Chapter 18: The Economic System
“Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, (and) trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth? (Amos 2:6 — 7)
In addressing the question of how we as Christians relate to wealth we must also consider the economic system itself. A lot has been written about the morality of economic systems, much of it pure bunk. There has long been a conviction in certain political and theological circles that capitalism itself as a system is to blame for much of the injustice, oppression and poverty in the world. This point of view periodically gains strength before undergoing a counterattack from those who claim that capitalism is ordained by our faith and blessed by God. Both of these views on capitalism, of course, are matched by complementary positive and negative attitudes about socialism. And all of these convictions about a particular economic system being the bane or blessing of the world involve immense oversimplification and misunderstanding. I will argue that we need to re-think and refine the distinctions we make between economic systems and also that systems do not absolve individuals of moral responsibility.
The role of any economic system is to meet the two challenges of production and distribution. The strength of capitalism is unquestionably in the production of goods and services; the attractiveness of socialism lies in its approach to their distribution. But what do we mean by these two terms, capitalism and socialism? Broadly speaking, capitalism is the economic system in which the means of production and distribution are owned by individuals and/or by non-governmental corporations, and in which production and marketing decisions are made by these individuals and corporations. Socialism is the economic system in which the means of production and distribution are owned by the state, which decides through central planning what is to be produced and how it is to be distributed. (In theory it is to be the workers who own the means of production, but so far it has always turned out to be the state.) However, there are vast differences within each of these two categories between economic systems that are nominally grouped together, greater differences than there are between some systems that we place on opposite sides of the capitalism/socialism dividing line. We will take a look at these differences below. But first we well begin by examining the case against capitalism.
The Case Against Capitalism
We have discussed the difficult challenge of living faithfully in an affluent capitalist system, and we cannot ignore the charge that this system itself is sinful. The case against capitalism rests on (1) the motivation upon which capitalism is based, and (2) the observable results of capitalism.
First, the motivation: capitalism is based on each individual earning what they can for themselves through their own efforts. It cannot be denied that this is essentially selfish. It is the profit motive that fuels the system, and this system depends on competition for its efficiencies. Compared to this, does not the socialist premise of cooperation, of working together for the common good and seeing that everyone is taken care of, seem preferable? Second, the results: in a number of capitalist countries there is a vast disparity between the wealthy elite and the poverty-stricken masses. Even in the United States of America there are notable differences between owners and workers. Can we justify this? Let us look at each of these in turn.
(1) “Capitalism is based on selfishness”
Some defenders of capitalism try to deny this. This is silly. It is obvious to all of us that capitalism is indeed based on each of us looking out for our own self-interest. We must admit that this is true. But is this wrong? Does pointing this out constitute a criticism of the system? Only if it is a practical or moral weakness for a human economic system to be based on selfishness. I am not at all convinced that it is, provided that steps are taken to alleviate any unjust hardships brought about by this.
Let me spell out my assumptions here: first, that an economic system is not an end in itself but a tool for reaching certain ends; second, that the first purpose of an economic system is to encourage adequate and efficient production, without which there is nothing to distribute; and third, that this system should also promote (or at least be conducive to) certain socio-political goals, among which are freedom, equality of opportunity, and the provision of basic necessities for those unable to provide for themselves. Therefore, if a capitalist economic system meets these goals — and I will argue that some do and some don’t — then it meets our goals for an economic system, in which case it makes no sense to complain because it is based on selfishness.
Furthermore, if we grant that people are concerned first and foremost with their own well-being — for which there is ample evidence in the world and ample precedent in Christian theology — then capitalism is only being practical in appealing to this. People are motivated by self-interest. We work harder and produce more when we realize some benefit from this ourselves. There is nothing demonic about this. And even if we wish we were different, we aren’t — this is human nature. Is there anything wrong with an economic system being realistic and practical? Might it not function better if it is?
But, say the critics, capitalism encourages our selfishness and promotes competition over cooperation. This is a serious accusation that deserves careful consideration.
To begin with, it must be stated again that so far as I can determine, selfishness is indeed a predisposition of the species. It is not caused by capitalism. Capitalism does allow more freedom for selfishness and more opportunity for the acquisitive, but some capitalistic systems also allow more freedom and opportunity for everything else as well. But does capitalism encourage this selfishness?
If we are honest we must say that what encourages this selfishness and acquisitiveness is us. You and me. It is our “American Dream”, the pursuit of materialistic possessions as our goal in life. It is our turning our backs on God and on faith and depending instead on worldly well-being for our meaning in life. For us to blame “the system” is a cop-out. For us to blame capitalism while we live for ourselves alone is to compound our sin of selfishness with the hypocrisy of denying responsibility. Pogo was right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Having said that, however, we must also admit that capitalism has produced the affluence that results in more and more temptations to us. But this is because capitalism has succeeded in its primary purpose as an economic system, that of production. Certainly a successful consumer-oriented economy encourages us to want things for ourselves. But do we blame it for its success? Ought not the question to be: “Can we as a society establish a way to complement capitalism’s success in production with a just distribution? And are we as a society up to the moral challenge of the temptations of materialism?” Indeed, these are the questions. They remain to be answered.
As for competition, capitalism — or at least “free enterprise” capitalism (see below) — certainly encourages this. But is this bad? Yes and no. Competition for business should and does encourage efficiency, innovation, improvement in products and services, and lower prices. These are certainly results to be desired. But competition also encourages an array of unethical practices to gain business and to make profits. Again, the question is whether we can sufficiently discourage the bad results while we benefit from the good results.
(2)”Capitalism is responsible for the vast disparity between the rich elite and the poor masses, and so is responsible for much injustice and suffering in the world.”
It is true that such disparities exist, in some places to a shocking and indefensible degree. It is also true that some of these places have economic systems which are called capitalist. Before we blame capitalism as such, however, we need to look at the differences between various types of capitalism and to see whether there is a particular variant of it that may be involved.
A Typology of Capitalism
We need a way to categorize capitalist systems that takes into account those differences which are relevant to our discussion. We can do this by setting up three pairs, or “dichotomies”, to consider three different aspects of any given system. Each dichotomy contains two opposing types, and while there are intergrades in the real world, this method will allow us to point out the most important distinctions. The three dichotomies are: (i) elite vs. free enterprise capitalism; (ii) democratic vs. despotic capitalism; and (iii) responsible vs. irresponsible capitalism.
(i) Elite vs. free enterprise capitalism: this first dichotomy has to do with whether the system actually functions as an open competitive marketplace. On the one side is elite capitalism, in which a few families or individuals own a large percentage of the wealth, there is a consequent absence of a large middle class, and control of the economic system is by the elite. (Not surprisingly, such systems are often also “despotic” as defined below.)
The second type in this first dichotomy is free enterprise capitalism. This is characterized by competition for the marketplace which is open to anyone who can produce the goods and services, unhindered by government subsidy, monopoly, or other interference with competition.1 For a system actually to function as free enterprise capitalism there must be opportunity for individuals in the general populace to obtain education and also to obtain access to capital and resources for new ventures. Without these there is no real access to the marketplace. Free enterprise capitalism depends on actual competition or at least the real potential for it. In elite capitalism, where a small group of families may control the vast majority of land, capital, or other resources, this openness to competition is seen as a threat and is not present.
Thus the competition and the “efficiencies of the marketplace” that are often thought of as intrinsic to capitalism are in fact present only in free enterprise capitalism and not in elite capitalism. There are many who would define capitalism as necessarily involving free enterprise and competition. If we accept this argument then we have to say that elite capitalism is in fact not capitalism at all. Instead it must be categorized with feudalism, a system to which it is in fact much closer than it is to other variants of capitalism. (This distinction should be helpful in foreign policy decisions. It is not enough to know we are supporting a non-socialist economy. Is it free enterprise? Or feudalism?)
(ii) Democratic vs. despotic capitalism: this second dichotomy is not concerned with the economic system per se but with the political system with which it cohabitates. The question here is, to whom does the government answer? Who’s in charge? Who determines what rules shall govern the society and its economic system?
Democratic capitalism is characterized by a functioning, representative government — that is, it is governed by individuals who are chosen by the populace in free and fair elections and who are then able to freely legislate and enforce such laws and rules as they deem proper. Despotic capitalism, on the other hand, is characterized by control of the government by an individual or a relatively small group such as military junta, an aristocracy or elite class, or a minority political party. It is important to note the political basis of an economic system as one of our basic dichotomies because there is a very real difference in the foundation of a capitalism in which the rules governing the system are determined by a few — rules concerning wages, monopolies, taxation, use of natural resources, government benefits, etc. — and one in which these rules are determined by representatives who are chosen by the general populace.
(iii) Responsible vs. irresponsible capitalism: any economic system is going to have drawbacks and negative effects. They all have social costs. This third dichotomy is concerned with whether a society takes steps to offset these negative effects. To the extent that it does we can call it responsible. To the extent that it does not address the known social costs of its economic system, it is irresponsible.
A capitalist economic system can encourage initiative, efficiency, production, freedom, self-sufficiency and the accumulation of wealth. A society may choose capitalism for these reasons. But when it does, it is also choosing a system which leaves some people unable to provide for themselves, whether for reasons of disability, age, industrial dislocation, lack of marketable skills, etc. For a system to be responsible capitalism, it must include mechanisms that either enable these individuals to provide for themselves or else provide basic necessities and decencies for them. These mechanisms may include such methods as unemployment Insurance, retirement and disability benefits, and anti-poverty health and welfare programs. What these various programs do is redistribute the wealth created by a capitalistic system in order to compensate those in the society who are unable to gain an adequate measure of this wealth on their own.
For an economic system to be responsible it is also necessary that it include adequate public health and safety regulations to ensure that industrial practices do not endanger employees or the present or future public welfare, and also that it provide adequate protection of the natural environment. To the extent that a society has adopted capitalism but has not put into place these measures to protect its public and to provide for those in need, this is an economic system that can only be called irresponsible capitalism.
By now it is obvious that there can be vast differences among economic systems that are all categorized as “capitalist.” The difference between one that is elite, despotic, and irresponsible and one that is free enterprise, democratic and responsible is so great as to make one wonder how they can be lumped together in any meaningful way.
We began this section with the question of whether capitalism is to blame for the unjustifiable disparity that is found in some societies between the wealth of a few and the poverty of the masses. It cannot be denied that the particular economic system in these societies at least made this disparity possible. It is much more problematic as to whether these economic systems ought rightly to be considered capitalist. But even if they were, given the great differences between capitalist systems, it does not seem reasonable to blame capitalism in general if a particular type of capitalist system encourages gross inequities.
But are not poverty and injustice present even in the best of capitalist systems? And are there not in all cases large disparities between the wealth of the owners and that of the workers?
We must admit that there are. But there are problems with every economic system devised by human beings. What we need to do is to compare the benefits and problems of actual, feasible economic systems. It serves no purpose to compare a real system — whether capitalist or socialist — with the imaginary perfection of a system which has never existed (and which never will in any manner resembling perfection).
So: yes, we must admit that capitalism does indeed permit some individuals to get very rich and others to be poor, and that even in a responsible capitalist system that ameliorates the effects of poverty this disparity exists. But we also need to remember that we said the goal of an economic system is to provide equality of opportunity, not equality itself. There will always be differences in wealth and lifestyle. The question is, does responsible, free enterprise capitalism provide sufficient equality of opportunity? And how does it compare with the alternatives?
The Case Against Socialism
We have examined a couple of the popular arguments against capitalism. Now we must take a look at socialism. I have said that we must compare real and imperfect economic systems with each other, not with imaginary perfect systems. What is the reality of socialism, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?
In theory, socialism is the ownership of the means of production and distribution by “the workers” or the people. In practice, however, socialism means ownership by the state, which may or may not represent the people. The attractiveness of socialism lies in its approach to distribution, as opposed to its effectiveness at production, and in its stated underlying principles — that is, socialism is not supposed to be based on our self-interest but on the principles of providing for everyone, of distributing the wealth in an equitable manner.
There are two principal types of socialism: “full socialism” in which the state owns all (or the vast majority) of business and industry and controls production and marketing decisions through central planning; and “partial socialism”, in which the state owns major businesses deemed to be essential to the national good, and/or subsidizes certain industries to save them from the impact of competition, and provides certain goods and services deemed to be essential at reduced or no cost, but still allows major sectors of the economy to operate as free enterprise capitalism. Both types of socialism can point to accomplishments which include (1) a vast improvement in education and health care for the general populace, to the point where the education and medical care of the poor is in some cases better than that available to them even in advanced capitalist countries; and (2) a reduction in the disparity between the poor and the rich, through supplying goods and services to the poor and also through elimination or heavy taxation of the rich.
While their accomplishments may be similar, however, the negative aspects of these two types of socialism are drastically different. Full socialist economies, without exception, involve governments that are undemocratic — “despotic”, according to our earlier definition. They are all Marxist and outside of Africa they are all communist. The social cost of their party-dominated political tyranny is immense: control of information, censorship, suppression of dissent and debate, and prison and exile for those who speak out in unapproved ways. Full socialist countries match the despotic feudalisms in tyranny while surpassing them in social services but also in the thoroughness of their suppression.
As an economic system the weakness of full socialism is merely that it doesn’t work very well at what it is supposed to do. Central planning and the lack of incentive have produced agricultural shortfalls, industrial mismanagement, shoddy products, permanent shortages in housing and consumer goods, economic collapse staved off only by Western credit, and a shockingly low standard of living in what are supposed to be modern industrial nations. These results have become so evident that even the leaders of China and the Soviet Union have acknowledged them and are currently involved in efforts to institute some of the efficiencies of partial socialism or even of capitalism. Since they are attempting to do this without renouncing their Marxist principles and without giving up the political tyranny of the party it will be interesting to see what develops here, for it seems likely they will get either less economic reform than they want or more political reform than they want.
Partial socialism is a very different matter. In the first place, economic systems which are partial socialist can and do exist in functioning democracies. And they do permit many of the efficiencies of free enterprise in large sectors of the economy and so tend to have a better standard of living than comparable countries which are full socialist. Their primary weaknesses as economic systems are (1) that subsidization of major sectors of the economy (either through ownership or subsidy) encourages inefficiency and discourages the moving of resources into new areas that may be more productive, and (2) that the high tax rate necessary to provide substantial governmental services and subsidies reduces incentive. Together these two create a real danger of inefficiency and stagnation. We need to be aware that this is not just a nuisance: if it is unchecked it can result in economic collapse.
Capitalism vs. Socialism?
When considering economic systems the question has too often been put in terms of capitalism vs. socialism. But as we have seen, the differences within each of these broad categories are such as to make the distinction between the two well-nigh useless except for propagandist arguments intended to produce heat rather than light. The similarities between democratic/free enterprise/responsible capitalism and democratic/partial socialism are so strong that it is hard to say where socialistic capitalism ends and capitalistic socialism begins. If one looks at the world it is clear that the big differences are not between these two, but between these as a group on the one hand and despotic elite capitalism grouped with despotic full socialism on the other hand. Thus the big difference is not between the United States and Great Britain, for instance, but between the U.S.A. and the U.K. on one hand and countries such as certain feudalistic Latin American ones grouped with communist eastern European ones on the other hand.
It is a sad fact that too often when we have been called upon to “defend democracy” we have in fact been defending one kind of despotism against another. The only reason a despotic capitalism should be preferred over a despotic socialism is that the former usually isn’t as good at despotism and is somewhat less difficult to change. An elite/despotic/ irresponsible capitalism (which might better be called feudalism) needs to be changed not only because of the evil it causes in itself, but also because of the even more intransigent evil it will lead to if it is not reformed. The unfortunate aspect of socialist revolutions is not that they destroy a “capitalist” system. This particular kind of capitalism or feudalism — one that allows so much human suffering as to engender rebellion, one that refuses to reform itself — deserves and needs to be destroyed. The unfortunate aspect is that all too often people exchange despotic capitalist poverty for despotic socialist poverty.
My personal belief is that democratic, free enterprise capitalism can provide a higher standard of living and more freedom than the socialist alternatives and can still be responsible in providing for those who are unable to provide for themselves. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to move from feudalism to democratic responsible capitalism. The reason for this should come as no surprise: it is plain old-fashioned selfishness. Those who have the power and wealth generally want to keep it, even if it is more than they could possibly need. So those who have the power to change the system all too often choose not to, trying to hang on to everything instead of promoting peaceful reform that would still leave them well-off and comfortable, all too often forestalling peaceful reform altogether. If the evolution to a decent capitalism is thus prevented we need to keep in mind that at least some variants of socialism would be considerably preferable to the status quo. (One has to wonder why there has not been more encouragement of democratic capitalist rebellions against feudalism. Have we so forgotten our own rebellious origins that any such enterprise is now seen as Marxist?)
To repeat: a cursory look at the nations of the world makes it clear that the important differences in social responsibility and freedom are between the democratic types (of both capitalist and socialist economic system) and the despotic types, not between capitalism and socialism as such. Therefore, if we as Christians are going to work to improve the systems in which people live — as indeed we must — then we need to avoid promoting or condemning capitalism or socialism as such. We need rather to oppose and to try to change those systems of both kinds which oppress and dehumanize, to recognize the strengths of the best systems of both kinds, and to help find ways to eliminate the inequities and ameliorate the injustices that exist in even the best of socialist and capitalist systems.
The Challenge to Capitalism
I have said that free enterprise/democratic/responsible capitalism can provide more freedom and a better standard of living — even for those who are unable to provide for themselves — than can socialism. The big question, however, is not one of ability. It is one of will. The question is whether we will be responsible, whether we can be capitalists without losing our moral fiber and our very souls.
This is the challenge to those of us who profess to follow the Christ while living in and enjoying the fruits of a capitalist system. This challenge presents itself in the form of three dangers: (1) the danger of a growing disparity between economic classes; (2) the danger of materialism, of the rewards of the economic system becoming the goals and values of society; and (3) the danger of a selfish pseudo-individualism that evades individual moral responsibility.
Danger Number One: Class Division
We must be concerned about the possibility of serious and permanent class divisions developing in our society. This could happen along the traditional lines between owners and workers, and could also develop between what we might call the comfortable and the marginal. We will take a look at both of these.
Several very important changes have taken place since socialism developed in response to the inequities of a capitalist system that allowed owners of industries to get rich while their employees worked long hours in often unsafe conditions for low pay with no health or retirement benefits. First of all, the government has responded to justifiable public concern over the years with the enactment of legislation governing child labor, minimum wage, health and safety conditions, overtime pay, and other labor practices. Second, the right to collective bargaining has been enshrined in law, and the results of these contract negotiations worked in combination with the supremacy and prosperity of American heavy industry in the mid-twentieth century to produce a previously undreamt of affluence for skilled laborers.
Third, it is no longer clear in many cases just who the owners are, with millions of shares of stock being held by the public, many by individuals but also many by pension funds, insurance companies and other investment concerns.
So, for these and other reasons, we do not now often see our society as one divided into wealthy exploiting owners and poor exploited workers.
We have also had a chance to see the reality of socialism. It does not, after all, offer an alternative to working for someone else. The difference is that in socialism the “someone else” is the state, which has the ability to be as enlightened or as despotic as any private owner, although if you don’t get along with your employer it’s harder to find a new one. It might also be noted that there are a whole set of special conditions involved when one tries to do collective bargaining with a prime minister or a general.
Nevertheless, in spite of the great advances made by workers and in spite of having seen that socialism cannot offer them a worker’s utopia or even an alternative to working for someone else, we must take note that there are still a couple of very troubling aspects to the division between owners and workers. The first problem is one of attitude: even though owners are dependent on workers’ labor, and the workers are dependent on the owners’ capital and initiative, too often both sides view their relationship as adversarial. Those companies in which their interdependence is recognized and in which people are treated with respect tend to do better for both owners and workers in the long run. The fact that this mutual respect is not as common in the United States as it ought to be remains an important underlying cause of our problems with productivity and foreign competition.
The second problem is not one of attitude but is rather a glaring and dangerous disparity that we act as if we are blind to.2 When our nation began there existed an economic democracy and equal opportunity because of the high value of labor and the availability of land for those willing to work it. This was a unique historical combination, both elements of which have long since disappeared. The industrial revolution devalued the real worth of labor and increased the productive capacity of capital. Capital is now much more important to producing wealth than is labor. A 1985 study reported that according to the Federal Reserve Board only two percent of all U.S. families Own “20 percent of all residential property, 30 percent of all liquid assets, 33 percent of all business property, 39 percent of all bonds, 20 percent of all stocks, and 71 percent of all tax-free financial holdings”.3 It can be argued that the ownership of such vast portions of our capital by so few threatens our democratic system. It certainly makes for very unequal opportunity.
But what can be done? Would I advocate a socialist approach to redistribution of capital? On the contrary, I recommend a very capitalist approach to addressing this problem. Worker ownership of whole companies or of significant amounts of stock is a real and proven possibility, with established financing vehicles and enabling federal legislation. The details involved are beyond the scope of this book, but suffice it to say that the mechanisms are in place
Some observers of the American scene would go so far as to say that we do not now have a democratic/capitalist economy but rather a plutocratic/capitalist economy. This claim is well presented by Louis and Patricia Kelso in Democracy and Economic Power,4 in which the Kelsos argue that because of the disparities in capital ownership we do not now have the equality of opportunity necessary for free enterprise capitalism, or economic (in addition to political) democracy. They argue cogently that worker ownership plans would tremendously increase our productivity and prosperity and can be brought about through methods that have already proven successful in a number of corporations.2 Additionally, they propose a number of other ways to distribute our wealth through innovative, capitalist methods. I strongly recommend this little book to everyone. Whether or not we agree with their answers, if we are to create a better economic system and avoid a serious class division we need to confront and respond to this and similar analyses of our current problems. Certainly the Kelsos’ proposals are provocative enough to spur us to find new ways of addressing our situation within a capitalist framework.
The other class division that threatens our society is a division between what we might call the comfortable and the marginal. The “comfortable” include most of our workers, the large middle class — those who have sufficient resources to afford decent housing, a new (or recent vintage) automobile every so often, occasional vacation trips, and numerous little amenities around the home. These people are also likely to be covered by health insurance and a retirement plan at work In most cases they work hard for what they have, but at least they have something to show for it: security and decencies and a lifestyle beyond the wildest imagination of their grandparents. Most of us are in the comfortable middle class, even if maintaining this comfort causes us great anxiety.
The “marginal”, on the other hand, are in a different situation. They cannot afford their own house — at least not one that you or I would consider livable — and maybe not even a decent apartment. They are either underemployed or unemployed, continually on the economic fringe, perhaps unable even to feed their families without government assistance.
The challenge of equipping and training those on government assistance is an old challenge which we have yet to meet. We seem unable to move beyond ideology of the left and the right to find out what works, and our political lack of will is condemning yet another generation to hopelessness and poverty. We must not let this happen
A newer challenge is the increasing number of people with jobs who fall below the poverty level. While there is (as always) some disagreement about the meaning of the statistics, it seems clear that the shift from traditionally unionized and higher-paying manufacturing jobs to lower-paying service industry jobs is a contributing factor to this. Whatever the complex of reasons, there are more families than before in which one or even both parents work full-time and yet they still remain financially marginal. And this situation is exacerbated by the fact that these people who are least able to afford medical bills or to set aside money for retirement are also the least likely to be covered by health insurance and retirement plans.
We must not let our society become one in which a relatively few professional, technical and managerial workers are well rewarded while the many struggle on the economic fringes, just as we cannot let our society become one in which wealth is so concentrated in the hands of a few that we lose our equal opportunity. We must confront both aspects of this problem with all the ingenuity and commitment we have, otherwise our capitalism will cease to be democratic, will cease to provide opportunity, will cease to be a supportable and defensible economic system.
Danger Number Two: Materialism
When our economic system is based on the incentive of material reward, and works well because of this, it also brings a great spiritual danger. There is a real danger that we might come to equate success in the economic system with a successful life, that we might come to identify the material rewards of the system as our goal in life and the source of meaning for us. In fact it is readily apparent in the lives around us that many people in our society have already made this grievous misidentification. And we in the churches have not done enough to make clear the difference between economic success and success as a human being.
I have already dealt at some length with this problem of money in Chapter 17. We need to understand that we cannot serve God and Mammon, that to set economic reward as our goal in life is to fail as a Christian and a human being.
Danger Number Three: Selfish Pseudo-Individualism
Individualism that is informed by integrity and compassion offers one of the great hopes of humanity, giving us the prophets and critics and dreamers which we so badly need, and giving us also the hope that some brave souls will lead us where we ought to go. However, an individualism guided instead by a desire for material gain and emotional ease is nothing more than selfishness — a heartless, sinful selfishness that exacerbates the dangers of division and materialism, eats away at the moral fiber of our society and threatens to destroy the fabric that holds us together. This is the kind of individualism that appeals to our great religious and political principles in name while turning its back on them in fact.
Individualism can be responsible. It can lead people to be concerned with the ethical implications of their actions and to accept responsibility for what they do. It can give us the ability not to go along with others just for the sake of going along, and so allow us to base our actions on what is right and what is wrong. It enables us to realize that our actions as individuals do affect others, that we as individuals can and must do our part.
On the other hand there is that selfishness which masquerades as individualism. In order to look out for themselves, this “individualism” leads people to go along with the crowd, or to acquiesce in the questionable practices of family, employer, or community. In the name of necessity, or security, or advancement, or just out of cowardice, these people abrogate their individual responsibility and take part in questionable or immoral or illegal activities because they are following orders, or because business demands it, or because if they don’t somebody else will, or because it’s the only way to get that extra dollar, or because it’s simply easier.
And this is often done in the name of individualism, of “looking out for number one”. In fact this “individualism” actually surrenders individual responsibility, giving it up to superiors or to society or to “the system” or to whoever we see as our peer group. It is a pernicious pseudo-individualism. To call it individualism is just a way of dressing up our base selfishness in high-sounding phrases.
When it comes to sharing of our own good fortune with others who are in great need, this selfishness continues to try to sound like individualism: “I take care of myself; others ought to do the same.” But this is just a further evasion of personal responsibility. All of us have benefited from our education or our upbringing or our innate abilities (for which we can take no credit). Those of use who have received any measure of success have in fact benefited from our economic system, and we who benefit from a system have a personal responsibility to assist those who are unable to benefit from it. And we who are fortunate have a responsibility to assist those who are not. No amount of posturing about other individuals’ responsibilities can remove our own responsibility here.
So in fact this pseudo-individualism — really selfishness masquerading as individualism — evades individual responsibility and by so doing sacrifices individual integrity. And in giving up individual integrity — whether for popularity or monetary gain or whatever — it gives up its right to claim to be individualism. It is after all nothing more than selfishness, the “antichrist” to real individualism.
There is an all-too-prevalent attitude which encourages this pseudo-individualistic abdication of responsibility: the blaming of individual or corporate actions on “the system.” This is done both by some who oppose the particular system and by some who support the system but oppose individual responsibility.
Now it is of course true that any “system”, any society or culture, will encourage certain ways of acting, both good and bad. It is true that some systems produce such horrendously ill effects that we are obligated to try to change them. It is also true that we must work hard to ensure that the laws which govern our own system protect the public health and welfare and provide aid for those who cannot make it on their own. Nevertheless, while this concern about systemic effects is absolutely necessary, in very many cases to blame “the system” is both whitewash and hogwash.
Decisions are made and carried out by individual human beings, acting alone or in groups. Whether it is a technician or company president, janitor or engineer, sales team or board of directors, each of the individuals involved is responsible for his or her actions to God. If any of these people make or carry out a decision to cheat or to steal or to pollute or to do something that threatens health or safety or the public good, they cannot escape their own personal moral responsibility by pointing to the corporate structure or the capitalist system. Those individuals are not robots; they have a choice. Those who choose loyalty to money or security over loyalty to God have sinned. They are personally culpable. It is time we quit excusing individuals because of “the system”. The sooner we do, the sooner “the system” will quit producing some of its bad results which are after all nothing other than the cumulative effect of individual actions.6
These are the dangers that constitute the challenge to democratic capitalism: class division resulting from an inequitable distribution of our society’s wealth; the spiritual emptiness of materialism; and the selfish pseudo-individualism that avoids personal responsibility. The challenge is not to an impersonal system. The challenge is to us — to you and me — the individual citizens who make up this system. Through our individual decisions on how to live, what to spend our money on, who to vote for and which policies to advocate, we will determine the nature of this society. We can’t blame it on a central planning committee or a ruling elite. It’s up to us.
If we accept our individual moral responsibility, if we are careful about how we use our money and how we share it, and if we make sure to extend our caring about others to our political and economic system, then we will be able to make this a capitalist economy that does what it ought to. But this will not be easy It requires hard work. It means attentiveness and diligence and an openness to new ideas and new methods, for we must find ways to open the system to all.
If we are self-centered, if we act out of concern only for our own wealth and privileges, if we do not share as individuals and as a society, then we are sinful. And not only that, but we will find that we stand in risk of losing this system which we claim to value so highly. If this comes to pass — if we lose our capitalism and our freedom because we could not (or would not) make it work for the benefit of all, because it collapsed under the strain of class division and materialism and unrestrained selfishness — then we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
1. Regulations establishing such things as a minimum wage, safety standards and pollution controls apply equally to all parties and thus do not interfere with competition.
2. I am indebted for the background to these three paragraphs to Louis O. Kelso and Patricia Hetter Kelso, Democracy and Economic Power: Extending the ESOP Revolution (Ballinger Publishing Company, 1986).
3. Grey Matter, “Auditing American Affluence: Are We Really Getting Richer?” (New York: Grey Advertising, 1985), pp. 5 — 6. (Quoted by Kelso and Kelso).
4. Kelso and Kelso, Op. Cit.
5. We refer to true worker ownership with advise and consent powers, not the pseudo-ownership plans sometimes used to facilitate management buy-outs of corporations.
6. We can take some comfort at the fact that finally, toward the end of the twentieth century, prosecutors have begun applying criminal statutes to corporate officers who make decisions that (for instance) cause death or injury to a worker or to the public, and charges brought against these individuals include manslaughter and homicide charges. This should have a salutary impact on people recognizing their individual responsibility.