In Support of Capitalism, America Style (part 1 of 3)

Hugo Chavez needs to zip his lip.

I've never heard Venezuela's bombastic president say anything that wasn't boldly anti-America, so I'm not surprised to see him criticizing us yet again. But his recent rants about capitalism being dead and socialism, of all things, being the answer for the future (yes, he really said that) are completely out of touch with both history and reality. Still, I don't normally pay much attention to goofball thugs like Chavez so why even mention it? Because Chavez, sadly, is not alone in his anti-capitalist furor. And some of those who are joining the capitalism-is-dead chorus are right here in the good ol' US of A.

I've been frankly stunned to see the number of newspaper articles, Op-Eds, blogs and even polls that are hinting or outright declaring that the whole American capitalist experiment is a failure, simply because of the current recession. I think most of them have incorrectly identified the problem, and thus they've incorrectly identified solutions (such as long term government intervention at many levels). All of which leads to a misguided reflection on American capitalism, and the mistaken notion that it has somehow "failed."

Now, I do not confuse my love for America with my love for Jesus, and my passion for our nation takes a firm back seat to my passion for the Kingdom of God. However, that said, I'm an unashamed believer in the principles that founded this nation, and I'm sad to say I didn't learn many of them until long after graduating from high school. So even though this blog is mostly about Christian theology and comparative worldviews I want to spend a few posts hammering out some of the many thoughts that have swirled in my head over the past few months. I've been consistently frustrated as I watch the talking heads miss the point, the citizenry unknowingly abandon core principles, the president squander a colossal opportunity, and everyone look for easy scapegoats. I'll explain all this in the next couple posts, so if you can stand my rants and ruminations then sit back and enjoy a defense of democratic capitalism, America style.

3 Spheres of American Society
When they created this nation our Founders were engaging in an experiment -- an attempt to order a society in a way that had never been tried before. Most of our civics classes taught us that this boiled down to three separate branches of government with a system of checks and balances. That's true, but the experiment was much larger than just the structure of the federal government. The Founders actually divided the whole of American society into three spheres: the political, the economic, and the moral/cultural.

The political sphere exists for maintenance of law & order, national defense, the enforcement of justice, etc. It is made up of all the institutions of government: courts, legislatures, executives and law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels.

The economic sphere exists to generate the wealth (money, products, services) that both the citizens and the government need to survive and to thrive. It is made up of all the institutions of business: factories, corporations, farms, stock exchanges, shops, banks, etc.

The moral/cultural sphere exists to provide meaning, purpose, and direction to the society (the "soul of the nation," so to speak). It is made up of many different institutions which traffic in ideas, meaning, theology, and philosophy such as churches, schools and universities, the press, the arts, etc.

These three spheres were identified, separated from, and protected from one another with a great deal of intentionality. In his challenging but masterful book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak puts it this way:

"What the founders of democratic capitalism most feared is the gathering of all power into one. No human being, they believed, is wise or good enough to be trusted with undivided, unitary power. For this reason they separated moral-cultural institutions... from the state. But they also separated economic institutions from the state.

"In earlier eras, clergymen and aristocrats alike had much to say about economic life. Bureaucrats of church and state controlled economic activities, bestowed licenses, imposed taxes and tariffs. Similarly, clergymen meddled in politics and political leaders in religion. Both censored intellect and the arts. It is a distinctive invention of democratic capitalism to have conceived a way of differentiating three major spheres of life, and to have assigned to each relatively autonomous networks of institutions." (emphasis added).

The separation and interrelation of these three spheres form the superstructure, or skeleton, of America. Next: how these three sets of institutions were to influence, and yet remain protected from, one another.


Ken said...

I can't stand Hugo Chavez either. And besides, this isn't the first time they've written the obituary for American-style capitalism.

The Founding Fathers were barely 100 years separated from some of the worst religious conflicts (which are rarely about religion). I like the point that they did not want one person or group to have too much power.

I am not a person that believes in a completely unregulated Free Market. For the Free Market to work correctly, there needs to be a conscience there. Competition is good and drives innovation, ingenuity and encourages efficiency. Regulations can be useful.

As he was enacting many of the reforms of the New Deal, FDR was often called a Socialist or Communist by his largest critics for such programs as Social Security. However, he knew that by restraining capitalism in certain respects, he was also saving American capitalism.

Anyway, I believe that American capitalism with weather this storm. Politically, though, I believe that we are still on the march towards more consolidation of power in the hands of a few, but that the subject of a new blog post. Hey, maybe I'll post again soon!

Matt Guerino said...

Ken, great to see you back. We are definitely on the march toward more state power for the foreseeable future, and I think you should definitely blog about that.

I think a completely unregulated market is more of a theoretical construct than a real one - I have a hard time picturing how both government and social pressures could be absent or fail to make their presence felt to at least some extent on the economy. And this is good: I don't know of too many real people (read "non-elitist-academics") who advocate for a society where, say, fraud or breach of contract are not punishable offenses. Of course the question remains how much regulation is good? And perhaps more importantly, what principles will guide us as we seek to answer that question?

Speaking of which, that's where I'm headed next. So thanks - your comment is the kick I needed to get part 2 up, so here goes!

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