Thursday, November 09, 2017

Is Capitalism Unchristian?

Having spent a fair deal of my life in places like Latin America and Africa, where the inequalities of the global economic system are dramatically evident, I came to this subject with an intuitive sense that capitalism would prove to be decidedly un-Christian in many respects. After some research, however, I have become convinced that quite a few of the most vocal Christian opponents of capitalism mostly just end up excoriating a succession of “straw men,” partly due to a misunderstanding of economic philosophy. It now seems clear to me that economic systems like capitalism are merely parts of human culture, and as such can be expected to reflect all the scope of the possibilities inherent in our “very good” and yet “fallen” nature—a propensity towards great creativity and cooperation, as well as the danger of systemic failures and blind spots due to our sinfulness. In this piece, I'll be looking at some of the "upside" of capitalism, and then turn to address some of its inherent dangers.

First, it should be noted that free-market economic systems like capitalism are not driven by any evil mastermind behind the scenes—rather, it is a natural, networked system of human interaction that emerges on its own under the right conditions.[1] If you have a culture that encourages individualism, personal property rights, and a utilitarian view of time, free-market exchange will develop. This is especially true of cultures that also place great stock in personal values of honesty, diligence, thrift, and the importance of hard work. Thus the development of capitalism in the industrialized West has often been associated with “the Protestant work ethic.”[2] The reason why this system emerges so naturally is simply because it is based on universal human behavior: all people everywhere seek what they perceive to be “the good,” and, specifically, what tends toward happiness,[3] and one of the ways they do this is by entering into exchanges with other people. Each of these exchanges is naturally aimed toward the preferred end of each party, and thus they tend toward the good of both parties.[4] In this pattern of mutually-beneficial exchanges, value is produced for both parties, and wealth can be generated: economics becomes a win-win, not just a zero-sum game in which the success of one party necessarily means the impoverishment of another.[5] This, of course, is an idealized portrayal of capitalist economics; there are unfortunately a lot of examples in which market exchanges can be coerced or cheated. But the idealized version constitutes the philosophical base of capitalism's economic principles: any coercion or other aggressive imbalance introduced into the system actually tends to work against the efficiency of capitalism, not for it.

Capitalism, in some Christian circles, suffers under a number of unfortunate myths, often related to misunderstood terminology. One such myth is that any system that uses greed (or, the more technical economic term, “self-interest”) as its driving force cannot, by definition, accord well with Christian practice. This is a myth because it misunderstands “self-interest” as “greed,” when in fact what is meant by the term is simply that all people always conduct exchanges based on their own preferential scale of choices. This is true even of Christians who seek to give everything away to the poor—they are making that decision based on their own preferential choices; no one chooses consistently against their own desired outcomes.[6] Thus, while greed can be a motivating influence for some individuals, it is not a philosophical imperative of capitalism. And, in fact, some forms of greed, like hoarding, run directly counter to capitalist tendencies.[7] A similar misunderstanding of terminology results in a myth that claims that capitalism depends too much on “competition,” by which it is supposed that “conflict” is meant. While it is true that competition among firms is a core part of the capitalist system, the competition’s main aim is at producing more and better goods for society (and so it is unlike the violent competition of a boxing match, where each participant is focused primarily on beating each other, not on creating something of value for the audience). Further, capitalist competition favors cooperative interaction in many levels of its pursuits.[8]

A criticism that is more sensitive to the weight of the Christian tradition is that capitalism betrays the biblical and patristic teachings against the practice of collecting interest. But the Old Testament prohibitions against usury do not restrict it outright; they merely set limits to its application (Deut. 23:19-20; and thus the Jewish tradition has usually allowed interest), and the patristic criticism was largely directed against the sort of people that we would now call “loan sharks.”[9] The Protestant Reformation, which emerged at a time when people were starting to use interest as a means of mutually-beneficial exchange (not exploitation), gave much more allowance to such things.

A final myth worth addressing (though, like many myths, it does have some basis in fact), is the perception that global capitalism is a system in which poor countries are relentlessly exploited by rich countries. This is an easily understandable reaction, given the glaring inequalities among nations. It is important to understand, though, that although poor nations do sometimes suffer a trade imbalance because of their own lower standard of living (thus, they are priced out of their own goods by richer markets willing to pay more), they are still, if the market is operating correctly, making uncoerced, voluntary exchanges toward their own perceived benefit. It’s also worth noting that recent studies show that globalized trade has had a fairly minor role in economic inequality,[10] and that third-world countries actually appear to prosper economically in direct proportion to their level of interaction with the industrialized West.[11] Far from seeking to exploit poor countries, the US and the United Nations give massively generous packages of foreign aid to them (although sometimes this comes with strings attached, and sometimes results in unforeseen harm).[12] Further, much of the systemic poverty in third-world countries can be traced to internal problems, such as corruption, bad infrastructure (including poor education and health care), and lack of government oversight in labor markets.[13] Perhaps an even larger reason for their poverty, however, is simply that their cultures often don’t match up well with the cultural framework that maximizes capitalistic pursuits. Many third-world nations have cultures which emphasize community identity, shared belongings, public goods, and a view of time which sees it more as a gift to be lavished on friends than a commodity to be turned into an efficient work-week. All of these cultural aspects are quite noble (and I’ve come to appreciate them in my missions experiences), but they do have an inherent economic tradeoff. A third-world country with these values simply will not perform as efficiently in the global market as an individualized, utilitarian culture will.

Against the critics of capitalism, it is also worth remembering once again that philanthropy can operate as part of a capitalistic system. In fact, it is the massively greater wealth that is produced by capitalism that makes philanthropy possible on a scale never before known. For example, Bill Gates has been able to do dramatically more good in the world through his multi-billion dollar charitable foundation than if he had redistributed his earnings directly to charity as he received them.[14] Similarly, it is the capitalist wealth of Western society that has enabled us in the US to be one of the most generous societies of all time (though of course we could stand to be far more generous still). Not only so, but the capitalist economies of the West have eradicated or severely diminished the worst forms of poverty within their own borders, such that previously commonplace, horrific tragedies like famines, which were a regular part of human experience (on an average of every 15 years), have not significantly afflicted the West since the turn of the 1700s.[15]

However, capitalism also has some obvious blind spots. It has no inherent laws of justice. This means that governments have to step in and institute regulations against exploitation and abuse, as in the case of child labor or poor work conditions. Similarly, capitalism has no short-term incentive built in for the protection of the environment.[16] It also has a massive cultural impact: when it comes up against “inefficient” cultures that are more people-oriented than goods-oriented, those cultures will be outcompeted on the market, and traditional, family-based economies will be bankrupted in favor of larger corporations. Thus people previously engaged in productive, holistic work will instead be pushed into poverty or mindless, repetitive jobs in factories.[17] There are also no built-in moral laws that restrict capitalism from creating and disseminating “morally odious products”;[18] any such discretion will have to come from public morals or government regulation.

Further, there are some alarming cultural trends that capitalism can set in motion if no other dominant philosophy curtails their influence. It can quickly make politics less of a moral discipline and more of a slave-mechanism to promote the market.[19] It can also train people to think of themselves as “consumers” as a matter of identity, or to perceive interpersonal relationships in utilitarian terms,[20] and it can lead us to rate “success” in terms of wealth rather than virtue.[21] There is also the spiritual danger inherent in being led to trust too much in ourselves, in our society, and in the security of money. As Basil said: “For many, it is prosperity of life that constitutes the greatest trial.”[22]

Now that capitalism has been examined, we move to our ultimate goal: considering the matter of an individual Christian’s ethical choices within this system. The truth is, even if we wanted to, it would be tremendously difficult to stop being capitalists (it would require not using banks and growing all our own food, for instance). We should also realize that a boycott against particular capitalist ventures would undoubtedly lead to unforeseen adverse consequences to others in the global economic system, perhaps especially against the poor (such is the nature of the interconnected web of global trade).[23] What, then, should we do? Two paths of interaction with capitalism are advisable on the individual level. First, it is worthwhile to know a little bit about the brands we buy, and to try to support those firms that are actively working to address capitalism’s many blind spots. ("Fair trade" products are almost always a good moral investment.) However, given the number of brands out there, this would be an inordinately time-consuming task for most Christians, and not the most efficient way of addressing the problem. (Further, it can lead to the temptation to be judgmental against those who choose not to boycott the brands you boycott. It’s worth remembering C. S. Lewis’ observation: “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up.”)[24] The second path is the more effective: through your vote and political voice, push for governmental regulations in international trade and labor markets such that exploitation of workers and unjust treatment of the poor at the supply end of the economic chain become ever more rare.[25]

[1] Ronald H. Nash, Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate over Capitalism (Crossway: Westchester, IL, 1986), 49. See also: Timothy, Taylor, “Supply and Demand (Lecture 3),” Economics, 3rd ed., The Teaching Company.
[2] John R. Muether, “Money and the Bible,” and Virgil Hartgerink, “The Protestant Ethic of Prosperity,” Christian History, No. 14 (1987), Christian History Interactive CD-ROM.
[3] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (Macmillan: New York, 1962), 64.
[4] Thomas Aquinas, “Selling and Lending: An Excerpt from the Summa Theologica,” Christian History, No. 14 (1987), Christian History Interactive CD-ROM.
[5] E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity (Crossway: Westchester, IL, 1988), 108.
[6] Nash, 72-73.
[7] Daniel M. Bell, Jr., The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World, Kindle edition (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2012), Location 2604.
[8] Nash, 74; and Beisner, 98.
[9] See, for instance, Basil the Great’s sermon “Against Those Who Lend at Interest,” On Social Justice, Popular Patristics, No. 38 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY, 2009), 89-99.
[10] Taylor, “Inequality: Lecture 16.”
[11] Beisner, 196; and Nash, 187.
[12] For example, when the US decided to donate its surplus wheat to Nicaragua in a time of crisis, this well-intentioned gift drove many local farmers to bankruptcy. Cf. Taylor, “Price Floors and Ceilings: Lecture 4.”
[13] Nash, 193.
[14] Far from encouraging greed, in fact, many of the richest people in the world, including Bill Gates, have signed the “Billionaire’s Pledge”: to give away at least half of their fortunes to charity before they die.
[15] Nash 76; and Beisner 193.
[16] Taylor, “Negative Externalities and the Environment: Lecture 12.”
[17] Bell, Kindle locations 1203 and 1591
[18] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (IVP: Downer’s Grove, 2003).424.
[19] Bell, Kindle location 981.
[20] Ibid., Kindle locations 481 and 1409.
[21] See John Chrysostom, “First Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man,” On Wealth and Poverty, Popular Patristics, No. 9 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY, 1981), 36.
[22] Basil the Great, “I Will Tear Down My Barns,” On Social Justice, 59.
[23] For example, movements like the “buy local” campaign are good for local economies in the short term, but they will depress the global economy overall if pursued too strongly. See Beisner, 93-95.
[24] C. S. Lewis, quoted in Gilbert Meilaender, Things that Count (ISI Books: Wilmington, 2000), 193.
[25] Stassen and Gushee, 424-425.