Economy: Old and New
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
I’m afraid that some readers have given up on this week’s meditations by now, convinced that I hate capitalism and money and that I don’t even believe people should get paid for a hard day’s work. That’s just not true! I’m not going to say capitalism is wrong in all aspects; it does some very real and significant good. But we must be able to offer an honest critique of a system if we want to find a better way forward. In this excerpt, Arthur Simon, a Lutheran minister, deals fairly with capitalism, praising what it does well and encouraging us—especially those of us with power and privilege—to do better.
For all the good it can do, . . . free enterprise capitalism has grave defects. . . . Capitalism stimulates and thrives on our human desire to possess more, a desire that instinctively gravitates toward greed, which tends to create disparities that make some rich, while leaving many impoverished. It is good at generating wealth, not so good at spreading it around. . . . There is nothing wrong with profit if it is obtained honestly and justly and used in a godly way. But the profit motive appeals to our acquisitive nature. It nourishes greed and can make us callous to the suffering of others. In short, the genius of free enterprise is also its central problem.
Left to its own devices, free enterprise capitalism would ruin the environment and let people starve. As a result, no nation leaves free enterprise entirely on its own. Every country will devise policies that, at least to some extent, guide free enterprise toward serving the wider public good, in this way acknowledging that while free enterprise may be a remarkable engine for driving economic growth, an engine is not the same as a steering wheel.
Every one of the fifty United States offers free public education and requires school attendance at least through the age of sixteen. Despite shortcomings, that policy helps to equalize opportunity and prepare young people to participate productively in the U.S. economy. By itself, free enterprise would not do this. But the public has decided to spread some of its wealth to all citizens through education, to the benefit of everyone, including private enterprise, which is rewarded with better trained and more innovative workers and leaders. . . .
Ironically, the success of free enterprise capitalism depends upon moral values, such as honesty and compassion, that are borrowed from elsewhere. Without such supporting values, free enterprise (or any other economic system) would eventually self-destruct through its own excesses.
To work its magic for the economy, free enterprise needs plenty of room and not too many restraints. But to achieve public justice, free enterprise, like the urge to consume, needs to be tamed and guided. That requires a delicate balance, one that is endlessly debated, but which touches the central nerve of justice—not justice as an abstract idea, but as basic opportunity for children and others whose lives frequently hang in the balance.
That kind of justice is an affair for the soul for each of us. But people of means have a special obligation before God to ensure justice for those who are poor and vulnerable. With greater affluence comes corresponding responsibility to make sure that a system that has been generous to oneself is also generous to others.
Reflecting on Simon’s message, consider: How do Gospel values like justice, compassion, and generosity make their way into your economic decisions? Do they carry the same weight as your desire for material things?
Arthur Simon, How Much Is Enough?: Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture (Baker Books: 2003), 18, 104-105.
I also highly recommend Doug Lynam’s From Monk to Money Manager (W Publishing Group: 2019), another fine book on this subject that seeks to be fair to both sides of the argument; the author is a friend of mine who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.