Capitalism

A False Anthropological Dichotomy

Not long ago I examined an article by Patrick J. Deneen concerning the intellectual divide between American Catholics. If you will recall, Deenen divides American Catholics into a pro-America/liberal camp and an anti-America/illiberal or “radical” camp. At the heart of this divide, so they say (I will challenge this below) is an alleged conflict of “anthropologies”; it appears to be common currency on the illiberal side of the debate. Liberals – and to be clear, we’re talking about classical liberals for the most part – supposedly hold to an anthropological view that is self-centered and individualistic. Worse yet, in this view, human beings are allegedly driven primarily by fear and greed (when they aren’t gratifying their basest urges). All of this contemporary classical liberals are alleged to hold as demonstrated irrevocably by the laws of microeconomics and the sophisticated and often indecipherable mathematical models of neoclassical economists. Dig a bit deeper and the whole rotten anti-Christian edifice can be traced back to John Locke, whose “possessive individualism” birthed the demon-spawns of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson and gave us the American commercial republic.

The reality, of course, is quite different. The fundamental value of classical liberalism is not “individualism”, but liberty. But the nature of liberty is such that only individuals can exercise it, for the human race is not a hive mind; each human being possesses his or her own intellect and will and is, barring some defect, responsible for the decisions they make. Metaphysical libertarianism, which is the position that human beings have free will, is a foundational assumption of Christianity (and indeed of any ethical system that presupposes human beings can make moral choices). It is also the foundational moral and methodological assumption of classical liberal sociology, political theory and economics. People are free by nature, and cannot be studied as if they were not free. And because we are free by nature, we are gravely harmed if we are unnecessarily restricted in our liberty by other men, including and especially governments.

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Liberalism, Capitalism & Pluralism: The Catholic Wars Continue

On February 6, The American Conservative published a piece by Patrick J. Deneen titled “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” In it, Deneen outlines the positions of two hostile political camps within American Catholicism: the “liberal” camp and what he calls a more “radical”/illiberal camp. The liberal camp is characterized by its support for free-market capitalism, liberal democracy, a vigorous interventionist foreign policy, and the basic compatibility of the American republic with Catholicism. The radical illiberal camp is virtually the opposite in every respect; it is skeptical of and in my experience quite hostile towards free-market capitalism, contemptuous of liberal democracy, anti-interventionist and views the entire American project as a failed enterprise incompatible with Catholicism.

In my view there ought to be recognition of a third camp: Catholic libertarianism. Of course this immediately lends itself to semantic confusion. After all, some of what Deneen’s “liberals” hold would align with what libertarians hold, and both might lay claim to the descriptor of “classical liberalism.” The important point of dispute between this peculiar lot of liberals and libertarians proper, at least given the specific points raised by Deneen, would be the matter of foreign policy. Catholic libertarians such as Tom Woods and Judge Andrew Napolitano are resolutely opposed not only to American interventionism, but also to the growing domestic security apparatus that poses a threat to individual liberties. Deneen’s liberals, or at least the contemporary names such as Wiegel, Neuhaus, and Novak, may better be described as neo-conservatives. Insofar as the Catholic neo-conservatives share economic views with the libertarians, I will include them as “classical liberals” in the analysis to follow. It may also be argued that Catholic libertarians aligned with the Austrian school of economics and political theory are also quite critical of liberal democracy. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, an Austrian intellectual, has led the way in the libertarian critique of democracy and there is no reason to assume that a classical liberal is necessarily a democratic liberal.

Read the rest here. 

Dorothy Day: Anarcho-Capitalist, Perhaps

A Facebook friend brought my attention to the tug of war taking place over the legacy of Dorothy Day in recent months between pro and anti-capitalists. The Catholic Worker has criticized both the NY Times and Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute on Day-related matters. Liberals can’t claim her, so it is said, because she was anti-abortion and loyal to Church teaching, obviously never having gone the way of radical disobedient feminism. But conservatives and libertarians can’t claim her either because she rejected capitalism.

Or did she? As best I can tell, she neither practiced it or preached it as a way of life. And yet she did say the following:

We believe that social security legislation, now balled as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the Idea of force and compulsion…

Of course, Pope Pius XI said that, when such a crisis came about, in unemployment, fire, flood, earthquake, etc., the state had to enter in and help.

But we in our generation have more and more come to consider the state as bountiful Uncle Sam.

If you don’t believe in “force and compulsion”, you believe – by logical necessity – that capitalism is at least permissible. At least capitalism as Fr. Sirico, Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard would define it, which is nothing more than private property + free exchange of goods and services. No capitalist along these lines, moreover, could or likely would raise any objection to voluntary collectivist projects such as workers cooperatives or agricultural communes. Voluntary Distributism, which Day supported in her writings, is capitalism.

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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.
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Science and Technology in World History

Technological history is a unique point of view that always caught my eye.  David Deming of the American Thinker gives us a brief synopsis of his latest contribution in this genre.  Keep in mind how integral Christianity was to the recovery of Europe after the barbarian invasions and the safekeeping of knowledge by the monastic system that allowed Europe to recover and blossom into what we now call Western Civilization:

Both Greece and Rome made significant contributions to Western Civilization.  Greek knowledge was ascendant in philosophy, physics, chemistry, medicine, and mathematics for nearly two thousand years.  The Romans did not have the Greek temperament for philosophy and science, but they had a genius for law and civil administration.  The Romans were also great engineers and builders.  They invented concrete, perfected the arch, and constructed roads and bridges that remain in use today.  But neither the Greeks nor the Romans had much appreciation for technology.  As documented in my book, Science and Technology in World History, Vol. 2, the technological society that transformed the world was conceived by Europeans during the Middle Ages.

Greeks and Romans were notorious in their disdain for technology.  Aristotle noted that to be engaged in the mechanical arts was “illiberal and irksome.”  Seneca infamously characterized invention as something fit only for “the meanest slaves.”  The Roman Emperor Vespasian rejected technological innovation for fear it would lead to unemployment.

Greek and Roman economies were built on slavery.  Strabo described the slave market at Delos as capable of handling the sale of 10,000 slaves a day.  With an abundant supply of manual labor, the Romans had little incentive to develop artificial or mechanical power sources. Technical occupations such as blacksmithing came to be associated with the lower classes.

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Is the Means of Production an Obsolete Idea?

The “means of production” (which may be defined, roughly, as consisting of capital goods minus human and financial capital), is a central concept in Marxism, as well as in other ideologies such as Distributism. The problems of capitalism, according to both Marxists and Distributists, arise from the fact that ownership of the means of production is concentrated in the hands of the few. Marxists propose to remedy these problems by having the means of production be collectively owned. Distributists want to retain private ownership, but to break the means of production up (where practicable) into smaller parts so that everyone will have a piece (if you wanted to describe the difference between the Marxist and Distributist solutions here, it would be that Distributists want everyone to own part of the means of production, whereas Marxists want everyone to be part owner of all of it).

Where a society’s economy is based primarily on agriculture or manufacture, thinking in terms of the means of production makes some sense. In an agricultural economy wealth is based primarily on ownership of land, and in a manufacturing economy ownership of things like factories and machinery plays an analogous role. In a modern service-based economy, by contrast, wealth is based largely on human capital (the possession of knowledge and skills). As Pope John Paul II notes in Centesimus Annus, “[i]n our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill. The wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources.”

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Exclusive Sneak Peek of Caritas in Veritate

Caritas in Veritate

[Updates at the bottom of this posting.]

The much anticipated new encyclical that Pope Benedict XVI recently signed, his third, on June 29th titled Caritas in Veritate, or Charity in Truth, will be released soon by Ignatius Press (the English version) on July  6th or 7th of 2009 A.D.  In searching for information regarding this encyclical I found bits and pieces here and there but nothing exhaustive or concise that came close to satisfying my curiosity.  So I’ve gathered all of my information and have presented it the best way possible in this posting.  With tongue in cheek I labeled this preview of Caritas in Veritate as an ‘Exclusive Sneak Peek’*.

Caritas in Veritate will be a social encyclical examining some of the social changes that have occurred since Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, particularly globalization.  The encyclical will have Pope Benedict XVI articulating the need to bolster humanism that brings together the social and economic development of humans and to reduce the disproportionate gap between poor and rich.  One other major theme of this encyclical will be that of global justice.

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Capitalism — When People Sell Things I Don't Like

With the garden currently shooting up, I’ve found myself again disposed to read gardening and food related books. I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma last week, and aside from a few gripes in regards to Michael Pollan’s understanding of economics, I enjoyed it quite a bit. On the last run by the library, I picked up a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The idea of moving out onto acreage and growing much of one’s own food is something that I find interesting. I enjoy gardening, I enjoy cooking gourmet food, and I think there’s a cultural and psychological value to remaining in touch with the way that humans have gained food for themselves in past centuries.

However, Kingsolver is far more passionate (and less balanced) in her jeremiads against “industrial food” than Pollan, and more prone to denunciations of what “capitalism” has done to our food culture. Indeed, so much so as to crystallize for me a trend among those who denounce “capitalism” and its impact on Western Culture. Kingsolver had just reached the crescendo of a complaint in regards to large seed companies peddling hybrids and genetically modified strains, when she turned to the subject of heirloom vegetable varieties, and her joy at paging through lengthy seed catalogs full of heirloom seeds.

…Heirloom seeds are of little interest to capitalism if they can’t be patented or owned. They have, however, earned a cult following among people who grow or buy and eat them. Gardeners collect them like family jewels, and Whole Foods Market can’t refrain from poetry in its advertisement of heirlooms….

So you see, when large agribusiness firms sell farmers seeds for field corn which are genetically modified to repel pests,
that’s capitalism. But when catalog and internet businesses build a thriving niche selling heirloom vegetable seeds, and Whole Foods ad men wax poetical over $7/lb tomatoes, that’s… Well, it certainly can’t be capitalism, can it? Not if it’s good.

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Capitalism, A Beneficial Exchange

Blogger Sam Rocha wrote a post the other day titled, “A Brief Defense of ‘Capitalism'”. However, Rocha’s attempt is, I think, somewhat hampered by the fact that he by his own description does not think much of capitalism.

For the most part we (by “we” I mean those of us on the left, yes I will own up to being something of a leftist, whatever that means) like to say that all capitalism, and its governing libertarian sentiment, desires is for there to be no limit at how much one can take for one’s self. It is a creed of the indulgent and the rich. Greed, selfishness, isolationism, sterile individualism and other nasty things, are what we enjoy making capitalism out to be.

With such an opener, what might wonder what it is that Rocha then finds to praise in capitalism. What he find is, I think, not at all unique to capitalism narrowly defined, but it is something which those of us in the West are much attached to:

If we can cut-out the name calling, I think we can find a powerful meaning within capitalist sentiment. Namely, the much-abused, taboo, and rejected idea of the individual, the person-singular. I think that if we take notions of private property and negative freedom (“freedom from”) inherent in capitalist sentiment, and ponder what they mean, we will find that we all value such things privately….

Here is my defense: Capitalism, as it is believed in benevolently, reminds us of our radical existence as images of God with a potency to as we wish within the vast sea of possibility. What we need next is the ability to control ourselves with the prudence, grace, and love of our Creator in this stormy sea of freedom. But we should never be too quick to accept external-control over our bodies, minds, and hearts. We need to be free. And perfect freedom is not the raw, brute force of libertarianism, to be sure. At the same time, it also is that imposing force.

I don’t find what Rocha finds to praise unappealing, but at the same time I think that there is something more to be found in capitalism as described by Adam Smith and others which even many of those who frequently condemn capitalism would find it in themselves to admire if they could look past their preconceptions and see Smith-ian capitalism for what it is.

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Freedom vs. Choice

It’s fashionable at the moment to write conservatism’s epitaph. Such epitaph writing is not my project here, but there is a sort of inherent tension in the recent history of conservatism which I would like to examine briefly.

For the last hundred years and more, conservatives have often found themselves arguing against those in the political and economic spheres who believe that we can achieve a great improvement in society by instituting some sort of centrally controlled state economy. Socialism, communism and fascism all attempted, in different ways, to create new and better societies through assigning people roles and resources rather than allowing their allocation to occur through a decentralized system of millions of individual decisions taking place independently every day.

Perhaps this is the great modern temptation. People looked at the incredibly intricate (sometimes seemingly orderless) organization of society resulting from custom and the summed decisions of millions of individuals and thought, “Now we have the ability to plan all this instead and do it better!” Various sorts of ideologues tried to impose various sorts of new order on society, and conservatives dragged their feet and tried to keep things as they were, allowing people to make their own decision as they saw best whenever possible.

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Capitalism is 3rd World's Safety Net

While Americans weather layoffs and watch their 401ks dwindle, the developing nations in which many of our products originate are being hit even harder by the global downturn. Many of these developing nations have virtually no social safety net, and job loss can be crippling. However, as jobs manufacturing good to be sold to the West dry up, many are turning to the “informal economy” the open air markets, street vendors, and in-home manufacturers which make up more than half the economy in countries ranging from India and Mexico to much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The informal economy consists of cash and in-kind transactions and its practitioners do not pay taxes, hold licenses, or obey regulations. Pay is simply however much money is made, and there are no benefits. Because informal businessmen pay no taxes and work on a cash only basis (they seldom capitalize through loans, nor do they put savings into banks) economists have generally seen them as a drag on the economy. But as export-based jobs dry up, it provides a fallback safety net for many workers:

pilaporn_jaksuratUntil late December, Pilaporn Jaksurat, 33, was working full-time on a cotton spinning machine in a textile mill in Bangkok. She made about $7 a day and her benefits included bonuses of $30 a month for good attendance and a severance package worth about $800.

Then she was laid off when her factory, which sells fabric to clothing manufacturers in Europe, said it had to cut costs to cope with the global economic crisis.

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