Earlier this week, Samuel Gregg penned a rebuttal to aspects of David Hart's essay in the June/July issue (“Mammon Ascendant”). He drew particular attention to the limitations of Hart's account of the history of finance and the Bible's condemnations of wealth.
I'll leave aside the history of finance, something about which I'm not well-informed enough to have a right to an opinion. I can say, however, that I agree with Gregg's push-back against Hart's one-dimensional reading of scriptural warnings about the dangers of wealth. A verse in 1 Timothy reads, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Strong words, but I take them to be hyperbolic and intended to awaken us to the dangers of greed, rather than to provide a genealogy of evil. For the genealogy I look to Romans 1. There St. Paul identifies idolatry as the original sin, a judgment in keeping with the constant polemic of the Old Testament against false worship. The first table of the Ten Commandments is more fundamental than the second.
I agree with Gregg, moreover, that when it comes to contemporary global capitalism we need to move beyond caricatures. David Hart's essay traffics in some. But then again, so do many defenders of capitalism. The greatest-poverty-relief-
So, what would it mean to move beyond caricatures? I'm not sure. Over the last year or two I've lost confidence that I even know how to characterize the global economic system. When the Soviet Union still existed, we had a sense of alternatives: a planned economy or a free one. And we had a sense of the moral import of this choice. Planned economies around the world were characterized by coercion and the suppression of freedom, in the economic realm and in public life more broadly. The free economies were allied with democracy and with a wide range of freedoms.
That has changed. Socialism has shriveled and capitalism reigns. In consequence, the relation between the relative freedom of a capitalist economy to political freedom seems more opaque. China provides a signal example.
Even in the democratic West, the relation between economic freedom and our culture of freedom is less happy now. As Hart points out, late-modern capitalism whips up consumer desires. As a result, the meaning of freedom seems to be changing. Freedom today means freedom from anybody judging my desires. This “freedom” underwrites the paradoxical tyranny of political correctness. It's telling that in the last few years, the most dynamic engines of the postmodern free economy, technology companies, have put their muscle behind political correctness, using their market power to stomp on anyone who dissents from the sexual revolution.
Put more simply, the countries with the freest economies aren't doing much to promote cultures of freedom. In the United States, Catholic adoption agencies aren't allowed to function in accord with Catholic norms—though pornographers have an almost unlimited freedom. Perhaps this dissonance is just happenstance, unrelated to our economic system. Perhaps it is not.
As I said, I'm not sure. But of this I'm increasingly convinced: Capitalism—or something yet to be adequately named—has largely triumphed. The problems we face today aren't those of the Cold War. Today our problems arise from the ubiquity of capitalism. The dynamism, velocity, and mobility of capitalism are destabilizing our societies. And this economic volatility seems to be married to a cultural project, one that seeks to free all personal desires from traditional modes of discipline and limitation.
Capitalism has a marvelous capacity to innovate, create wealth, and expand prosperity. But it lacks the capacity to give people stability, solidarity, and a sense of belonging. In fact, in its current form, global capitalism seems positively hostile to these fundamental human needs. That's our twenty-first-century problem, one very different from the twentieth-century ones that did so much to shape our thinking (and rhetoric) about capitalism.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.