Acton Institute Powerblog

Is Capitalism Really A Dangerous Idea?

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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.

Kishore Jayabalan Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. and then graduated with an M.A. in political science from the University of Toronto. While in Toronto, Kishore interned in the university's Newman Centre, which led to his appointment to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York. Two years later, he returned to Rome to work for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the Holy See's lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. As director of Istituto Acton, Kishore organizes the institute's educational and outreach efforts in Rome and throughout Europe.


  • I’m curious what Mr. Langan means by “subtly dangerous materialism”? For the redistributionist who believes the capitalism is “materialistic” (a false notion), it would seem that by their definition (materialism = pursuit of wealth) it is not “subtle” in any sense.

    But alas, the irony is that capitalism is the only system which allows for a rejection of materialism. You are free to make your life all about money, and you are free to have as little to do with it as possible. On the other hand, if you disagreed with the materialism of the Soviet commissar, you had little choice but to make your entire life’s work an accessory to it.

    But yeah, you’re going to have materialistic people in a capitalistic society, just as you will in any society. But so what? People are free to assist them or reject them, and those people who choose a materialistic lifestyle (whether rich or poor) are free to face the consequences, whether immediate or in the afterlife.

    I think much of this comes down to (as you say) a fundamental denial of how God created us. I recently wrote a post about this based on a Milton Friedman video on “greed” ( Although Friedman wasn’t a Christian (at least not to my knowledge), I think he has a better understanding of the way God created us than most socialistic Christians.

  • Wingnut


    What a shame we have to keep coming to Acton and repairing competer’s church-peddlers. Joseph, capitalists, you DO see the pyramid scheme symbol on the back of the USA one dollar bill, right? You DO see the servitude infestation in capitalism, right? And do you see the “pay up or lose your wellbeing” Chicago mob-like felony extortion widespread within capitalism? Do you see the “join or starve” felony extortion done to the 18 year olds… by this ugly competer’s church called capitalism? See how forcing competer’s religions onto 18 year olds… kills membership in the cooperator’s church (Christianity/socialism)?? Do you understand that AmWay (American Way) (New World Order) got “the exclusive” (legal tender) on the TYPE of survival coupons (money) accepted in supply depots (stores) and leverages 18 year olds into the organization via that felony activity as well? (It puts AmWay-coupon slaving requirements called price tags… on all the survival goods). Do you understand how farmyard pyramids work… from your childhood?? Remember?? Upper 1/3 are “heads in the clouds” while the kids on the bottom ALWAYS GET HURT from the weight of the world’s knees in their backs? Still with me? Do you see anything illegal, immoral, or just plain sick… in any of this pyramid scheme’s activities?

    Us American Christian socialists are still patiently awaiting the natural fall of the pyramid-o-servitude, or the busting of the free marketeers felony… by the USA Dept of Justice. Us Christians are VERY CLOSE to issuing a cease and desist order until the servitude and inequality goes away… which means it turns into a commune. Commune is a word we LOVE when used in the word “community”… but its one the caps HATE when used in the term “commune-ism”. Go fig. PROGRAMMED!!

    Do a Google IMAGE SEARCH for ‘pyramid of capitalist’ to see a full color picture made way back in 1911, when capitalism was first discovered to be a con/sham instigated by the Free Masons/Illuminati. Folks sure bought into the thing… hook, line, and sinker just the same. The caps didn’t even check if a string was attached! Now THAT’S easy fishing, eh?

    Time to level the felony pyramid scheme called capitalism. Abolish economies and ownershipism worldwide, and hurry. Economies just cause rat-racing, and rat-racing causes felony pyramiding. BUST IT, America! Look to the USA military supply/survival system… (and the USA public library system) for socialism and morals done right. Equal, owner-less, money-less, bill-less, timecard-less, and concerned with growth of value-criteria OTHER THAN money-value. Quit doing monetary discrimination immediately, and make it illegal. There are MANY measurement criteria of “value”… not just dollars. Try morals, efficiency, discrimination-levels, repairability, etc etc. Economies are cancerous tumors, and to cheer for their growth… is just insane. Profiting causes inflation, so if caps LIKE inflation, and if they LIKE a terrible time in afterlife when they meet the planet’s ORIGINAL OWNER before caps tried to squat it all with ownershipism, then keep it up with the felony pyramiding. I dare you. While us Christians are finally bulldozing that pyramid scheme back to level, lets make servitude and “join or starve” (get a job or die) illegal in the USA, and lets level the architecture seen in USA courtrooms, too. Right now, USA courtrooms are church simulators or “fear chambers”, by special design. Sick.

    Isn’t that back-of-the-dollar pyramid… a Columbian freemason symbol? And WHERE is the USA gov located? District of Columbia? (Not even part of the USA!) How much more blatant can ya get? The “Fed” runs a pyramid scheme called the free marketeers. If you’re using the “federal reserve note” certificates, or using no-other-living-thing-on-the-planet entitles of ownership, you’re bought into a servitude/slavery con/sham… called capitalism. Pyramiding 101.

    Larry “Wingnut” Wendlandt
    MaStars – Mothers Against Stuff That Ain’t Right
    Bessemer MI USA

  • Patrick Powers

    One could argue the proposition that “tenure promotes truly stupid ideas.” I doubt that any reader here has not come across a professor who has so lost touch with reality that if his ideas were taken seriously, only strife and death could result. Arguing with the good Prof. Langdon conflicts with the proverbial admonition against arguing against fools.
    Is that dogmatic dogmatic or just common sense?

  • Roger McKinney

    I would make only one change: Capitalism is the ONLY ethical system of economics! Anything else is theft.

    Like most socialists, Langan confuses a system of organization with real people. Capitalism has no intentions and can’t make anyone do anything. Langan doesn’t know this, but someone should tell him that people were materialistic before the creation of capitalism. Because capitalism makes everyone richer, people have more of an opportunity to be materialistic; it’s pretty hard to be materialistic on $1/day of income.

    The sum of Langan’s ethics is this: only the poor can be ethical. So the goal should be as much poverty as possible, which of course is exactly what his socialist buddies in the old USSR and China accomplished. He must really long for the intense morality of the years of great communism when 30 million people starved to death in China. The must have been so spiritually pure it makes the heart ache.

  • Roger McKinney

    he author is neither a scholar nor a gentleman, but a peddler of second-hand Marxism. His history is wrong and his economics is abysmal. Capitalism began in the Dutch Republic of the 16th century when Godly men organized Dutch society along Biblical lines respecting private property and protecting all equally under the law. The Dutch accumulated the greatest amount of capital in the history of mankind as a result, and they stole none of it.

    And the author simply lies about what capitalism is. The Dutch got their economics from the Catholic Scholars at the School of Salamanca, Spain. The Church Scholars emphasized private property and freedom of exchange as the only moral system for markets. The Dutch merely implemented those ideas. Private property requires institutions to protect it, including the rule of law, honest courts and honest police. The state prohibits theft and fraud, but people are free to act as they wish inside those boundaries. That is true capitalism. The author has done nothing but regurgitate Marx’s lie about capitalism. How ethical is that? Capitalism is freedom for the people within the bounds of natural law; Marxism is slavery to the state.

  • Neal Lang

    “You DO see the servitude infestation in capitalism, right?”

    The only systems that demands servitude are socialism and serfdom. In each case “We, the People” are the servants and the government is the master. The sooner you figure that out, the sooner you will understand why our country has been going to “Hell in a Handbasket” since the Progressive Socialists polluted it early in the 20th Century.

  • Neal Lang

    “Time to level the felony pyramid scheme called capitalism. Abolish economies and ownershipism worldwide, and hurry. Economies just cause rat-racing, and rat-racing causes felony pyramiding. BUST IT, America! Look to the USA military supply/survival system… (and the USA public library system) for socialism and morals done right.”

    There is nothing moral about the government owning the means of production. It has failed everywhere it has been tried. You are suggesting a Utopia that cannot exist simply because:

    “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Free Market and Capitalism promotes a diversity of ownership; Socialism promotes single ownership with absolute control, and thus absolute power. If you believe that such a system is superior, than why has it failed so miserably every time it has been tried?

  • Roger McKinney

    I wasn’t going to bother with wingnuts regurgitation of stale Marxism, but it is interesting the he equates freedom for people (free markets) with slavery. So if free people are actually slaves, then the slaves in the US South must have been the freest people of all?

  • Joe

    Kishore, Joseph, Neal, Roger, and Patrick–
    Thank you for your sound arguments de-bunking Langan, who is loosely associated with E. Michael Jones and the whole “Culture Wars” crowd in South Bend, Indiana. Further insight into Langan comes from his call for more peasants:

    Try focusing your inchoate ramblings.

  • George Piskor

    At heart, capitalism is an economic system for the exchange of goods and services on terms acceptably satisfactory to parties in the exchange.Capitalism operates with the norms of governing principles and controlling institutions. Consequently, the quantum of morality and desired virtue in capitalism is an inevitable by-product of instituional factors. Prog. Langan’s hypothesis rests on the superficially faulty premise of “shooting the economic messenger” rather than looking behind the curtain to examine the levers of power.