Posts Tagged capitalism
Christmas is a season that now comes pre-packaged with critiques of capitalism and consumerism. Although carefulness and concern over hyper-consumerism is always appropriate, in our desperate efforts to disassociate ourselves with Black Friday materialism, too often we push too far, yielding to a creeping dualism that’s unproductive for our economic culture and hazardous to Christmas cheer.
Over at Values and Capitalism, Elise Amyx provides a great critique of one such manifestation, Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas album, which seeks to expose Christmas for what he believes it’s become: “an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism.”
Again, critiques of a “festival of consumerism” are on target in certain respects, but by taking us through a variety of Stevens’s “carols,” Amyx demonstrates how Stevens falls into the trap of taking these themes too far.
Her conclusion: (1) “he confuses the market economy with consumerism,” and (2) “he elevates the spiritual above the material.”
As she goes on to explain:
Stevens seems to hold that capitalism is evil because it necessitates materialistic consumerism. But he misunderstands the difference between consumerism and the market economy…When the goodness of the material is lost, capitalism is an easy scapegoat for consumerism.
Stevens’s misconception of capitalism also reflects a broader theological underpinning of all material things, reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism and some modern evangelical movements today. He claims Christmas should be about the spiritual aspects—what we feel and known inside—not material traditions…
Stevens wisely critiques the worthlessness of placing one’s hope solely in the material aspect of Christmas, but he misses a great opportunity to distinguish between worship of the material and worship of God through the material. He fails to point out the goodness that physical things can bring at Christmastime. Advent candles, nativity sets, presents, Christmas lights and ornaments need not distract us from Christ, but exist as physical reminders that lead us to worship Christ…
…Stevens’s Christmas message is one of massive spiritual and material discord, yet Advent embodies spiritual and material harmony that God intended for the world—and that’s the redemptive beauty in all the silver and gold adorning your Christmas tree.
In the same vein, though without reference to Stevens or capitalism, Douglas Wilson offers a similar perspective, noting that “a godliness that won’t delight in fudge and Read the rest of this entry »
I recently wrote about Bono’s recent comments on capitalism, arguing that although I’m not overly optimistic about the trajectory of his interventionist efforts, it marks a healthy development in any do-gooder’s evolution from hasty top-down planner to careful ground-up cultivator.
Over at the Hang Together blog, Greg Forster urges us to have more optimism about the Goggled One, arguing that even rhetorical developments are cause for encouragement:
Here’s my thinking. A big change has been slowly percolating for a while in the Christian international aid space. On-the-ground practice has not changed yet. But their social system of legitimization – the network of gatekeepers who anoint what’s good and what’s bad – are increasingly embracing the need for the kinds of changes we want. Bono is only the most recent example.
And it’s getting harder and harder to dismiss this as partisan rhetoric or libertarian ideology as more and more people who self-identify as progressives are getting on the bandwagon. Again, Bono is only the most recent example.
The big aid organizations have responded by adopting the rhetoric of change. I recall seeing promotional materials from World Vision that talked about helping people develop economic independence. Of course they’re not actually doing that, but the fact that they have to say they are is a canary in the coal mine for them.
It’s a little like how Democratic judicial nominees now have to clothe themselves in the rhetoric of judicial restraint in a way they never had to fifteen years ago. Or how the teachers’ unions have had to adopt the rhetoric of teacher performance and even choice. Or how President Obama has had to adopt the rhetoric of free enterprise and even pick up Arthur Brooks’ “earned success” language. As in those fields, so in this one: it’s an early sign that we’re winning. The gap between their words and their deeds will grow, and the pressure for real change is only going to get bigger.
They key for us now, as I see it, is to capitalize on this change without falling into either of two pitfalls. On the one hand, we don’t want to drive away our new friends. Joe Sunde’s skepticism in the post I linked above, while reasonable, needs to be tempered somewhat. We don’t want to punish people for moving in our direction, we want to reward them! (We believe that incentives affect behavior, right?)
Forster makes a good point about celebrating when there’s cause for celebration. I have no desire to punish folks like Bono for any movement they make in the direction of markets. My intent was merely to offer a cautionary qualification amidst the balloons and streamers. But perhaps I could’ve tooted my kazoo a bit louder up front.
I also think Forster’s point on rhetoric is a good one: “the gap between their words and their deeds will grow, and the pressure for real change is only going to get bigger.” School choice and judicial restraint are good examples of this, but I still think we need to call out mere rhetoric as mere rhetoric and guide people to an understanding of what real solutions look like beyond and before the rhetoric.
“Before the rhetoric?” you ask? Indeed, in my own thoughts on the matter, I was actually aiming to celebrate something preceding Bono’s words, particularly his new humbled attitude about the limitations of his own human hands, quite apart from any specific endorsement of this or that political or economic solution.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that this humbled approach to development and poverty alleviation has led him where it’s led him: to capitalism.
Read Forster’s full post here.
Also, read Ryan Anderson’s comments here.
Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, recently released a new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, in which he aims to overturn common stereotypes of capitalism and dig into the real moral implications of free enterprise. Applying his usual wit and theological depth, Fr. Sirico delivers fundamental moral arguments for why capitalism does not , as the narrative goes, promote greed, selfishness, and cruelty, but instead leverages human creativity and generosity. More importantly, Fr. Sirico contemplates how we might use our economic systems to further realize our relationship with God and man.
In this interview with Remnant Culture, Fr. Sirico discusses some of the key topics of his book, including consumerism, Ayn Rand, equality, health care, and the common “caricature” of economic man.
Of course, I encourage you to read the book in full.
One of the most popular arguments Christians make against free enterprise is that it is based on or driven by consumerism. In your book, you argue that consumerism actually makes capitalism “impossible over the long term.” How so?
Of course, we all consume. That is a fact of life. The Christian concern is not with the fact that we have to consume things (as thought we were Gnostics who did not believe in the goodness of the created world), but that we not be consumed by things.
The capitalist cycle depends on people using whatever goods they have to produce something valuable for their neighbors, and making a profit in the process. People then reinvest their profit into expanding their business, and making more profit. It’s a virtuous cycle. If an individual immediately rushes out and spends every last cent he earns today, he would have nothing left over for reinvesting and expanding for tomorrow, and thus there would be no means for sustaining his business, not to mention obtaining daily necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.
In writing about your “undoing” as a leftist, you describe a moment when you realized that the questions you were asking about Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were similar to “the simple queries that the tall nun had posed to our First Holy Communion Class” — questions about who made the world, who God is, and why God made us. Why did studying economics inspire a return to these questions, and why are such questions important for us to consider when contemplating economics?
There is something “underneath” economics. Economics is not really about money and charts and statistics. It is essentially about human interaction. At the center of each economic transaction stands the human person. When we talk about tax levels or private property or inflation, we are talking about realities that have profound effects on the ways people live their lives, and the ways they interact with each other. When you see that economic conditions influence the decisions people make and alter their lifestyles, you realize that people react negatively to things they view as violating their intrinsic dignity. High tax levels can be immoral not only because of the negative effects they have, but simply because it is immoral to take an inordinate amount of what someone has worked hard to earn. Pope John Paul II has made clear that unemployment is a grave wrong because it jeopardizes the lives of workers and their families.
Studying these economic realities forces you to go back to those basic questions: Who is man? How much may a government justly take from its citizens? What are the limits of government? What are its responsibilities? Much more than numbers are at stake here: intrinsic human dignity, flourishing and rights hang in the balance.
Advocates of free enterprise are often assumed to be robotic devotees of Ayn Rand, the atheist novelist and promoter of a so-called “virtue of selfishness.” Yet you argue that Rand’s beliefs stand in conflict with the very free enterprise system she claimed to support. Where are Christians to find themselves between Randian individualism and Marxist collectivism?
Rand’s theory is self-defeating because it denies the fact that the free market is based on Read the rest of this entry »
Most notable, I think, is his belief that access to capital is not the primary obstacle:
This week at Values & Capitalism, I build on his analysis, decrying our general human tendency to limit our economic problem-solving to the material factors.
Fal argues that entrepreneurs in South Africa need things like more help from venture capital firms (e.g. IT and financial management support), and although I trust this is also true for American entrepreneurs…our broader society seems to be slipping in its grasp of the challenges and risks that are required for authentic flourishing.
This poses an issue for the real creators and producers, for when the rest of us lack patience and understanding in how value is actually created, we will tend to muddle the process by supporting the types of short-sighted, zero-risk pseudo-solutions our public is currently craving. Our society’s current inability to address its deficit crisis is Read the rest of this entry »
Of all the warts Mitt Romney boasts on his big smelly toe, Newt Gingrich and others have decided to attack the one thing Romney has going for him: his business-leader experience in the private sector. (go here for the full scoop)
This week at Values & Capitalism, I offer my critique of the Gingrich(/Obama) view:
Note to Newt: I know we’d all like a 100% success rate, but high-risk investment doesn’t always pay off, and when it doesn’t, bad things happen. Businesses close, people lose their jobs and human suffering abounds. Oh yeah, and another thing: it’s not great for investment firms either.
When these companies failed under Romney’s watch, I doubt that Jolly Fat-Cat Mitt was grinning in his Doctor Claw Chair while stroking a snickering kitty. Anyone who understands anything about investment firms should understand that bad investments are, well, bad.
There’s plenty of basic economic idiocy here, not to mention nostrils-full of that all-too-familiar “pre-conversion” Gingrich stench (does “moldy baloney” capture it?). But throughout all the confused prattle—e.g. Newt’s forthcoming wanna-be Michael Moore project—I find myself haunted by a single, disturbing reality. Some people actually swallow this stuff.
The deeper issue in Gingrich’s thinking — other than his basic goal of political revenge, of course — is his apparent disdain for creative destruction and his implicit worship of the artificial.
More from my piece:
Most of [this] seems to involve an embrace of the artificial—a belief that prosperity can and should be manufactured from the top down and that successful entrepreneurship, innovation, and jobs(!!!!!!!—those are for you, Joe Biden) demand nothing more than Sugar Daddy U.S.A.’s material blessing.
Implicit in such an orientation is a belief that risk can somehow be avoided or subverted—that turning companies around is always possible, that the solution (if there is one) is always accessible/know-able, and that investments will always produce a profit (when all else fails, there’s subsidies…duh!). All you need is a warm and toasty heart and a propensity to use other people’s stuff to Read the rest of this entry »
Below are our most-read posts of 2011. Thank you all for your readership and support over the past year. I am truly blessed to have such a dedicated and engaging audience.
Happy New Year!
Alas, I doubt we will ever hear such questions, because it is the Christian beliefs that do not deserve merit or respect in the public square. It is the Christian beliefs that arouse skepticism for their opposition to the secularist’s religious devotion to “serious science.” It is the Christian beliefs that are actually “beliefs.” The rest is simply the facts.
Thus, in the coming election cycle, I expect we shall once again be resigned to hearing President Obama defend his secularist views on Christian turf. Once again, we will have to hear how his “personal” Christian beliefs on homosexuality and abortion don’t matter, because they are obviously subservient to a higher power.
What if we as a society were to rely on non-compulsory generosity and “cheerful giving”? What if the church actually lived up to its Biblical calling by at least giving tithes on a consistent basis (there is certainly more work to be done)? …The main question: Why doesn’t the church just do what the Bible says at a minimum?
…The outsourcing of charitable responsibility is nothing new, but it is unfortunate that the promotion of such an approach has become such a proud and advertised staple of the ecumenical movement.
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?
…If we are really going to take such beliefs seriously, these folks have relatively few options at their disposal. 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. Sound unrealistic? You’re on to something.
[F]or me and countless others, [Ayn] Rand challenges us — even inspires us — to critique and solidify our own views on the role of the individual, the other, and, above all, God…[A]dmiring certain features of Rand does not automatically transform one into a blind, anti-altruism zombie. It does not, as Whittaker Chambers famously put it, lead to the gas chamber, even if Rand herself may have been packing her bags for precisely that.
The author of Hebrews wrote that “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” In discussing Rand, let’s stop pretending that Christians are a bunch of babies. Maybe then we can start separating the poison from the peas.
To disconnect faith from reason, Piper argues, is to diminish one’s love for God. To ignore thinking altogether, as many cushier, more seeker-friendly elements of evangelicalism have aimed to do, is just as treacherous as subverting it, which the [Rob] Bells and the [Don] Millers of the world seem more subtly set on accomplishing…
Yet to disconnect reason from faith is to designate and commit that reason elsewhere, leading to a lack of love altogether. But this particular error is not just reserved for atheists. Indeed, the lazy, passive attitude of the aforementioned lukewarm love often indirectly leads to the committing of one’s mind to the things of this world by default. Chances are, if we are ignoring orthodoxy for orthopraxy, our praxy will end up getting pretty laxy.
Members of public-sector unions may think that parading a hollow right to specialized coercion is more dignified than complaining about lower salaries, but I find it to be a revelation of something far more sinister.
Listen up, public-sector unions: You are not the victims. You are the pampered and insulated “elite.” The longer you cling to the roots of your institutionalized privilege, the longer injustice will prevail.
[Jim] Wallis commits the basic error of attaching his limited, earthbound, top-down scheming to his bottom-up, heartfelt desires. Through this warped, debased rendering of the Scripture, all that we thought we knew about Matthew 25 suddenly becomes robbed of its most basic message and meaning…
Wallis takes Jesus’ message about people and compassion and turns it into a message about politics and pressure, dragging in all the baggage that comes with it (and there’s a lot). The rich become sinners, the Right become unrighteous, the Left become holy, and the poor become political pawns in a contorted game of God-told-me-to-tell-you-so.
Not only do Objectivists justify their ethics for different reasons than Christians, Objectivists have arguments against the reasons Christians give for their ethics…
Does this mean that Christians and Objectivists will necessarily clash? On an ethical level, definitely, but on a political level, I’m not sure. It seems that Christians with a particular political philosophy can have the same view as Objectivists on the proper function of government, even if the reasons Christians hold their views differs from the reasons Objectivists hold their views. If this is true, then on a political level, the Objectivist and the Christian would not clash.
In the case of [Rob] Bell’s defenders, many of their claims to anti-judgmentalism assume a pose that is entitled to special treatment. They (and Bell) are allowed to pose controversial questions about the nature of God’s love, while those who disagree with Bell’s arguments are scolded and chided as haters and judgers.
Both are focusing on belief systems and theological claims, but one side is claiming monopolistic authority over who can or should be able to judge the other’s system, which turns it into a discussion about people.
Rather than channel our anger and frustration toward a bunch of big shots who may or may not have wronged us, we should look upward, inward, and onward. There is a major value deficit in the world today — there always has been — and we should be constantly looking for ways to sharpen our position toward filling the void, not sit around and cat-call others to do it for us…
We are all sinners prone to vice. We must all seek our own mercy and redemption. It’s about time we turn the megaphone around and listen.
The attitudes and actions of the Occupy Wall Street protesters have inspired many others to join the streets in outrage, leaving those of us at home to wonder what the point of it all may be.
And let me assure you: there is indeed a point.
I’ve been struck by the moral arrogance that permeates the crowds — a sort of pretentious, self-absorbed judgmentalism, self-anointed to invade the souls of the rich and expose their moral failings. Such supposed vice, we are told, must be stopped, and it is these brave oracles of materialism and greed who shall stand in its way.
There are, of course, a few problems with this. One is that “ending corporate greed” requires privy knowledge of who is greedy and who is not. We can certainly trust the discernment of the guy smoking pot in the sleeping bag next to the sewer drain, but even if he gets it right, how might we convince Mr. Fat-Cat Richiebottoms to alter his moral outlook?
“Just take his money away,” they’ll say.
Yet if I threw Billy Goodheart’s “Everyone is greedy but me!” sign in the garbage, my hunch is that his ability to produce quality picketing art would only improve. There he’d be, the very next day, with the same attitudes, the same platitudes, and the same distasteful propensity to blame the Man.
Reality alert: You cannot change the world by blaming others, and you cannot change moral behavior by yelling.
With particular precision, David Brooks sums up the issue nicely:
If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent. This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.
And problems do abound. Yes, there are structural issues with the status quo. Yes, corporatism is out of control (which is not the same as “capitalism,” mind you). Yes, banks and businesses were/are reckless. Yes, people were/are greedy. You woke up on the right planet.
The question is, “What can we do about it?”
In a free society, one thing we can control is our own lives. If we don’t want to be beholden to greedy misers or enslaved to high-interest credit cards, we can say “no.” If we don’t want to be tied to 10 years of student-loan debt that we can’t afford, we can go to a trade school or demonstrate some basic upfront frugality. If we’re looking for our dream job and can’t find it, we can continue to increase our skills and standing, no matter how frustrating the process may be.
If, however, we are trying to “be the change we want to see in the world” by sleeping in a gutter for weeks on end, we should be prepared to receive our prize.
This week at Common Sense Concept, I discuss Tom Palmer’s new video on the “morality of profit” as a follow-up to my post on whether capitalism is compatible with Christian values.
Palmer uses the charity efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates as a launching pad for discussion, focusing on their professed desire to “give back” to society. The problem with such language, Palmer notes, is that “you can’t give back what you didn’t take.”
The Gateses did not, of course, take anything, as true free exchange would not permit it:
We are not forced to fill company coffers against our will. We are not doomed to buy oranges or apples if the price isn’t right. Instead, we are free to collaborate of our own free will and by our own consent. In such a world, profit is merely a symbol of community value. If we reject profits as immoral, we should be prepared to reject the community that empowers it. The tricky part, as I’ve mentioned before, is that this is most often ourselves. This is what the “morality of profit” all boils down to: whether mutual exchange is indeed mutual.
This tells us something about the morality of profit, but Palmer’s discussion also teaches us something about the nature of generosity — namely, that when we misunderstand the way wealth is created, we also misunderstand the ways in which (or through which) our generosity should be and can be channeled and expressed.
Indeed, understanding this process is crucial for understanding how God calls us to use our wealth:
By diluting our charity to some redistributionist obligation, we dilute the very potential of our charity, both for ourselves and our communities. How are we to maximize our generosity and distribute compassion effectively if we harbor faulty, guilt-ridden sentiments about Read the rest of this entry »