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.

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