This is such a funny picture, I had to blog about it. I’m afraid I don’t know whom to give credit to for the photo, but they are obviously a genius. There is great wisdom in it, I believe. So, what did Jesus value? Does that matter? Can one live a life of value and chase down the almighty dollar? In a word: is capitalism ethical? Here are some questions to consider when comparing capitalism to its alternatives: socialism, welfare statism, egalitarianism, communitarianism, and social democracy.
Ethics is the study of proper behavior. It can clarify (though not with scientific or “capital-T Truth” levels of accuracy and surety) what is right and wrong. We can measure how a given behavior, act, or even lifestyle will affect others. For example, is it right or wrong to be an ardent follower of capitalism? How should society be arranged economically? What is fair and what is just? Basically, is capitalism ethical?
The answer is: it depends. Capitalism is an economic system that involves a market where goods and services are bought and sold, and excess demand creates the potential for profit, and excess surplus reduces it. Property belongs to individuals and the State cannot take it away without cause. Corporations are obviously a large part of the system, but they weren’t always. A marketplace – like with jars of fish and rope and mirrors – is a marketplace, to state the obvious. If you have a huge supply of chickens, chickens aren’t going to go for much. In situations like in the old Soviet Union, where goods were rare at times, they go for a premium. Clearly, certain individuals will gain expertise and strength in this kind of system, and being human, they can be real assholes in the process. Though, not necessarily.
In answering the question, is capitalism ethical?, we must look at critics and alternatives. Socialism is an economic system where the production of goods and the availability of services is much more horizontal if you will. It can, but doesn’t need to, involve the government owning some or all of the means of production. Socialism ranges from Soviet Communism (i.e., big powerful central government, and a lot of forced equality) to a type of system where things are basically shared rather than accumulated. Imagine you had a big pie. If a strong and intimidating individual wanted to throw his weight around, he could eat much of it, hoard much of it, and dole out the rest according to the power dynamics present.
However, it is also possible to say, “OK, we have a pie here that can provide 100 of us with dessert; how shall we divide it? I know! How about evenly?!” 100 servings, 100 people – it seems obvious. If the power dynamics are such that the biggest, strongest, and most violent don’t get to manipulate everyone else and get their way. Alternatives and hybrids of state socialism (such as Russian Communism) include “small-s” socialism, welfare statism, egalitarianism, communitarianism, and social democracy. Worker-owned co-ops, for example, are not a natural product of modern, “crony-capitalism,” but involve elements of both laissez-faire capitalism and more communitarian principles.
The message of Jesus, in part, was that of “good values.” He had morality deeply embedded within his being. Well, at least from the apocryphal point of view, the mythological perspective. He looked at the Roman Empire, which was a very vertical economic system, and the “money changers” in the Jewish temple of Judea (where the powerful Hebrews hung out) and criticized it as immoral and not based on the values of love, justice, charity, goodness, peace, and so on. He offended them so that the killed him – like they killed many decent or innocent people of the time. Pontus Pilate was proximally responsible, then Rome, then the Jewish elders who wanted to have a powerful and remunerative position in regard to Rome. Jesus was a fly in the ointment. They chose money values over life values, as Kevin Danaher would say.
In answering the question, is capitalism ethical, I think we would have to conclude either a) Jesus wasn’t really in a capitalistic system per se, so the question isn’t valid; or b) Jesus wouldn’t approve of modern American capitalism based on Adam Smith and others because it is unethical at its core.
The wisdom inherent in having a kind of socio-economic system that rewards work, inventiveness, creativity, and investment is clear. However, we live in a system where capitalism has run completely amok. It has virtually ruined politics, the planet, and many peoples’ lives. It’s a disaster if you’re not one of the .01-to-2% of persons who are the luckiest, hardest-working, more fortunate, most successful. The question is, is socialism in general (forgetting the totalitarian and cronyism inherent in the empires that utilize it) more moral, more ethical, and wiser than capitalism? How about some kind of fusion of the two, such that work and ingenuity are rewarded, but within certain limits.
One of the best ways to determine is capitalism ethical? is through an idea created by John Rawls to determine what is fair and just. He was a moral philosopher of some note who wrote a very influential book in the ’70s entitled Justice as Fairness. It’s a deep idea, but basically it refers to the concept of justice – trying to define it. It postulates a fictitious “original position” which is more or less this: Imagine that, well prior to any social experiences, people got together and tried to decide what social rules and situations should be in place when we take our places in the world. Like, almost like a jury chambers – you sit around and discuss, and then when you’ve decided, you present your ideas to the judge and he/she makes them the rule or the judgment. So, based on the way society is now, people would have been sitting in a room and have decided: “Why don’t we make society a partial meritocracy, and have unlimited opportunity to achieve wealth and power for maybe 2% of us, with .1% of us really wielding it, and then let’s have a relative lack of social justice and equal opportunity for the poor, the dumb, the unlucky, etc. If you make it big, you can run roughshod over others – over the whole goddam planet if you wish— and if you don’t make it, well, there will be a couple minor stop-gap mechanisms, but nothing much. Survival of the fittest. Let’s call it “crony capitalism” because who you know makes a big difference. It’s not a true meritocracy, or even, true unfettered capitalism. Ok, break!”
The question is: will it lead to justice? Will it be fair? Would a rigorous type of capitalism result where the strongest get the most pie? Or a kind of socialism where everyone is expected to participate faithfully and get a fair reward for doing so. True, those who are at the top of the food chain now like the crony-capitalistic system we have — they can live bi-coastally and have a private jet and hire and fire at will and force themselves sexually on less sophisticated women (e.g., Cosby). Those at the bottom don’t like it. Thus, those with power would want society to be as planned, and the 85% with less would not. Then, it gets enacted and everyone takes their place.
However, here’s the catch: roles are assigned randomly.
You get to reason ahead of time what you want society to look like, but you don’t get to know if you are going to end up here, there, or where. It is predicted that very few will choose, rationally, to subject themselves to this kind of arbitrariness. It wouldn’t be worth the risk.
However, that is essentially what society IS like. Thus, most people live in what could be considered, by definition almost, unfair. It’s fair in that there is no GameMaster controlling our every move, but it is true that if you are raised in such and such a family in such and such a city with such and such income going to such and such school, being of such and such physical appearance and physical constitution, you are starting the marathon of life well behind the Astors and the Bushes of the world.
Rawls believes that under such strict circumstances, no one would choose to let the chips fall where they may, and thus, they would choose a much more ‘horizontal’ method of structuring society. It is theorized that if everyone had to make a rule not knowing how they were going to end up, society would be a lot fairer, just, and compassionate. Though no one would get to own a 300’ yacht or travel into space, everyone would have certain opportunities and justice such that everyone’s lives were decent. Yes, some would still become the cream of the crop due to special abilities and luck, but no one would be automatically enfranchised.
Well, there you have a quick and dirty summation of [the definition of] justice [construed] as fairness.
It’s basically the opposite of the axiom: “The word ‘fair’ is never used by those who give, only by those who take.” That claims that only those who are disenfranchised or unlucky or unsuccessful or unprivileged would point to the man in the nice suit, beautiful arm candy, and the Bentley and say, “Not fair!” However, the question is: is the fact that some people have x and others have y — the fact that some start the race back here and some start it up there— fair per se? A meritocrat or laissez-faire capitalist tends to answer “yes,” but that has a lot to do with the fact that they occupy such and such position in this society, already having known their position. If they had to decide a priori, if they knew not where they would land, would they take the chance that they had “the right stuff?”
Bottom line: ask yourself this. What is the fair way to divide a pie? How about: the strongest person of a group of equally-deserving persons gets to cut the pie, but he or she chooses a piece last. That is fair.
You are invited to listen to one of four podcasts about economics, progressive economics, economic justice, capitalism, socialism, and so on. In many ways, the interviews I conducted with expert economists, social critics, and political thinkers is: Is capitalism ethical? Is the free market economically just and fair?
Here is a piece about the question: Is capitalism ethical? It is in the form of a brief debate.