Posts tagged with: capitalism

Part 1 is here.]

An economically free society doesn’t have to be hyper-utilitarian, materialistic and banal; and yet, here we are, living in a capitalist age marked by these very features. Some social conservatives who see capitalism as one of the main culprits argue that we should turn away from both socialism and greedy capitalism, toward a more humanitarian and community-based approach, toward a small-is-beautiful aesthetic of farmer’s markets, widespread property ownership, social responsibility and local, collective enterprise, a political and economic strategy that would allow us to move beyond the noisy, vapid, bustling tackiness that has come to characterize so much of modern life.

The poet farmer and essayist Wendell Berry, and journalist and Crunchy Cons author Rod Dreher are among the more prominent contemporary defenders of this view. They build on the earlier work of writers such as E.F. Schumacher, Malcolm Muggeridge, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

Belloc, in particular, often regarded as the father of Distributism, advocated government policies that would divide productive property more equally and spur the economy toward more buy-local patterns and greater individual contact with the land. His Distributist vision called for an active, top-down approach to the reallocation process. Here’s how Belloc put it in his 1936 work “An Essay on the Restoration of Property”:

We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. the effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.

There are some problems with this vision of cultural renewal. (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

A common reading of Western history holds that the principles of the free economy grew out of the secular Enlightenment and had little to do with Christianity. This is mistaken. The free economy (and we can speak more broadly here of the free society) didn’t spring from the soil of the secular Enlightenment, much less, as some imagine, from a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog philosophy of life.

The free economy sprang from the soil of Christian Medieval Europe and the Renaissance, beginning in the monasteries and city states of Medieval northern Italy and spreading from there across Europe, taking particularly firm root among the Dutch and English.

Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and other secular Enlightenment thinkers propagated the myth of a so-called Dark Ages, an age of regression, religious superstition and irrationality. And some of my Protestant forebears happily seized upon this distorted characterization in the interest of discrediting Catholicism. (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

The free economy frees entrepreneurs to create new wealth for themselves and others, which brings us to the issue of consumption. In his book Crunchy Cons, conservative author Rod Dreher describes consumerism this way: “Consumerism fetishizes individual choice, and sees its expansion as unambiguous progress. A culture guided by consumerist values is one that welcomes technology without question and prizes efficiency…. A consumerist society encourages its members both to find and express their personal identity through the consumption of products.”

Dreher’s critique of consumerism is pointed, and many people, including many Christians, could benefit from hearing it. At the same time, though, Dreher’s description runs the risk of obscuring the crucial differences between consumerism and capitalism.

It’s true that capitalist economies are far better at wealth creation than socialist economies, which is why freer economies tend to have fewer people living in extreme poverty. But capitalism and consumerism—far from being necessarily joined at the hip—are not even compatible over the long term. A moment’s reflection suggests the reason. (more…)

This morning, Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico took some time away from his preparations for Acton University to speak with Jim Engster, host of The Jim Engster Show on WRKF radio in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, discussing how to address the issue of poverty in society, and the approach taken by Pope Francis and the church in general to that and other issues. They also discussed the problems with the ObamaCare model of health-care reform, among other issues. You can listen to the interview using the audio player below.

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.” (more…)

bratI had a chance to talk with Michelle Boorstein yesterday about David Brat and a bit of his work that I’ve been able to become familiar with over the past few days. She included some of my comments in this piece for the Washington Post, “David Brat’s victory is part of broader rise of religion in economics.”

I stressed that Brat’s research program, which in many ways emphasizes the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, has at least two basic features. First, he’s focused on increasing theological awareness of economic realities: “I never saw a supply and demand curve in seminary. I should have.” This kind of increased economic sensibility would help the church to be a positive factor for social cultural change: “The church needs to regain its voice and offer up a coherent social vision of justice and rationality.”

But on the other hand, Brat has a message for economists as well. He challenges the mainstream assumption of economics as merely a positive, value-free science that can provide objective answers to questions without the trappings of morality or religion. A comment on Boorstein’s piece illustrates this important aspect of Brat’s work:

Dave helped me understand the essentiality of the links between capitalism (voluntary exchange that serves both parties’ interests) and theology (man’s obligation to serve God through work and use gain to carry out Jesus’ admonition to help the poor). At first, I thought he was joking. Surely one did not have to embrace a theological perspective to be a good capitalist. But he was not joking. I now have a much more nuanced and mature understanding of the “moral foundations of capitalism” than I did before I met Dave.

Brat’s faculty page includes portraits of John Calvin, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and John Maynard Keynes. Obviously there’s a lot to David Brat and I look forward to becoming more familiar with him and his work.

Amid all of the bad reportage out there on Brat, and there is so much that it is hard to keep up, here are a few other pieces that I have found to be helpful:

Did ‘Social Business’ Sink the Cardboard Bike?

Did ‘Social Business’ Sink the Cardboard Bike?

Jonathan Witt, research fellow at Acton, recently wrote a piece at The Federalist about “social business.” He argues that it might do more good to own and operate an ethical business that follows through on its contracts and “respects the dignity of employees and customers,” rather than trying to have a “social business.” Witt begins by talking about a cardboard bike. In 2012, Izhar Gafni became relatively famous by creating a sturdy cardboard bike that could be sold to the poorest around the world for $20. After two years and unsuccessful Indiegogo campaign, this potentially revolutionary project has failed to go anywhere. Witt argues that “social business” is to blame:

After talking up the virtues of a “social business model,” the start-up behind the bike, Cardboard Technologies, expended considerable energy trying to raising capital from Indiegogo donors uninterested in profit. The lack of a profit motive may have played a role. It also didn’t help that the price of the bike kept shifting—from $20 to $290 to $95 plus $40 shipping. Would-be investors had to wonder: Was the bike going to have a revolutionary everyman price, or wasn’t it?

CEO Nimrod Elmish tried to explain, saying the bicycle’s price will fluctuate depending on where you live, costing more for buyers in wealthy countries and nothing for those in developing countries. “We want to bring a social business model that will make [it] available to all,” Fortune quoted him as saying. “We don’t have a price tag, we have a value tag.”

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tea party catholicSam Gregg, Director of Research for Acton, is featured in an interview with the National Catholic Register. The interview ranges from Gregg’s education and career at Acton to how Catholicism and the free markets dovetail.

Trent Beattie questioned Gregg about St. Bernadine of Siena, who defended business and entrepreneurs. Gregg replied:

Most Catholics are unaware of the broad Catholic intellectual and institutional contributions to the development of market economies in general, especially during their early phases in the Middle Ages. Too often, we buy into the “Dark Ages” mythology about this period. So the fact that St. Bernardine of Siena — and many other Franciscans — were among the first to grasp the importance of the entrepreneur as a key catalyst for economic growth, or that they made clear and important distinctions between money-as-sterile and money-as-capital, get missed alongside all the other things that happened in the so-called “Dark Ages.”

I also think that many people have an imaginary understanding of St. Francis and the Franciscan orders that followed in his wake. They weren’t all poor mendicants. Lots of them were very intellectually serious men who lived, worked and often taught in urban centers, and thus experienced what some scholars have called the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages. They didn’t try to resist it. Rather, they sought to understand it so that they could guide the faithful in the “how” of living a Christian life in the midst of this new world.

Beattie also asked Gregg to comment on common misconceptions that Catholics have about economics.

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Regulatory Climate IndexThe revitalization of cities has become a significant focus among today’s Christians, with many flocking to urban centers filled with lofty goals and aspirations for change and transformation.

Last summer, James K.A. Smith expressed concern that such efforts may be overly romanticizing certain features (community!) to the detriment of others (government), concluding that “farmer’s market’s won’t rescue the city” but “good government will.” Chris Horst and I followed up to this with yet another qualifier, arguing that while both gardens and good governance are indeed important, so is business and entrepreneurship.

Families, churches, institutions, businesses, and governments all need to be in right relationship if cities are to flourish, and this means that Christians need to gain a clear understanding of what these relationships look like. How do the economies of love, creative service, wisdom, wonder, and order interact and intersect, and how do we orient our actions and attitudes accordingly?

For example, if a city’s economic future is driven, among other things, by entrepreneurialismhigh levels of human capitalclustering of skilled workers and industries, or in the case of North Dakota’s Bakken region, bountiful natural resources, what role should the People of God play therein? What role do families play in those endeavors? What about churches, community associations, organizations, or businesses? How ought public policy to guide (or not guide) various efforts? Christians are called to be concerned with all of the above.

In a new study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation — Regulatory Climate Index 2014: The Cost of Doing Business in America — we see a great example of the types of questions we ought to be asking. Focusing on 10 cities across America, the study investigates “the efficiency of local regulations that apply to small businesses,” demonstrating the full impact that the dirtier, more “boring” and mundane elements can have on whether and how individuals are empowered to invest, serve, and sacrifice within and for their cities. (The project was led by Michael Hendrix, who has contributed here on the blog in the past.) (more…)

FeaturedImageOn this Earth Day, says Pierre Desrochers, we should spare a thought for the profit motive, an unheralded but long-standing champion of the environment. “The search for increased profitability,” ntoes Desrochers, “has long delivered both economic and environmental improvements by promoting the evermore efficient use of material resources.”

With Earth Day near (this Monday), we hear the usual annual litany of laments from environmentalists, urging us to mend the errors of our industrial ways. Greed and profits, we are told in no uncertain terms, inevitably result in unmanageable pollution problems, the depletion of non-renewable resources, habitat and species destruction, and a regulatory “race to the bottom” among competing jurisdictions.

[. . .]

Typically missing from this debate, however, is the notion that the search for increased profitability has long delivered both economic and environmental improvements by promoting the increasingly efficient use of material resources, or, in other words, the creation of ever more economic value while using ever less physical stuff. While this notion is obvious in an age where whole libraries can be stored on small electronic devices, perhaps the best statement on the subject still belongs to Jonathan Swift, who argued nearly three centuries ago in Gulliver’s Travels that whoever “could make two Ears of Corn, or two blades of Grass to grow upon a Spot of Ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of Mankind, and do more essential Service to his Country than the whole Race of Politicians put together.

One small quibble: Desrochers’ otherwise fine article is marred by the title’s equating of the profit motive with “greed.” While I’m sure the term was merely used for rhetorical effect, the promotion of free enterprise is always harmed by the unnecessary association with the sinful and destructive motive of greed.