The Moral Center of Capitalism

Historically, American Christians tend to be card-carrying members of the capitalist party; many even have a copy of Wealth of Nations under their Bibles. However, a new generation of young, thoughtful Christians have begun to question the foundations of capitalism. These dissenting capitalists point to moral issues: extreme poverty, waste, wealth inequality, and social conflicts. This new generation questions the legitimacy of an economic system based on a consumer ethic of hedonism—decaying the moral disciplines. Capitalism, to the dissenters, inevitably leads to a large bureaucratic structure that stifles the spirit of entrepreneurial growth—a rationale for centralized control of wealth for a small group of wealthy and powerful enterprises.

While public opinion continues to change, many Christians do not know what to think about capitalism. The Christian should ask, “Are there any redeemable qualities of capitalism, or is it just a system based on greed?” It is my belief that capitalism, while not the perfect solution, provides a moral foundation for economic growth. Capitalism is not, as is claimed by the new orthodoxy of public opinion, a base, callous, exploitative, dehumanizing, alienating, and ultimately enslaving system.

If capitalism will provide a moral foundation for economic growth, then it must be moral; however, I must first define what I mean by moral. Capitalism is a system and as such it cannot murder, lie, steal, or blaspheme. Strictly speaking, capitalism cannot be moral or immoral, but it is not amoral. But capitalism is deeply concerned with the rightness and wrongness of the people in the system. When we ask if capitalism is a moral system, then we are actually asking if a capitalistic system creates an environment where people act in morally responsible ways. In a sense, we are inquiring as to the morality of its adherents, more than the system itself.

Additionally, a strong case can be made that other economic systems like socialism and communism have depraved moral foundations. For example, the moral center of socialism could easily be theft and covetousness. In a system of central planning, men work to produce goods and services, not for profit, but for the use of the state; the state appropriates goods and services without regard for the profit of the men who created the product. In layman’s terms, central planning boils down to a form of legalized theft. Central planning institutionalizes covetous, thieving behavior. However, in order to establish capitalism as the morally superior system, it is not enough to vilify socialist principles. Capitalism must also prove that it can stand on its own moral foundations.

When we ask if capitalism is a moral system, then we are actually asking if a capitalistic system creates an environment where people act in morally responsible ways. In a sense, we are inquiring as to the morality of its adherents, more than the system itself.

The moral center of capitalism is the presentation of the gift. Many consider capitalism to be intrinsically immoral because each person relentlessly pursues his own self-interest. As a result, capitalism appears to be a system filled with greedy, hedonistic people who abuse other people to get what they want. A relentless pursuit of self-interest, however, is not inherently immoral. Let me explain: in order for the entrepreneur to pursue his own self-interest, he must first relentlessly pursue the interest of others. He has to regard the needs of others as superior to his own; he has to give a gift. For example, I want to have a conflict-free marriage. As a result of this self-interest, I am uncompromisingly committed to doing things for my wife. Laundry, dishes, garbage, and floors—I make sure that all of her needs and wants are met. Those things make her happy and, correspondingly, her happiness makes me happy. My self-interest ultimately becomes her self-interest. I do these tasks for her and for me. I have to give in order to receive—supply in order to demand.

Economic anthropologists, like Melville Jean Herskovits and Marcel Mauss, explains this process in terms of reciprocity and gift giving. A person looking for wealth must first create a gift that appeals to the interests and needs of others. He must take on the risk of creating the gift and give the gift with the hope of reciprocity. The receiver gives back wealth proportional to the gift. The more the receiver values the gift the more wealth he is willing to give back. Furthermore, it is in the interest of the giver to create a gift that the receiver will value because the giver will receive only what the receiver values the gift to be worth. This process is the foundation for a capitalistic, free market enterprise. Additionally, Adam Smith demonstrated that by pursuing self-interest in this way, the individual frequently promotes the interests of society more than when he submerges self-interest. The demand sets the price but the supply creates the demand. Creating, risking, and giving—the foundational character of capitalism—will ultimately lead to wealth. Taking, consuming, and exploiting fundamentally opposes this process.

Do you know the muffin man? The baker who looks to make a profit will formulate his entire business around giving and reciprocity. First, he will examine the people to whom he would sell and determine what types of products would best fit their desires and wants: “Are these blueberry people or will chocolate chips make them happy?” The muffin man will only be successful in gaining a profit if he creates a product that consumers will demand; however, the baker will never be a success if he does not create a compelling muffin. Second, he will take on financial risk. He must spend money to create the perfect muffin—crunchy sugar on top, light fluffy dough, and poppy seeds; all the hipsters love poppy seeds. Only after the baker has considered the needs and wants of his neighbor and then taken on risk by creating a product (with no promise of reciprocity) will he present a gift. If the gift is taken, then the baker’s wealth will grow. If the gift is denied, then the baker must see where he failed to present a good and compelling gift. A successful muffin man will make the interests of others his chief concern.

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