Thou shalt not steal” means that no one has the lawful authority to restrict or direct the way a man may use his property.
This moral principle … thou shalt not steal … does then create the foundation for what we call “Capitalism.” In his essay, “Capitalism versus Statism” (1972), Murray Rothbard provides this definition of Capitalism:
“Free-market Capitalism is a network of free and voluntary exchanges in which producers work, produce, and exchange their products for the products of others through prices voluntarily arrived at.”
Notice the emphasis throughout this definition on the freedom and authority of the producer: “Free and voluntary exchanges.” “Their products.” “The products of others.” “Prices voluntarily arrived at.” Clearly, the producer owns his products. No coercion, no theft here, right? Everyone produces what they want and what they can. They then exchange their products with someone else, providing the two can come to terms acceptable to both. An exchange only takes place when both producers find the terms of the bargain favorable. Self-interest inevitably drives the exchange and the broader market. And without coercion, the free-market maximize satisfaction for both parties. Both walk away convinced that they got a good deal. Each, from his own perspective, is better off than he was.
So why did Karl Marx call this “network of free and voluntary exchanges” Capitalism? What is capital anyway? And why is this important?
Capital is wealth that humans use to produce more wealth. Sometimes capital is referred to as tools. Capital could be something as simple as a shovel or a fishing net. It could be a delivery truck or a computer system. Capital might just be money. Or, it could be a huge factory which is pretty much what Marx had in mind. In any case, those who are in control of tools or capital use it to enhance and extend their labors. They use tools to produce more products or better products.
The farmer with a shovel can accomplish a great deal more than the farmer without a shovel. The man with the fishing net can catch a lot more fish than the man who has only his hands. The man with a fleet of delivery trucks can move more product than a man who only has a hand truck or a bicycle. Capital then is basic to increasing individual and corporate wealth.
This makes capital and tools inevitable. Man is the image of God, and he comes with a natural bent toward stewardship and biblical dominion. Whether as a covenant keeper or a covenant breaker, he will try to develop God’s world to his own benefit. He will look for efficiencies of scale. He will use what cards he’s been dealt, to leverage the completion of his goals. In short, he will create and acquire tools. The central economic and ethical question is … who will own the tools? And since capital and tools will always exist … who controls the use of the tools?
Free-market capitalism leaves the owner/producer alone to use his capital as he sees fit. His tools are his tools. Neither his customers nor his competitors nor the State has any lawful authority before God to tell our capitalist how he can or can’t use his capital. As long as the capitalist operates within the limitations of God’s law … he can use his capital … indeed all his wealth … as he pleases. In the parable of the vineyard, the owner had the lawful authority to use or dispose of his capital—his vineyard, accumulated cash, and whatever tools he provided his workers—as he chose. This is called freedom. And for many … it’s a bit scary.
Socialism, on the other hand, is a theft-based economic system. It’s a system that places control of capital in the society or community, at least in theory. In this system, it may be fine for an individual to own his own toothbrush or laptop. But in this system, he has no right to control the money, machines, factories, and systems that enable a society to produce and distribute wealth on a large scale. Since creation and production affect the whole community, the society as a whole has a right to decide how these things will be used.
In a small commune, the will of the “whole society” can be decided by democratic vote. But more often, and certainly in large states, “the will of the people” is vested in a governing body that speaks for the group, though it almost always claims to have the best interests of the community in view. Failure of the venture here is unlikely (again, in theory) because the governing body will steal the resources of the group to provide for the safety and basic comfort of each member. Of course, for this to work those in charge must have the power to direct the use of all resources, including human labor. All of this means safety comes at a very high price indeed … the price of freedom.
The bottom line is this: God gives humans the authority to own and control capital. He requires faithful stewardship of them, however. That means individuals are required to take the wealth God has given them and use it to show an increase. Which also means that every human on the planet ought to be in some way, a freedom-loving capitalist.
The commandment … thou shalt not steal, then establishes property rights as basic to human rights. But not just that … property rights … are essential to economic and political freedom as well. But in a fallen world, freedom and responsibility always come with the possibility of failure. This is easy to forget since our focus is usually “envy based” when we look at others and the possibility of tremendous financial success. Faith trusts God for success—success on His terms, not ours.
Socialism, on the other hand, is institutionalized theft. Covetous people, lazy people, people who want their needs and wants met but who are afraid to risk failure, almost always call for the collective appropriation of other men’s labor. They will do this in the name of social justice, a level playing field, or love for the poor. What they really want is the fruit of other men and women’s labors. They want to steal with impunity. This, increasingly, is the new America.
But fortunately, God has spoken authoritatively and … thou shalt not steal … according to His word limits society and the government just as certainly as it limits the petty thief and the bank robber.
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