Capitalism Destroys People & Civilizations! (Right?)

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Not necessarily, no. Actually, it often helps them.

See this fantastic piece by Chris Horst for Christianity Today’s stimulating “This Is Our City” project. There are companies, Horst makes clear, that are not only turning a profit–they’re helping people. Many of us know that businesses perform such functions, of course; our common sense and life experience has given us abundant evidence of the way that businesses help communities. I think of my Little League baseball field, for example, in Machias, Maine. Who paid for it? The government? Nope. It was the local pizza place, the area savings bank, the barbershop we all went to. So many small business owners give back. (Hunter Baker made this point poignantly a few months ago.) The stereotypes about greedy capitalists often fall terribly short.

Businesses can be predatory, yes. But it’s not in the best interests of many to act in this way, right? They’ll–pardon the punnery–lose business. Horst’s article shows this, and moves us past the “Can Christians do meaningful work in the secular workplace, or should everyone be a missionary?” discussion that we sometimes bog down in. He gives us tangible results from Christians like Brian Rants who are working in business from a love for Christ and his image, mankind.

Here’s what we learn about Rants’s initial distaste for business:

Alongside reimagining business vocationally, Rants also started reimagining the role of business itself. What he once viewed as an adversary to the war on poverty, he now sees as a vital ally. His perception early in his career was that big business, multinational corporations, and globalization worked againstthe poor.

“Once I actually studied this in graduate school, I was shocked,” Rants shared. “Not only is business not ‘the bad guy,’ it’s the primary reason poverty has decreased so substantially over the past 50 years. Nothing has undermined poverty, tyrannies, and injustice more than open and free markets. It is the only system proven to actually do that over the long-term.”

Don’t miss this. As Horst shows, Yale University has shown that capitalism has contributed in incredible ways to global uplift. Yes, you read that right:

Yale University and The Brookings Institution released a staggering study bolstering Rants’s conviction. According to the study, in 1981, 52 percent of the world’s population was unable to provide for their basic needs like housing and food, living below the “extreme poverty line.” By the end of 2011, just 30 years later, the number had plummeted to 15 percent. The reasons they cited for the unprecedented drop in poverty are “the rise of globalization, the spread of capitalism and the improving quality of economic governance.” This, the researchers describe, is the “potent combination” behind the tumbling poverty levels.

If we could hit a button and download this information into every American brain, we would save ourselves a lot of trouble and controversy. Read all of Horst’s piece, and if you can, pass it along. This is really valuable–and basically incontrovertible–stuff, and so is the video I included at the top of this post. It’s by a brilliant researcher named Hans Rosling, and it elegantly destroys the myth that the Industrial Revolution has harmed people. If you measure the effects of the IR by rising life expectancy, to give just one factor, you see that the growth of capitalism across the world has resulted in unprecedented, never-seen-anywhere-ever health on a global scale.

This, by the way, is directly counter to the myth-making engine of the mighty Karl Marx and his disciples. Marx, as historians like Paul Johnson have shown, was a tenacious cherry-picker of data. Marx predicted that capitalism would harm people, when in reality (despite being flawed like any system) it has helped billions and billions of people. Riesling’s work alone rebuts Marx’s contentions, to say nothing of the aforementioned Yale study.

What did you learn in college, if you went to many a creditable American school (including, shamefully, some Christian schools)? That globalization has been horrible for people, right? It surely has had some regrettable effects, but the common line on globalization is flatly wrong, as Yale and Brookings show. Ask your average Chinese business owner if they would rather harvest rice all their lives–and have their kids do the same–or if they would prefer to own a business, however small, and send their kids to school. Honestly, is that even a fair set of choices? And yet different departments of our haute intellectual institutions attack capitalism. Yes, faculty members attack capitalism while the college’s development experts fund their healthy salaries by shrewdly investing the endowment in the stock market. Cue ironic laughter…now.

So much of a good life is about listening to wisdom, hewing to common sense. And yet because of the fall, the human intellect thirsts for untruth and chases after silliness. The solution is in deconstruction, but not deconstruction of wisdom. Deconstruction of the deconstructers. (This sounds like a Transformers movie. Don’t–please, please don’t–tell Michael Bay.)

Something remarkable is happening among evangelical Christians, as Horst’s illuminating piece shows. We are rediscovering a doctrine of vocation (Tim Keller is really helping, as this video shows). It’s exciting to see (the Values & Capitalism project of the American Enterprise Institute is encouraging along these lines). We’re moving part canards and stereotypes. We’re seeing that work is good, that the gospel and the Christian worldview comport with and are not hostile to vocational labor, and that we can be a witness in innumerable fields.

To work for the common good, and to do it from an explicit love for Christ and his salvific work, is to glorify the Lord, and to be in business with the world’s superpower par excellence: the kingdom of God.

  • Justin H.

    Thanks for bringing this up! At the risk of “deconstructing wisdom,” I think there are a few important things to point out. I’m not against capitalism, but I would urge a little bit of caution before we laud corporate capitalism for bringing an end to poverty. First of all, poverty entails more than income or life expectancy. While the numbers of people below the extreme poverty line has diminished—and undoubtedly market engagement and capitalist enterprise has played a significant role—there are issues of self-efficacy and agency that I think need to be addressed within the framework of “poverty” as well. I have done a little (seriously, very little) bit of reading in that area over the course of my graduate studies, but Amartya Sen’s Development As Freedom is probably the most iconic work I could point you toward there. These aspects of poverty are hard to quantify, but we need to be cautious lest we make poverty too empirical. The Soviets had developed a consumer culture leading up to their destabilization in the 1970s and, while it did not rival that of the United States, it represented a dramatic increase in economic and technological advancement. It did not, on the other hand, yield improvements in quality of life (for reasons I don’t think I need to address).
    Anyway, I think a closer examination of corporate activity in developing countries yields some negatives alongside the positives. For example, a large part of global capitalism’s involvement in developing markets is attached to corporate acts of charity and benevolence among employees and the communities that are affected by corporate activity. In a lot of these cases (I’m currently working on a paper on corporate provision of HIV/AIDS treatment) these companies fill roles that the state has either vacated or been unable to fill. By occupying these positions (and by offering goods and services) these companies provide much needed resources, but they also can create dependencies and extend corporate influence into the private lives of their ‘citizens’ (they’re discursively known as ‘stakeholders’, but in reality these are more like different forms of citizenship). When Anglo American, a mining company in South Africa, offers antiretroviral therapy to HIV positive workers, it extends the lives of its workers, but it also virtually enslaves workers who will die if their employment is terminated and their treatment cut off. On the business end, corporations gain moral capital and, by showing a kinder side, stabilize public opinions toward global capitalism and appease bottom-line oriented shareholders. Treatment is obviously a great thing, but realities are always more complex than they would appear on the surface. These processes are called Corporate Social Responsibility, and there is a small amount of good research (and bad research) concerning the harmful effects that are attached to the positives of corporate beneficence.
    I say all of this not to beat a dead horse or to unfairly criticize capitalism. Capitalism has faults, for sure, but I think if we trace those faults we find human depravity—something no ideological system will fix. Global improvements in income and quality/longevity of life are most definitely linked to capitalist growth. I praise God for that! I think instead I want to defend the merits of wise deconstruction. Without deconstruction, we may allow ourselves to believe that capitalism is an ancient institution, rather than an economic framework roughly 300-400 years old. We may miss the fact that one of the foundational elements in global capitalism, colonization, is one of the chief causal factors in the massive inequalities that contemporary capitalism may be assuaging. We could miss the fact that the modernizing trajectories that the Yale study and the Rosling video espouse (global progression away from poverty toward economic and technological advancement) are rooted in narratives stemming from Darwinian evolutionary theories. I think Christian engagement with capitalism will be well served by wise deconstruction. I find that too often our involvement in these discussions is fueled more by group-think and unqualified uniformity than by thoughtful, nuanced examination. I hope this response offers a few points to consider…mainly, I hope it serves as a reminder that no human ideology ending in –ism offers any real hope. I know you know that, and I don’t in any way mean to insinuate otherwise. I only hope to share how my own studies in Anthropology of Development continue to show me the failures of human ideology and efforts, especially in comparison to the hope that is ours through Christ.

    • ostrachan

      Thanks Justin. Much to chew on here. I guess the point I made in the post is that, while capitalism has its flaws (as I said numerous times), its fundamental narrative on a global scale is impressive. It’s hard to argue with data like that provided by Rosling and the Yale study. There are of course numerous nuances we can make and different weaknesses of this system we can point out. But the strength of capitalism and what it has provided the world in the last several hundred years is simply astonishing.

      That’s a point, frankly, that is not often made enough in our common discourse.

      • Justin H.

        I definitely agree with you there. Even with capitalism’s flaws, throwing the baby out with the bathwater isn’t helpful. Also, I think the discussion on globalization may be shifting. There’s a lot of research moving away from criticism of globalization as a neo-imperial, unilinear imposition of the West on the “rest” that is taking into account the ways in which market exposures and multilinear cultural flows are proving to alleviate suffering in a lot of areas. It’s also becoming pretty obvious that the cultural homogenization everyone was so afraid of isn’t happening. Anyway, thanks for the post!