Posts tagged with: capitalism

Anyone who’s driven across the American landscape knows that there will be a familiar string of fast-food chains, gas stations and box stores along the expressways. You could virtually eat the same meal as you drive from one coastline of fast-food-exit-signAmerica to the other. Michael Matheson Miller, Research Fellow and Director of PovertyCure at the Acton Institute, takes up this issue, asking, “Does capitalism destroy culture?”

[S]ince the cultural critique comes from political observers at almost every point on the political spectrum, and since the bureaucratic-capitalist economies of the world really are cultures in crisis, the criticism is worth attending to seriously.

If we are going to analyze the cultural effects of market economies then I think the one of the first things we need to do is distinguish between those things Peter Berger called “intrinsic” to capitalism and those “extrinsic” to it. We need to distinguish among at least three things:

  • the cultural effects caused by capitalism,
  • effects aided and abetted by capitalism,
  • and those things that exist alongside capitalism and are often conflated with capitalism, but that are distinct from it.

I will say from the outset that I support open, competitive economies that allow for free exchange, but I would not call myself a “capitalist.” Capitalism is generally a Marxist term that implies a mechanistic view of the economy and a false dichotomy between “capital” and “labor.” Capitalism also comes in a variety of forms and can mean many things. There is corporate capitalism, oligarchic capitalism, crony capitalism, and managerial-bureaucratic capitalism, such as we have in the United States. However, cultural critics of capitalism usually don’t make those distinctions and, even if they did, many would still be critical of an authentically free market. So without trying to tease apart all of these strands at the outset and so risk never getting anywhere let me use the term “capitalism” and ask and answer the question with the broadest of brushstrokes. Does capitalism corrode culture?  I think the answer is yes and no.

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2940044212701_p0_v1_s260x420How should Protestant Christians think about faith, work, and economics? To help answer that question, the Acton Institute commissioned a series of primers about political economy and the church from four faith traditions: Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Reformed (forthcoming).

Chad Brand, the author of the Baptist primer, Flourishing Faith, was recently interviewed about the book and asked, “What is a Baptist political economy?”

What political economy describes is the interface between government and whatever economic system prevails in a given nation or culture. The political economy in the Soviet Union in the 1980s was a communist state with a socialist understanding of economics — a controlled-market economy. The United States was basically founded as a republic with a free market economy.

So when we introduce the idea of a Christian, and specifically Baptist, political economy, what we’re asking is, “How does the church rub itself up against a free market republic?” “How does a Baptist understanding of theology and ecclesiology interface with that.”

Because Baptists have long held the idea of religious freedom, political freedom, individual freedom and so on, the place where a Baptist political economy most manifests itself is in a kind of republican or libertarian form of economics. “Laissez faire” isn’t in the Baptist Faith and Message, but if you read and believe its statements on government and anthropology, I think you would come to the same conclusion that the government that governs least, governs best.

The notion of political economy has been around for quite some time — the first professor of political economy was a guy by the name of Thomas Malthus at the University of Oxford in about 1815 — but it hasn’t edged its way into evangelical circles until fairly recently.

Read more of the interview here and a review of Flourishing Faith here.

In a May 16 address to four new Vatican ambassadors, Pope Francis denounced the “cult of money” in today’s culture, stating that we are now living in a disposable society, where even human beings are cast aside.

Phil Lawler, at CatholicCulture.org asks if this means the pope is a socialist. Not so:

Socialists make their arguments in moral terms, because if the argument is stated purely in practical terms, the socialists will lose. By the same logic, capitalists prefer to state their arguments in practical economic terms. Unfortunately, in doing so, they cede the moral high ground to their opponents. With rare exceptions—one thinks immediately of Michael Novak and of the Acton Institute–defenders of capitalism have not taken the trouble to state their case primarily in moral terms. And that’s unfortunate, because a powerful argument can be made that capitalism, tempered by a Christian moral framework, is the best available solution to the problem of poverty.

Nothing that Pope Francis said—nothing that any Pope has said—would rule out that approach. (Pope John Paul II opened the door to a Christian defense of capitalism in Laborem Exercens, then pushed it wide open in Centisimus Annus.) To be sure, the teaching magisterium has been critical of the excesses of capitalism, and of capitalism raised to an all-encompassing ideology. Pope Francis today repeated that condemnation of “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.” Hard-core libertarians will be uncomfortable with that language, certainly. But then hard-core libertarians are often uncomfortable with the Ten Commandments.

Read “What capitalists should learn from the Pope’s critique” at CatholicCulture.org.

Does the free market encourage moral behavior? Virgil Henry Storr, Research Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, recently wrote a report called “The Impartial Spectator and The Moral Teachings of Markets.” He addresses critics’ concerns that the free market brings out and nurtures human vices.

Countless commentators have stated that “engaging in market activity can be corrupting.” Storr highlights two notable quotes. Aristotle “believed that there was something unnatural about the kind of wealth getting that occurred in the market.” Karl Marx “believed that the market could transform man into a ‘spiritual and physical monster.’”

Storr, who is also Director of Graduate Student Programs in the Mercatus Center, addresses these famous claims with quotes from those who have “made the point that markets are moral training grounds where virtues are rewarded and cultivated.” Michael Novak stated that engaging in trade “teaches care, discipline, frugality, clear accounting, providential forethought … fidelity to contracts, honesty in fair dealings, and concern for one’s moral reputation.” Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says:

Capitalism has not corrupted the spirit. On the contrary, had capitalism not enriched the world by a cent nonetheless its bourgeois, antifuedal virtues would have made us better people than in the world we have lost. As a system it has been good for us.”

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Conservatives need to stop shying away from principled, as opposed to merely utilitarian, defenses of economic freedom and its associated institutions, says Acton research director Samuel Gregg in an article for Public Discourse:

Some fiscal conservatives are certainly too sanguine about creative destruction’s unintended negative effects on our lives. But these side effects are not sufficient reasons to try to slow or even stop the process, let alone assume that higher taxes and the welfare state (which itself breeds plenty of dysfunction) are the appropriate response.

Still, it doesn’t seem wise to play down these negative impacts. Given the conservative commitment to limited government, it would seem that the authentically conservative response would be to investigate and apply Tocquevillian “civil society” solutions to such problems before looking to the state for remedies.

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As Michael Novak observes in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, “A successful corporation is frequently based upon the principle of subsidiarity. According to this principle, concrete decisions must be made on the level closest to the concrete reality. Managers and workers need to trust the skills of their colleagues. A corporate strategy which overlooks this principle–and many do–falls prey to all the vices of a command economy, in which all orders come from above.”

According to a study by Melba J. Duncan in the Harvard Business Review, such delegation makes economic sense: “Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well.”

A recent BusinessWeek article updates the case for executive assistants. Anyone who has had significant contact with corporate settings knows that the EAs are the ones who really get things done. But for such delegation to be effective and efficient, it must be empowering. As Duncan writes, “The most effective executives think deeply about the pieces of their workload that can be taken on—or restructured to be partially taken on—by the assistant.”

Even the “lowest-cost employee” has a stewardship responsibility.

Of course, delegation can go too far, too.

The Pavilion End pub with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background

Last week following Acton’s seminar on morality, virtue, and Catholic social teaching with a group of financiers, bankers, and other business executives in London, I was invited to attend a private eulogy service organized by the Freedom Association for the late Lady Margaret Thatcher.

The eulogy service was organized in “proper British fashion” while sharing memories and more over ales at a pub—The Pavilion End—located right behind St. Paul’s Cathedral where Britain’s conservative elite gathered for formal prayer, hymns, and a sermon given by the Bishop of London at Margaret Thatcher’s elaborate state funeral.

A few hundred in attendance at The Pavilion End pub listen to the impressive speakers

A few hundred in attendance at The Pavilion End pub listen to the impressive speakers

I joined this unique opportunity, of course, to pay my own international respects as an adopted American son of Britain’s great Mother of Liberty. It was during my 1980s Catholic conservative upbringing that I gained immense respect for the Iron Lady, who joined forces with our own President Ronald Reagan and Rome’s John Paul II. In the end, this powerful triumvirate won the Cold War and effectively rolled back the Iron Curtain to inspire unprecedented economic growth and human flourishing in the modern world. (more…)

1. “Pennies don’t fall from heaven, they have to be earned here on earth.” (Speech at Lord Mayor’s Banquet, 11/12/79)

2. “If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he had better become a socialist and have done with it.” (Article for Daily Telegraph, “My Kind of Tory Party,” 01/30/1975)

margaret-thatcher-43. “I came to office with one deliberate intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society – from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation. A get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.” (Speech, 1984)

4. “My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.” (The News of the World, 9/20/81)

5. “The choice facing the nation is between two totally different ways of life. And what a prize we have to fight for: no less than the chance to banish from our land the dark, divisive clouds of Marxist socialism and bring together men and women from all walks of life who share a belief in freedom.” (Speech, 1983)
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A friend at church recently loaned me the New York Times bestseller Same Kind of Different as Me, which tells the story of how a wealthy art dealer named Ron Hall and a homeless man named Denver Moore struck up a friendship that changed both their lives. I’m only half way through it, but it’s already instructive on several levels that connect to the work of Acton.

Denver grew up as an illiterate sharecropper in Louisiana, an orphan who loses a series of guardian relatives while growing up and eventually finds himself in a class a notch below sharecropper—the field laborer who isn’t entitled to a share of the crops he works but simply works dawn to dusk for the food, clothing and minimal shelter he’s given on credit. In Denver’s case, since he couldn’t read, write, or do arithmetic, he couldn’t determine how much he owed, what the interest was, what his labor was worth, or even that he’d been denied his right to an education.

Economic conservatives talk a lot about the morality of the free economy, and the power of the markets to better the lives of the poor. It’s stories like Denver Moore’s that underscore why Acton spends so much time talking about a free and virtuous society, about the importance of ordered liberty. You see, in the book, at no point did anyone put a gun to Denver’s head and make him pick cotton dawn till dusk. At a superficial level, he was a participant in an un-coerced labor market (slavery had been abolished generations ago, after all). But any thoughtful look at Denver’s extraordinary story of struggle, despair, and escape will register the fact that Denver’s liberty had been violated in a host of subtle and not-so-subtle ways during his youth. These were like the strands of a spider web: individually they are of little consequence and hard to see, but taken together they have the power to bind. (more…)

ForbesAlejandro Chafuen, president and chief executive officer of Atlas Economic Research Foundation and board member of the Acton Institute, recently wrote a piece for Forbes.com about crony capitalism.

Chafuen used to spend his summers in Argentina, so he begins his article with a story about a friend from Argentina. Enrique Piana, known to his friends as “Quique,” was heir to “Argentina’s oldest and most respected trophy and medals companies.”

During part of the ’90s, the government of President Carlos Menem, and then-Minister Domingo Cavallo, had a policy for the importation of gold and exports of gold fabrications that amounted to a major subsidy for exporters. Attracted by the incentives, Quique, who had become CEO of his company, became a key player in a scheme whereby exporting overvalued gold-plated products netted them 30 million in subsidies for fake transactions. As it seems that none of the medals were sold at artificial value to true customers, the only victims here ended up being the Argentine tax-payers.

The scheme involved a “business” in the United States. As there is still substantial respect for rule of law in the United States, Quique was indicted, captured, and—after some months in a U.S. jail—extradited to Argentina. In his book, he lists the government officials who he claims knew about the scheme and who received bribes for his fraudulent activities. I will not mention them here. None of them were sentenced to jail. (more…)