Capitalisms March 14, 2012

Capitalism, Ryn argues, does not have any “essence” or definition. Capitalism, like democracy, exists “only in particular historical manifestations.” And those historical manifestations are dependent on non-economic factors. Capitalism can be a “neo-Jacobin” system that dissolves traditional bonds and valuable structures and hierarchies, a system that reduces all values to monetary values. But Ryn argues that there might also be a “free market of goods and services . . . in a decentralized, group-oriented society in which the outlook and behavior of individuals and firms are leavened by moral and other disciplines and in which both supply and demand are structured by corresponding civilized desires. In this economy, relations between competitors may be softened by mutual respect and consideration. A free market of this type would share in the ethos that is also characteristic of constitutional government. It would be an integral part of the civilized society with its institutionally expressed likes and dislikes.”

He quotes this fine passage from Wilhelm Ropke:

“Self-discipline, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms – all these are things which people must possess before they go to market and compete with each other. These are the indispensable supports which preserve both market and competition from degeneration. Family, church, genuine communities, and tradition are their sources. It is also necessary that people should grow up in conditions which favor such moral convictions, conditions of a natural order, conditions promoting cooperation, respecting tradition, and giving moral support to the individual . . . . It is the foundation upon which the ethics of the market economy must rest. It is an order which fosters individual independence and responsibility as much as the public spirit which connects the individual with the community and limits his greed.”

When the Catholic church shows reservations about the market economy, he argues, the concerns are really “about more general developments in Western civilization . . . . The dangers did not inhere in the free market ‘as such,’ for no such market exists. They inhered in the free market in a particular part of the world and in a particular historical period, whose moral and other standards were becoming shaky.”

Mostly compelling, though I suspect there is a cyclical feedback between certain formations and settings for markets and the shakiness of those values and moral standards.

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