Capitalism & Community: We Need Both

by Birch Smith

The history of the West for the last two hundred or so years is intricately tied up with the history of capitalism, and is thus in important ways a history of sharp disagreements. As far back as the Industrial Revolution, voices have been raised in criticism of some aspect or other of the capitalistic system. These criticisms, however, have almost universally tended to come from within an economic tradition, addressing economic concerns and promoting economic goods and systems. Early reform movements focused on improving the wages, working conditions, and hours of workers: economic problems with economic solutions (albeit to the dismay of those who advocated for more market freedom). Even socialism or communism, which are often set up as the opposite systems to capitalism, tend to focus on similar problems (the just distribution of wealth in a society). While their solutions are radically different, their goals and standards for evaluation are fundamentally similar.

The twentieth-century of Aristotelian and Thomistic ethics in Western academia has given rise to an entirely new critical perspective, one that rejects many of the underlying assumptions of both the supporters and the opponents of capitalism: the quantification of all (or most) things in terms of cost-benefit analyses, profit-margins, and similar economic evaluations. While these critics have yet to fully coalesce behind any particular party or individual, that is perhaps the very thing that makes them more compelling, and more difficult to refute. These critics don’t necessarily have a concrete ideology to push, or a manifesto to mark up and debate at length. What they do have is a number of convincing and insightful observations about capitalism and modern society. Rather than thinking in terms of preferences or profits, these critics talk about goods and virtues. Rather than measuring life by financial success, they measure it by human flourishing. Rather than focusing on globalization, efficiency, and profit, they focus on local communities, traditions, and ways of living. And rather than celebrate the advances in technology, availability of products, and lowering of prices that capitalism has brought, they bemoan the loss of local community, connection to the earth, stable families, and local businesses.

What I have described is at the heart of the movement identified typically by the name ‘Red Tory,’ ‘communitarian,’ or some similar designation. We may identify two tenets as central to this form of argument: the identification of the human being with ancient and medieval notions of personhood as opposed to attempts to quantify humans as factors of production composed of skills, experiences, preferences, and values (all subjective terms); and an emphasis on the importance of local communities as the focal cases of flourishing human life.

The task of properly analyzing the particular claims made against capitalism by these thinkers is far too complex for a piece of this length, and thus must be entrusted to the diligence of the reader. But a few brief points to justify the subsequent considerations are perhaps in order. The criticisms of capitalism which these ‘Red Tories’ lodge can be categorized into a number of general considerations: the effects of capitalism on human personhood, on social milieus, on social organization/institutions, and on the complete community.

The modern self views the world in a fundamentally economic sense: choices are based not on practical reasonableness in weighing goods and virtues, but on cost/benefit analyses based on subjective preferences and values. This is in strong contrast to what Alasdair MacIntyre terms the ancient (or social) self, with its accompanying traditions, institutions, and historically-rooted practices in which the goods and virtues are constituted and lived out. There is, further, a strong tendency to quantify human beings, and to describe human flourishing in terms of productivity, profit, and financial success, thus separating them from a wide range of (non-economic) goods and practices, and often reducing them to mere parts in a huge economic machine. Viewing yourself as a member of a spontaneous order, or as a factor of production, is very different from viewing yourself as a member of a complete community with a complex network of duties, rights, and obligations; a network which incorporates the complete nature of human beings as (to reference MacIntyre again) dependent rational animals rather than limiting our goods and obligations to those befitting a cog in a grand economic scheme (a scheme which is, in the end, incapable of incorporating the totality of goods to which we are properly directed).

The effects on social milieus are just as serious. Most obvious is the culture of materialism and commercialism, where material possessions become central to the good life, advertisement replaces education, and wealth is admired more than virtue. Our culture is one of overspending and debt, in which advertising campaigns promise success, popularity, and even love to consumers who simply must have the latest and greatest. The culture of consumerism also prompts worries that not just material things but human beings and the natural environment are being consumed, and that between the lines of advertisements lies a pervasive message about the centrality of material possessions to the good life, and the relative unimportance of true common goods.

Social institutions have likewise suffered. Global industrialization has almost entirely replaced local production, and superstores have shoved out mom-and-pop establishments, Big Ag has severed farmers from both their land and their communities. We even have a correspondingly commercialized religious fad that tells people that God’s only desire for them is their health, wealth, and happiness — truly a convenient message for the success-driven American businessman who has no more time for his religion than an hour on Sunday mornings and a few dollars in the offering plate. By far the worst victim, however, has been the American family. Marriage is now considered a contract, not a covenant, and thus no-fault divorce is the obvious option for those to whom their family has become an inconvenience — spouse and children be damned. As early as possible, children are shuttled from daycare to preschool to public education, from babysitters to available relatives to friends’ houses; indeed, everyone except their loving but very busy parents (who are, after all, simply trying to provide the very best for little Johnny and Sally); and elderly family members, rather than being cared for as an integral part of a healthy and multi-generational family structure, are left in nursing homes (the best that money could buy, of course) distant from their loved ones.

Finally, the effects on the complete community. Plato succinctly described the problem in Book VIII of the Republic when he says, speaking of a commercial society, “From there they proceed further into money-making, and the more they value it, the less they value virtue. Or aren’t virtue and wealth so opposed that if they were set on a scales, they’d always incline in opposite directions?” The pursuit of wealth is at heart an individualistic pursuit, while the pursuit of virtue is only constituted in a certain way of relating to things external to oneself. A community centered on the pursuit of wealth is of necessity an incomplete community, almost incapable of properly pursuing the sorts of goods, practices, or virtues that constitute human flourishing.

These are the general outlines of the main criticisms of Western capitalism, and because they are not criticisms within a framework of economic thought they have not been, and perhaps cannot be, answered within pure economic theory. This is because, unlike competing economic theories, they do not primarily attempt to deny the validity of the economic reasoning of capitalist thinkers; rather, they choose to operate within an entirely different scheme of goods and judgments. They say to the free-market thinker not “Your theories are wrong about how to achieve your goods,” but “Your theories do not encompass the range of goods and virtues necessary for the good life, and may in fact limit people’s understanding of those goods.” In this I think there is no doubt that they are correct. There are two responses to this: one can choose to define the role of the political community as purely “economic” in terms of protecting rights and the free market—and to do this one must adopt an openly modernist view of the state—or one can conceive of the political community as a complete community, somehow oriented towards the real flourishing of each of its members. It is no mistake that a good portion of both Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics have to do with the education of citizens, and in light of the myriad failures and insufficiencies of the modernist project to advance human flourishing in non-economic considerations, it seems that thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre and John Finnis present viable and compelling alternatives and projects.

Those of us who are attracted by those projects, however, would do well to avoid the sort of sweeping oversimplification prevalent among some critics of free-market economies. To be sure, capitalist systems have a multitude of faults and failings. But they have also made extraordinary progress in freeing people to be able to secure the genuine goods, and pursue the practices, that are essential for the good life. We must not forget that we have less expensive food and clothing, fuel, and power, better technology, superior medical care and educational opportunity, faster communication, and greater distribution of information in modern capitalist countries than in any other time or place in history. And I am inclined to agree with free-market advocates that these advances (or at least the speed at which they have occurred) are not possible in any other economic system. While none of these things are intrinsically good, all of them enable us to pursue the things that are.

We would also do well to note that both Plato and Aristotle—well before the advent of anything that could be called modern capitalism—were cognizant of the dangers of a society which is focused primarily on the acquisition of wealth. Thus the problems of consumerism and materialism are certainly not limited to capitalism, and, likewise, the adoption of an alternative economic system (as is sometimes suggested) is no guarantee that those problems will be eliminated. It may be argued that a free-market system is uniquely likely to produce that sort of problem, and this may be in fact correct. But a free market system is also uniquely capable of securing the sort of preconditions for most effectively pursuing a flourishing life: health, a certain amount of expendable income, leisure, etc.

If the claims about the free market thinkers about their own discipline are in fact correct —and I think they are—then it may very well be one of the most important tasks for modern social philosophers to go beyond the easy task of criticizing a tradition to the far more difficult —and enriching —task of reinvigorating one. It is true that there are a wide range of non-economic goods, but for this to be a meaningful thing to say there must also be a range of economic goods. The hubris of the economist in presuming that his discipline is capable of addressing the entirety of human action is folly, but so is the hubris of the social philosopher in presuming that the economist has nothing to offer..

It would be hypocritical on my part to chasten social philosophers on this account without at least gesturing towards a solution. No one ought to be surprised by what I point towards as the potential reconciliation between the compelling claims of both parties to this debate: after all, it is the solution offered by the very same ancient thinkers that modern critics like MacIntyre and Finnis draw from. Any community that wishes to incorporate a free-market economic system must also take special care to the education of its citizens and the health of its social milieu. After all, the thing Plato identifies as being fundamentally opposed to virtue seems to be not wealth itself but rather a focus on wealth as an end in itself, and a corresponding estimation of wealth over virtue.

What is needed, then, is a sort of non-materialist free market in which two principles are understood: first, that the free market is the best system for securing the best economic, informational, and technological milieu for persons to pursue and realize their own flourishing; second, that the purpose of the free market is not to secure wealth for its own sake, but for the sake of the very goods and flourishing that it helps to efficiently secure. With proper education, the mechanisms of a properly understood and bridled market economy can, I believe, be brought to serve proper ends.

We ought not delude ourselves into thinking this task to be a simple one, for modern materialism, individualism, and commercialism are at present deeply ingrained within the free market system. But nothing about a market-based economy in itself is necessarily incompatible with the goals of Aristotelian or Thomistic ethics, because economics is at heart a discipline focused on efficiently reaching a certain goal. At present it is paired with the goals of individualism, materialism, and commercialism, but it does not have to be so. An understanding of markets can tell us what the costs or effects of a particular action within the markets may be, and if we are willing to pay those costs to pursue a non-quantifiable good, so be it. What economic analyses can offer us, in the end, is an insight into the most effective and least intrusive ways of practically reaching that good.

Western society will be far less conducive to living the good life than it otherwise would be until it realizes that the goals of Aristotelian ethics—which are good goals—are not incompatible with the goals of a market-based system—which are also good goals. We are correct to criticize modern society for rejecting history and tradition and failing to learn their valuable lessons and truths. But let us then be willing to learn from those modern developments which can be incorporated into our tradition of inquiry for the pursuit and realization of human flourishing in a complete community.

Birch Smith is a sophomore studying philosophy and history.

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