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Capitalism and morality: goals differ

The practice of capitalism is not usually associated with the virtue of compassion. For most people, capitalism means the pursuit of self-interest and material gain.

Darwinian language about the survival of the fittest trips easily off the tongue of a good many people these days. To be sure, expanding economic prosperity does have a certain "trickle-down" effect, as conservative (actually classical liberal) economists never tire of telling those on the downside.

Most modern democracies have wisely decided not to leave everything up to the so-called free market. Providing education, public safety, national defense and even health care and housing for the poor and the elderly are understood to be social duties and not merely the province of commerce or charity.

But not everyone likes that arrangement. Earlier this month I spent two days in Jacksonville listening to a handful of economists and political philosophers talk about "Capitalism and Compassion." The seminar was sponsored by Jacksonville's Institute for World Capitalism (IWC) and was designed for members of the religious community to learn more about the spiritual wonders of free markets and material progress. It certainly left me wondering.

Michael Novak, the Catholic philosopher, theologian and political neoconservative, was the featured speaker. Last year Novak was awarded the $1-million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Such an earthly reward for religious achievement is a bit of a miracle in itself. And in an example of what some might call the "trickle-up" theory of economics, the IWC awarded Novak its $50,000 International Prize during the conference for his work in preaching the gospel of capitalism.

Novak, who was once a stern critic of American society and consumer culture, is perhaps best known for his 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, a spirited defense of democratic institutions, individual rights, private property and the connection between those classical "liberal" political arrangements and the prosperity only capitalism seems able to create.

Novak's contribution to the seminar was somewhat tangential, consisting of two public addresses and only one substantive exchange with the participants.

As he engagingly concedes, Novak is not opposed to the welfare state, to labor unions or to a role for government generally. As a theologian, he allows that the religious community takes social responsibility, the plight of the poor, and the spiritual dangers of great wealth as fundamental moral obligations _ not problems that can be resolved in merely private ways or by "trickle-down" side-effects espoused by capitalists.

Unfortunately, most of the other speakers addressing the seminar preached the most outlandish brand of laissez-faire capitalism imaginable, attributing every economic problem to government intervention, railing against do-gooders, "coercive" taxes and what one speaker called "fascist democracy." At times I thought I had been kidnapped by a cult.

Many of my fellow seminar participants were ministers or academics who taught religion. I don't think it was an especially liberal crowd. I, for one, think that democracy, capitalism and religion usually do complement one another.

But I do not think that capitalism is an infallible system. When push comes to shove, I think capitalism must serve democracy, not the other way around.

In any event, even the most inexperienced entrepreneur would have judged the IWC's effort to win over the religious community to unregulated capitalism by preaching the superiority of market transactions over all other social or moral considerations to be woefully incompetent salesmanship. With just the slightest encouragement, these apostles of "liberty" and "contract" could easily have defended the selling of body parts or worse.

If all market transfers between consenting adults are win-win situations, as we were repeatedly told, what possible objection can there be to pornography, prostitution, indentured servitude or even cannibalism?

Novak, of course, is not in danger of succumbing to the logical fallacies of such an extreme veneration of the marketplace. Still, I was disappointed by his response to questions.

When one woman asked about the skewed concentration of wealth and the declining incomes of most Americans, he blamed the media for dispensing misinformation and promoting "envy." Asked about the perceived "moral decline" of the culture, he again blamed the media and the entertainment industry.

That won't wash. Americans know that capitalism is a far from perfect system. Moreover, they know that capitalism's dependence on the ceaseless calculation of self-interest contributes directly to the "moral decline" evident in the quality of American life.

For good and bad reasons, Americans admire the rich. But most people still know that the pursuit of money is not the same thing as the pursuit of happiness or the practice of democracy.

Paul Baumann is an associate editor of Commonweal magazine, a biweekly independent Catholic publication.