Capitalism

Aristotle & Distributism: Part II

(Part I may be read here. Some of the discussion may be followed on my blog. Note: the presentation of this essay on this blog may differ somewhat from the outline I set forth in the introduction in Part I. The critique of communism/welfare-statism will be published tomorrow.)

In an academic culture that is often characterized by historicist and relativist viewpoints, the notion that Aristotle may have had anything relevant to say about modern economic systems seems a little strange to us. While it must be admitted that we cannot expect the ancient versions of capitalism and communism to be identical to their modern counterparts, we can nonetheless differentiate the historically-shaped form from what is arguably the timeless content. Moreover, by way of critique of the two dominant economic paradigms (for in the final instance, welfare-statism/Social Democracy incorporates the worst features of both), we can arrive at a more clear vision of the Distributist alternative.

Though it ought to become obvious through the critique of communism, it bears stating up front that the Aristotelian critique of capitalism is not an attack on private property. Difficult as it may be for some readers, the notion that the essence of capitalism is the possession and use of private property is a fallacy bequeathed to us not only by certain capitalist ideologists, but by many (though not all) communists and assorted “anti-capitalists” as well.

A definition of capitalism that accords well with Aristotle’s critique is an economy in which production for exchange is predominant, as opposed to production for immediate use/consumption. Though it is modern technology since the Industrial Revolution that actually allows such an economy to come into being, the pre-industrial tendencies towards this type of economy have been in existence since the dawn of civilization, and reached a pinnacle in the great civilizations of antiquity, including the ancient Greece in which Aristotle lived and wrote.

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Educational Egalitarianism

Darwin Catholic’s post about the educational system and the possible benefits of promoting a myth of equality got me thinking about the essential differences between liberals and at least the kind of conservative I think I am becoming.

That is, a kind of conservative that is opposed to excessively concentrated wealth in private hands, for the following reasons: 1) it can easily lead to concentrated political power that is less accountable, 2) in the midst of poverty – even if one wishes to argue that it is not a cause of poverty – it inspires class envy and hatred, 3) it has the potential to be terribly and sinfully wasted on frivolities instead of charity and/or social investment.

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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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It's Not Really About Markets

What do many communists and many advocates of laissez-faire capitalism share in common? Both claim that their ideologies have never been given a fair shake, both claim that their ideologies are based upon immutable laws of either historical progress or human behavior, both reject ‘real world’ examples that supposedly show the error of their views, and both believe that only their ideological visions will lead to a future worth living in.

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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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Lead Us Into Temptation: American Materialism

To speak of American “materialism” is…both an understatement and a misstatement. The material goods that historically have been the symbols which elsewhere separated men from one another have become, under American conditions, symbols which hold men together. From the moment of our rising in the morning, the breakfast food we eat, the coffee we drink, the automobile we drive to work–all these and nearly all the things we consume become thin, but not negligible, bonds with thousands of other Americans. — Daniel J. Boorstin

What’s wrong with American culture? This question has become prominent in Christian circles as the moral course of the United States becomes more and more frightening. The answer, in one respect, lies in the materialism of the American people. This is not materialism, in the philosophical sense, where all that exists is matter and one denies the existence of God — though that sort of materialism easily establishes this second sort. This materialism is the fruit of avarice and greed. It’s a common mentality — we’re all guilty of it — that we don’t really care about things per se; we know who we are without our possessions. Our sense of self is not bound to the material world. Of all the so-called “-isms” of our time, none has ever been more misunderstood, more criticized, and more relevant than materialism. Who but fools and the occasional nutty libertarian rise to its defense? It’s safe to say that while materialism may not be the most shallow of all the “-isms” plaguing the world, it certainly is among those that have triumphed.

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