A System of Greed

As a Christian Libertarian, a question that often gets asked is why I would prefer capitalism (the system of greed) over socialism (the system of giving nice things to everybody). At face value, that question makes sense. It sounds like a direct contradiction to my Christian principles.

Here’s the problem: The notion that capitalism is the system of greed and socialism isn’t, is simply untrue. They’re both based on greed. We’re talking about monetary systems here; the only reason we even have conversations about money is because everybody wants to have some, or at least have more control over someone else’s. The difference is that in capitalism, that greed translates to pursuing your own money, and then doing what you want with it. But in socialism, that greed translates to pursuing someone else’s money.

The reason Capitalism is somehow the economic system that gets a bad rap for being greedy is because it’s the system that doesn’t pretend to be something else. Capitalism correctly assumes the greed of individuals, whereas socialism incorrectly assumes the benevolence of an increasingly-powerful government. In other words, Capitalism is based on reality, personal responsibility, and the decentralization of power. Socialism is based on unrealistic ideology, shirked responsibility, and the centralization of power–away from individuals.

It’s not that capitalism is inherently Christian and Socialism isn’t. It’s that being good stewards of our finances and being generous on an individual level with what we DO have is a Christian principle, which capitalism accommodates. Contrarily, racking up huge debt and using wasteful processes in order to be generous with what we DON’T have is NOT a Christian principle, nor is it a reasonable one.

  • So, I pretty much agree with you that we should have the right to pursue our own wealth, and make our own decisions over it, based on the work we produce. I also heartily agree that decentralization of power is important—in fact, the more I think about government, and economics, the more I feel decentralization is about the most important thing there is.

    What I would disagree with, is that these are what capitalism achieves (or really even aims at, apart from lip service).

    At a fundamental level, it seems to me that capitalism is about acquiring, rather than producing. In your specific circumstance, capitalism works out (as it often does on a small scale): you produce assets, and you reap the benefits, as you should. In some other industries, particularly publishing and other industries where royalties are common, this often works out, too: largely, the person who created something of value (even if only of social value, not tangible), reaps rewards that are at least commensurate with the value they produced.

    But in our form of capitalism, more often than not, it’s not the producer of property that owns it, but an employer, and that employer frequently reaps far in excess of the value the employer contributes, while the employee reaps a fraction of the work-value they individually produced. In the case of “intellectual property”, that fraction is often vanishingly small: the “owner” of that property may continue to earn profits for decades, while the actual producer received only a small one-time payment, or an hourly wage.

    It’s that dynamic, in fact—that disparity between what capitalism is, and what it claims to be—that spurred support for socialism in the first place. The Marxist “Communist Manifesto” (nearly lost among its myriad outrageous proclamations), does at least do a good job at times of accurately damning the institutions of capitalism with exactly this point: the people who reap the rewards of work are too often not the ones doing the work. Their solution was that the workers should own the means of production (in the case of “intellectual property”, I imagine this would mean they should have (at least partial) ownership over the fruit of their own minds). They then bizarrely extend this somehow to meaning that the entirety of the people of a nation should collectively own every means (and of course, by “people”, they inevitably just mean “the government”, which solves nothing)… I’d probably stop with the workers in an individual organization owning at least a portion of their part in the organization, so that their reward is simply commensurate with their production. Why people not involved with the organization at all should also own some portion of it, is beyond me.

    One can argue that the workers entered into the hourly-wage, employer/employee relationship of their own accord. One can also argue that they had no alternatives to take advantage of, since they did not possess the “means of production” (in our age, that can mean marketing/distributorship as much as actual factories, equipment, and materials). I’d say the entire argument is irrelevant: either a capitalist system of economy provides one with the value produced “by the sweat of their brow”, or it does not. It seems pretty clear to me that it does not reliably do so in general, and therefore must abandon the claim that it does.

    As to centralization… well, there are claims that some forms of socialist democracy would be different, but at any rate most socialism we’ve seen has certainly been excessively centralized. With capitalism, clearly power is not consolidated into a single organization, but it seems to me that power is still consolidated to an unhealthy degree. Large corporations have way more power than they ought to, and as far as I can tell, the trend is for them to acquire more. Capitalism is supposed to provide the framework for everyone with an idea, to go out and reap the benefits of their invention, but as far as I can tell the usual (or at least too-frequent) dynamic is that the larger corporations in any industry will either swallow up the smaller ones (sometimes this was the whole point of founding the smaller company, but not always), or muscling them out of business (usually by means of our ridiculously broken patent laws, and the lopsided dynamics of our litigation system).

    I readily admit that I have no alternatives to propose—most proposed alternatives to the current capitalist system, including pure, traditional socialism, or variations on anarchy, either seem no better to me, or else unrealistic/impractical either to achieve or to maintain. And I’m not sure, but I suspect the path forward isn’t in replacing capitalism, but in fixing the worst of its problems. Perhaps requiring that corporations should be employee-owned to at least some degree, and fixing our copyright laws to be more author-focused than owner-focused (the idea that some corporation can stifle innovation and reap profits from a nearly century-old property that they had no hand in creating is unconscionable, to me), would go some distance.

    There are much darker things I would have to say about U.S. capitalism, but don’t have the time/energy for… yet I can’t leave without at least acknowledging them. The incentives produced by our system of economy seems tied to a long and consistent history of bullying the peoples of other nations. Our actions against the nation of Hawai’i a scant century ago, our literally militant enforcement of (grossly disproportionately) favorable trade relations with them and with most of Asia, and some of today’s continuing trade dynamics with many third-world nations, are sources of anguish to me whenever I think deeply about our form of government and economy. I suspect, but don’t know, that these may be inextricably tied to capitalism as we currently practice it, but here too I don’t feel I know enough to have competent solutions to offer. Only complaints. :-/

    • Great thoughts. I won’t respond to each of your points right now, but I agree that capitalism is certainly not a flawless system. Some of the issues could be arguably said to be part of a free market system, others are more part of a system where political power can be purchased (something I’m not sure can be eradicated in any economic system, though I think a country that adhered to libertarian ideals would be better at resisting it).

      Capitalism is the worst economic system, other than every other system.