Ask 10 people to define capitalism. Chances are, eight or nine will stress the importance of buying things.

They’re making a common mistake -- equating capitalism with consumerism. As our friends over at the Acton Institute understand, capitalism, properly understood, involves more than just spending. It’s an economic system that (to the horror of liberals) puts decision-making power over financial matters where it belongs -- with free individuals, not with government.

It’s the antithesis of the central planning that characterizes communism and socialism. Small wonder that the economist Friedrich Hayek wrote: “I regard the preservation of what is known as the capitalist system, of the system of free markets and the private ownership of the means of production, as an essential condition of the very survival of mankind.”

As our economy continues to react to the fallout of the mortgage madness, it’s important to understand the difference between capitalism and consumerism -- as a recent post on Acton’s PowerBlog makes clear. The seeds for the crisis were sown, according to Fortune magazine editor Geoff Colvin, when “people began to believe that the more they borrowed, the better off they would be. Their thinking went like this: With the cost of capital so low and asset prices rising steadily, risk was evaporating.”

But the party couldn’t go on forever. Eventually, Colvin says, consumers “began to live within their means, shutting down the profit-growth machine.”

That’s the key point -- “within their means.” To act as wise stewards of our money we must decide not only when to spend, but when not to spend. We must make informed decisions about where to invest our money. For those of us who are Christian, it means putting biblical principles to work. As Crown Financial Ministries teaches thousands of people every year through their in-depth course on financial management, the Bible addresses economic issues with surprising frequency.

The wicked borrows and does not pay back, but the righteous is gracious and gives,” we read in Psalms. And the topic comes up often in Proverbs: “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (22:7). “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children” (13:22). It takes time, but “steady plodding brings prosperity” (21:5). My husband and I took the Crown life-changing course through our church and for the first time, we discovered just how much the Bible has to say about money and borrowing and planning for your financial future. Economic issues truly are moral issues.

Sadly, far too many Americans spend more than they earn and rely too heavily on credit cards and borrowed funds. And most are not saving enough (if anything) for their futures.

In 2006, as news of rising foreclosure rates began gathering steam, our national savings rate hit the lowest level since the Great Depression -- negative 1 percent. Compare that to the 1.5 percent that Americans were saving in 1933. You don’t even have to go back that far, actually: We were saving 4.5 percent a decade ago. And back in the 1980s, the rate was in double digits, according to Peter Russo, a professor at Vanderbilt University.

It’s clear that we drifted badly from two bedrock American virtues: thrift and personal financial responsibility. And now that the economy is struggling, we’re all … well, paying the price.

Some of the most famous sayings of Benjamin Franklin stress thrift -- and the foolishness of wasteful spending. “A penny saved is a penny earned” is perhaps the most famous, but there are others, such as “Buy what thou hast no need of, and e’er long thou shalt sell thy necessaries” and “He that goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing.” The other founding fathers also emphasized the importance of good character is sustaining a representative democracy. And thrift is clearly a crucial aspect of good character.

It’s also a hallmark of genuine capitalism. “One should be a civilized man, saving something, and not a savage, consuming every day all that which he has earned,” steel magnate Andrew Carnegie writes in his book The Empire of Business. According to him, thrift was the “first duty” of those who aspire to wealth.

That isn’t news to those who read the Bible, though. "The wise man saves for the future,” we read in Proverbs 21:20, “but the foolish man spends whatever he gets.” Let’s strive -- and pray -- to conduct our future financial affairs with wisdom.


Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of “Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad“ and runs the Web site HomeInvasion.org.