The Problem with Capitalism is Us

The Problem with Capitalism is Us April 9, 2014

“It is a mistake, at least if you are a Christian, to have your life or theology determined by who you think are your enemies.” (Stanley Hauerwas, A Better Hope, p.9)

I don’t have a bee in my bonnet about capitalism. I don’t consider the inhabitants of Wall Street to be my enemies. I tend to think that just about any economic system could work pretty well if exercised by a people who have been formed in the story of God and the virtues of hospitality, cooperation, stewardship, generosity, and fidelity to the common good. If capitalism isn’t working, it’s not because the system is flawed, but because we are flawed.

Still, I think every Christian should have a robust critique of capitalism, just as most already do of socialism, fascism, or communism. I have a few, two of which I outline below. But if we think that we can rely on our critiques to undo the problems with capitalism, we are kidding ourselves. For one thing, critiques hardly ever undo anything, and capitalism is doing such a good job of undoing itself that it scarcely needs help from Christians. For another thing, it’s not our job to see that the systems of the world fail. It’s our job to bear witness to the reality of the gospel in the way that we engage everything, including economic systems.

There are many things capitalism does very well. You can hear about them everyday on talk radio and Fox News, so if you want to get that story, I’ll commend you to them. Here are a couple of problems that I can see:

First, capitalism doesn’t work very well when people are selfish.

It very well may be that capitalism is better than the other “isms” serving as economic systems, but it has its obvious problems. Chief among them, as I see it, is that—especially within a society of people who have not been formed by the gospel—capitalism doesn’t work for those who don’t have capital (it works for some, but not everyone). Those who have capital are supposed to create jobs/opportunity for those who don’t. But when we are selfish, this doesn’t happen. Thus, over time, wealth inevitably concentrates in the hands of a very few people, usually those who have most efficiently dispensed with any sort of ethic in which the last will be first. When this process reaches a tipping point, the government has to step in and regulate (a move which is always decried by the rich, seldom if ever by the poor), and the battle lines are drawn over the wrong issue: the assumption that the government’s job is to make sure what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours, even if what’s yours sucks.

Second, capitalism doesn’t work very well when people are convinced they can live without limits.

When capitalism governs the economics of a people who are convinced they can live without limits—to consumption, wealth, nature, power—it tends to corrupt everything in its path. The biggest problem with this, of course, is that the earth has natural limits. It is at least within the realm of possibility that consumer capitalism is slowly rendering our planet inhospitable to human life. This seems an unnecessary risk to take. For Christians, it should not even be a question, since our original vocation includes the care and stewardship of the planet. If you want to hear a succinct summation of this critique, watch “The Story of Stuff.” The long and short of it is that we can’t keep living by “planned obsolescence” forever.

Christians have no choice but to engage in our capitalistic system. So, the real question is whether or not we have the imagination and commitment to engage as Christians. And if we engage in capitalism as capitalists at heart, then by what rights do we still call ourselves Christians? Not that I want to start excommunicating capitalists, because I’d surely have to begin with me. I’m just pointing out the obvious reality that our first identity must be Christians. We cannot flee from the economics of our time. Instead we have to engage in redemptive ways, attempting to make this system work for the life of the world.

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