Does Capitalism Promote Greed?: An Interview with Father Robert Sirico, Part 2
Sometimes the effect of that misunderstanding manifests itself in the claim, "capitalism promotes greed," which seems to have moved from being a cliché to being an unquestionable fact for many. But to the contrary, you seem to say that a genuinely free society and free economy can promote charity, selflessness, kindness.
In the first place, greed is defined as inordinate desire, and it is not, in moral theology, limited to material things. It can involve status, ego, sexuality, and the like. Nor does the market hold a monopoly on the expression of greed. We can see it in families, in the church, and certainly in government. What a free society does is dissipate power, so at the very least, greed has to compete with virtue.
A free economy is also productive and this means a great prospect of prosperity, thus employing people, offering goods and services at lower prices (thus raising living standards), and encouraging a superfluity of wealth, which in turn enables charitable giving. The advances in medicine, technology, and other things we take for granted have resulted in lower poverty rates, longevity, and general prosperity.
Moreover, in an economy generally free of political manipulation, even people in search of nothing more than wealth can only obtain this by producing goods and services other people value. Such greedy people will no doubt stand in judgment before God for the inordinate lifestyles, but at least their greed has served some material good for people. Though he does not use theological language and was most likely a Deist, Adam Smith makes a very similar point in the Wealth of Nations.
It's also worth noting that markets rely heavily on people developing practical virtues—trust, thrift, creativity, etc. While they don't number among the theological or cardinal virtues, they can contribute to human flourishing and what Benedict XVI calls "integral human development."
You also say in the book that a free economy doesn't necessarily entail consumerism. How is that the case?
When I say that the free economy does not necessarily entail consumerism I do not mean that people in a free market will not consume things. Of course we consume things. We need to if we want to live. What I mean, and indeed identify and critique in my book, is the muddled idea that "only in having more can we be more."
Right. You say this so well in the book.
Two sentences from the book sum up my concern about consumerism, which is distinct from wanting to have a better life: "Consumerism is wrong not because material things are wrong. Consumerism is wrong because it worships what is beneath us."
And we are back again to the anthropological . . .
Once we have a correct understanding of ourselves as human persons, then we realize that our needs—and aspiration—entails something much larger than the material, which in turn enables us to integrate these legitimate material needs into a more comprehensive, richer view of life. This is why I say that we must transcend our instincts and why I believe an authentic anthropology is critical to living in society.
Joseph E. Gorra is the Managing Editor of Philosophia Christi, the peer-reviewed journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He has also interviewed other philosophers, theologians and other theorists on virtue, economics, and the free society for EPSOCIETY.org. At Patheos.com, he recently interviewed Stanford anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, about her research regarding evangelical religious experiences. Twitter: @GorraResearch.
You can learn more about Fr. Sirico and the work of the Acton Institute, including their various publishing efforts, educational programs and online resources, by visiting www.acton.org.