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Sunday, November 6, 2011

And Here Comes Capitalism - Take Two.

  For those of you who are keeping score or who are possibly trying to make a convert out of me (love and appreciate the attempt by the way, if you think you are right about something, the nicest thing you can do is try to show me the truth you have found), the mission is not yet a success. I am still a pretty hard-core free market capitalist. A big part of that is probably the fact that I haven't yet heard (or read) a response to my "it is immoral to force people to spend their own money in a particular way" objection. Still waiting on one -really- so that I can at least be in dialogue with someone about it.
  In the mean time I though it might be worth recording some of musings on the strengths of free market capitalism in a modern liberal society and why it is that I think more and more good people find themselves against capitalism these days. I have been re reading The Abolition of Man recently and it occurred to me that we (the western world in a terrible over-generalization) used to combat the major flaws of capitalism in a way that is, at best, only minimally effective in modern culture. It used to be that the average westerner held two particular views in regards to the use of their financial (and material) resources: A) that their stuff was their stuff; only they have a right to decide how to spend it so that if anyone else tried to force them to use it in a certain way they would be justified in being offended, outraged etc... B) that they ought to be generous with their resources, help those less fortunate than themselves (especially their friends, family and neighbors) so that generosity and concern for people in need was a basic part of being a decent person.
  The result was a worldview which protected societies (in theory and at least sometimes in practice) from the worst impacts of a purely free market system. If people view charity (in the middle-old sense, "giving resources to the poor") as each persons duty, then the poor will generally be kept from starving.
  But we can't teach that any more. Back in the day, this moral obligation to help the poor was taught as just that, a moral obligation - usually a religious moral obligation. Today we don't teach children that they have any moral obligations other than tolerance (and something akin to but not quite the same as non-violence). We tell them that everyone has a right to their opinion and then we tell them that all statements of ought or moral sentiment are statements of opinion. And once we have taught them this moral subjectivism, a lesson they pick up with alarming speed, they are almost perfectly defended against any appeals we make to some duty of charity. We have already told them that they have a right to define their own moral code, thus we lose all right (in their minds) to tell them what that moral code ought to look like. So charity becomes a matter, not of moral obligation, but of pragmatic utilitarianism.
  This, by the way, is why I think so many older movies are popular as left-leaning films simply because they contain the message that the rich ought to be generous with their wealth. But that is not a socialist message, that is a capitalist message. It is the capitalist who says "the rich have a right to their riches and a responsibility to do the right thing with them. The truly evil man is the miser who has great wealth and does not use it for the good of his neighbors". The socialist thinks of the rich man as un-deserving of his treasure and insists that it be stolen from him and used to make the middle class feel better about the suffering of the poor.
  Now, the average schoolchild's reaction to poverty is not "I had better do something about that" but "that makes me feel bad so some thing ought to be done about it". Do you see the difference? In the first case, the problem demands concrete action (generosity) on the part of the individual. In the second it demands action on the part of "society".
  That is why I see it as only natural that good people, people who happen to care about the poor, the mistreated, the abused, are trending more and more towards socialism (not all have gotten there and I see no great shame in being a socialist - though I think that it is a very bad economic and political system). These are the people who want the problem fixed and have noticed that nobody is standing up to fix it. In short, socialism is on the rise because the free market capitalists have forgotten their moral duty.

  I believe that being truly moral (something I would still like to be) means not breaking either of two principles. I must not let other people suffer if I can do anything about it and I must not steal, even from those who can afford it, to alleviate the suffering I see around me. Being a free market capitalist means taking responsibility for my fellow man, not because the government forces me to but because it is the right thing to do. A socialist society is a society which does not provide it's citizens with as much of an opportunity to learn to be good; because it is a society with less freedom, it is a society for rule breakers (in Blue Ocean terms - socialism is a good system for a stage 1 society which needs rules and the threat of violence to make it be good). A capitalist society is an audacious experiment in free will. A wager that given the necessity, the rich will voluntarily give of themselves to feed the poor. Let us pray that the experiment does not fail.


  1. Bill, I'm not a free-market capitalist yet, just like you aren't yet converted away from the idea, but your essay does a lot to soften my normally negative reaction to wanton (oops, I mean free-market) capitalism. I guess because your appeal to the capitalist (and all of us) to reclaim our moral duty to care about and for those around us (this takes the "wanton" out of "free-market"). I really like your sentence, "socialism is on the rise because the free market capitalists have forgotten their moral duty." I also like your suggestion that a better response to poverty and oppression is not, "they had better do something about it," but rather, "I need to do something about it." Responsible and free is a good combination. I'm praying and working toward both with or without the capitalist component.

  2. I haven't yet heard (or read) a response to my "it is immoral to force people to spend their own money in a particular way" objection.

    While I am far more a conservative than a socialist, I have a real problem with your formulation. Where does anyone get such a clear title to his own "stuff" that he has a right to withhold it from those in need? Is it not a serious moral problem to keep what another really needs? In what way is keeping something that God intends to be given to another NOT a form of stealing? If law can be used to prevent other forms of stealing, why can it not be applicable here? Does Caesar have responsibility for those under his governance? If he can prevent citizens from murdering one another and from stealing one another's goods, can he not prevent citizens from hoarding goods to another's detriment?

    I agree that a MORAL capitalism is an efficient way to create wealth to the ultimate betterment of all, but I cannot envisage a truly moral capitalism being practiced by a fallen humanity. The acquiring of wealth often (I believe,usually) tends to result in an acquisitive attitude and a close holding of what has been acquired. Ideally those with wealth would be motivated to share it with those in need. Sometimes this does occur to lesser or greater degree, but almost never to the extent of real need. When there are unmet needs, those who are able to help and do not are morally liable. When their liability results in injury to others, what is immoral about redressing this liability by legal means?

    Am I asserting that government has unrestricted right to take such action? Far from it. Socialism fully implemented is equally reprehensible.

    As between Capitalism and Socialism, I will always maintain that the proper question is never one of either/or, but rather that Scripture, Tradition, and Natural Law all require an answer somewhere in the realm of both/and.

    I agree entirely that "they should" is far inferior to "I must" -- but, as a poor man myself, unable to do much to remedy the situation directly, I still can't escape the obligation to do what I can -- and what I can do is to encourage the law to do what the rich should do and are not doing.

    1. Right, so my difficulty in responding to you (thanks for the thoughts by the way, I had nearly given up on getting a response to this post) lies in the fact that I come pretty close to agreeing with just about everything you said. I suspect that our disagreement lies in your first paragraph where you ask what gives a person a right to their "stuff". I am happy to grant that God has allowed the rich to get all that stuff so that they can use it as He would direct. But I would add that He has given in to them as an opportunity to make the right decision. It would therefore be wrong for anyone, including government (which, at the end of the day, is only a bunch of other people) to take that decision away from them by force.
      To put it in classic religious terms, the rich may well indeed be sinning, but that does not give us license to sin by forcing him to do what we think he ought. Those would be the actions of a theocracy.

  3. I also need to take serious issue with any characterization of taxation as 'stealing'. The right to tax is essential to the operation of any government. It is even arguable that a government has a moral obligation to tax. When Jesus was asked whether it was right to pay taxes to the foreign occupying power, he refused to condemn doing so. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."

    If the principal purpose of government is to protect people against each other, I would strongly assert that a part of that is to protect the poor from the power of the rich. It is NOT stealing to tax the rich for that purpose (although some manifestions of that may be bad policy -- that can certainly be debated).

    1. It strikes me that "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" leaves open the questions "yes but what is actually Caesars?" in fact in your last post you were asserting that all money is really God's and not Caesar's at all.
      In addition however, I would point out that the NT was written in the context of an essentially Monarchal system whereas we now operate in a representative semi-democracy. As a result, where political authority in 30 AD Palestine rested with a single individual, political power in 21st century America is divided between all enfranchised citizens. As a result the decision to increase taxes can be broken down as follows:
      1. We want more money
      2. We decide who to take that money from
      3. We pass a law to take that money from those people.
      4. If they refuse to give us that money we send certain representatives to punish them for it.
      5. If they still refuse to give us their money we try to take their freedom.
      6. If they try to prevent our representatives from taking their freedom, we take it by force
      7. If they resist our freedom taking agents with force of their own, we allow our agents to kill them.

      This seems to be stealing. The Government takes what it did not contract for and it takes it by virtue of the ultimate threat of violence.

  4. Well, that argument might have some merit if one were attempting to make the case that all taxation is always wrong. After all, all taxation is ultimately, as you point out, the taking of money under the threat of force. All government, for that matter, involves the forceful restriction of liberties of those who have not contracted to follow its laws, and the enforcement of that restriction under the threat of violence, what St. Paul calls the power of the sword. There is no way of protecting citizens from one another, or, indeed, of protecting citizens from outside threats without doing so, and Scripture is very consistent in recognizing that, in a fallen world, this is indeed the purpose to which God has called government. Unless ALL taxation is stealing, and ALL government therefore illegitimate, taxation is not, in itself, stealing.

    When Jesus, at least implicitly, refused to condemn paying taxes to Caesar, he was refusing so to label a tax that I would be tempted to characterize as stealing. It was the tax imposed by an invading power that many or most citizens did not consider legitimate - a tax imposed against the popular will, and used in order to enforce a repressive regime. Is a democratically imposed tax intended to reduce repressiveness less justifiable than that?

    Back up to your point #1. "We want more money". You'll have to do better than that for a starting point. Why do we want more money? Is it simple acquisitiveness? Or might it be a desire to restrict the power of those who use money to oppress? I'm not answering that question, but raising it. Can we rely on "enlightened self interest" to guarantee that great wealth will not be used for the short term exercise of naked power? Is it not possible that at least some billionaires will get pleasure from using their economic power to hurt those of lesser means? Has a democratic regime no right to protect its citizens from this possibility? I think that these questions are as valid in our current systems an=s in any of the various despotisms of the ancient past.

    Ultimately all government is the balance of very flawed powers, of the striving of various sin-infested elements against one another. The majority will sin. Every minority will sin. The rich will sin. The poor will sin. Their interests will at least seem to be out of accord. Ultimately, we need to be protected from one another, and that in itself will never be done right, but, at least often, a lousy job can be better than no job at all.

    Well, all that rambling is just to say that we just have to do ouir best, fully aware that our best will never be ideal or anywhere near ideal.

    1. OK, let me go backwards in my response: Maybe our disagreement is rooted in degrees of idealism. I cannot yet accept that we ought to allow a bad system. That is I do not see evil as a necessity. Which would seem to flow back up the chain to several of your other objections. I did not elaborate on my starting point "we want more money" because I did not see the need. From my perspective, it doesn't matter if I am going to use the money to fund a kitten killing factory or cure AIDS. The ends cannot justify the means no matter how terrific or heinous those ends may be. Thus if stealing is wrong, it doesn't matter how good the reason for stealing.
      I am primarily against property and income taxes. I actually believe that various business taxes and tariffs are perfectly legitimate since they are a valid charge for the opportunity to bring certain goods into or out of an area under the control of a given government. If I own a street, I am well within my rights to charge someone to drive on it, if I am the representative of a country, I am within my rights to charge for the protection I provide so long as those conducting business are free to choose whether or not to do business here. I'm not saying that tariffs are a particularly good economic idea though, just that they are legitimate.
      Finally as to your observations about Government. The difference between a democracy and Caesar in this context is that Caesar was responsible for his decisions and I am (partially) responsible for the decisions of my government. Hence I think that what Caesar was doing was wrong and I don't think that I, or the Church, ought to do it. That said, I also think that we are told to obey the Government regardless so long as it does not order us to violate our higher allegiance to God's kingdom; which is why I pay my taxes i.e. allow the government to steal from me.

  5. I have serious trouble carrying on a conversation with someone who insists on the strongest and most negative words. I cannot see taxation as stealing any more than I can see a sale price as stealing. There is just taxation or pricing and there is unjust taxation or pricing. In both cases the latter could be characterized as stealing, but even there so labeling it is judging the case before it is prosecuted. If we can't discuss the issues without resorting to such extreme language, there's no point in making the attempt. Communication will be destroyed before it is begun. If 'stealing" is to be your only frame of reference, I see no purpose in continuing.

    As for me, I pay my taxes because Scripture recognizes the right of the ruler to tax and the obligation of the subject to pay (and there is no other Scriptural category in such natters than 'ruler' and 'subject'). If I have some say in what taxes are to be exacted, then it is perfectly correct to take my place as a ruler insofar as the system permits, but when my say has been exhausted, it is as subject that I pay. Always, of course, remembering that I cannot ultimately violate my higher allegiance to God.

    As to kinds of taxes, well, I don't think your distinction holds. OT law is full of income taxes, as distinct from service fees. Tithes and firstfruits were paid out of one's income to both the Temple and (under David) to the monarch. And why are you against property tax? It would appear that you believe in some sort of absolute property right. Scripture does not support such an idea. It is true that we receive stewardship over 'our' goods, and that using these goods to earn or produce wealth is good and proper (whe it is moral), but the OT makes much of the year of Jubilee, making it clear that property rights are temporary, that ownership will end. Does a man own the land? Or does the land, perhaps, own its inhabitants? I think a real study of Scripture comes to some place between those extremes, but at any rate that society has a right to claim a part of land's proceeds.

    To me, the crucial question is as to what taxation is truly proportional to the need, and does not rest too oppressively upon those being taxed.