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This Month's Scripture Verse:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless -- Ecclesiastes 5:10


Friday, June 27, 2014

Reviewing The Cultural Case For Capitalism, Part 1 of 12

Over at the Acton Blog, Jonathan Witt is in the midst of writing a series of 12 blogposts regarding the "Cultural Case For Capitalism." Being an anti-Capitalist myself, I thought that I would comment on the series of writings. I do not yet know whether I will dedicate a blogpost for each part, but I will comment on his first post here (click here for the 1st of 12 blogposts by Witt).

Before commenting on what he has to say, I want to present a preliminary model of thought which I will use to look at Witt's defense of Capitalism. The drawing below provides a picture of the model I will be using.

American Capitalism Today

The above grid does not show a function as much as a 2-dimensional model of where America's capitalist movements are today with regard to Individual Rights and Collective Consciousness and Democracy and Elite Centered governance. Both axes deal with distribution. The horizontal axis is an economic one that measures the distribution of ownership and thus the claim to wealth. The more we acknowledge the role that others play in or the more others are impacted by the creation of our wealth, the stronger will be our notion of a Collective Consciousness. The more individuals take credit for their wealth or the less responsibility they acknowledge for how their wealth affects others, the more emphasis will be placed on Individual Rights.

The vertical axis is a political-economic one that measures the distribution of power noting that having power is not necessarily the same as having authority. So the vertical axis measures the degree to which power is shared. The more that power is distributed and shared by all of the people, the more Democracy holds sway. But the more that power consolidated and centralized, the more rule over people is Elite Centered.

Contrary to the expectation of some Conservatives, Elite Centered rule or power, can come regardless of whether one overemphasizes either Individual Rights or a Collective Consciousness. What can also surprise Conservatives is that Elite Centered rule can come from the private sector as well as the public sector. The reason? Again, it is because having power is not necessarily the same has having authority and that power follows wealth.

Finally, we should note concerning the two axes that the vertical plays a primary role in determining the degree to which tyranny or freedom will exist. Meanwhile, the horizontal axis plays a primary role in determining the degree to which wealth disparity should be expected. It will also play a secondary role in determining the degree of tyranny or freedom that exists. Here, we will repeat that power follows wealth, and because of that the greater the accumulation and consolidation of wealth, which is most commonly associated with emphasizing Individual Rights, the greater the potential for tyranny to exist. 

The quadrants in the above model are as follows.  Quadrant I, that is the upper right quadrant, is where Democracy is favored over Elite Centered rule and where a Collective Consciousness trumps, in varying degrees, Individual Rights. What is recommended by this blog is a flexibly small to moderate predominance of a Collective Consciousness over Individual Rights with a strong favoring of Democracy over Elite Centered rule. Why? We limit our favoring of Collective Consciousness because, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, we can forget that "life is individual." And we somewhat favor a Collective Consciousness over Individual liberty because, in an ever growing interdependent society, others have more connections to our wealth by either participation or impact and thus they have a legitimate claim to the possession and/or use of our wealth. Those who occupy the recommended portion of this quadrant tend not to be Capitalists

In Quadrant II, that is the upper left hand quadrant, we have an emphasis on Democracy over Elite Centered rule and Individual Rights over a Collective Consciousness. This is where the society freely chooses to lessen the restraints that the ramifications of interdependency have on individuals seeking their fortune by denying that interdependency exists. This blog predicts that this quadrant is self-limiting. That is because the more a system emphasizes Individual Rights over Collective Consciousness, the greater the wealth disparity that will exist. And the only way to allow a growing wealth disparity to continue is to limit or continually reduce Democracy. 

Quadrant III is the home for our political-economic, right-leaning advocates of Capitalism from Conservatives to Anarcho-Capitalists. The key difference between those in this quadrant can be seen in the degree to which they favor Individual Rights over a Collective Consciousness. In this quadrant the more one favors Individual Rights, the more one must depend on an ever increasing Elite Centered rule to keep the growing number of financially displaced in line. Here Conservatives are to be preferred to the others in the quadrant. And just as Martin Luther King Jr. had a word for those who overemphasized the collective, he told the Capitalists of his day, whom he saw as overemphasizing the individual, that they forget that "life is social." 

Quadrant IV consists of a growing enforced collectivism by Elite Centered rule. Its mild form can be seen in America's political liberals who wish to save Capitalism by offering those who are displaced some bones to gnaw at. But note that these liberals show that they lean more toward Elite Centered rule than toward Democracy. Also, America's liberals share this quadrant with leaders from the late Soviet Union who exercised great power and forced collectivism on all others but themselves, fellow elites, and favored individuals. The primary difference between America's liberals and many of the those leaders of the Soviet Union is in the degree of Elite Centered control they favor. 

Of course, this model does not address the specifics of the article being reviewed here, but it will provide a backdrop for how all parts of the series will be analyzed. 

Witt starts the post linked to above with the good and ugly of Western culture and there seems to be an inconsistency in how he does that. For while our cultural strengths include some positive changes in society, such as that which the Civil Rights movement brought, the ugly was almost totally concerned with personal sins such as how girls dress, boys looking at pornography, drug use, a high divorce rate,  and families without fathers. What was missing in Witt's ugly part of today's culture and society included the environmental damage our way of life and commerce are causing, the current wealth disparity, financial crimes such as fraudulent foreclosures and money laundering, the exploitation and abuse of both workers and prisoners, a renewed arms race, and an ever growing authoritarianism as seen in both our foreign policy and domestic law enforcement. What is pertinent here is that his ugly list leaves out the sins of the financial elites. At the same time, many conservatives like Witt emphasize a need for almost boundless economic, individual liberty including for the aforementioned financial elites, a liberty that should almost only be restrained by moral standards.

Some Conservatives would argue that addressing individual morals by itself is sufficient to fix the abuses that occur in quadrant III. But how would fixing the problems Witt listed address the societal problems he failed to mention? In addition, we should note that personal moral values leave important questions unanswered. For example, we know that we are not to pollute the environment. But what constitutes polluting the environment? We also know that stealing is wrong but what about poverty wages? See, the answers to some of these question are not addressed by simply focusing on personal morals. This is especially true when the desire to increase profits can corrupt our perception and personal morals. Sometimes, one must rely on input from others rather than one's self or religion. And that input from others can come from Democracy and a Collective Consciousness. Why? Because such input comes from the communities in which we live and act and what we do there often has an effect on them. But since relying on others seems to be an anathema to those stressing individualism, the stress on moral standards by such people becomes understandable.

Using the model above, this blog predicts that in trying to make the "cultural case for Capitalism," Witt will put himself squarely into quadrant III. And in quadrant III, while trying to pose as a champion for individual liberty, he will pose as an enemy of the liberty practiced in Democracy.  Thus Witt, however inadvertently, will promote Elite Centered rule. In addition, in trying to be a champion for individual liberty, Witt, however inadvertently, will promote practices that increase wealth disparity. Thus he will be supporting the increase in wealth disparity because this is what happens when one minimizes one's own or a group's Collective Consciousness. 

So for the next whatever number of Fridays, we will be reviewing Witt's cultural apologetic for Capitalism.


Matthew said...

I like your effort to model the various political movements today on a graph. Too often, people try to stuff everything on a one-dimensional line, or worse, into the Left and the Right, overemphasizing the differences between the two while obscuring those between parties on the same side.

However, I think that having an axis that moves from Elite Centered to Democracy is oversimplified in that it neglects a third possibility: Lex Rex, or the rule of law. I can't speak for Witt, but I believe that society should be governed by a law-order which transcends the decisions of men; the purpose of government then becomes not to create law, but merely to enforce that which already exists. I think that the judges who decide individual cases and oversee the enforcement of the law should be chosen from the people by the people; but as long as they faithfully administer the law, this is relatively unimportant.

"Witt will put himself squarely into quadrant III. And in quadrant III, while trying to pose as a champion for individual liberty, he will pose as an enemy of the liberty practiced in Democracy."

If my argument here is valid, this statement is not necessarily true. I believe, as I hope Witt does, that the above, law-based system allows individual rights to flourish while limiting elite power.

"The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance" (Proverbs 21:5a), and "The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor" (Proverbs 12:24). This seems harsh, but think about this in terms of the fact that economic wealth is power. Who would you rather have power in society, the diligent, who have proven themselves competent, or the slothful, who have proven themselves incompetent? Remember also that, in the Bible and particularly Proverbs, diligence is often a trait of the righteous, while slothfulness belongs to the simple and foolish. Even if those with wealth do attempt to abuse their power, the law will hold them in check.

Curt Day said...

It seems that the question you are raising is whether the model I presented includes your concern for the transcendent law and rule by that law. But here, the question becomes who is qualified to recognize the existence of such a law? That again goes back whether power is distributed or consolidated. If power is consolidated, which it will more likely be when wealth is allowed to be consolidated, it is elites who are determining what laws are to be obeyed. If power is distributed, then it is the people who determine what laws should exist and be obeyed. And therein lies the difference.

The difference being, of course, that under elite rule, elite concerns will be taken care of by law and sometimes at the expense of the welfare and rights of the masses. When power is distributed, then the masses will be making the laws. And that means more interests will be represented by those laws. At the same time, distribution of ownership becomes a secondary factor in determining what laws will exist. Here, recognizing individual rights vs stakeholder interests becomes a secondary factor in determining whether tyranny will exist and to what degree.

As for your point, you must realize that you have 2 choices. The first choice is to favor the distribution of power as seen in democracy and the second choice is to favor elite-centered rule. If you minimize democracy, then you make it more likely, under your contention for a transcendent law, for elite-centered rule that claims to be a vanguard for transcendent law--this was seen with Lenin's hijacking of the Russian Revolution. Lenin dismantled the Soviets, which were the workers' councils, in favor a system where elites were the ones who had to teach the workers the orthodox ideology. This was considered to be a turn to the right, to the bourgeoisie and away from the Left--Lenin ridiculed the Left in the Russian Revolution. SO what you have in Lenin's hijacking of the Russian Revolution was a picture that points to the dilemma of your position here.

Another example could be seen in the writing of the Constitution whose historical context points to interpreting the Constitution as an attempt to strengthen centralized power so that it could be used to protect the interests of financial elites (see Henry Knox's letter to George Washington, the Constitutional debates, and Federalist Paper #10).

There is a democratic approach to transcendent law and that can partially be seen in Howard Zinn's comments on Law and Justice. The link is below:

Law and Justice

Curt Day said...

One more point, it is rather oversimplistic to equate wealth with diligence and poverty with sloth. Such does not account for wealth that comes from exploiting others and poverty from being exploited. In all of this you have chosen an ironically far left position in quadrant III. Realize that as we go farther left, our descent is steeper.

And yes, you are correct, it sounds harsh.

Matthew said...

The reason that we are disagreeing on this point is that your comments implicitly assume that only men can decide whether laws are valid. In your second sentence, you ask, "Who is qualified to recognize the existence of such a law?" If transcendent law must be "recognized" by men before it can become law, it is no longer, in practice, transcendent; there is no fundamental difference between this and rules that men make up entirely on their own. The key idea of transcendent law is that it does not derive its validity from men; instead, it is valid because of something outside of, above, and beyond men. According to the Christian worldview, the only source of such law is God Himself.

This assumption, that only men decide which laws are valid, or equivalently, that only men can make laws, relies on a humanistic worldview. The laws of a society embody its ultimate ideas of right and wrong, and how those ideas should be applied. To say that only men can make laws is to say that only men can determine the ultimate definitions of right and wrong. This is setting man in the place of God.

Note that the primary concern here is not what men or groups of men have authority to make laws, corresponding to the vertical axis in your graph. The primary question is whether or not any men have any authority to make laws at all. I believe that God, not man, has the authority to make laws.

Curt Day said...

Eventually you have to talk about what is practical. Yes, people decide what laws are valid and what ones aren't. And, in most cases, they are doing that for pluralistic societies, not monolithically religious ones.

You are not touching earthy here and at some point, you have to because that is where you live.