Our friends over at AEI have a wonderful website—Values & Capitalism—devoted to many of the same topics we cover here at Acton: faith, economics, poverty, the environment, society. Values & Capitalism, which is capably managed and curated by my buddy Eric Teetsel, is an excellent resource that I recommend to all liberty-loving, virtue promoting Christians (i.e., all good Acton PowerBlog readers).
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Corrupted Capitalism and the Housing Crisis,” I contend we need to add some categories to our thinking about political economy. In this case, the idea of “corporatism” helps understand a good deal of what we see in the American system today. Adding corporatism to our quiver helps us to make some more nuanced distinctions than simple “socialism” and “capitalism” allow.
Take, for instance, Mitt Romney’s contention this week while campaigning in Michigan that the bailouts of the auto companies was a feature of “crony capitalism.” A better way to understand the relationship between big business and big government today might instead be characterized as “crony corporatism.” You have a select group at the highest levels of an industry influencing government policy, which in turn favors those big businesses, provides various moral and fiscal incentives to consumers to patronize these industries, and then when necessary bails them out.
In this week’s commentary I use corporatism as a way of unpacking what happened in the recent housing crisis. For too long the American dream has revolved around home ownership. Owning a home is a good thing for many people; for many others it isn’t. What we have failed to recognize is the moral hazard that attends to government promotion of a particular vision of the American dream and the crises that result. As Dambisa Moyo characterized the housing crisis,
The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.
The definition of the American dream offered by politicians should be far less precise, and presumably not include the level of specificity that says we should all own a home, drive a GM car, and have a college degree. As Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps put it in a 2009 interview,
I’m hoping that the administration and other thought leaders will succeed eventually in bringing the country back to the older idea that the American dream is having a career, getting a job, and getting involved in it, and doing well. That was the core of the good life. That’s what we have to get back to, and get away from this mystique that the most important thing in your life that could ever happen to you is to be a home owner.
The cultivation of an “ownership society” through government subsidy is only one feature of the creeping corporatism of contemporary America. As has been documented just in the last few days, the role of the government in directing and providing social goods has increased dramatically over recent decades. Following a New York Times story describing the increasing dependence of the American middle class on governmental initiatives of one form or another, Steve Hayward summarizes, “increasingly we’re taxing the middle class to pay themselves their own money, minus a large commission to Washington DC” (HT: The Transom). The government is increasingly using these subsidies and incentives to shape how people live their lives.
As I conclude in today’s piece, “The American people do not need politicians to tell them what happiness is and how it should be pursued. These are functions that our families, churches, and friendships fulfill.” One place to look instead would be the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to enjoy God and glorify him forever.” Another would be the words of Jesus: “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Yesterday AEI hosted a lively discussion between Jonah Goldberg and Matt Welch on the question, “Are Libertarians Part of the Conservative Movement?” I’ve got a piece appearing tomorrow at Comment that will discuss the “fusionist” project and the relationship between so-called economic or “market” conservatives and social or “communitarian” conservatives.
At this point, though, I’ll simply point out a distinction I’ve made in the past between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view. The former, I think, is largely compatible with and an important part of the broader conservative political movement. The latter, however, is much more problematic. Libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizes the proper role and functions of a limited government, and asks critically of each policy, as Goldberg notes, “Should government really be doing this?” This question is one that is, in my view, an absolutely indispensable and welcome component of the conservative movement.
Libertarianism as a world-and-life view, however, understands personal choice as the highest good and interprets everything else in light of that single guiding principle. These kinds of libertarians do not hold to a view of the world in which choice must be directed to any objective good or correspond to the moral order. No, rather, choice itself is opposed to any form of constraint, moral or otherwise. The exercise of the will is itself the supreme act of human freedom. (These, I think, are Kirk’s “chirping sectaries.”) This kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with a conservative vision of the good society, although there are probably still cases in which such libertarians and conservatives can be effective co-belligerents. I would add that this kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with the Christian faith, and in many cases much more likely to be substituted for or conflated with Christianity. Libertarianism as a world-and-life view is an ideological competitor to the Christian faith.
Respective definitions of liberty are absolutely essential to distinguishing various strands of libertarianism. Are we simply free to choose, or free to choose the good? How is the good defined, and in relation to what (the moral order?) or who (myself? God?) is it defined? Here I’ll submit Lord Acton’s definition as representative of a good answer, from the kind of classical liberal who oriented freedom to the good: “Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.”
When we are asking the kinds of questions raised by last night’s AEI discussion, it’s important to define our terms and clarify precisely who and what we are discussing. Libertarianism is an inherently diverse phenomenon, with a rather dizzying spectrum of perspectives unified around some core commitments. But precisely how these core commitments animate and are placed in relationship to the broader vision of the common good (if there even is such a vision) is widely divergent. A presentation by Nigel Ashford at an IHS event once outlined at least 5 basic types (with attendant subgroupings) on a continuum, you might say, of libertarianism. (It so happens, usually, that whoever is to the left of you on the spectrum is cast as a “socialist” of some form or another.)
I’ll have some more to say related to my piece tomorrow at Comment, but here I’ll just note that my conclusions about the prospects for fusionism (social and economic conservatives need each other now perhaps more than ever) are largely shared with those in Hunter Baker’s essay, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Find Common Ground?” and commend Baker’s article to your attention.
In the journal Foreign Affairs, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg offers an analysis of the Vatican’s recent pronouncements on economic policy, most notably the document issued in October titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” (also called “The Note”). The Church, Gregg said, “wanted to attract the attention of world leaders as they assembled to discuss ongoing turmoil in financial markets at the G-20 Summit in Cannes and to add its voice to those arguing for capital controls (such as the “Tobin tax”) to discourage international financial speculation.” But, he argues, advocating a world economic authority could work against the interests of developing nations, including those heavily Catholic:
… a world authority could pit the economic interests of Catholics in developed countries against those in developing nations, creating challenges for how the Church presents its teachings about economic issues to Catholics throughout the world. Many countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia are in a fundamentally different economic and geopolitical place from those of the ailing EU. The Church must thus deepen its appreciation of how the global operation of economic factors such as comparative advantage, incentives, and tradeoffs has different impacts upon Catholics living in very dissimilar economic circumstances. But this also has implications for the Church’s position concerning the economic functions to be assumed by a world authority. Such responsibilities, for example, could primarily concern promoting greater economic integration through removing obstacles to trade. This, however, would be incompatible with the Note’s theme that a world authority’s economic functions should be focused upon securing greater control over the pace of change through international regulations that, if implemented, would significantly impede the free movement of people, goods, and capital.
Read “The Vatican’s Calls for Global Financial Reform” by Samuel Gregg on the website of Foreign Affairs.
Director of Research Samuel Gregg’s thoughts on the debate are up at The Corner. He sees a parallel between the Italian crisis unfolding across the ocean and the problems facing the United States — particularly in Michigan, where this debate was held. The collapse of Italy would certainly be a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings of crony capitalism, and Gregg thinks a candidate could find a majority of voters who don’t want that to happen.
With the Italian-flavored shadow of the European Union’s ongoing financial implosion overhanging the United States, it was expected that America’s own fragile economic state would be front-and-center at this debate.
This time, however, there was less argument among the GOP candidates. Instead, there were far more direct critiques of (1) President Obama and (2) the pattern of crony capitalism with which more and more Americans are visibly losing patience. The debate’s setting — the state of Michigan — is a living exemplar of all the fallacies of bailouts and business-union collusion, as well as a failure to promote the type of innovation that produces wealth but that also threatens businesses (like the Detroit car companies) that don’t like competition.
Also noticeable was the increased willingness of the candidates to advocate market solutions to any number of problems, the most prominent being America’s ongoing mortgage farce, the looming crisis of student debt, and the inexorable rise in health-care costs. That’s a welcome development. If this trend keeps up, maybe one of them will make the dismantling of crony capitalism a central plank of his platform. That won’t please the likes of General Electric and the City of Chicago, but there are surely votes there.
Acton director of research Samuel Gregg offers his thoughts on last night’s GOP Roundtable in this NRO Symposium. Gregg thinks the debate offered an important alternative to the government-driven economy talk that fills the news every other night of the week.
In a week in which two American economists from the non-Keynesian side of the ledger received the Nobel Prize for Economics, last night’s GOP debate gave us some insight into the depth and character of the various candidates’ free-market commitments and the different policy priorities which flow from the various forms of those commitments.
But if the ideas were strong, they were a reminder of separation between our free market ideals and our considerably less free economy:
For the most part, the candidates focused upon the institutional background that either impedes or facilitates economic growth: the regulatory environment, tax levels, trade policy, monetary policy, etc. Listening to the responses was a salutary reminder of the gap betweenAmerica’s free-market aspirations and rhetoric, and the rather different Eurosclerotic economic reality that has slowly envelopedAmerica– and not just over the past three years, but over several decades.
The only way we’re really going to get our economy going, is by addressing entitlements.
The surprising omission was substantial discussion of the issue of welfare reform and the related question of America’s public debt. While Obamacare was continually criticized because of its costs, that’s only part of the picture. Substantive entitlement reform is indispensable if we want to significantly reduce the spending and deficits that threaten to suck the life out of America’s economy. Addressing this subject is of course very politically risky because far too many Americans are more attached to the welfare state than they care to admit. But if fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to tackle this issue, then who will?
If modern distributists would like to identify themselves as agrarians, they may, and line up behind John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and the rest of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand. Then they would be making a super-catechetical argument and we should not take issue with them on this blog. Their claim, however, is to offer the only modern economic theory which is fully in line with Church teaching, and that we cannot allow to go unchallenged.
The central claim of modern distributism, as articulated in this recent essay, is that when economists left off considerations other than the calculus of markets, their discipline ceased to be a human science, and so lost much of its value as an explainer of human action. Thus distributists attack capitalism, which according to their thinking became dehumanized:
Labor was no longer the source of all human values and its sustenance the purpose of all human production. Rather, it was just another “raw material,” like pig iron or hog fat, to be purchased at the lowest possible price. The question of justice was reduced to the question of “freedom”: so long as there was no coercion in the labor contract, the price was to be considered “just.” In the long run, so it was believed, all economic actors, acting in their own “self-interest,” would produce the best possible outcomes.
Distributists are right to say that the science of economics lost a part of its essence when it abandoned questions of human nature, but capitalism was around before that abandonment, and it will exist unaltered should the economic establishment come to its senses. And a distributist may commodify his hired hand just as a faithful husband may objectify his wife.
The history of industrialization is a gradual one: there was no paradigm shift at which all wage earners were thenceforth thought of as pig iron or hot fat, because that injustice is a personal sin.
Capitalism has given us the Twinkie, the deep fried Twinkie, and the ogre green Twinkie. It has not, in the end, given us an unwanted issue of Sports Illustrated each year, a multibillion dollar pornography industry, or a meaningless common culture. Richard Weaver isolated that culprit in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences when he said,
The average man of the present age has a metaphysic in the form of a conception known as “progress.”
According to Weaver, modern man has no metaphysic at all: he has become a materialist and an egotist. That is why too many companies treat their employees as “resources” and why too many banks thoughtlessly loan money to people who won’t be able to pay it back. It is why the business pages of newspapers routinely report that companies lie about their accounts, or that struggling firms have been bought up and liquidated without any thought for their employees’ lives. But “The Man” doesn’t treat employees as raw materials—individual men and women do that, and it is they who are guilty of injustice, not the system of capitalism. “The Man” and the distributist picture of our economy are largely a fiction.
Even if a switch in economic systems might reduce the incentive for unjust commerce, we can’t switch to distributism. Beyond a Spanish commune 0.17% the size of theU.S.economy, no one has ever effected a distributist economy—it’s certainly never been done politically.
The United States is not an agrarian country; it is, for better or worse, a fully industrialized one. Dreams of a network of pastoral communities dotting the rolling Kentucky hills, the Texas plains, and the California valleys must remain dreams—images of the citizen-soldiers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem.
You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall…
Thanks to PewSitter, the Catholic Drudge Report, for the link!
On RealClearMarkets, Mark Hunter dismantles “The End of Capitalism and the Wellsprings of Radical Hope,” by Eugene McCarraher in the Nation magazine. McCarraher’s article appears to be destined for the ash heap of Marxist utopian literature. But Hunter’s critique is valuable for his reminder that capitalism, free enterprise, the market economy — all the systems of mutually beneficial free exchange by whatever name — have actually been ingrained in human culture as far back as the ancient spice trade and probably earlier.
McCarraher’s denunciation of capitalism is in fact an attack on human nature disguised as political discourse. The “pernicious” traits he attributes to capitalism are, in fact, traits globally present in every political/social order — in many cases far worse in non-capitalistic societies — because they are traits of humanity itself.
His entire argument against capitalism consists of nothing more than an elaborate correlation-proves-causation fallacy (cum hoc ergo propter hoc – “with this, therefore because of this”). He wants us to believe that since capitalism contains greed it causes greed. Furthermore, McCarraher seems content to overlook the fact that capitalism is an organic economic system not created as much as evolving naturally as a consequence of free individuals interacting with other free individuals. Private property and the production of goods may be a part of capitalism, but its most essential virtue is as a guardian of man’s freedom.
Criticizing capitalism for its avarice is not unlike condemning representative democracy for its failure to elect the wisest of men — each may occur, but it is not relevant to their fundamental purpose. Both capitalism and representative democracy maximize freedom by diffusing power and responsibility across the broadest spectrum of society. Rigid control is antithetical to freedom and it is this that most vexes the liberal intellectual.
Hunter, a professor of humanities at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla., exposes the empty spiritual promise of collectivist schemes. McCarraher’s “radical hope” is:
… in the end enslavement. The only way to deliver mankind from the demon Mammon will be by removing the greatest gift of the gods – freedom. In this Faustian exchange we are guaranteed the Marxist security of bread, authoritarian certainty of order and utopian unity of world government.
It’s not clear if Hunter’s definition of freedom as the “gift of the gods” is meant literally, in a pantheistic sense, or is merely employed as a rhetorical flourish. But he doesn’t make McCarraher’s mistake and propose capitalism as a path to salvation (For a deep going exposition of Christian anthropology, see Metropolitan Jonah’s AU talk we posted on the PowerBlog yesterday).
Hunter defines capitalism as “an organic economic system not created as much as evolving naturally as a consequence of free individuals interacting with other free individuals. Private property and the production of goods may be a part of capitalism, but its most essential virtue is as a guardian of man’s freedom.”
Read “To Attack Capitalism Is To Attack Human Nature” on RealClearMarkets.
Continuing our recap of last year’s Acton Lecture Series in anticipation of Thursday’s opening lecture of the 2011 ALS (which you can register for right here), we’re pleased to present the video from February and March of 2010.
On February 18, 2010, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Miller Delivered a lecture entitled “Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?” His lecture discussed the positive and negative impact of capitalism in society today. Miller pointed out that it’s not just Christians that are worried about culture and that it is just not a right or left issue. Many are also worried about rampant consumerism and the perceived danger of technology. Miller also addressed the Southern Agrarians and their conservative critique of industrialization. Video is below:
A month later on March 18, we welcomed Rudy Carrasco to our podium to deliver a lecture entitled “Do the Poor Need Capitalism?” A 2009 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research says that the number of people in the world living on less than $1 per day fell from 403 million in 1970 to 152 million in 2006. An analysis from the American Enterprise Institute says the biggest factor was the rise of the middle class in China and India, at a time when the world’s population grew by 3 billion. Carrasco discussed whether capitalism is a greater asset than liability in the fight against poverty, and whether capitalism must be moderated by virtue and morality before a Christian can embrace it. Again, the video is below:
The Hastert Center at Wheaton College will host a debate tomorrow night between Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, on the question, “Does Capitalism Have a Soul?” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson will moderate.
In framing the debate, Dr. Seth Norton, Hastert Center director, notes in the press release:
“It’s a good chance to compare different visions of capitalism and market economies, and to discuss the role of government in those economies. There is a lot of debate on these issues in secular venues, but this is a chance to hear two people who have a spiritual common denominator address complicated issues related to economic systems, and that’s a rare event.”
The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public.