Note to David Brat: Free Markets Are Not Calvinist

On the occasion of Dave Brat’s rise to (perhaps short-lived) fame, I wish to take this opportunity to question the common wisdom that Calvinism and capitalism go hand in hand.

The confusion may go back even farther than Max Weber’s “Protestant ethic” thesis, all the way to the 16th century, when the Protestant reformer John Calvin waxed poetic in his Institutes of the Christian Religion about the importance of “freedom” in a Christian’s life. A Christian is no longer a slave to the law—neither the Torah nor the laws of the Roman Church. The Christian is free from condemnation, free to obey God joyfully, and free to make individual choices about earthly matters—even including usury (lending money at interest). So thus far it may seem that Calvin put his stamp of approval on the market free-for-all that’s so popular with bankers, business owners, financiers, and Brat voters.

In her post on RD Julie Ingersoll helpfully sums up Brat’s Calvinist libertarianism this way:

The best check on the depravity of individuals who make up the civil government is the decentralization of authority into the distinct spheres; the best check on the depravity of human beings in the economy is the decentralization of the market created by competition.

But this is nothing like John Calvin’s own thinking. Despite his love of freedom, Calvin also had what we might call “Talibanesque” tendencies, since he believed in the sovereignty of God and the total depravity of humankind; humans are so sinful that even believers get it wrong most of the time and thus need strict rules to save them from themselves and others. In particular, Calvin worried about how the rich and powerful would use their privileged positions to exploit the poor and vulnerable.

He therefore worked closely with his local government, which was technically separate from the church, to establish distinctly non-libertarian laws in Geneva about money, business, sex, heresy, church attendance, and all manner of things most self-designated “Calvinists” would today consider private. This is not to say he might not have been a nice guy (by many reports he was a loving husband, father, and friend), but he certainly resists the libertarian label.

Also in contrast to modern capitalist dogma, Calvin was very clear that wealthy people became wealthy through no virtue of their own. Many were wealthy because they conducted business unethically and exploitively, some were born into it, and some actually worked hard for the money. But without fail all were wealthy because God had predestined them to be so for God’s own secret reasons.

Wealth was not a reward, nor was poverty a punishment. Whatever condition of life people found themselves in was purely providential. The wealthy, he argued, should see their wealth as an opportunity to serve the needy and practice self-discipline, while the needy should see their poverty as an opportunity to trust more fully in God. One condition was not better than the other; each was part of God’s mysterious plan.

All this causes me to wonder in what sense Dave Brat and his economic ilk consider themselves Calvinist, even in theory. At best, I would call libertarian capitalism “Calvinish,” in the sense that people who unabashedly call themselves Calvinists often tend to embrace free markets. But though Calvin’s thought might reasonably lend itself to well-regulated markets with genuine safety nets, I would defy these people to make a persuasive, coherent case for unfettered, Ayn-Rand-style, self-interested capitalism using Calvin’s own writings.

The “next Calvin” that Dave Brat calls for in his 2011 article, “God and Advanced Mammon,” will indeed have to move very far away from the actual Calvin—and for that matter, far from almost any seriously-regarded Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant Christian theologian of the past two millennia—in order to support the kinds of markets libertarians seem to want.