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Wages of Sin

The controversy surrounding capitalism was well represented by David Bentley Hart (“Mammon Ascendant”) and Francesca Aran Murphy (“Is Liberalism a Heresy?”) in your June/July issue. Both their essays were immensely interesting, but it is Hart’s missteps in describing capitalism that more urgently call for attention. His claim that the libertarian valorization of individual will supplanted divine sovereignty, thereby providing the ideological groundwork for “late modern capitalism,” fails to demonstrate 1) a causal connection between this idea and capitalism, and 2) the incompatibility of capitalism with Christianity.

Hart’s scenario begins with the decline of religion (“denatured ecclesial establishments”) making possible “late modern secularity” informed by a “purely negative understanding of social and political liberty,” which is to say, freedom from interference with one’s desires and goals. Negative freedom alone, according to Hart, made possible the unbridled greed exhibited by late modern capitalism, and led to the “exploitation of material and human resources on an unprecedentedly massive scale.” But he also claims that “capitalism has no moral nature.” He can’t have it both ways. If capitalism is amoral in a neutral process of buying and selling, then it is not inherently unjust, and can, like all other societal activities, be guided within a framework of individual rights and rule of law to prevent the mighty from overtaking the weak. And though Hart later acknowledges capitalism’s historical alignment with positive freedom, he maintains it has “no natural attachment to the institutions of democratic or liberal freedom.”

This is the crucial point where Hart and the many critics agreeing with him must be challenged. Capitalism, considered in its mere outward form of buying and selling, is of course neither moral nor immoral. Its moral affinity is to be found in the very real, practical need for trust as a condition necessary for buying and selling, a trust that can only be engendered by the institutions of democratic or liberal freedom. This is the “deep structural virtue” Hart cannot locate within capitalism: its profound need for an ideology affording knowledge that the conditions guaranteeing both free and protected action can be counted upon. The laws and institutions guaranteeing these conditions are not simply “add-ons” curbing capitalism’s excesses, but functional requirements of free and stable economic activity—as palpable and necessary as knowing police and fire departments exist to protect one from violence and disaster. Without this trust, economies crumble, as can be witnessed in various stages in contemporary totalitarian countries—in China, North Korea, and Venezuela—where the rulers attempt to exploit capitalism as a morally neutral engine of wealth, failing to understand the integral element of freedom protected by the rule of law.

When this is understood, Hart’s litany of capitalism’s supposed abuses—pollution, the confiscation of property, unsafe working conditions, etc.—can be seen not as the inevitable result of unchecked market behavior but as a profound betrayal of the very taboo against the initiation of force that capitalism depends on.

Hart’s final claim that capitalism, by promoting selfishness, is unchristian, is easily rebutted. The New Testament concerns itself exclusively with individual voluntary actions, not governmental requirements for the redistribution of wealth. Christ did not say to the rich young ruler, “Succumb to a system of enforced taxation of wealth,” but simply to give up his riches—voluntarily. Surely relevant to this issue is the parable of the talents, wherein the master rebukes those servants who neglect to invest their talent to make more.

Ironically, Hart ends with an eloquently simple affirmation of what might be called capitalism’s original position: “the community that exists wherever one person trades one ‘gift’ for another.” Amen. The implications sink Hart’s entire wayward attack on capitalism if one realizes a gift might be a million shares of stock as well as a sack of potatoes. The crucial point being that it is, and must remain, a gift.

Bruce Marr
brooklyn, new york

From a strictly materialistic perspective, capitalism has been an incredible method for alleviating absolute poverty, as Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Pinker have separately documented in recent work. As David Bentley Hart reminds us in the closing paragraphs of his article, the lot of the poor was a key concern of our Lord.

From a less materialistic perspective, Michael Novak has argued that “commerce . . . teaches care, discipline, frugality, clear accounting, providential forethought, . . . respect for regular reckonings . . . fidelity to contracts, honesty in fair dealings, and concern for one’s moral reputation.” Further developing this theme, Deirdre McCloskey notes on the virtues, “Love, faith, hope, courage, temperance, justice, and, of course, prudence, both enable and are promoted by and developed through markets.” Jonathan Sacks notes the “perennial temptations of the market” (pursuing gain at the expense of others, taking advantage of ignorance, treating others with indifference) are no less prevalent in the political sphere or, for that matter, in the house of prayer. Scandals in the political and religious sphere are all too common. It is unclear that other socioeconomic arrangements do a better job at reducing alienation, curbing corruption, and promoting virtue than do markets, and yet, markets alleviate material poverty better than any other system of which we are aware. Variations on a “communism of goods” or “donating all profits to the poor” have, relatively speaking, a very poor record, except at making those recommending them feel virtuous.

Jonathan Escott
dublin, ireland

“Mammon Ascendant” deserves a paragraph-by-paragraph refutation, but in the interest of space, I’ll limit my comments to a narrow set of observations—some of which David Bentley Hart will likely find heretical.

Based on what we know from biblical accounts, together with our understanding of the economic arrangements of ancient Rome, we may safely surmise that Jesus was very likely a practicing capitalist. We are told that he was a carpenter (Mark 6:3) and that his father was a carpenter (Matt. 13:55). We may assume that his trade involved the use of certain tools: hammers, saws, plumb lines, etc. It is unlikely that those tools were owned by the state (in this case Rome). Rather, they were likely owned by the Holy Family themselves and used to provide carpentry services to others in exchange for either cash remuneration or barter in amounts greater than the cost of providing those services (otherwise known as “profit”). (It is possible the tools were owned by some other private business owner for whom Jesus worked as an employee or contractor, but the point remains the same.) Those tools are the “means of production.” One may assume that at some point, those tools were acquired by the family using funds saved up, borrowed, or provided by an “investor.” That’s capitalism. It’s likely the family “got business” based on reputation for good work or, in slow times, possibly solicitation, in other words, marketing. They may have even used a sign to designate their place of business and identify themselves—advertising. Again, capitalism.

Well, you might object, that bears no resemblance to “modern” capitalism. Not true. In the same way that the energy industry today is mistakenly identified with “Big Oil” (Exxon, Chevron, et al.), when it is in fact conducted predominantly by smaller independent companies most readers will have never heard of, modern capitalism is not largely the purview of Apple and Walmart, but rather of small, privately owned businesses with less than one hundred employees providing services or products the public wants or needs in order to support the families of the owners and provide jobs for their workers. Creative destruction notwithstanding, this is capitalism, ancient and modern.

Capitalism is morally neutral, a point Hart makes in passing but then spends the entire article contradicting. Capitalism, like all things, is practiced by sinners and saints. Some use it for greed and wanton accumulation; others for selfless, sacrificial generosity. The job of faithful Christians, as in all things, is to figure out how to follow Jesus in the conduct of their commercial affairs. Many in fact do.

But one observation is essential and irrefutable based on centuries of empirical evidence: In this fallen world, no other economic system leads to broadly distributed human flourishing remotely on the scale of capitalism. Other approaches have been tried, and they all have failed. For all its temptations, capitalism is the only economic system that has a demonstrated capacity to provide the means to advance the common good. And this is the case largely because, at its core, capitalism is about freedom. That, in my estimation, is fertile soil for Christianity.

David Lumpkins
houston, texas

I had varied responses when I read the symposium on liberalism/capitalism in the June/July issue of First Things. I appreciated Francesca Aran Murphy’s defense of liberalism against the over-the-top rejections by the likes of John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas, and David Bentley Hart, all of whom enjoy the intellectual freedom of liberalism and make rather handsome livings off the largesse of capitalism. I thought her defense relied a bit too much on intellectual arguments rather than a clear-eyed assessment of practical historical realities, and that it probably leads to a too cozy relation between Christianity and liberalism. Christian convictions certainly play into liberal political and economic arrangements, but other non-Christian philosophies also play a big part. I prefer the more practical assessments both Michael Novak (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism) and I (The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism—A Moral Reassessment) made of “democratic capitalism” in the early 1980s, but I will take help from whomever can supply it.

On the other hand, I was really annoyed by Hart’s predictably flamboyant judgment that “the claim that capitalist culture and Christianity are compatible—indeed, that they are not ultimately inimical to one another—seems to me not only self-evidently false, but quaintly (and perhaps perilously) deluded.” First, there is a grammatical problem with the sentence. Can a claim be deluded? I think he means that people who hold such a claim are deluded . . . and that means little old quaint and deluded me.

Not that I was uncritical about some of the worrisome tendencies of capitalism in my book. After all, we had all read Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which makes a much more measured argument than Hart’s. Bell feared that the virtues that made capitalism viable—hard work and frugality—would be undercut by the very affluence that it produced. Further, he noted that economic rationality is indeed imperialistic, and the mechanisms of a market economy do not account for “neighborhood effects,” nor do they lead to equal outcomes. There are real problems with capitalism that have to be addressed and assuaged by democratic policy-making.

The combination of market economic arrangements with constitutional democracy is not only morally defensible; it is probably the best political economy we have thus far achieved. A workably competitive economy not only produces great wealth (as Hart admits), but that wealth also allows and supports many non-economic activities that are not possible in poor economies. It would be tedious to list the myriad culture-forming benefits of discretionary wealth, but churches, private universities, and free and independent journals are examples of them dear to our hearts. Also, because markets allow for decentralized and relatively unregulated economic decisions and actions, the state doesn’t have to make them. State-directed economies lead not only to oppressive political power, but turn out to be grossly inefficient.

I do not think there is a “culture of capitalism.” There are many subcultures in democratic capitalist America, some of them damaged by hedonism and consumerism. But there are vigorous subcultures that are quite resistant to the allures of affluence. Serious Christians and their institutions coexist with and often flourish in market economies. They participate in the market economy without losing their souls.

Indeed, it seems to me that the “theory classes” made possible by the very success of capitalism do more to undermine wholesome culture than the temptations of the economic order itself. I really know few mad consumers, but as an academician, I know many colleagues who support nearly any sort of liberation of the expressive self from conventional moral norms. And those academics are resolutely anti-capitalist. (The theory classes have never gotten over their prejudice that profit-making is somehow more degrading than fame-making.) And, as the editor of First Things has often argued, the theory classes are part of the secular progressive cohort that commands the heights of the society. It has political and legal power. I fear the coercive power of secular progressivism far more than I do the inducements of the market economy.

Culture is certainly influenced by the economy but not determined. Culture has its own capacities to revise politics and society. Note what feminism has achieved, for example. Disciplined Christians have the opportunity to shape their own culture in this “democratic capitalist” society. In spite of its shortcomings, I still say with Irving Kristol “two cheers for capitalism.”

Robert Benne
roanoke college

David Bentley Hart’s “Mammon Ascendant” does not disappoint in its vigor and philosophical rootedness. However, it is not well rooted in the facts of economic history or the practicalities of economic life.

Hart claims that ownership of capital is concentrated in the hands of the “very few.” One might quibble over whether that was ever true in most countries, but it is quite untrue in this era of retirement accounts and mutual funds.

Nor does capitalism require “immense concentrations” of private capital in terms of the number of firms. Japan, Korea, and (a century ago) Germany have had such concentrations due to local institutions. For most industries and most of the time, other countries have not.

Furthermore, few workers are at the mercy of employers. In contrast to many premodern economies, most industrial workers in most places have had a choice of employers, and wages have risen as employers have had to compete for workers. The concept of a broad, economy-wide “fall” of once independent, tool-owning tradesmen into wage slavery is a myth.

One can hardly dispute Hart’s point that some advertising campaigns appeal seductively to “the lust of the eyes,” but much advertising is simply and innocently informative, enabling families to find what they are looking for (or useful goods that they did not yet know about) at a good price. Advertising is needed not just to keep the economy moving but also to help buyers and sellers find each other, and it sometimes redirects what people buy.

Hart may well have a point to make about the cultural and spiritual effects of a market economy, but his point is obscured by his flawed portrayal of how such an economy works. A market economy hardly ever corresponds to “capitalism” as Hart describes it.

By the way, since Hart thinks that “the apostolic Church in Jerusalem adopted an absolute communism of goods,” he needs to reread Acts 5:2.

Douglas J. Puffert
gordon college
wenham, massachusetts

David Bentley Hart responds:

My thanks to those who wrote in response to my piece. I am impressed by the sincerity, if not the acuity, of their arguments. Since none of them seems to have paid much attention to the strict and historically precise technical description of what I (along with traditional economic historians) mean by “capitalism,” and all seem to confuse the concept (in good American libertarian fashion) with any sort of trade or barter in general, I can only recommend that they return to the original article and read the passages they apparently skimmed over the first time.

Also, several of the writers seem to imagine that the only choice we have is between the power of the state and the power of capital, but since that is not a real choice, or even a real distinction, and since it has absolutely nothing to do with anything I said, I shall largely ignore the matter.

Bruce Marr for the most part misrepresents my article. I made no claim regarding modern capitalism’s moral nature whatsoever; I said only that it has none, and that its apologists tend to praise the good it can accomplish and to ignore the evil that it often promotes. I also claimed that the system rests on principles of human activity that are inimical to Christian teaching, which is so obviously true that it is embarrassing even to have to point it out. I will note, moreover, that the absence of a moral nature is itself a moral evil from a Christian perspective.

I have no idea why Marr brings up the issue of state confiscation, redistribution, and taxation. I made no political recommendations, and if I had done so, they would not have been of that kind; my remarks concerned only the moral realities of a capitalist culture. That Marr imagines that the evils caused by capitalist “excesses” are a “betrayal” of something more essential to capitalism, rather than just natural expressions of the possibilities inherent within it, demonstrates a deep incoherence in his reasoning.

Jonathan Escott no doubt believes what he is saying, and he is right that corruption can exist anywhere. That is all irrelevant to the question of the compatibility between a capitalist culture (which has, willy-nilly, certain positive values written into it) and a Christian one.

Of those who failed to grasp what I said about the meaning of the term “capitalism,” or who imagine I was arguing for the modern state as opposed to the modern market, David Lumpkins provides the most entertaining remarks. I perceive he is not a historian of ancient culture. But he gets some things right. Joseph was indeed a tektōn—a craftsman, probably in wood, but not necessarily—who would have been hired for various crafts. That is not capitalism; it is free skilled labor. Neither is every form of trade or small business also a form of “capitalism.” Again, I defined “capitalism” quite precisely in my article.

But the silliest claim in the letter is that “capitalism is about freedom.” Rubbish. It is about a certain form of voluntarist liberty, true, for those who win at the game; it can also create wage slavery, ruined communities, and forms of bondage (spiritual and material) too numerous and too obvious to mention. Much of the history of industrialization, like much of the operation of global capital today, rests upon the exploitation of laborers who have no choices and of parts of the world that have no power. Capitalism is “about” nothing one way or the other. It operates on certain principles, many of which are corrosive of Christian culture.

Robert Benne’s letter is deeply confused (which, like saying a claim can be deluded, is a perfectly correct way of exploiting the “polysemy” of the modifier). Again, like the other writers, his political imagination allows for only the choice between state-directed economies and market-driven capitalist economies. Since I am no more a believer in the modern centralized bureaucratic state than a believer in modern globalist capital, I do not care which of the two sides of our system he wants to hang his hopes on. Again, my concern is whether a culture that has made late capitalism its governing logic can also be a Christian culture, and one need only read the Gospels to know that it cannot. Secularism is as inevitable in the age of capital as is smoke over a fire. But I have an article forthcoming in Commonweal sometime soon that addresses some of these matters; I direct Benne there. I also ask him to consider whether the self-aggrandizement of academics and the insatiable appetites of consumerism are not two aspects of a single reigning cultural logic.

I find Douglas Puffert’s remarks off the mark. I spoke of immense concentrations of private capital, not state capital, and said only that the system relies upon such private wealth to a great extent. That is obviously true, since no state has the dispositive liberty over resources that an individual does, and so private investment is a necessary mechanism for a prosperous capitalist society. As for advertising, it is an industry whose principal product is desire, whether that desire is for something intrinsically good and useful or not. That does not mean that advertisements cannot often convey useful information. It does mean that, as a practice, it has immense cultural consequences, many of which (again) militate against Christian cultural values.

As for Puffert’s remarks about the choices open to industrial labor—sure (at some times and in some places) and utter nonsense (in other times and places). All I ask of apologists for the system is that they recognize the latter truth as also a consequence of globalism, and that they then ask the larger question of the compatibility of a capitalist culture with Christian values. Oh, and as for Acts 5:2, Puffert had better read the rest of the chapter as well. If that’s his argument, he clearly has not gotten the point of the story.

Costly College

Mark Bauerlein’s Back Page “A Loss of Trust” in the June/July issue was, sad to say, very accurate concerning today’s college application circus. The laws of supply and demand, as well as government interference, have borne some rotten fruit.

We are starting to realize that college for everyone may be an overly optimistic viewpoint. Inevitably, this viewpoint has increased demand and has encouraged a type of elitism. The media, several decades ago, started “ranking” colleges—first as regards academic standings and recently with average salaries to be expected for graduates. High rankings allow higher tuition and higher debt, causing much harm.

There is one fatal flaw connected with college loans. Colleges should be (but are not) at least partially responsible for guaranteeing college loans. This would act as a check, as a limit on excessive tuition increases. Instead, the government completely guarantees student loans. So colleges have little responsibility to prove their proffered education is worth the cost.

Many college degrees are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degrees, which could be done in four-year colleges with no graduate school and no research institutions. Four-year college just teaches the basics. It is in graduate school that a gifted student can blossom. In reality, STEM degrees are just vocational school degrees with a limited range of interests. A basic four-year college would have no graduate school and no research department with highly paid professors to inflate tuition. And we often forget that not everyone needs or is suited for college. That is where community colleges and apprenticeship programs can serve.

STEM education rapidly becomes obsolete as science and technology advance. Understandably, this creates an attitude of disregard for “old” thinking in technology. This attitude causes liberal education to be disregarded because it is “old,” even though it is a treasure of outstanding past thinking which has not become obsolete. A liberal education has a wide range of interests, challenging the student to think, to express himself well, to organize his thoughts, and to see reality, in total, more clearly—unlike STEM education, which channels one’s mind into a single area. A liberal education, if added to a STEM or business degree in graduate school, could greatly benefit our country, which has seen very little good thinking in government, politics, and business as of late.

While increased demand has caused problems, the government has also contributed. The Department of Education is unnecessary; since 1980, it has just been an opportunity for lobbyists and bureaucrats to interfere, to invent new regulations, to make political “contributions” to further such things as unwanted textbook imposition in a school system. We see the results.

This last example brings to mind a near fatal flaw with any law or regulation. Consider that writing a law is akin to designing a new device. The engineer would be foolish to release that new device to the market without testing it first to find any flaws and to see if it does the job as intended. Sadly, a new law or regulation cannot be tested in a similar way. All new devices and all new laws have flaws—sometimes fatal flaws. Early in the twentieth century, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the states the “laboratories of democracy,” where novel ideas and laws could be tried without risk to the rest of the country. This idea could still work but only with a less intrusive federal government. There are several effective solutions to the problems of the college registration circus and student debt. Unfortunately, they require courage on the part of our legislators. Courage, in this age of political correctness, seems to be in short supply.

Curt Lampkin
azle, texas

Mark Bauerlein responds:

The day I read Curt Lampkin’s letter, the Wall Street Journal had an op-ed entitled “Writing Off Student Loans Is Only a Matter of Time,” which cited financial data that make Lampkin’s concerns about runaway tuition sound all too modest. They include: Forty-three percent of those with federal student loans are not making payments; and one in six borrowers is in default on $56 billion in student debt.

As for college not being for everyone, yes, indeed, that’s true, and too many students only find that out after they’ve matriculated. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only around 40 percent of four-year college students graduate within six years from the school they first entered. Many of them never should have begun.

I have a wider conception of STEM degrees at four-year colleges than Lampkin does, but he’s altogether correct when he points out how the progressivist nature of the sciences can corrupt other parts of the campus, especially in its prejudice against the “old.” In the humanities, this happens in two ways. First, we apply present moral standards to past materials and find them wanting. It’s a form of arrogance that, I believe, has one of its roots in the unwillingness of twenty-first-century individuals to submit themselves to the great works and great minds of the past. And second, we turn humanities professors into research producers, churning out books and articles at a rate that ensures their mediocrity. The science model prizes the number of publications and citations. When you quantify the humanities in that way, scholarship becomes a dreary pursuit of methodological trends and hot topics.

Finally, Lampkin calls for “a less intrusive federal government.” So do I, but I have no hope of that happening in my lifetime.