Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Is Capitalism a Belief System?

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Is Capitalism a Belief System?

Article excerpt

Are capitalist markets shaped by beliefs about the fundamental character of human life and its moral values and ideals? If the answer is "yes," one can make a normative evaluation of such markets. One can ask whether the principled beliefs - beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad - that purportedly inform capitalist markets are correct and, if they are, about tile degree to which capitalist markets actually manage to conform to them. In particular, theological beliefs about human nature and about how humans should live become pertinent to the normative evaluation of capitalist markets. Religious people on theological grounds can assess the respects in which they are good or bad and suggest ways to make them better - more ethical, humane, and conducive to die common good.

To answer "yes" is to assume that capitalist markets require moral justification, and that they are therefore, in principle at least, neither essentially amoral nor necessarily immoral. The current global dominance of capitalist markets - the simple fact that they blanket the globe - is, to begin with, no argument in their favor. Alternatives exist to capitalist markets. Not all societies have been or are presendy organized around the production of goods for sale in markets of a capitalist sort, where the supply of goods produced and the demand for them find their regulation by way of an impersonal pricing mechanism.

For example, at other times and places and even now within certain sectors of our society - notably in some impoverished urban areas1 - economic well-being is determined in the main by whom one knows and can enlist to do unpaid favors. Those who help you expect, apart from any specifiable contract or overt calculation of possible future profit, to be likewise helped for free, eitiier by you or by someone else, at a later date. Economic well-being is determined here by the extent of one's social ties and by one's social standing within them and not by one's purchasing power. The social assets tbat make for economic well-being are determined not so much by privately accumulated wealth, as by the favors one has already done, with apparent lack of self-concern, for others.2

Capitalist markets are not inevitable, then, but optional artifacts or institutions of human construction that, because of that very fact, require a reason for being. They deserve to exist only to the extent they are good or valuable. Whether capitalist markets came into existence by deliberate planning or not - through political policies designed to free up markets (from, say, traditional social constraints) or through haphazard piecemeal processes (in response, say, to increased population density) - their right to continued existence is to be judged by rational criteria, according to die good tiiey serve and further.3 Such a demand for reasons is fully in keeping with Anglican principles. As Richard Hooker maintained, God acts for reasons; and therefore the fact of anything, even were one to believe it mandated by God, does not exclude the propriety of our asking why God so mandated it: for what good reason?

In the second place, capitalist markets cannot avert normative evaluation by claiming value neutrality. A capitalist market is not simply an amoral technical apparatus for allocating resources, one that leaves completely open what human beings want and judge to be of value to them. A capitalist market is not merely a morally neutral means to ends that alone require normative assessment. It is not simply a way of getting efficienti}' from others, at the least possible cost to oneself, whatever it is one decides one wants, given the values one holds. Capitalist markets always have the potential as well to become die organizing center of human fife - a potential realized all over tbe world today - and in that capacity, by virtue of forming one particular way of life among others, invite normative evaluation. The market constitutes a certain manner of living that displaces and uproots others, often through a great deal of social disruption and cultural and normative disorientation of what preceded it. …

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