Over at MercatorNet, there is a discussion taking place on the “world’s most dangerous idea.” Entries include the idea that human beings are no more dignified than animals, that the cheap, abundant information found on the Internet is a good thing, and that the holding of dogmas is only for the narrow-minded. But the one “dangerous idea” most interesting to PowerBlog readers may that “capitalism is the most ethical form economics.”
This last contribution comes from Prof. Jeffrey Langan, chairman of the Liberal Studies Department, Holy Cross College at Notre Dame University. Langan’s argument is that the victory of capitalism over communism and fascism in the 20th century has blinded us to the serious defects and “real injustices that are part of its foundation, history, principles, and ethos.”
Langan argues that capitalism is based on a “subtly dangerous materialism,” that the greatest period of capital formation took place as a result of King Henry VIII’s theft of Church property, that self-interest is simply a euphemism for avarice, that capitalism promotes usury and the rule of the strong over the weak, and lowers the wages of the workers. Not content to stick to these very negative economic consequences, Langan then asserts that capitalism promotes “the widespread use of birth control, abortion, easy divorce, and now gay marriage. Children in proudly capitalist families are frequently beset with alcohol, drug and sex addictions.” He concludes that “[c]apitalism is not compatible with the principles of equitable human development” and that we are better off avoided the term “capitalism” as such.
These are bold accusations to make, especially in such a short commentary, and even more so when they are made without a shred of evidence. (Langan writes that footnotes are available upon request, but he has yet to reply to my request for them.) Though he does not use the term “distributist,” it seems that Langan has been strongly influenced by the critique of capitalism offered by that school of thought, the problems of which have been dissected by Thomas E. Woods Jr. in the 2008 Acton monograph Beyond Distributism, in an Acton University Lecture I gave in June, and partially taken up in a previous blog post of mine.
Without the footnotes, it is difficult to refute Langan’s core arguments about the theory and history of capitalism. Part of me wants to think that Langan is being deliberately provocative, exaggerating his case of rhetorical effect, or even arguing tongue-in-cheek. But if Langan truly believes that supporters of capitalism are blind to its defects, he is purposely ignoring what Catholic social teaching had to say about capitalism, and especially Pope John Paul II’s qualified acceptance of an ethical form of capitalism in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (see especially n. 42) as well as his preference for terms other than “capitalism” to describe the market/free/business economy. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI has also gone to great lengths to recall the benefits as well as the challenges of economic globalization in last year’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (see, again, n.42).
What is even more damning of Langan’s critique of capitalism is that it provides cover for those who wish to deny the connection of human freedom and responsibility that is the result of our God-given dignity. If human beings are simply driven by their desire for even-increasing amounts of material goods and do not posses the ability to say “no” or even “enough,” then there really is no responsible use of freedom and we would be nothing other than clever animals. It can and should be admitted that an unethical form of capitalism can treat people as nothing more than consumers. But if this is the anthropology at the root of capitalism, if human beings are not capable of living freely and responsibly, why shouldn’t we opt just as easily for those 20th-century ideologies of communism or fascism? Do we favor capitalism just because it gives us more stuff and makes fewer demands of us? Far from being a dangerous idea, ethical capitalism is what we need now more than ever.