A few weeks ago I published a video about why I’m not a socialist which if you’re interested in that, I’d invite you to check out, but a small minority of people who insisted that if I was going to make a video like that, I was under some obligation to make a video about why I’m not a capitalist.
I think that in at least a few cases, the challenge wasn’t mean to be an honest invitation to hear what I have to say on the topic but rather an assumption that if I’m not a socialist, then I must be a Capitalist and so by offering that challenge, they knew I would fail to rise to it.
That’s my first complaint about exchanges around politics and economics. For far too many of us, we’ve been led to believe that there are only two alternatives when considering the question of how human beings are to organize themselves in community and worse, some think that in any conversation about truth of any kind, we must pick a spot on the infallible spectrum of left and right.
And I fundamentally reject that notion. If I say I’m not a socialist, I’m not saying that I AM a capitalist. In fact, I don’t really see the two as meaningful alternatives at all. I often come back to a quote I can’t now locate that went something like, “the problem with socialism is that it concentrates the majority of wealth and power in the hands of a minority. The problem with capitalism is that it concentrates the majority of wealth and power in the hands of a minority.”
I would never say that I am a Capitalist because I think it’s degrading to place oneself in a posture of subservience to an ideology like that. The only label or category that I find doesn’t reduce us to something less than we are is Catholic because Catholic means the whole – the whole picture, the whole truth. That’s what I follow. I’m not some tool of an economic policy.
As a Catholic I can appreciate attempts to offer solutions to human problems in both capitalism and socialism, but neither of them offer a complete solution because both of them treat the difficulties of humanity as merely material which reduces us to our basic needs, like a herd that needs to be fattened and fenced in.
A movie I saw recently that I enjoyed a lot more than the critics was Passenger starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. The reason I liked it is because it raised interesting questions about what it means to be human and to have a fully human life.
The story is about a spaceship carrying a number of passengers who are in a state of suspended animation for the duration of the long journey but one of them accidentally wakes up.
He’s basically alone on a cruise ship with all the food and entertainment he could want, but his situation reminds us that having our material needs provided for isn’t nearly enough to satisfy the spectrum of that which makes a person human. So he begins to entertain the dilemma of waking up another passenger.
Now I think a lot of people think that’s the missing piece. We are an animal with needs, we have basi needs, but we also have social needs or we get lonely and depressed. But I don’t think that really captures the problem. This hierarchy of needs seems to suggest that we are mere consumers that must have our appetites satiated, including our appetite for relationship. But we don’t just need to have relationships. We need to have purpose.
We need to experience life as an amelioration of moral choices that have eternal consequences. We are moral agents and we have to exercise that moral agency and if we don’t, we become bored, restless, sterile, and malaise.
And this moral agency is best experienced and tested in our relationships with others. It’s easy to think of ourselves as patient, kind, generous, and agreeable until someone with a different temperament and different wants and preferences competes with your own.
The experience of trying to blend your life with someone else, to try to provide for someone else, and then to care for the lives that are produced through that union at the most critical and vulnerable stages of life is the most intense immersion into a confrontation with your moral
It isn’t just that we get lonely without the opportunity to have and experience relationships with others, it’s that we stop having opportunities to learn and grow as moral beings and the moral dimension of our souls decays into ruin.
Capitalism doesn’t seem to appreciate any of these aspects of our humanity or human life and if it is meant to provide solutions to human flourishing and happiness – or what Aristotle called eudaimonia, then Capitalism falls critically short of those requirements.
Pope St. John Paul II said this, “In reality, while on the one hand it is true that Capitalism shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.”
Christopher Dawson said, “Both Communism and Capitalism agree in putting economic things first and in ordering society to an economic end, and consequently they are both far more opposed to Catholicism than they are to one another.”
Chesterton had a point when he said “It is Capitalism that has … destroyed the influence of the parent in favour of the influence of the employer; that has driven men from their homes to look for jobs; that has forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families; and, above all, that has encouraged, for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers.”
And I would add that it is capitalism that turns people like the Kardashians into role models and pornography into your 13-year-old son’s new best friend.
And that’s because the aim of capitalism is profit and economic growth. It doesn’t account for the moral implications of those ends. If it thrusts highly dysfunctional people into the cultural looking glass and normalizes their abnormal lives, as long as it generates revenue, the aims of Capitalism are satisfied.
It creates compulsion and addiction to vices that premature brains are helpless to adopt before they’ve had a fighting chance to say no – when I was a teenager it was cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. Now it’s hardcore pornography and as long as someone’s balance sheet is tipped in the right direction, then Capitalism rewards those efforts.
It tells parents that the primary and necessary goal of their vocation is economic advancement and relentlessly pressures both to leave the home and work when study after study tells us that kids experience drastically better outcomes when their mother sacrifices income to stay at home with them. [i]
Now, I’m not saying these are symptoms of a Capitalist doctrine. They aren’t. They are symptoms of a culture that has bought into the belief that material wealth is our highest aim and abandoned all responsibility to address the other aspects of what contributes to true and meaningful happiness which is a fundamentally moral question.
Capitalism isn’t just a political policy, it’s a social doctrine and any social doctrine that neglects culture, religion, and morality, is incomplete at best. For true human flourishing and happiness, which should be our highest aim, we need to comprehensively respond to those challenges as well.
So what is the right answer. Well, I’d reply that I don’t have it, but whatever it is, it needs to be a complete system of thought that accounts for metaphysical concepts like truth, goodness, and beauty rather than leaving those things to the marketplace to determine and sell to us.
It needs to admit that human beings are religious creatures and as much as we hate talking about religion, our refusal to incorporate it into our political discourse is much worse than any official doctrine.
It means that agnosticism is the official doctrine which in turn treats something that is fundamental to our humanity as an after thought or not worth addressing or considering. Avoiding the question doesn’t avoid the question and in so doing we become idolaters of products, celebrities, or materialism. As my friend Dr. Ryan Topping says, if you take away people’s religion, they will dig in the dirt.
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Now, none of this is to say that socialism or disruptive regulations are the solution because those don’t address any of my complaints either and in fact, those can often pile injustice onto an already imperfect system.
Some people think the solution is to make it harder for businesses to succeed so we should put all kinds of employment regulations and tax burdens on corporations. Well, I can say from experience that that kind of thing most acutely affects small businesses.
Think about all the people out there would like to start a small business but are discouraged by the fact that it isn’t enough to be an expert in your trade or field. You also have to understand the legal ins and outs of starting a business because there are stacks of laws that you have to understand to make sure you don’t inadvertently break one.
And if you don’t know them, then you have to pay oppressively expensive lawyer fees to figure it out. Then you have to be an expert in accounting and tax codes or the government will come down on you with the full force of law if you don’t keep your books exactly how they want them. And if you can’t do that, then you have to pay for expensive book keeping and accounting with all the money you haven’t made yet.
And then you have to operate on a shifting ground as the government relentlessly changes the rules right in the middle of a game you’re already playing. And you know who does just fine in that environment. The big international corporations who have political ties and who can afford to pay for the lawyers to make sure their liabilities are covered and the accountants to find all the loopholes to ensure that they can maneuver their way through any restriction.
It’s the small businesses that get caught in those traps and, as a result, can’t afford to compete with the giant international companies.