What Is This Wicked Capitalism?
One of the difficulties that comes in discussing the many “isms” that populate the landscape of political discussion is that very often people use the same words without mean the same things, or indeed without having any clearly defined idea of what they do mean. While this is the case with nearly any ism (socialism, liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, etc.) I’d like to address in this case the way in which opponents (particularly Christian opponents) of “capitalism” tend to address the object of their condemnation. This is in some ways a beautifully typical example of a Christian opponent of capitalism attempting to describe what it is he is condemning:
We must remember the capitalistic system we live in also is a materialistic ideology which runs contrary to the Christian faith, and it is a system which is used to create rival, and equally erroneous, forms of liberation theology. It is as atheistic as Marxism. It is founded upon a sin, greed. It promises utopia, telling us that if we allow capitalist systems to exist without regulation, everyone, including the poor, will end up being saved. The whole “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor” is just as much a failed ideology as Marxist collectivism.
Admittedly, this is a somewhat muddled set of statements, but I think we can draw out of it the following statements which the author, and many other self described critics of capitalism (in particular from a religious perspective) believe to be true:
-Capitalism is a system or ideology much as Communism is.
-Capitalism is based on greed or takes greed to be a virtue.
-Capitalism is a materialistic or atheistic philosophy/system.
-Capitalism could be summed up as the idea that “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor”
-Capitalism promises utopia if “capitalist systems” are allowed to exist without regulation.
While one approach to this is simply to throw out the term “capitalism” entirely, what I’d like to do is accept that claim that we live in a “capitalist” system and that this system is roughly what libertarians/conservatives advocate, and proceed to address the claims made about “capitalism” in that context.
Capitalism is a system or ideology much as Communism is.
People are often most comfortable dealing with dualities, and so it’s natural for people to want to see capitalism and communism as a matched pair. However, I think it’s reasonable to question whether there is such a thing as a capitalist “system”. Communism is, after all, a specific plan for how a state should function based on a vision of collective ownership of the means of production by the state as a representative of the workers. Capitalism, on the other hand, is generally defined as “an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for a private profit; decisions regarding supply, demand, price, distribution, and investments are made by private actors in the market rather than by central planning by the government”. As such, there are clearly many different ways in which a capitalist system might function, the only real requirement is that some person or entity other than the government be the owner of the means of production.
Capitalism is based on greed or takes greed to be a virtue.
This is one of the most common complaints about capitalism, yet I am the least clear where it comes from. How exactly is capitalism based on greed?
One explanation is that the accusation is based on the power of prominent negative examples. You see a stock trader making vast sums of money and living it up in an obvious fashion and you conclude, “This is what capitalism allows, clearly capitalism is based on greed.” Of course, in that case, one might as well look at a good communist country such as North Korea, note the way that party luminaries live compared to ordinary workers, and conclude that communism is based on greed as well.
Another approach would be to accuse capitalism of being based on greed because it is based on the theory of incentives. Ask a free market supporter why he supports private ownership over state ownership, and he’s likely to tell you that it incents people to work harder and more efficiently. Does this mean that capitalism only works better than collectivism because it harnesses the power of greed?
Not necessarily. The fact is, we human beings have a limited ability to respond to abstract situations. If someone can see how his work directly leads to providing both necessities and desired luxuries to himself and his loved ones, he will tend to work much harder than if he sees no connection between his work and any result which he clearly recognizes as good.
Labeling this tendency to respond better to perceivable benefits as “greed” seems rather harsh — one might as well say that cooking is motivated entirely by gluttony.
Capitalism is a materialistic or atheistic philosophy/system.
This seems to be a simple case of confusing a system of limited scope with a system which actively denies everything not included in it. Capitalism is, at most, a type of economy which fits certain broad standards: privately owned means of production, emergent order rather than central planning, relatively free trade, etc. As such, it simply doesn’t address questions of what the purpose of life is, what one should do with wealth, whether God exists, etc. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is atheistic or materialistic any more than the fact that the theory of gravitation does not address God’s existence or whether you should throw your grandmother out a window makes gravity materialistic and atheistic.
Capitalism could be summed up as the idea that “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor”
I’m conflicted as to whether to plead guilty to this, or to disagree with it. On the one hand, it seems to me that as capitalism is not, like communism, a utopian ideology (see next) it does not necessarily make any predictions as to what will happen to “the rich” or “the poor” given private ownership of the means of production. On the other hand, if in a capitalist system it is generally owning the means of production (and thus reaping the benefits of their operation) which makes people most wealthy, than it stands to reason that the rich will give jobs to somebody (assumedly someone less wealthy than they) because owning the means of production will not do them any good if they are not worked. So generally, in a capitalist economy, people will only become wealthy through means that do end up providing lots of other people with jobs. And since people who attain wealth usually want to buy goods and services with that wealth, and since the means of providing those goods and services will be privately owned, the spending of the wealthy will usually involve paying money to others — typically others who are less wealthy than they.
One could also simply appeal to the empirical and point out that while the rich in a “capitalist” country like the US may be slightly richer than Kim Jong Il or the Castro brothers, the big difference is that the poor in the US are far better off than the poor in North Korea or Cuba.
Capitalism promises utopia if “capitalist systems” are allowed to exist without regulation.
There are a lot of truly foolish people in the world, and so I’m sure that in a fit of enthusiasm one such person who supports capitalism has done something along the lines of promising utopia if free market systems are left unregulated. However, I think it’s pretty clear that most people who advocate capitalism do so simply because private ownership of property (including the means of production) is what has predominated through most of history, and they’d like to keep muddling along as things have been in the past. As such, it is very far from being a utopian system.
Certainly, it is much different in this respect from communism, which was described by Marx as being a transformative system which would be reached at the end of a series of human social and historical evolutions, and which would result from and in human nature becoming different than in the past. If anything, capitalism is based very much on the assumption that human nature will remain the same as it has been in the past.