Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Capitalism & Virtue

Every so often (especially near election time) one hears talk about whether there need to be "programs to mitigate the harsher aspects of capitalism" and some assertions that, "a strictly capitalistic society is not a Christian society".

I try not to be one of those people who insists on using terminology in non-standard ways because "that's what the word really means" -- and yet I can't help feeling that when one hears this, one is experiencing a mis-use of the term "capitalism".

Capitalism is generally defined as that economic system in which "the means of production" are owned by individual (and corporations) rather than by the state or by society as a whole. People generally assume that if you own the means of production, there are therefore justified in setting the price of the goods produced, and so capitalism is also generally seen as involving goods and wages being at "market price" rather than at some agreed price decreed by the state or by society.

So, what exactly are the excesses of capitalism? Well, they're cases when the people or corporations who own resources use that power to treat over people badly. Or where people who own resources ignore the plight of others who are suffering. In other words, the excesses of capitalism consist of people sinning. Lack of charity.

In the end, it's not a defect of capitalism per se at all. It's a defect in people.

Capitalism itself is not a moral system. I don't mean by that that it is immoral, but that it doesn't touch on morality at all. It simply consists of people owning things, which leaves them free to either sin or not sin. Capitalism doesn't make people neglect the poor any more than evolution makes people let the "unfit" die.

So what of the alternatives to capitalism? Well, if the world's experience with capitalism underlines that people who own things often sin, the world's experience with collectivism underlines that people who don't own things sin as well. It also tends to underline that things are seldom really un-owned. Although no one may hold title to a factory or a farm, people determined to take advantage of others invariably find ways to do so.

What I think this ought to to help underline, in the end, is that we will never formulate a political or economic order that will force virtue. We do our best to minimize the ability of people to hurt others, to the extent possible without causing side effects worse than the original malady. But at root, people are the problem, and people will always be involved in any social or political reorganization. We can't achieve a utopia so long as people are in it.


Anonymous said...

Fair enough, but I would say that by the same token socialism or communism are not moral systems, but idealization that would work perfectly well if people weren't involved.

Would one could also say that checks and balances in the capitalist (or any other morally neutral system) are a legislation of morality?

I would posit that the problem, the immorality, if you will, of American capitalism is the dominance of corporate producers. If you had authentic individual producers, the system would have a more ideally regulated means of goods and wages being set to the "market price."

In addition, can we really say that our corporate-dominated society is authentically capitalist? (I know free-spending pro-war conservatives claim to be Republicans ...) Instead of a government-based socialism or communism (at least in a democracy controlled by free elections) or a loose collection of market-driven small businesses, we have human sub-societies running the show, setting prices to maximize personal or corporate gain, without the check of democracy to hold the line.

The worst of the Corporate West looks a lot like Soviet totalitarianism, only with higher costs and more media to keep people placated.


Matthew Kinney said...

thanks Darwin, excellent distinction.

I've started reading your blog rather regularly lately, so hopefully you'll be hear from me now and then.

btw, congrats to you on #4

Kyle Cupp said...

If capitalism leads to the means of production being in the hands of the few or what Belloc called the Servile State, then I'd say it poses a danger to society. Socialism is no solution, for it tries to counter the consolidation of wealth with the consolidation of power. So I see some merit to regulated capitalism, not because it's utopian, but because it tends to be more just than pure, unregulated capitalism. It may be preferable, though, that such regulation be more cultural and moral and less legal and governmental.

Darwin said...


Decent points.

My thought would be to err on the light side, in that I think that excessive centralization tends to be self correcting. (Having worked at both very large and very small companies, there's a reason why big businesses tend to stumble after a while: they just get too slow and clumsy.)

However, I think certain outside checks on business are needed. Anti-monopoloy laws, for instance.

Generally speaking, I think capitalism functions best in small units rather than large ones.

Kyle Cupp said...

"Generally speaking, I think capitalism functions best in small units rather than large ones."

Agreed. And I'd add that it works best when practiced in a culture that respects virtue and frowns upon vice. Would that we had such a culture!

Darwin said...

And I'd add that it works best when practiced in a culture that respects virtue and frowns upon vice.

Indeed, that seems to be the case for most things. :-)

Kyle Cupp said...

"Indeed, that seems to be the case for most things."

A Clinton campaign would be an obvious exception. :)

John Steinsvold said...

An Alternative to Capitalism (which we need here in the USA)

Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: "There is no alternative". She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: "Home of the Brave?" which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

John Steinsvold

Perhaps in time the so-called dark ages will be thought of as including our own.
--Georg C. Lichtenberg