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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Capitalism And The Last Temptation In The WIlderness

In Matthew 4, after fasting for 40 days Jesus is tempted by the devil. In Christ's last temptation, the devil proposes a trade, he will give Christ all of the kingdoms in the world if Christ will worship him (click here). Christ knew to reject the deal, the question is, do we?

Free Market Capitalism tells us that we can have the most prosperty possible if we bow down and worship ourselves. For in Free Market Capitalism, self-interest is our strength, our energy, our conscience and our guide. And the question becomes, how did such a temptation become a political-economic philosophy in a "Christian" country? Before answering that question, we must define our terms.

The concept, though not the term, Free Market Capitalism was proposed by Adam Smith in response to the merchantilism of his time. In merchantilism, imports were restricted while exports were promoted in order to strengthen a nation's economy. However, Smith saw the result of merchantilism in England differently; he saw it as a manipulation of the economy for the benefit of a few, that is for those around whom the economy was revolving. Rather than orient the economy around a select few who were providing services, Smith proposed that England would become wealthier if the economy was oriented around the consumer. Here, there was also some of the fine print that should have been listed as conditions for guarantee of the promise of relying on self-interest. For example, if businesses engaged in fair competition for the sale of their products and services, self-interest would enlighten the decisions of both businesses and consumers. This condition implied a laissez-faire relationship between the government and business. 

Those enlightened decisions would produce a healthy economy whose tide would lift everybody's boat. That is because as we purchase what we wish, we stimulate the economy including employment. And as customers demand products that give them the best value for the money spent, companies compete for their business by finding ways of producing newer and better products in more efficient ways. And thus, if businesses and customers care solely or primarily about themselves, by them looking for the greatest value or the highest profit, society will reach the highest state of happiness possible. 

So, while shopping, self-interest would cause me to focus solely on my purchasing power. And that purchasing power increases as I get more of a product for less money. So suppose I can buy 10 teeshirts for x dollars from one store while I can only buy 5 teeshirts for x dollars from another store. I will buy from the first store because I am concerned solely about getting the best deal for myself. In so doing, everything ends up being kosher for the economy. At least that is how the theory goes. 

There are a number of ways to question this rather simplistic theory by Smith. Of course, we first need to give Smith his due for the concerns of his times and what he was reacting to. He was reacting to the manipulation of the economy for the benefit of a few. And when questioning his theory, we should not feel compelled to reject everything he proposed. However, we still need to question the theory. And we can do so in two ways. First, we can look for the side effects to this reliance of self-interest by both consumers and businesses that would make Free Trade Capitalism either less desireable or unsustainable. And second, we can look to see how well the theory is working. 

One of the side effects noted in Smith's Free Trade Capitalism in how such an economy changes the personal values of the participants and society. For example, Karl Marx noted that such an economy reduces men's connections to each other to that of seeing what we get out of each other especially in terms of financial profit. In fact, he saw this changing of connections even affecting the family. He also was concerned about how even some who were self-employed could become wage-slaves of the Bourgeoisie (see pages 15-16 in here). We should note here that the Bourgeoisie were those who not only held private property, but they were able to use that ownership of property to control others. This control could take place on both a smaller scale, such as being the owner or boss of employees in a business, or a larger scale, such as having an inordinate influence on those in government. We should note here that Marx's first concern was about how one smaller group of people controlled others and thus came the term "wage-slave" for those who were employed by the Bourgeoisie and were paid an hourly wage.

This reduction of our relationships to that of using each other for profit or advantage dehumanizes us by making us all into objects of gain. This relegation of people into objects leads to exploitation and abuse. And from consumers, this demotion of people leads to apathy as customers become concerned solely about what they are getting for themselves while not caring about the plight of those whose labor made the products or, as today's world dictates, the environment. It is at this point that consumers ask Cain's post-crime, rhetorical question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Our reaction to all of this could be to consider the source. After all, Marx was antagonistic to Capitalism and we all know what happened to his theories.  That is we could ignore Marx except for the fact that Martin Luther King Jr., despite his adamant rejection of Marxism's basic tenets, agreed with Marx's comments on the problem with the primacy of the profit motive in Capitalism. The place of this motive in society causes people to be more invested in "making a living than making a life" and judging success by the goods one accumulates rather than how one helps and serves others (see page 94 in here). 

At this point we need to ask the following of a political-economic system that promises us happiness by focusing on ourselves, is a such a society that is based on self-interest sustainable? And we could also ask, is such a society desirable?

Is a laissez-faire, Free Trade Capitalism possible? We could answer this question in a number of ways. Logically speaking, is it reasonable to expect those with wealth, ability and who are governed by self-interest, to tolerate an economic system that relies on fair competition for the benefit of the consumer? Or does it make more sense to expect such parties to press for every advantage to increase profits? Or we could look at both American History and its present to note how many times corporations have paid government to get into bed with them. Since WWII, America has been involved in over 50 interventions. Many of these interventions have targeted democracies for the benefit of American businesses. Or we could note how many times big business has sought advantages and privileges within our own country. So we have to ask whether the American economy is the embodiment of what Smith proposed? And if it isn't, is such an economy possible?

We might also ask if we really want to live in a society where everybody is just out for themselves. My fellow Christians who are politically conservative will object by saying such an economy was meant to run by principled people such as themselves. Here we have to ask, doesn't reducing all interests to self-interest contradict being principle-minded and what the Bible teaches and thus to embrace such a political-economic system is to stray from sound principles and the Scriptures?

The fault in Smith's theory is not the existence of self-interest but the belief that there is a system in which its participants only need  to rely on self-interest, or perhaps even greed, for energy while believing it can correct for the toxic emissions that are sure to result in a place where everybody is out just for themselves.


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