The Ecstasy of Gold

I’ve been struggling for some time to understand how conservative Christians are able to maintain such dogged adherence to the ideas of ultra-capitalism without seeing a conflict with their faith. Ultimately, I think the only way to hold the two beliefs together is by not asking too many questions or examining very closely the assumptions required by the beliefs (either ultra-capitalism or their brand of Christian theology). This is my criticism of most conservative theologies–they start from incorrect assumptions and hold incorrect goals, resulting in theology that is doomed from the start, having never really grasped what God is about in the first place.

Still, I think I have discovered some of the unspoken underpinnings that allow for ultra-capitalism to thrive within the ideologies of (political) conservatives, and that an examination of these ideas compared to theological ones may be instructive.

Ultra-Capitalism

We should start with a definition. By “ultra-capitalism” I mean a modern approach to capitalism that: sees market competition as social Darwinism; this social Darwinism as the natural (and thus best) arbiter of success and social standing; self-interest and the profit motive as the defining characteristics of the human individual (and as moral prerogatives); as a corollary, associates economic poverty with moral weakness; assumes that those who have become rich have proven themselves both intellectually and morally fit to rule; holds personal property rights sacred over all other things; and bears a fear of and revulsion to social programs as allowing weakness to thrive, thus undermining the moral and social fabric of a society–and this in particular at the expense of those who have “rightfully acquired” their wealth through natural and all-encompassing superiority. It is in many ways Nietzschean and nihilistic, eschewing compassion for power. It is, in short, the economic version of “might makes right.”

First and foremost, it is the dogmatic belief in the “profit-motive” as the most defining characteristic of humanity. Thus, all people are seen as acting for selfish reasons to acquire money as best they can, with a division between moral methods of acquisition of wealth based upon ideas of “work” and “dessert,” and those methods of acquiring wealth that do not result from an adequate amount of work as immoral. Thus, the thief acquires money immorally, because he takes something earned by “honest labor” through the employment of “easier” means of acquisition. That the Ten Commandments dictate that “thou shalt not steal” coincides with this moral tenet, we need not look at the analysis that brings God (and us) to this conclusion, even if the rationale is different from the capitalist one. There is, then, the added result that the idea of thievery under the capitalist’s definition then extends to those who are on social welfare programs. Those who need food stamps, or Social Security Disability, or who would benefit from socialized medicine are getting material benefits for less work than is morally required of them to deserve economic gain, making social programs nothing more than government-sanctioned thievery. I imagine that, if you’ve read this far, you already understand that social welfare programs (like socialized medicine, even) is not the same as socialism. As an economic system, socialism means the collective ownership by the workers of the means of production, not the provision by the government of safety nets for all of its people–a method of providing for the “general welfare” that is a core element of the legitimacy of a government under “social contract” theory–though admittedly so is the protection of property rights, so we are left here with a dispute over what exactly the social contract is, how competing priorities under the social contract should be balanced, and, ultimately, who gets to set the contract’s terms.

From this starting place, the sovereignty of the profit-motive goes further. If there are those who leech of the system through providing the least amount of work possible, then my pursuit of self-interest and the selfish accumulation of wealth cannot be blamed, because no one is acting outside of self-interest and I am earning my wealth. This rationale justifies a moral insistence that my property rights are sacrosanct, that taking from me (through taxes, perhaps) for the basic needs of others who will not (cannot is seldom considered) earn for themselves is a fundamental injustice, both a moral failing and an insidious idea that will cause a nation to lose its overarching economic power and thus its place in the world. The belief here is that America is the best nation in the world because of its capitalism. Both the cause and the effect should be questioned.

Let’s look now at some objections typically raised by ultra-capitalists against criticisms:

One of the statements I often hear is: “I believe that the needy should be taken care of, but I believe that that’s the church’s role, not the government’s.”

This statement greatly amuses me as a student of history. Until the Christian reformation, the church did fulfill this function in western European society–but it did so by requiring tithes, indulgences, beneficences, the donation of land to save one’s soul and other forms of coerced re-allocation of property. In other words: taxes. At the time the Reformation occurred, the early modern economy was also developing. Guilds were transitioning into private corporations and “venture companies” designed to share risk between multiple investors (the predecessor of modern business entities), the obligations of traditional feudalism had already been replaced by a system of payments rather than personal service (so-called “bastard feudalism,” which, by the time of the Reformation, was converting even more to a system where wealth and nobility had been divested from one another instead of being tightly bound, because land ownership continually lost footing to new ways of generating wealth), and “middle class” (including the “New Men” of Tudor England) was rising. The modern idea of nations, centralized enough, organized enough to actually provide for the general welfare, was nascent, and though they remained mired at the time in arguments over the divine right of kings, the power was shifting from those with hereditary right to those with wealth earned by the sweat of their brow and the cleverness of their business designs, those who could afford to send their sons to the universities and the courts of law, not to become churchmen, but to become bureaucrats and wielders of political power in the name of those whose only entitlement was the fortune of birth

The misuse by the Catholic Church of its wealth provided an impetus to the Reformation (the extravagant lifestyles of those higher in church hierarchy coupled with a general negligence toward their spiritual duties and the reduction of penance to an economic transaction through the sale of indulgences), it also resulted in a diverse approach to economics by Protestant groups. By the 17th century, you had in England on the one hand the Diggers, who attempted to set up settlements with communal property and a focus on the ecologic interrelationship between humans and the earth; on the other, you had the Puritans: Calvinists (particularly of the Reformed tradition) who largely believed that the demonstration of a good “work ethic” and the accumulation of wealth were signs of status among the Elect, those whom God had predestined for salvation. There is much, I believe, in the Puritan legacy in the United States that resulted in the modern theologies that allow the marriage of ultra-capitalism with Christianity.

While religious organizations would conduct the majority of charitable works for centuries to come, religious ideas of the time intermingled with the rise of new economic realities to create a heritage we largely follow today–even for those who have forgotten the origin of such beliefs in post-Reformation theologies.

To step back into the present, the major problem with the assertion above about the “role of the Church” in social programs is that it really represents a desire of control over one’s wealth: “I don’t want the government to make me help just anyone; I want to get to decide who is worthy of helping.” This idea both maintains the ego-driven idea of comparative dessert while maintaining social power in the hands of those with money.

The second objection is that “no one will ever accomplish anything for society unless rewarded with wealth for doing so.” In other words, the ambition for economic gain is the only instigating factor for innovation, growth or achievement in human society. This idea is flawed for two reasons:

First, the pursuit of wealth in exchange for achievement does not promote the common good. The pharmaceutical and medical research industries (again, particularly in America) are a prime example of this. If we want to look at an egregious case, we need only read the history of OxyContin and Perdue Pharma, where the pursuit of profit led to the opioid epidemic. But there are many more examples to examine, because the very premise of allowing the profit-motive to control pharmaceutical development results in intentional harm to individuals. This is codified through the system of patents that protects new drugs. The argument goes that, if the developing pharmaceutical company is unable to make a profit on a new drug, they’ll never develop it, so we need to protect their discovery by giving them a temporary (but long-lived) monopoly on their discovery so that they can profit from it. This in turn results in life-saving medications that only some can afford, while we let the rest suffer or die. If we adhere to the ideas of social Darwinism and wealth means worth and morality that are endemic to ultra-capitalism, then we should have no moral qualms about this.

Take the Covid vaccines as an example. If those vaccines had been made “open source” so that they could be synthesized by any lab with the ability to do so without having to pay Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson for the privilege of doing so, would more people be vaccinated right now (particularly in places where people are not prey to misinformation about them but, for economic reasons, cannot procure them)? I think so.

The more insidious–but perhaps equally reprehensible–aspect of this system is that research projects are selected only with profit in mind. If there aren’t enough sufferers of a condition to make the development of therapeutic techniques or medications profitable, no research will be conducted into the condition, and doctors remain forced to tell patients, “we just don’t know enough about this disease/disorder to have an effective treatment plan.” While I’m not absolutely sure that the pharmaceutical industry actively pursues the development of treatments of symptoms over ways to cure disease, the aspects of the industry I am sure about make that a likely prospect.

The second problem with this argument is that it reduces human beings to economic units by assuming profit is the only human motivation. We can but look around and see that this is not true–we all know someone who has taken a lower-paying job to work in the non-profit sector because they believe in doing good, and many of us know people who have left one job for another that pays less because it allows them to have a better quality of life. Some of us ourselves have turned down good-paying jobs out of a distaste for the effect the particular company or type of industry has on the world at large. The profit motive is, in fact, a social construct rather than an inherent human quality, pervasive as it may be.

It is a curious thing that Puritan ideas (in general, there was theological diversity even within Puritanical groups) seem to have some coincidence with the ultra-capitalist approach to economics and politics, and not just because of the “Puritan Work Ethic.” The “five essential points” of Calvinism are often summarized with the TULIP acronym (for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints). The idea of Total Depravity pairs well with the idea of the profit-motive being the natural state of man, and the idea that those who achieve their wealth through hard work are likely the Elect (and thus inherently more moral) and those who do not are not. The ideas of justification by faith alone and irresistible grace, in theory and perhaps in an antinomian way, take some responsibility off of the choices of humans, because humans cannot affect their salvation.

I should note that my own United Methodist Church doctrine also espouses the belief in justification by faith alone as a matter of salvation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s my own belief that God has made salvation easy but sanctification difficult and, having heard a sermon by K this morning discussing the role of action in our faith (reconciling the ideas of the Letter of James with the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith) I ought to admit in fairness that the belief in justification by faith alone does not, in and of itself, result in antinomianism or a rejection of the need for moral action. There are plenty of people of Calvinist doctrine (as there are of any religious faith or no religious faith at all) who are committed to moral ideals we’d likely all agree upon.

A Note About Happiness

As a quick aside, a few comments about the relationship of money and happiness. There is a study by Nobel Prize winners Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman that is often cited for the precept that “happiness does not increase for people making over $75,000 dollars a year.” That’s not what the study says. Deaton and Kahneman measured two things in their study, neither of which was happiness. They measured “emotional well-being,” referring to day-to-day feelings and experience, and “life evaluation,” whether people thought positively or negatively about their life as a whole. They found that emotional well-being did not increase for people making more than $75,000 a year, but life evaluation did increase with higher incomes. So, increased income resulted in fewer negative (and more positive) feelings day-to-day to a cap of $75,000 a year, but life evaluation continued to increase beyond that. To nuance this, subjective experience related to life and money seems to cap at $75,000, but people continued to more positively rate the achievements in their life if they made more. In a nation where we see income as directly related to achievement and worth, the latter is not at all surprising–but I also wouldn’t equate it with happiness. Emotional well-being, on the other hand, seems to be a more valuable thing (though I’m sure many scholars and psychologists have investigated or are investigating how life evaluation relates to emotional well-being). We should be weary of using this study (or any other single study) to make categorical statements about reality, but I think that, anecdotally, at least, we’d agree that money and happiness don’t necessary corollate directly. Certainly, Scripture tells us that repeatedly.

On the other hand, rankings of the “happiest countries” in the world tend to perennially place Northern European (particularly Scandinavian) countries at the top of the list. These are countries with high taxes, many social programs, and smaller wealth disparities between those with the most and those with the least. To my mind, they are a strong argument that taxation and social support do not result in the degradation of a society. On the other hand, these nations are also strongly secular, so an argument might be made on that front.

At the end of the day, while we should be striving to find emotional stability and contentment, and should be treasuring and seeking out those things that make us happy, the scope of our lives is much larger than that. We must consider what makes us happy and why, and whether that explanation is a moral one. We must also consider the value of our lives apart from our own personal happiness. If we are called to self-sacrifice for the good of others, as Christ beckons us, then we must believe that personal happiness is not the prime metric by which to consider our success in life.

A Note on Privilege

I came from a background of privilege. Less than some, but more than most. My parents were both highly educated, driven and upwardly mobile. We lived in large houses in the suburbs and I wanted for nothing. I attended public schools, but I went to the best public schools available. I was encouraged to be curious and academically curious from a young age, with frequent trips to the library, tons of books at home, and a number of trips abroad when I was young to broaden my experience of the world. There was never a discussion about whether I would go to college; it was a given, and my parents ensured that it cost me nothing to earn my bachelor’s degree. Though I choose a more precarious path out of law school by immediately establishing a practice of my own, I was able to do so with somewhat less fear than I might have had because I knew I had a safety net in my family should I fail. Indeed, the expected disappointment of family if I failed wore heavier on me than any worry about where I would live or how I’d get by if my business failed.

And so, I realize that the achievements I’ve had in my life, whatever they may be, are not simply a result of my own intelligence and personal will. I had parents who paved a way for me through their own hard work, but, perhaps more important, I had the fortune to be born into a family that had enjoyed some amount of wealth and opportunity for generations. It would be foolish of me to consider my success to this point in my life to be only a matter of what I “deserve” or have “earned.”

And so it is with many of those who currently enjoy wealth, power, status and privilege. To endorse ultra-capitalism and asset one’s dessert of property as a matter only of hard work and dedication lacks introspection, a view of the interconnectedness of all things, and short-sightedness. How can one say in a worship service that “all good things are gifts from God,” while secretly believing that every good things one has has been earned by individual effort alone?

Scripture (in Constrast)

Jesus gives us many warnings and hard sayings about money. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13; see also Matthew 6:24).

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that participation in the “kingdom of God” is an existential matter of sanctification, of coming to understand the way that God sees things, to see the rightful relationships between all things (see, for example, the post “Salvation and Sanctification“). Read this way, Jesus’s statement in Matthew 19:24 is not to be a statement about salvation, but about sanctification–those who love money above all else are that much less likely to bring themselves to adopt the priorities God has created for the world. The second statement is like the first (for another look at material wealth as an obstacle to spiritual freedom, see “Dukkha in Christianity.”) Even so, the warning is dire, and there are more like it.

But the point goes far beyond the effect of wealth on personal spiritual growth. It’s the reason that is that case. Put simply, worrying more about protecting what’s yours than helping others is antithetical to the Christian ethic. The second-greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). To allow the exploitation of others to amass personal wealth, as is the status quo in American business, is not loving others as oneself. To believe in the justice of a system that protects one’s own wealth at the expense of leaving others without access to healthcare, an economic safety net, or other basic aspects of the moral good and human dignity, is foolish at best, but more likely: it’s sin.

We are repeatedly called to protect the poor, the infirm, the widow, the orphan: the least and the lost. The exhortations to do so are not subjected to caveats or exceptions–especially not those that involve cost to those called to provide for them.

This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with personal property rights, with owning property, or with gaining wealth (though the early church described in Acts did hold everything in common, we’re told). It is the prioritization of one’s own status and wealth at the expense of others that we are most warned against. It is the amassing of wealth through unjust means–which includes exploitative economic systems–that is suspect. As Chaucer’s Pardoner ironically recites from St. Jerome’s Vulgate version of 1 Timothy 6:10: radix malorum cupiditas est.

For the Christian, this should not be a political question. Christ requires us to make sacrifices of our own as we are able to care for those without the resources and privileges that we have. The only argument for Christians to have on the subject is how to best fulfill the obligations to which we are called. Maybe social programs run by the government are not the best way to accomplish this but, if not, we ought to be stepping up to fill in the gaps without judging who is “deserving” of help. First and foremost, we must oppose a society so mired in the ultra-capitalist ideal as to continue to increase wealth disparity and economic injustice in the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s