Acton Institute Powerblog

A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 1 of 12

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The West has made some remarkable steps forward culturally in the past several generations, as, for instance, in the areas of civil rights (the unborn being a notable exception), race relations, and cooperation among Christians of different traditions. We shouldn’t indulge a false nostalgia that overlooks this progress. That being said, you can visit almost any major city in the free world today and find evidence of cultural decay on a host of fronts: malls dripping with images of sensuality and hedonism; girls from respectable, law abiding families dropped off at school dressed like prostitutes; boys sitting beside them in class able to pull up a world of pornography on their smartphones and often doing so; chronically high divorce rates; a plummeting number of homes with the biological father present; commercials telling you, implicitly or explicitly, to Obey Your Thirst; recreational drug abuse—on and on we could go.

The challenge extends even to what many of us would characterize as “good homes.” In place of the warm-toned ideal of the Norman Rockwell family gathered around the Thanksgiving table, saying grace and genuinely savoring the meal, laughing and talking together, instead many of us decide to move the affair into the living room to eat over a commercial-laced football game while simultaneously surfing the web on as many smartphones as there are individuals in the room. Then, when the game is over, it’s off to the mall for a Thursday evening sneak peak at the “Black Friday” shopping frenzy.

So the signs of cultural decay are various. Some are subtle and aesthetic, others measurable, overtly immoral and palpably tragic. But taken together, they invite the question, why? That is, why is Western culture decaying in certain crucial ways? What’s driving it?

Many people, including some social conservatives, blame global free market capitalism. According to this view, the West wandered into a cultural wasteland because we embraced a system based on greed, mindless efficiency, unbridled production, and restless consumption. American poet and essayist Wendell Berry, for instance, suggests that capitalism’s obsession with radical individualism and economies of scale leads it to break up communities and families, uprooting them from supportive relational networks and driving them from small towns into large cities where they lose contact with the natural world, their loved ones and, eventually, themselves.

If capitalism is the primary culprit for cultural decay, as some suggest, an obvious response would be to discard capitalism and opt for a highly planned economy in which the government tames the people’s greed through periodic and aggressive redistribution and, in the more extreme scenario, owns or controls the means of production. This approach has a superficial plausibility about it: get ordinary people out of the sordid business of accumulating wealth, all that endless shopping and selling, and find some conscientious civil servants in government to take care of dividing up the wealth equitably, freeing up the rest of us to focus on putting in a good day’s work, raising our families, and enjoying a little leisure time.

Is the solution that simple? Well, it’s been tried, multiple times, and the results weren’t pretty. Whether in Russia, Eastern Europe, or other parts of the world, that strategy tended to fuel political corruption, crowd out civil institutions and replace an ownership culture with a rental culture characterized by a declining sense of personal responsibility. The results were accelerated cultural decay, not cultural renewal.

[Part 2 of 12 here]

[Note: Part 1 is the first in a serialized presentation of my chapter from a forthcoming collection of essays exploring various Christian critiques of capitalism, published by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.

Jonathan Witt


  • Who in America is arguing for a return to Communism? Just a tiny minority. America’s broad socioeconomic decay is not a result of free-markets, private land ownership, or capitalism. America’s socioeconomic decline over the last 35 years is a result of poorly engineered tax and fiscal policy. These “trickle-down” or “supply side” policies have effectively redistributed U.S. wealth from the 99% class to the 1% class — without a proportionate return in wealth or income growth to ALL classes. In 1976, the 99%-class owned 81% of all U.S. wealth (Wolff, etc.). Today, the 99%-class own just 64% of their country, and the redistribution of wealth continues to worsen — a direct result of supply-side economic policy.

    Eisenhower-Truman fiscal policy (1945-1980) created an America in which ALL socioeconomic classes thrived and flourished. Our poor were the richest on
    the planet. Now they are roughly 7th in the West, and falling. Our 60% middle class was the world’s giant among middle classes (by far). Today, they continue to fall behind other countries. For the last 35 years, the only U.S. socioeconomic class that has continued to outpace other countries is our 1% — and by no small margin. If “all boats” had been “rising together”, this would be no problem. But while the “pie” has grown, it has not been equitably or proportionately shared by all classes.

    As a patriot and student of the constitution, this gross and worsening economic imbalance embarrasses me. I want to return to an EXCEPTIONAL America that created the greatest all-class system the world has ever seen. I want our poor to again be the world’s richest poor, our broad middle-class to again be the world’s strongest middle, and our 0.01% oligarchs to be the wealthiest oligarchs on the planet. We’ve lost our socioeconomic greatness, and we are dying as a nation. Acton worries about communism, but the real threat is our own government’s tax and fiscal policies, gutting this once great nation and pushing it ever closer towards fascism and plutocracy. What’s worse, our government’s tax and fiscal policies are now effectively defined and written by the very 0.01%-class that is most benefiting from these imbalances.

  • Yeah, and isn’t it the socialists who claim that an equal distribution of all consumer goods will transform all of us into perfect people?