24 November 2009

Capitalism as a Belief System

There have been a number of debates going on in the blogosphere about US health-care reform which I have been participating in over the last few weeks and quite a few of these have branched off into discussions about business, economics and social beliefs and values. In conjunction with yesterday's post on the subject of compassion and The Golden Rule, I've had a some thoughts on the subjects of "The Golden Rule, Capitalism and Health Care" which I'm going to attempt to write about in a series of posts.

In many ways, I'm still a "foreigner" here in the US and one of the things that has struck me is how much capitalism appears to be for many people in the US a belief system as well as a way of running an economy. After twenty years working in the equity markets, my own opinion is that capitalism is, historically, the least worst way of running an economy that human history has devised.

It's also my opinion however, that as a belief system, capitalism stinks. And I believe that capitalism is the number one belief system held by US society. Christians may say that they believe in the Lordship of Christ, but in actual fact we believe in the Lordship of Profits. We prove this every day by the way we live our lives.

I think that there are historic reasons for many of our economic beliefs. The rule of King George III in raising taxes in America for his own selfish empire building had much to do with establishing the idea that taxation is stealing. The right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" which is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence was almost "life, liberty and the pursuit of profit"; so this value has a 200+ year history in US society.

And, of course, the Cold War which was actually a clash of super-powers was characterized in the US as "The good and moral values of capitalism versus the bad and immoral values of socialism/communism". In US culture, "democracy" and "capitalism" are seen as synonymous by many even though they are not. In US culture, "totalitarianism" and "socialism" are seen as synonymous even though they are not. And the worst conflation of all is the idea that Christianity and the pursuit of profits (capitalism's value system as opposed to its operating system) are synonymous.

Let's be really simplistic here. Jesus said that the greatest of all commandments is "love God and love your neighbor as yourself" (basically, The Golden Rule). Capitalism says that all businesses must be run for the highest risk/reward ratio - for the highest profit. Therefore Capitalism's value system cannot be the focus of Christian behavior or of Christian ethical reasoning.

Rather than testing every social venture by the test of "Will this venture make the highest profit for the capital that has been invested?", Jesus' teachings require Christians to use the test of "Will this venture benefit the citizens of this country/State/city/county in aggregate?" I appreciate that determining aggregate social benefit is another complex ethical problem but I don't think that we can abdicate the responsibility of making that moral determination by simply defaulting to the standard of profit. "Oh, it's too difficult to decide what it means for society to 'benefit' from health-care, so let's just run our health-care system on the basis that all providers should make as much as they can from their investment."

We do already recognize that some services to society are too important to leave to individuals to either perform or to raise money for. And, historically, many of these things were once left to individuals: policing, fire-fighting and education. It's a mystery to me how we can argue that education is of benefit to society and should be paid for by taxes but that health-care is not a benefit to society and that those who cannot pay for it do not deserve it. One blogger actually compared health-care to purchasing an iPhone or a car: a luxury consumer good that one shouldn't have if one can't pay for it. That makes sense using the "lens" of capitalistic values to make my ethical judgments. If I use the "lens" of doing unto others as I would have them do to me, I come up with a whole different opinion about the value of health-care to society.


Teri said...

Right on.

PamBG said...

Thanks, Teri. It's good to know that there is one other person in the world who shares some of my perspective! ;-)

PamBG said...

BullionsInvestor with the photo of a naked young woman in your profile...I don't think so.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Pam, I've read your comments on Allan Bevere's blog, and I appreciate your thinking and perspective.

Here's what I posted at the end of the discussion over there (I actually just now read that discussion):

Good points from Rev. Roberts. And I don't believe in a forced socialism either.

However I see nation-states as akin to kings of old who were called shepherds. They were to be kings for their people, and both correcting justice, as well as justice in general were important in their administration of their domain.

Societies will be judged according to their treatment of each other. Humans do have inherent individual rights because they're made in God's image (I'm reading a good book by Nicholas Wolterstorff on this: "Justice: Rights and Wrongs"). If America guarantees the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness- then affordable health care I would think should be made available to all.

And I'm willing to pay out more and perhaps have less if everyone can have such access.

The church helping the poor is another important matter, and there will always be those in need, regardless.

On the issues now, I'm for the public option, but along with that they need to work on getting medical costs under control.

PamBG said...


I largely agree with you although I don't much like the phrase "forced socialism" which seems to make illegitimate something that I personally think is legitimate: the right of the democratically-elected government to raise taxes to fund issues that are important to society.

I take huge issue with the idea that a society which reaches a consensus to provide healthcare for all its citizens is engaged in "stealing". Perhaps this is rhetoric for the sake of making a point but there is something extremely wrong about this in a Christian context.

I have to say that, in the light of Rev. Roberts' comments overall in the discussion we had, I'm actually seriously thinking about diverting some of my tithe to the church to charities which directly benefit people who are struggling financially.

I'm really tired of the American Christian dogma that seems to translate "God loves a cheerful giver" into "God doesn't want me to give if I can't do it cheerfully" rather than "God wants me to give and he wants me to do it with joy".

toujoursdan said...

Right on.

I also have trouble with "forced socialism". "Forced socialism" has always been part of human economics, whether we organized ourselves by families, tribes or nation-states. It was expected that the strong help the weak and that everyone was included in the community. The reason banishment was such a harsh punishment in many societies is that it cut of off from that version of the social safety net.

The idea that we are autonomous and are somehow being "forced" to help each other via legislation is a very very modern concept. I suspect that many (but certainly not all) who chafe against it don't want to help others or help the "wrong" people at all.