Collect for the Ascension

Grant, we beseech thee, Almight God: that like as we do believe thy Only Begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Why I Am Not a Capitalist

This post wasn't planned. Actually it started out as a Facebook comment, replying to a reply to a reply to a Chesterton quote I'd retweeted: It cannot be too often repeated that what destroyed the Family in the modern world was Capitalism. As I was writing, and citing absurdly long, and still lengthening, passages from Chesterton's essays on Distributivism, I realized that trying to summarize this in a Facebook comment was a useless endeavor, so I decided to turn it into a Google doc. Then I realized that, since this is one of my major and animating political concerns, the blog seemed like the right place to put it. And, well, the rest is history.

I take Capitalism (at its purest) to mean the view that: first, the only persons who are or can be concerned with any transaction are the parties transacting (i.e., no others can justly have any say in the matter, even if it affects them in some immediately practical way); second, that the only quality that makes a transaction fair is the mutual willingness of the parties to engage in it (e.g., a just price means nothing more nor less nor other than a price that a purchaser consents to pay the seller, and a just wage means simply and solely the wage an employee consents to take from an employer—regardless of the thing sold, the work done, or any constraining factors on the choice). While I don’t think this view irrational, I do think it fundamentally incompatible with Catholicism in certain important ways: the Church teaches that the goods of creation were made for mankind as a whole, the universal destination of goods (cf. the Catechism of the Catholic Church §§2402ff.), hence also her persistent teaching that we have a duty to give to the poor, as a matter of justice and not only of charity (cf. Quadragesimo Anno, especially §§3-5). Accordingly, she has also taught that the good of people in general, and not only of the parties of a transaction, must be considered by the parties to any transaction, and that there is such a thing as an unjust price, notably (but not only) in the context of monopolies whether legal or effectual, and an unjust wage.

The best material of Chesterton’s that I'm acquainted with on the subject can be found in What's Wrong With the World and The Well and the Shallows. Obviously I can't quote entire essays here, but some salient passages:

Now Marx had no more philosophy than Macaulay. The Marxians have therefore no more philosophy than the Manchester School [a group of economists drawing on Adam Smith, and favoring laissez-faire and government non-intervention in trade]. ... A Philosophy begins with Being; with the end and value of a living thing; and it is manifest that a materialism that only considers economic ethics, cannot cover the question at all. If the problem of happiness were so solved by economic comfort, the classes who are now comfortable would be happy, which is absurd. —Well, pp. 97-98

This hints at my own discomfort with Capitalism, at least with all the versions of it I've encountered and been able to understand (including the Austrian ones): they in all cases seem, and in some cases explicitly profess, to divorce economics from ethics and both from the purpose and dignity of man—or at most to locate man's dignity in his capacity for economic choice, which I utterly reject no matter how broadly economic choice is defined. For in that case, those who are powerless to choose, like the unborn, the mentally ill or handicapped, and the vegetative, are accordingly robbed of their humanity, as we have seen with a horribly compelling historical logic here in the West where Capitalism has enjoyed most of its explicit triumphs. (The fact that certain prominent Capitalist theorists, including Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand—pace Deirdre McCloskey—have expressed the view that Capitalism and Christianity are essentially incompatible is, for me, a mere footnote beside that.) Any economic system that does not begin with the dignity and happiness of man as such, questions in my view inseparable from his purpose, are inherently suspect; and that accordingly requires situating economics firmly within the discipline of ethics.

I believe the divorce of economics from ethics that (as far as I can tell) Capitalism has effected as a historical fact, whether it’s intrinsic to Capitalism or not, is responsible for our incredible wastefulness in the modern era. Yes, an increased population plays a part in pollution, but pollution isn’t the only effect of wastefulness—I think our respect for good craftsmanship has plummeted as well, because, while craftsmanship makes some money, advertising makes far more. When the idea of real, objective worth is banished from things, and profit substituted for it, the decay eventually begins to show in the things themselves; for when an evil spirit hears its name, it comes.

Perhaps the shortest statement of it is in the fable of the man who sold razors, and afterwards explained to an indignant customer, with simple dignity, that he had never said the razors would shave. When asked if they were not made to shave, he replied that they were made to sell. That is A Short History of Trade and Industry During the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. … It is not true that a man whose apple-tree is loaded with apples will suffer from a want of apples; though he may indulge in a waste of apples. But if he never looks upon apples as things to eat, but only as things to sell … if he produces as many apples as he imagines the whole world wants, with the hope of capturing the trade of the whole world—then he will be either successful or unsuccessful in competing with the man next door, who also wants the whole world’s trade to himself. Between them, they will produce so many apples that apples in the market will be about as valuable as pebbles on the beach. Thus each of them will find he has very little money in his pocket, with which to go and buy fresh pears … At the root of all apple-trees and apple-growing, it is really as simple as that.

Of course I do not mean that the practice is at present simple; for no practical problem is simple … But the principle is simple; and the only way to proceed through a complex situation is to start with the right first principle. … When God looked on created things and saw that they were good, it meant that they were good in themselves and as they stood; but by the modern mercantile idea, God would only have looked at them and seen that they were The Goods. … Nobody in his five wits proposes that there should be no trade and no traders. Nevertheless, it is important to remember, as a matter of mere logic, that there might conceivably be great wealth, even if there were no trade and no traders. —Ibid., pp. 165-168

Turning from this back to the original context of the quote about Capitalism destroying the family, Chesterton proceeds to say:

No doubt it might have been Communism, if Communism had ever had a chance, outside that semi-Mongolian wilderness where it actually flourishes. But so far as we are concerned, what has broken up households, and encourages divorces, and has treated the old domestic virtues with more and more open contempt, is the epoch and power of Capitalism. It is Capitalism that has forced a moral feud and a commercial competition between the sexes; that has destroyed the influence of the parent in favor of the influence of the employer; that has driven men from their homes to look for jobs; that has forced them to live near their factories or their firms instead of near their families; and, above all, that has encouraged, for commercial reasons, a parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers. It is not the Bolshevist but the Boss, the publicity man, the salesman and the commercial advertiser who have, like a rush and riot of barbarians, thrown down and trampled underfoot the ancient Roman statue of Verecundia [goddess of modesty]. … It is done, for instance, by perpetually guying the old Victorian virtues or limitations which, as they are no longer there, are not likely to retaliate. It is done more by pictures than by printed words … Then they balance these things by photographs of the Modern Girl at various stages of the nudist movement; and trust that anything so obviously vulgar is bound to be popular. For the rest, the Modern Girl is floated on a sea of sentimental sloppiness; a continuous gush about her frankness and freshness, the perfect naturalness of her painted face or the unprecedented courage of her having no children. … When I see the Family sinking in these swamps of amorphous amorous futility, I feel inclined to say, ‘Give me the Communists.’ Better Bolshevist battles and the Brave New World than the ancient house of man rotted away silently by such worms of secret sensuality and individual appetite. —Ibid., pp. 112-113

Here of course he is speaking of the social alterations which, in this country, we associate more with the Sexual Revolution of the 60s than with the Roaring 20s (rightly or not). But the fact remains that promiscuity is naturally antithetical to the family, and also extremely profitable, both because sex sells products (whether they have anything to do with sex or not) and because industries like abortion and the contraceptive trade depend primarily, though not solely, on fornication and adultery to exist. And all this is without touching the matter of divorce lawyers profiting from the destruction of the family, which according to our Lord is also making money from adultery.

But there is another side to this, another way in which Chesterton considered Capitalism inimical to the family—not in the sense that all families would be destroyed by it, but that it allowed the family to mount no defense of itself against the crushing power of money.

I have said that the strong centers of modern English property must swiftly or slowly be broken up … There are two ways in which it could be done, a cold administration by quite detached officials, which is called Collectivism, or a personal distribution, so as to produce what is called Peasant Proprietorship. I think the latter solution finer and more fully human … I will end with one plain parable, which is none the worse for being also a fact.

A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. … Now, the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice.

… It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul) that any coercion applied to a cabman’s daughter ought, if possible, to be applied to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask why the doctors do not, as a matter of fact, apply their rule to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask, because I know. They do not because they dare not. … Their argument would be that the disease is more likely to be in the hair of poor people than of rich. And why? Because the poor children are forced (against all the instincts of the highly domestic working classes) to crowd together in close rooms under a wildly inefficient system of public instruction; and because in one out of the forty children there may be offense. And why? Because the poor man is so ground down by the great rents of the great ground landlords that his wife often has to work as well as he. Therefore she has no time to look after the children; therefore one in forty of them is dirty. Because the workingman has these two persons on top of him, the landlord sitting (literally) on his stomach, and the schoolmaster sitting (literally) on his head, the workingman must allow his little girl’s hair, first to be neglected from poverty, next to be poisoned by promiscuity, and finally to be abolished by hygiene. He, perhaps, was proud of his little girl’s hair. But he does not count. … It never seems to strike these people that the lesson of lice in the slums is the wrongness of slums, not the wrongness of hair. —What’s Wrong, pp. 191-193

I think that Capitalism perpetuates this kind of problem by its nature. Now, we may not have exactly the same problem, in this country and at this time; for one thing, our hours are shorter and our wages higher—by legal mandate, mandates obtained by political pressure and conscientious outcry, not by businessmen looking to profit. That isn’t to say that shortening hours and raising wages should or could be done indefinitely, which would be ridiculous. But consider: if the landlord can maximize his profit by renting to the poor who can afford nothing better than a slum, what is to prevent his doing so, if economics is divorced from human dignity and made to concern only human choice? if how he treats his tenants is immaterial, so long as (in both senses) they suffer such treatment? If the employer can maximize his profit by paying the poor so little that they can neither save anything up nor afford to miss their inadequate paychecks, and by working them such barbarous hours that they are too exhausted either to look for a more human employer at the same level nor acquire the skills or education to seek work at a different level, what’s to stop the employer? And what, in an economic theory where consent is the only rule and constraint barely exists (since, after all, you are technically free to abandon everything and become homeless rather than consent), is to stop any number of employers, or all of them, from maintaining a stranglehold on the disadvantaged? And what, pray tell, is all that going to do to the family?

Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, Salvador Dali, 1943

I cannot forbear to conclude with Chesterton’s own conclusion of What’s Wrong, for its sheer rhetorical beauty.

I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. … If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should have a clean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. —Ibid., pp. 193-194


  1. Universal Basic Income would break the stranglehold of the employer on the worker.

    1. It very well might. I don't feel I yet understand it well enough to have the right to an opinion; I hadn't heard of it till now, and Wikipedia's introduction to the subject is a little confusing.

  2. I was about to say, naturgesetz, and you beat me to it!

    I'm a Social Credit guy, so I believe in a type of UBI (the social dividend) as long as it doesn't come from taxes, from a "re-distribution" of wealth. The point of social credit is that we need to figure out what is causing wealth to be wrongly distributed in the first place, so that it never has to be "re-"distributed because it will be rightly distributed in the first place.

    Socialism is wicked because it, essentially, represents an attitude of Perpetual Revolution against, well, reality. Certain classes of people keep getting rich, and others keep getting poor, by nature...but we have to revolt against nature by coercive force and continually re-set what is naturally happening.

    Social Credit, on the other hand, points out that there IS obviously a wrong distribution happening, but it isn't merely some natural inevitable effect (that nevertheless is somehow wrong and has to be coercively corrected) but that there must be some flaw, must be some moment of theft or fraud that is taking place. You can't call the distribution wrong if there is no particular moment of fraud that can be condemned and enforced.

    This moment cannot merely be identified as "employers aren't paying their employees enough and being greedy." The Market Wage IS the Just Wage if those "constraining factors" Gabriel mentions are gotten rid of. People who are desperate for "some job, any job" just to meet the necessities of life...are not in a fair position to actually negotiate anything. THAT is unnatural: that labor is framed as needing and seeking jobs as if those jobs are themselves a commodity! When really work is a good that labor is selling, and employers are the buyers! But when you tie even subsistence to employment the dynamic is reversed. If people had their Basic Income guaranteed, the market wage would be fine.

    In this sense, I am opposed to Minimum Wage laws because they affirm a broken system. First, Minimum Wage does no good to people who aren't already employed! Second, it re-affirms the paradigm that people's only income, most people's basic primary income needed for even subsistence, must come from employment. In reality, the motive for seeking wages should be mostly "supplemental," not necessity.

  3. So what is the moment of fraud causing the bad distribution? It's usury. Look into our monetary system. It's not the market that's the problem, it's the way MONEY is born. There is all sorts of obfuscation to hide what is really going on. Usury isn't, in the modern incarnation, just "charging interest on loans." That can be fine if you really loan from deposits. Rather, I'd say the general moral definition of usury is "Privately profiting from a social good."

    Social Credit's position is that Credit itself is by nature a social good (depending as it does on the existence of the entire society/civilization). Bankers monetize credit for a profit, even though that profit should accrue to ALL of us, because credit is social and belongs to all of us.

    Look into it. Bankers basically loan money into existence out of nothing (more technically, they monetize debt/credit) and then demand interest on it, even though they haven't actually DONE anything of value. It costs them nothing (reserve requirements are an artificial imposition).

    Basically, Social Credit would say, contra socialism, that only ONE industry needs to be socialized/nationalized: finance itself. The industry of credit/money creation. If that was recognized as social, with all of us deserving our dividend from its fruits, the actual production of actual goods and services could and should remain thoroughly free-market.

    Social credit's main mechanism isn't actually the social dividend, even, it's a price rebate to make sure that society is able to buy all the value it produces without going into debt. (Think about it, all work/production adds value. It costs A to produce goods worth A+B...but the production process only distributes A worth of goods, so the "gap" is filled with credit, by putting society collectively into debt! This principle is proven by huge national debts and such. But social credit would say "If the goods actually exist...then obviously we had the means to produce them, so in what sense are we 'living beyond our means'???"...the debt, like inflation, is a pure "engineering flaw" in the way the monetary system works!"