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Assuming Equality

December 1, 2013

Two events have happened recently that ask some interesting questions about how Christians should think about economic systems.  One is the Pope’s encyclical critiquing the economic systems of the developed world.  The other is Black Friday and the start of a shopping season that is nominally part of celebrating Christmas but which has probably eaten Christmas alive and screaming.  Despite the fact that it is at least occasionally clear that the invisible hand of the market is pushing back at Christianity most Christians in America seem to equate Christianity and capitalism.  Of course, this is probably because communism tends to be openly anti-religious but it’s not entirely clear that this makes capitalism pro-religious.  In fact, I tend to think that capitalism’s stance on religion is more like that of the less-aggressive communists: religion will die on the vine if it is left alone and people are given something better.

In reality this article is an extension of my previous thoughts on equality and so I am going to focus most of my energy on this point.  However, I will briefly mention some of my non-equality concerns with capitalism first.

Why critique capitalism and not communism?  The answer is twofold but fairly simple.  First, I don’t know many Christians who like communism but I know a lot who think capitalism is very Christian.  There are even politicians running libertarianism and Christianity together in a manner I believe shows a serious lack of understanding of both.  Second, the major critique against communism is simple: it doesn’t work.  We could spend a lot of time criticizing communism at the finer points but let’s be real: communist nations drive their economic growth by jettisoning parts of communism.  There’s room to discuss things like European-style socialism but if we are restricting ourselves to the extremes1 capitalism is the system attractive enough to have to sound warning notes about.

The first of my concerns about capitalism is a fairly straightforward one: it can become a religion.  I know people who are Christians and ardent free-market capitalists who wouldn’t dream of talking your ear off about Christianity if you weren’t interested but would evangelize for the free-market without mercy2.  I know people who would violently twist aside from any command of Jesus’ that looked to infringe upon the freedom of the markets.  Direct religious competition can exist between Christianity and capitalism.

The second of my concerns is that capitalism is all about growth and that frequently means selling people things they don’t need by first convincing them that they need these things.  Instead of teaching people to rely on Christ and to engage in character-transformation the market teaches people to buy stuff to be happy.  This is an anti-Christian message.  It may also not be necessary for capitalism but its efficacy in aiding a company would make it at the very least a constantly-recurring threat.

The third of my concerns is where I want to spend the most time.  Capitalism makes an appeal to fairness.  In fact, both capitalism and communism call on equality in different ways.  Communism calls directly on equality – everyone should have equal access to stuff or perhaps equal amounts of stuff.  Capitalism calls on equality through fairness which is another way of claiming that units of work should be equal.  If I do three times as much work as Bob I should have three times the benefit.  Of course there are issues with this since “three times the work” involves scaling comparisons between different types of work and these scales may be unfair but the basic idea is one of equality – it’s not actually equal to give the same pay for unequal work.  (Now, there’s a parable about this exact thing and it’s well worth asking whether Jesus is interested in this form of equality at all but I am going to ignore that question for now.  It would be a whole article or two to tackle in even a simple fashion.)

The issue is that capitalism assumes an unreal society.  In capitalism we assume that all people are equal and effectively interchangeable.  If Joe works harder than Bob employer Terence can fire Bob and hire Joe to increase productivity.  Of course we acknowledge that if Bob is a welder and Joe is a programmer this might not work but the general idea is there – Joe could have chosen to be a welder back when he got career training and he didn’t.  There was a point when we could have switched Joe for Bob.  This is where the fairness of capitalism comes in: if you want more just work harder or smarter and you’ll get more.  If this is not possible for someone then capitalism is unfair.  For instance, not all that long ago there were a lot of jobs that were effectively closed to African-Americans.  No matter how hard an African-American might work they couldn’t occupy some of the highest-earning jobs in the country and so the system was unfair.  More work didn’t translate to more benefit past a certain point.

The real world is full of people who can’t do things.  Some people can’t walk because of injuries.  Some people can’t take care of themselves because of conditions they were born with.  Some people will never think of the next great idea because they were raised (by other people of course, no one is self-raising) in such a way that their mental faculties never got much exercise and now they are stuck being rather dim-witted.  Is it actually fair to pit these people against more-advantaged people?

There are also a lot of people who could achieve more but have been trained not to.  I deal with this frequently when I deal with students from bad high schools.  For instance, I am aware of a story about a student who passed in his older sister’s A paper for a particular class because he suspected that the teacher favored women.  The teacher did not notice that the paper was a repeat from a previous year but did give the student a D.  If this sort of thing happens often enough a student learns that hard work is meaningless, that the key to success is to be born as the right sort of person.  Small inequalities can breed larger ones.  If the first inequality teaches someone that there is no fairness they may be mentally ill-equipped to take advantage of fairness when it appears.  People for whom the system has worked tend to assume that everyone knows that the system works and behave accordingly but those who have found that the system doesn’t work frequently behave as if it doesn’t.

Finally, capitalism is a game of averages.  If you work hard and think carefully about your decisions will you succeed in capitalism?  No.  On average you will but we can’t guarantee that you personally will.  Perhaps when you went to college a particular field was growing strongly and looked to be a good long-term prospect but developments in technology that nobody had really predicted suddenly made the whole field obsolete3.  The average person who worked hard and thought about their career path will still do better than the average lazy person who spends no time thinking about their career but that won’t help the individuals who end up on the wrong side of the averages.  When markets readjust they bleed people.  Unfortunately, there’s a tendency amongst free-market proponents to treat the markets are primary and the people as secondary.  If the markets shake off a particular problem it doesn’t matter that a lot of people lost livelihoods and were replaced by people from a different market sector doing something else, it just matters that the markets had a bit of a problem but then another sector took up the slack.  This is hardly a Christian view. (As is probably obvious a lot of this is implicit messaging. Nobody ever says, “The stock market matters and individuals don’t,” they just act in ways that don’t make sense unless this is really what they believe. The article The Power of the Implicit actually began as an introduction to this article.)

This remains a fairly cursory sketch of the problems capitalism has with equality.  However, the biggest problem is the assumption of equality.  If we assume that all players in the game start off equal then their fates are the result of gameplay and chance.  If we assume that chance is negligible because we focus on the average person (for whom good and bad luck average out) then a player’s fate is entirely decided by gameplay.  In the real world though people do not start out equal and their fates may be strongly influenced by random events.  I feel strongly that it is not a Christian idea of fairness to ignore this and unfortunately capitalism’s claim to moral virtue is that it is fair.

[1] The modern extremes, that is.  At one point capitalism was pitted against mercantilism and the modern antithesis of capitalism and communism has flattened our economic thinking in unhelpful ways but that’s a whole different train of thought.

[2] Communism’s anti-religious stance probably comes about because communism really is a religion – a centrally defining core of beliefs – and simply makes explicit the competition that exists between religions for followers.  Capitalism lacked Marx to make the philosophical comparison between economic and religious philosophy and so the battle for followers is much more covert.

[3] This might end up happening to a lot of people this century.

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