Posts Tagged communism

Communism’s Rational Faith vs. the Logic of the Soul

Witness, Whittaker Chambers, logic of the soulI’m currently reading Witness, an autobiographical account of former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers’s flight from communism and the events that ensued thereafter.

This week at Values & Capitalism, I take a brief look at two extended quotes from the book’s introduction, each pertaining to the moral and spiritual backdrop of communism.

The first, on communism’s age-old resemblance:

Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die—to bear witness—for its faith. And it is a simple, rational faith that inspires men to live or die for it.

It is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision…The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

The second, on how one might convert from such a noble, utopian approach:

Yet there is one experience which most sincere ex-Communists share, whether or not they go only part way to the end of the question it poses. The daughter of a former German diplomat in Moscow was trying to explain to me why her father, who, as an enlightened modern man, had been extremely pro-Communist, had become an implacable anti-Communist. It was hard for her because, as an enlightened modern girl, she shared the Communist vision without being a Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. ‘He was immensely pro-Soviet,’ she said,’ and then — you will laugh at me — but you must not laugh at my father — and then — one night — in Moscow — he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.’

A child of Reason and the 20th century, she knew that there is a logic of the mind. She did not know that the soul has a logic that may be more compelling than the mind’s. She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night he heard screams.

Given that communism per se is not currently a prominent threat in the West, how might we think about Chambers’ critique of “rational faith” and his elevation of Read the rest of this entry »

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You Can’t Plan a Market: Transforming Culture from the Bottom-Up

The White Man's Burden by William EasterlyWhy has post-Soviet Russia not panned out to be the bustling, prosperous economy that the freedom folks predicted it would be? Is this the fault of the free market, or is there something deeper at work?

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I examine the question, channeling economist William Easterly to make the case that “you can’t plan a market.”

Although many Western tinkerers wrongly ignore the structural limitations in improving developing economies, many on the opposite side make the mistake of pretending that the structural stuff is a cinch.

I argue that it isn’t:

In our modern, polished system (with the wear-and-tear steadily increasing), we are tempted to look at other countries and think their problems are simple enough to be fixed by scribbling a couple solutions on paper and circulating it through the right hands. Even for free-market types, there is a rash assumption that all it takes is a magical structural concoction and a semi-functional government to get a poor country in motion.

Forget the individual habits and beliefs of the people on the ground. Forget the spiritual and cultural factors that limit or propel that society forward. Forget the psychological damage caused by previous (or current) totalitarian rule. “Just give them a market,” we say, “and let them be.”

As I say in the piece, “spontaneous order is not spontaneous order unless it is spontaneous.” Even in America, lest we forget, our thriving economic system did not come from the wave of a magical capitalism wand. Look no further than the 19th century to behold the painful and chaotic emergence of what we know today (and appreciate it).

To demonstrate this lesson, Easterly’s book points to several key market components that are difficult to “invent,” particularly from the top down: trust, property rights, social relationships/unity, peace, etc.

Such features — what Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling call “intangible assets” — must originate from Read the rest of this entry »

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Privilege: A Means to Do Good

Conservatives and libertarians like to downplay privilege and focus mostly on merit. “Just work hard,” they’ll say, which is indeed part of the solution. Yet it is not the only element in play.

This week at Common Sense Concept, I discuss the issue in light of a recent talk by Anthony Bradley for Marketplace One.

Watch the video here:

Here’s an excerpt:

[A]lthough our efforts certainly play a part in how well we succeed in life—and although they may indeed be a primary factor in some or most cases—are we really to ignore where we came from and how that came to be? After all, isn’t our ability to triumph and overcome obstacles only inspiring insofar as it contrasts with whatever little amount of privilege we had in the first place? What are “obstacles,” anyway, if not the things that don’t come easy? Do we marvel over the relative accomplishments of John D. Rockefeller’s children as much as we marvel over the striking ascendance of Rockefeller himself?

Yet while many in the “pro-capitalism” crowd downplay privilege too much, those in the Marxist camp twist it to be the determining factor of our existence: either our weapon or our prison:

Whereas the pro-capitalism crowd likes to pretend class privilege is a non-issue, the Marxist crowd likes to pretend that such privilege determines our very actions. If you are born poor, you are incapable of becoming wealthy, because if you are born wealthy, you are incapable of not Read the rest of this entry »

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Anti-Capitalism Christians: Confusion or Hypocrisy?

capitalism, Christianity, values, American, free market, Public Religion Research InstituteAccording to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, “a plurality of Americans believe capitalism [is] at odds with Christian values.” Among Christians in the U.S., “only 38% believe capitalism and the free market are consistent with Christian values while 46% believe the two are at odds.”

This week at Common Sense Concept, I weigh in on the results, noting first that the news is not all that surprising:

Christians are well aware that greed and selfishness are absolute sins, and we are constantly told — albeit falsely — that such sins are the very drivers of capitalism. With pro-capitalism folks like Ayn Rand affirming such myths, it’s no wonder that Christians defer to the stereotype. Such a fundamental misunderstanding comes about for a variety of reasons, but from my experience, it’s typically rooted in one or more of the following: (1) an overly simplistic and all-encompassing view of greed, (2) a materialistic view of wealth, (3) a failure to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest, and (4) a belief that God has something against material inequality.

Yet there is indeed something peculiar about all this. Most particularly: How do these Christians sleep at night if they are actively supporting a fundamentally un-Christian system?

Are they all homeless?

It is on this question that I focus the bulk of my critique:

Of the 46% of Christians who believe capitalism is “at odds” or “inconsistent” with Christian values, how many are themselves actively engaged in the capitalist system? Of the 61% of Americans who believe regulation is necessary to ensure “ethical” business activity, how many truly believe they need to be regulated in order to ethically trade an apple for an orange? Of the 55% of white evangelical Protestants who believe that income inequality is “one of the biggest problems in the country,” how many have a higher income than someone else? Indeed, if any of these folks are simply working in America today, aren’t they profiting from, indeed encouraging, the very capitalistic system that opposes their religious convictions?

Or, in shorter form:

Just as the anti-communism Christian should probably avoid the role of communist dictator or violent proletariat rebel, the anti-capitalism Christian should probably avoid the role of capitalist.

My guess is that most of these Christians are actually at peace with the capitalistic system as it plays out in their own personal lives, and I would wager that the disconnect has more to do with Read the rest of this entry »

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My Intellectual Journey: Legos, Puzzles, and Communism

Common Sense ConceptI will now be writing a weekly post at Common Sense Concept, which is a brand new site backed by the American Enterprise Institute. The site is part of AEI’s Project on American Values and Capitalism, which was the sponsor of the recent event I participated in on envy and economics.

CSC will focus on the promotion of morality and values in our policymaking, particularly as they relate to free enterprise.

The first major event will be a debate between Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis and AEI President Arthur Brooks at Wheaton College. The debate will center on the question, “Does Capitalism Have a Soul?” I myself am hoping to make it out to the event, and if you’re anywhere near the Wheaton/Chicago area, I encourage you to do so as well.

I will be writing on the site’s Two Cents Blog on Faith and Free Enterprise along with some extremely bright evangelical thinkers. I look forward to participating in the conversation and am excited to watch this effort continue to evolve.

My first post is already up on the blog, and it provides a glimpse into my intellectual journey from childhood to adulthood. I talk about LEGOs, puzzles, and most importantly, how horrifying communism sounded as a six-year-old.

Here’s an excerpt from the post:

Being the ignorant little kid I was, I asked my Mom if the U.S.S.R. was the biggest country in the world. She walked over to the puzzle, glanced at the back of the box, and informed me that as of a few months ago, the U.S.S.R. no longer existed.

For a six-year-old, that’s a bit hard to swallow. How can a country just Read the rest of this entry »

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From Poverty to Prosperity: Human Ingenuity and the Triumph over Scarcity

From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities and the Triumph over ScarcityLet’s say there’s an apple. I want to eat the apple and you want to eat the apple. Both of us can’t eat the same apple. We can divide it. We can determine who is more hungry. We can figure out who is willing to pay a greater price for it. We can find out who wants the core and who wants the seeds. But no matter how much we deliberate, we cannot share the apple in its entirety.

Economics used to be about how to distribute the apple most efficiently, but the world is changing. Although physical resources remain scarce, human innovation has flourished to the point where we can do much more with much less, and few have bothered to explain how or why.

Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz try to tackle this phenomenon in their new book, From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities and the Lasting Triumph over Scarcity. In the book, the authors try to grasp this new way of thinking by terming it Economics 2.0. Where Economics 1.0 saw the market as a means for allocating scarce resources (e.g. apples), Economics 2.0 sees the market as a mechanism for channeling innovation and triumphing over scarcity.

In the beginning of the book, the authors use laundry (of all things) to illustrate the difference. Economics 1.0 would try to explain how it might be more efficient for you to outsource your ironing to someone else. Economics 2.0, on the other hand, doesn’t look at the tangible items in the equation (the number of shirts, the cost of an iron, the cost of dry cleaning, etc.). Instead, Economics 2.0 is primarily concerned with the potential for innovation. For example, what about permanent press? What about wrinkle-free shirts?

As the authors explain:

Thanks to technical progress, many shirts today do not need to be ironed at all. Perhaps in another decade or two they will not need to be washed. Given the likely progress of nanotechnology, there is a good chance that shirts manufactured in 2020 will be ‘permanent clean.’ That’s Economics 2.0.

Another way to look at this is through what Kling and Schulz call the “software layer” of an economy. While Economics 1.0 is concerned with tangible inputs like labor and capital, Economics 2.0 is concerned with the intangible factors, such as collective intelligence, the existence of property rights, and levels of corruption. You can have all of the right hardware for a Read the rest of this entry »

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