Why I Cringe When People Criticize Capitalism (in America)

Every time I hear a fellow Christian (usually Catholic, often someone with the good sense to be a fan of G.K. Chesterton) criticize capitalism, I cringe, but not for the reason I suspect most of them would expect. Why I cringe will take a little explanation, but it’s rooted in the fact that there are actually two very different things which go by the name capitalism.

The first is a theory proposed by Adam Smith that, to oversimplify and engage in some revisionist history which is not fair to him but which would take too long to go into further, holds that virtue is unreliable: if we can harness vice to do the work of virtue, we can get the same effect much more reliably. Thus if we appeal to men’s self-interest, they will do what they ought with more vigor than if we appealed to their duty and love of their fellow man. Immanuel Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace has a section which may be taken as a summary of this attitude:

The problem of the formation of the state, hard as it may sound, is not insoluble, even for a race of devils, granted that they have intelligence. It may be put thus:—“Given a multitude of rational beings who, in a body, require general laws for their own preservation, but each of whom, as an individual, is secretly inclined to exempt himself from this restraint: how are we to order their affairs and how establish for them a constitution such that, although their private dispositions may be really antagonistic, they may yet so act as a check upon one another, that, in their public relations, the effect is the same as if they had no such evil sentiments.” Such a problem must be capable of solution. For it deals, not with the moral reformation of mankind, but only with the mechanism of nature; and the problem is to learn how this mechanism of nature can be applied to men, in order so to regulate the antagonism of conflicting interests in a people that they may even compel one another to submit to compulsory laws and thus necessarily bring about the state of peace in which laws have force.

Capitalism in this sense was this general problem applied to economics: we need men to work, but all men are lazy. We can try to appeal to men to be better, but it is much simpler and more reliable to show them how hard work will satisfy their greed.

This version of capitalism is a terrible thing, and by treating men as devils has a tendency to degrade men into a race of devils. But there is something important to note about it, which is that it doesn’t really demand much of government or of men. While it appeals to men’s greed, it does not impose a requirement that a craftsman charge an exorbitant price rather than a just price. It does not forbid a man taking a portion of his just profits and giving it to the poor. It tends to degrade men into devils, but it does not produce a form of government which demands that they become devils.

That was left to Marxism, which by its materialism demanded that all men surrender their souls to the state. Marxism is an equally wrong theory of human beings to the Capitalism of the enlightenment, but it demands a form of government which is far less compatible with human virtue. Further, it demands a form of government which is intrinsically incompatible with natural justice—depriving, as it does, all men of the property necessary to fulfill their obligations to their family and to their neighbors. Marxism inherently demands that all to whom it applies becomes a race of devils.

Of course, Marxism was never historically realized in its fullness since as Roger Scruton observed, it takes an infinite amount of force to make people do what is impossible. But enough force was applied to create the approximation of Marxism known as The Soviet Union (though according to a Russian friend of mine who escaped shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed, a more accurate translation would have been “The Unified Union of United Allies”). This global superpower which was (at least apparently) bent on conquering the world in the name of Marx—well, in the name of Lenin, or communism, or The People; OK, at least bent on conquering the world—and to a marxist, who doesn’t really believe in personal autonomy and thus doesn’t believe in personal virtue, everyone else looks like a Capitalist, in the original sense of the word, since anything which is individual must inherently be greed.

So they called American capitalists. But if the devils in hell spit some criticism at you, it is only natural to take it as a compliment, and partly because of this and partly for lack of a better term, Americans started calling themselves capitalists. If the people with the overpopulated death camps for political prisoners in the frozen wastelands of Siberia despise us for being capitalists, then being a capitalist must be a pretty good thing. But in embracing the term capitalist, people were not thinking of Adam Smith’s economic theory or the problem Kant wrestled with in how to get a race of devils to cooperate, they were thinking of what they were and just using the name capitalist to describe that.

And here’s where we come to the part that makes me cringe when I hear fellow Christians complain about Capitalism. The United States of America has had many sins, but it never been capitalist in the philosophical sense. Much of what became The United States was founded as religious colonies, though to be sure there were economic colonies as well. But the economic colonies, which had all of the vices that unsupervised people tend to, were still composed of religious people who at least acknowledged the primacy of virtue over vice in theory. And for all the problems with protestantism, the famous “Protestant Work Ethic” was the diametric opposite of philosophical capitalism. The whole idea of the protestant work ethic is that men should work far beyond what is needed, because it is virtue and because idleness is dangerous. Perhaps it was always more of a theory than a practice, but even so it was not the opposite theory of capitalism that men should work to satisfy their greed.

For perhaps the first century after the founding of The United States, it was a frontier nation in which people expanded and moved around with fairly low population densities. It takes time to set up governments and small groups of people can resolve their own differences well enough, most of the time, so the paucity of government as we’re used to it today (and though in a different form people would have been used to it in Europe in the middle ages) was largely due to the historical accident of low population densities, and not to any sort of philosophical ideal that greed is the highest good, making government practically unnecessary except for contract enforcement.

And while it is true that this environment gave birth to the robber barons who made a great deal of money treating their fellow men like dirt, it also gave rise to trust busters and government regulation designed to curb the vices of men who did not feel like practicing even minimal virtue to their fellow man. Laws and regulations take time to develop, especially in a land without computers and cell phone cameras; before the advent of radio it took more than a little time to convince many people of some proposition because the skilled orators could only do the convincing one crowd at a time.

Moreover, the United States has never had a government free from corruption, but powerful men buying off politicians was not what the United States was supposed to be; all things in this fallen world are degenerate versions of themselves. Slowness to act on common principles in a fallen world does not mean that a people does not hold those principles, only that hard things like overcoming corruption are difficult and time consuming to do.

But throughout the history of the United States, if you walked up the average citizen and asked him, “ought we, as a people, to encourage men to be honest, hard working, and generous, or ought we to show each man that at least the first two are often in his self-interest and then encourage him to then be as selfish and greedy as possible?” you would have had to ask a great many people indeed to come across someone who would cheerfully give you the second answer. Being willing to give that second answer is largely a modern degeneracy of secularists who know only enough economics nor history to be dangerous, and for the most part think that you’re asking whether the government should micro-manage people’s lives to force them to be honest, hard working, and generous. Americans have many vices, but the least reliable way possible to find out what they are is to ask us.

I will grant that philosophical capitalism is also, to some degree, what is proposed by advertising. Indulge yourself! It’s sinfully delicious! You’re worth it! You deserve it! Everything is about making you happy!

I think that this may be why I cringe the most when my fellow Christians complain about our capitalist society; they should have learned by now not to believe everything they see on television.

Rambling about Online Discourse

I used to have a much better opinion of atheists before I talked with so many of them on twitter and youtube. And to clarify, it’s not that my opinion of atheists in general has gone down, only that I’ve come to realize that the atheists I had been in contact with before were a sub-set of all atheists. I had lucked into specially good ones. There are honest, decent people who don’t believe in God, but I’m coming to believe that they’re the exception, not the rule. (To be clear, each person must be dealt with as an individual, and never as merely an exemplar of a group, so whenever you come across an atheist, you must deal with him as him, and not as “an atheist”.) The longer I spend online, the more I come to believe that honest people may be quite atypical among atheists.

It does get tiring being insulted by dimwits on the internet, of course—and the average twitter/youtube atheist seems like they’d have trouble passing high school, at least if they had to take all honors classes, so poor is their grasp of entirely secular subjects—but I really don’t think that’s why my opinion is shifting. It’s really that the average twitter/youtube atheist says things which they clearly don’t mean and claims to believe things which they clearly don’t believe, and then takes advantage of the standard rules of politeness in order to try to force others into being complicit in their… if not exactly lies, then at least their reckless and culpable disregard for the truth.

Take for example the trope about “atheism is merely a lack of belief” which actually means, “I’m going to act like there’s no God even though I don’t believe that’s the case”. One could make an argument for probabilistic action—that when we don’t know something we have to operate on our best guesses—but even if that’s the route one went (and lack-atheists rarely argue this explicitly) one still has to make the positive case that the probability for action is above the threshold, or one is acting purely irrationally. Which is, in fact, what lack-atheists usually claim if you push them to be explicit. They don’t think, they just act; reason doesn’t actually work anyway; we’re just the most clever of the beasts who crawl the earth; etc. Which, OK, fine, but if one abjures all truth claims, one shouldn’t go on to make truth claims. But they almost always do, and expect to be taken seriously.

And that’s the part that’s really so frustrating. It’s that they demand that one take part in their lies—what else should we call truth claims they make but don’t believe? And then sometimes they’re even more explicit. I met one fellow who claimed that Jesus said we have to take the bible literally. And here’s the thing: there is no benefit of the doubt to give the guy. If he was beaten in the head with a tire iron for two hours by a team of professional strong-men, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to think that Jesus said, “you have to take the bible literally”. Because here’s the thing about literal interpretations: they’re literal. If Jesus said you have to take everything in the bible literally, it would include what he said, which to literally mean “you must take everything in the bible literally” would have to be phrased, “you must take everything in the bible literally”. Alternate phrasings would of course be fine, “you must interpret everything in the bible literally” etc. But it would have to be clear and unambiguous and require no interpretation of any kind in order to be an instruction to take it (and everything else in the bible) as clear and unambiguous and requiring no interpretation. Even the most cursory familiarity with the bible—and if one is making claims that a book says something, one has a responsibility to find out that it said it—is sufficient to know that there are no such passages. There was literally no honest way this guy could have claimed what he did. And it seems very likely that he was lying as boldly as he did because it is rude to call him a liar. But when someone unambiguously is a liar, what else are we supposed to do? It coarsens discourse, but to treat a liar like he’s honest is itself dishonest. As Tycho from Penny Arcade said:

You aren’t supposed to call people liars; it’s one of those things you aren’t supposed to do.  It seems like a rule cooked up by liars, frankly.  But what if a person dissembles madly, and writhes rhetorically, in the service of a goal oblique to their stated aims?  I see no reason to invent another word.

It’s really normal for Christians to go out of their way to try to make out atheists as being merely misguided, the victims of bad Christians who didn’t teach them well, etc. and I certainly get the impulse. There are some people who are like that. But at the end of the day, when somebody professes something obviously false like that we don’t have free will, or that reason doesn’t work, or whatever it is, they’re still human and still have a duty to actually investigate the world and try to be right about it and so the best case that you can make out for someone saying things like this then ignoring them and moving on is that they’re doing no better a job of being honest than you could expect of them given how badly they were raised. Which may be true, but so what? We’re not their judges. It’s not our job to judge whether they’re culpable for their lies; it’s first to not be complicit and second if possible to help them to stop lying. And I don’t think that failing at step 1 is likely to help succeed at step 2.

Monotheism vs Polytheism

A fascinating description of the history of the words polytheism and monotheism:

Last Eden

I have long been under the impression that “monotheism” and “polytheism” are two of the most unfortunate words in English, or in any language.  The two words present one who hears them with a near intellectual necessity to think the concepts are speaking about the same sort of thing, in exactly the same way, as “monosyllabic” means a word of only one syllable, and “polysyllabic” means a word with more than one syllable.

“Polytheism” does mean “many gods.”  However, “monotheism” does not mean “only one god,” but rather “God, rather than the gods.” The two terms seem to be saying something parallel, on the same level, but they are not.  This generates endless confusion, because monotheists are NOTHING AT ALL LIKE POLYTHEISTS.  In fact, in may be the case that all polytheists ARE ALSO monotheists—at least in one sense of the term.

I was trying to track down the…

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Pernicious Modernism: Cartesian Dishonesty

A very interesting in-depth look into some of Descartes’ writing which I haven’t read.

Last Eden

Modernism is pernicious.

Just about everything wrong with the world today comes from the pernicious thought of modernity, particularly the thought of self-named ‘Enlightenment.’

Most people would understand me if I said “Postmodernism is pernicious,” since they understand that the thoroughgoing relativism and subjectivism of postmodernism, the replacement of truth with rhetoric, in the belief that all truth claims reduce to attempts to assert power or domination, its nihilism, are all pernicious.

Supposing we divide Western history into periods, as traditional, we might say there are three or four: Antiquity, Christendom, Modernity and, perhaps, Postmodernity.  One reason to question whether Postmodernity is really distinct from Modernity, though, is that Postmodernity is simply Hypermodernity. It is Modernity taken to its conclusion according to its inner logic and nature.

This is not true of the other epochs.  Christendom was able to incorporate much of classical Antiquity, but it both added things which were…

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