. (Matthew 19:24)
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Mark 8:36)
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4)
When people use or hear the word “capitalism,” some of the things they might bring to mind are:
1. The institution of private property, including private ownership of the basic means of production
2. Market competition
3. The existence of corporations as legal persons
4. Inequalities in wealth and income
5. An economic order primarily oriented to the private sector, with government acting at the margins and only where necessary
Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those things. Indeed, some of them (such as private property and a government that respects subsidiarity) are required as a matter of natural law. Eliminating all economic inequalities (as opposed to remedying poverty, which is a very different matter) is . The concept of the corporate person , the natural law tradition (whatever one thinks about its instantiation in modern business corporations). Socialism in the strict sense, which would centralize the most fundamental economic decision-making, .
On the other hand, other people using or hearing the term “capitalism” might have in mind things like:
6. A doctrinaire laissez-faire mentality that is reflexively hostile to all governmental economic intervention
7. The market as the dominant social institution, with an ethos of consumerism and commodification of everything as its sequel
8. Corporations so powerful that they are effectively unanswerable to government or public opinion
9. Doctrinaire minimalization or even elimination of social welfare institutions, even when there is no feasible private sector alternative
10. Globalization of a kind that entails dissolution of corporate and individual loyalties to the nation-state and local communities.
Now, all of these things are bad and should be opposed on natural law grounds.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely illustrative. And what it illustrates is that it is unhelpful to talk about either embracing or rejecting capitalism full stop. The term has too many connotations for that, and needs to be disambiguated. Hence the sweeping claims often made by both sides in the debate over capitalism inevitably generate excessive heat while reducing light. When people say “I support capitalism,” they often mean “I support 1-5” but their opponents hear them as saying “I support 6-10.” And when people say “I oppose capitalism,” they often mean “I oppose 6-10,” but their opponents hear them as saying “I oppose 1-5.” To a large extent, they talk past each other.
When we do disambiguate the term, we get more light and less heat. But we also lose the simpleminded pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist slogans. No doubt that is precisely why friends and critics of capitalism alike prefer not to disambiguate it.
Does this entail that no interesting general claims can be made about actually existing capitalism (as opposed to the abstract models of capitalism put forward by its defenders and its critics)? Not at all. Having pleaded for nuance, let me now boldly make some sweeping claims of my own. I can at least promise that I will offend both sides. Here are the claims:
I. Capitalism has made us materially much better off.
II. Capitalism has made us spiritually much worse off.
In defense of the first claim, I would simply refer to the standard arguments made by libertarians, free market conservatives, and The rule of law, stable property rights, the price mechanism, the division of labor, and other aspects of modern market economies have made possible astounding wealth creation and technological advances that have raised the material conditions of everyone. As Pinker writes:, which I regard as unanswerable.
Together, technology and globalization have transformed what it means to be a poor person, at least in developed countries. The old stereotype of poverty was an emaciated pauper in rags. Today, the poor are likely to be as overweight as their employers, and dressed in the same fleece, sneakers, and jeans. The poor used to be called the have-nots. In 2011, more than 95 percent of American households below the poverty line had electricity, running water, flush toilets, a refrigerator, a stove, and a color TV. (A century and a half before, the Rothschilds, Astors, and Vanderbilts had none of these things.) Almost half of the households below the poverty line had a dishwasher, 60 percent had a computer, around two-thirds had a washing machine and a clothes dryer, and more than 80 percent had an air conditioner, a video recorder, and a cell phone. In the golden age of economic equality in which I grew up, middle-class “haves” had few or none of these things. (Enlightenment Now, p. 117)
Before you respond that government had something to do with this as well, let me emphasize that I don’t disagree with that. Again, I am not talking about the laissez-faire fantasy capitalism of libertarian dreams and socialist nightmares. I am talking about actually existing capitalism, which has always had a significant public sector component – government provision of basic infrastructure, military research and development vis-à-vis technology, redistributive programs, and all the rest. The point, though, is that it was precisely the governments of capitalist countries that oversaw these advances, because they protected and supplemented the overall capitalist order rather than subverted it. Even redistributed golden eggs have first to be laid by the market economy goose.
But affluence can have a high spiritual cost, as classical philosophy and Christian theology alike teach us. Modern capitalist society is essentially an instance of what Plato called the oligarchic sort of regime, which he regarded as the third-worst sort – or third-best, if you want to accentuate the positive. It is better than democracy and tyranny, but worse than either the rule of the Philosopher-Kings or what Plato called timocracy.
Now, keep in mind that A society governed by the Philosopher-Kings is one in which the highest part of the soul, reason, is idealized and is dominant in those who govern. A timocracy is a society in which the spirited part of the soul, and the martial virtues that characterize it, is dominant in those who govern it. A democracy, as Plato characterizes it, is a society in which the lowest, appetitive part of the soul dominates and tends toward licentiousness. A tyranny is what results when a particularly ruthless democratic soul imposes its will on the rest. that he distinguishes is primarily by way of the kinds of souls which predominate in them, and that the characterization thus presupposes his tripartite conception of human nature (in terms of reason, the spirited part of the soul, and appetite).
Oligarchy as Plato conceives of it stands between timocracy and democracy. Like democracy, it is governed by the appetitive part of the soul. But the specific appetite it fosters, the desire to acquire wealth, is not as unruly or chaotic as the pursuit of sensual pleasure that dominates democratic society. Its satisfaction requires some degree of self-discipline and delay of gratification – and thus the bourgeois virtues, which, though not as noble as those honored in the two higher sorts of regime, at least put some restraints on the other appetites.
The trouble is that, for one thing, later generations within an oligarchy, who enjoy the benefits of affluence without having had to exercise the discipline required in order to create it, tend to become soft and decadent. And for another thing, there is money to be made in catering to the lower appetites. Hence oligarchy tends to decay into democracy in Plato’s sense. And that is why the America of the robber barons and of the military-industrial complex eventually gave way to the America of Woodstock and the sexual revolution, and now to that grisly amalgam of the two – the America of contemporary woke capitalism.
If easy affluence is corruptive of the natural virtues, it is even more corruptive of the supernatural virtues. The rich young man, though he showed initial interest in following Christ, opted instead to hold on to his possessions when he had to make a choice (Matthew 16: 19-22). This famously led Christ to warn that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
Now, superficial readers of this passage suppose that it is fundamentally about the duty of material assistance to the poor. They overlook the reaction to Jesus’s teaching: “When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Matthew 19:25). Why would they ask such a thing, since only a minority of people are rich? St. Augustine answered as follows:
When the Lord says that a rich man does not enter the kingdom of heaven, his disciples ask him who can be saved. Since the rich are so few in comparison with the poor, we must understand, then, that those who yearn for such material goods must realize that they are included in the number of those rich. ()
Or as The problem with the rich young man, then, was not that he was rich, but that he valued riches above following Christ. And that is a spiritual malady that can afflict even those who are not rich, but who cannot bear the fact. Indeed, they can be in even worse shape if they add to this sin of avarice the sin of envy. puts it: “The apostles wondered how any person could be saved, not because all were rich, but because the poor were also included, who had their hearts and affections fixed on riches.”
But it is a commonplace that those who suffer want of any kind are more likely to perceive their dependence on and need for God, whereas those who have much can become self-satisfied and distracted by worldly concerns. In particular, they are in danger not only of the sins people usually associate with wealth – avarice, gluttony, and pride – but of the even more insidious sin of acedia or distraction from the highest, spiritual goods. Hence the rich stand in special need of warning. How many more are bound to be in this spiritual danger, then, when many more are affluent – as they are in modern capitalist societies?
That Plato’s and Christ’s warnings have been borne out is obvious from the collapse of traditional morality and widespread apostasy from Christianity that have characterized modern capitalist societies, and from the way of life that has replaced them. In such societies, “success” is conceived of in terms of the acquisition of material wealth. Preparing the young for adulthood is conceived of in terms of training them for a “career” that will assure them this “success.” Pursuit of this goal is the preoccupation not just of an elite, but of everyone – achieving it is the “American dream.” Social justice is conceived of primarily in terms of enabling as many as possible to achieve this “dream.”
Everyday life is devoted to making money that one might spend on dining, entertainments, travel, and other material goods – which enable one to rest up so as to be ready to get back to making money. Advertising is ubiquitous, and consumers dutifully pursue the latest new product, the latest pop culture fad, the latest fashions, or the latest enthusiasm in cuisine. Though political fights may arise over various cultural and moral controversies, in the end it is the state of the economy that tends to determine who gets into power. Even conservative parties tend to cave in on “social issues” but will fight tooth and nail for tax cuts, deregulation, and the like. “It’s the economy, stupid!” is the bipartisan conventional wisdom.
Even otherwise traditionally-minded Christians become suckers for obscene materialistic distortions of the faith, such as the “prosperity gospel.” Liberal Christians, meanwhile, emphasize helping the poor and marginalized – not to save their souls, but rather to get them into the same rat race that the rest of society runs in. Christ says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). But secularists and modern Christians alike, whether conservative or liberal, take the highest end of moral and political endeavor to be to build a world where no one ever has to deny himself anything and there are no crosses of any kind.
From a traditional Christian point of view, then, the main danger of actually existing capitalism is not that it makes people poor, but on the contrary that it makes them rich compared to most people who have ever lived, and certainly fixates them on the acquisition of material wealth. It has thereby led the mass of mankind into a particularly insidious sort of temptation that relatively fewer were faced with in previous ages. Most people read passages like Matthew 19:24 and smugly think of the rich as “them.” But to paraphrase Walt Kelly, we have met the rich man, and he is us.
Is the solution to abolish riches? No, because wealth is not intrinsically bad, and indeed is a positive good. Again, the problem is not riches per se, but the fixation on riches. And the fixation can exist even when riches do not. The solution is to counter this fixation. Sound principles by which this might be done were set out by popes , , and John Paul II, who condemned socialism in absolute terms, but defended capitalist institutions only with significant qualifications of a kind that no libertarian or classical liberal could accept – and who insisted that both the crisis of modernity and the social transformation needed to remedy it are fundamentally moral and religious rather than economic in nature.