Capitalism & the Common Good

In assessing capitalism from a Christian theological perspective, Daniel Bell isn’t claiming that capitalism doesn’t work.  He admits that it does and that it often improves the condition of the poor.

For Bell, however, the question isn’t whether or not capitalism “works.”  The question is, What work does it do (p. 88)?

Daniel Bell, The Economy of Desire

He begins with a prior question: What are people for?  What’s the end or purpose of humanity?  Across Christian theological traditions, the end of humanity is to enjoy communion with God and enjoy God’s goodness along with one another.

In assessing capitalism (or any economic order), then, the question is, “Does it enable and enhance humanity’s chief end of glorifying and enjoying God forever?  Does it aid or obstruct desire in its ascent to God?”  Put another way, “With our economic lives ordered by capitalism, are we able to worship God truly?  Are we able to desire God and the gifts of God as we ought? (pp. 88-89)?”

As I mentioned previously, Bell claims that “capitalism is an economy of desire that works against the created end of humanity, which is to share in the communion of the divine life of the blessed Trinity” (p. 93).

One way capitalism does this is in its implicit anthropology, envisioning the human as ultimately self-interested:

[I]n a capitalist culture we are constantly reminded to look out for number one, businesses are increasingly run with an eye not toward public service but toward increasing the value of stockholdings, our youth respond to queries about why they want to do what they want to do with the mantra “to make money,” and worship is planned and marketed in terms of how it can met my needs and what I get out of it.  Here we might recall the well-known line from Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.”  For Smith, the dominant force in human life was “the uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his own condition,” a sentiment echoed by a contemporary economist as he writes, “I do not know the fruit salesman personally; and I have no particular interest in his well-being.  He reciprocates this attitude.  I do not know, and I have no need to know whether he is in direst poverty, extremely wealthy, or somewhere in between . . .  Yet the two of us are able to . . . transact exchanges efficiently . . . ”

The emphasis on self-interest entails a rejection of any substantive notion of a shared purpose or common good that unites humanity.  Already we have seen how the capitalist individual and capitalist freedom are set over against communal ends and collective purposes.  Some Christian economists defend this rejection of a shared purpose on the grounds that such is simply not possible in large societies.  Other economists suggest that “as commendable as the goals of friendship, charity, and fairness are, it is naïve to expect people to behave in a way that they will be realized.”  This is echoed by one of the leading lights of the neoliberal economic vision when he notes that love is simply not possible as an economic motive, and it is further reinforced by other economists who strive to show how self-interest can explain decisions in all realms of life, from theft to governance to marriage.  Perhaps the most famous expression of this rejection of any notion of a common good comes from Milton Friedman, when he dismissed the idea that businesses have a “social responsibility,” saying, “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

At best, capitalism is compatible with only the thinnest notion of a general interest, understood as securing the conditions whereby individuals are free to pursue their disparate private goods (pp. 100-102).

It is worth considering how capitalism as an economic order shapes imaginations and social practices in such ways that break down communal bonds.  If humanity’s end is enjoying God and enjoying God’s blessing along with others, is capitalism an inherent threat to God’s aims for humanity?

13 thoughts on “Capitalism & the Common Good

  1. Kim

    This is an important post – for it gets at the heart of the tensions between our societal commitments (including economic) and our covenant faithfulness to our Triune God.

    One person who discusses faith and economic issues well is Michael Kruse – his blog is the

    He often makes the point that self-interest and selfishness are two different things, and that Adam Smith is widely misunderstood – even by economists! The baker is not selfish in his self-interest – the “transactions” that are facilitated between him and the community are mutually blessing. The baker uses his gifts to meet the self-interested needs of the community. Those self-interested transactions are win-win, and do not detract from shalom, but actually enhance it, for he is adding value to the community through his service, and in his self-interest he is asking for a sustainable return on his “investment” of time, materials and expertise. Without that return he could no longer provide that service.

    I’m no economist, but I’m wondering if there isn’t something about this statement – “One way capitalism does this is in its implicit anthropology, envisioning the human as ultimately self-interested” – that needs to be questioned. For what does it mean to “love your neighbour as yourself” if not to engage in unselfish but self-interested transactions – that are motivated by love of both yourself and your neighbour.

    1. timgombis

      I take your point, Kim, and I do think it’s worth questioning if Bell rightly represents Smith here and whether self-interest is altogether a bad thing. After all, doesn’t the call of the gospel appeal to self-interest? “Repent or face judgment,” is an appeal to our interest in self-preservation and avoidance of judgment.

      In my undergrad I read Hayek and Friedman and completely bought this calculus–that is, the relationship of self-interest to inevitable communal good. But I’m not sure it always works this way, and I’m not sure that capitalism as an economic order that fosters and orients our desires works in just that way. It seems that pure self-interest in a growth economy leads to the posture of indifference toward those who are suffering, or indifference to inevitable costs to others, animals, and the environment. So, if my profits go up and my business expands at the expense of others, I won’t mind. Does capitalism foster an attitude of indifference to these inevitable outcomes?

      Perhaps it’s that too often self-interest at the expense of others is how it works out in practice.

      1. Kim

        No doubt that in practice self-interest devolves into selfishness, and capitalism itself encourages that by reducing relationships to transactions which aren’t necessarily oriented to a common good or any transcendent telos. Capitalism is quite worthy of critique, and Bell is helpful in that regard.

        I do take think it is important to make a distinction between the market and capitalism. The market as an efficient way of conducting transactions is a good that can fit into other meta-narratives other than capitalism.

      2. timgombis

        I agree–too often capitalism is regarded as synonymous with free markets. They’re related but not the same thing. I’m skeptical about tinkering with markets but I do think there are some sinister elements of a capitalist conception of things.

      3. Matt Waymeyer

        Hey Tim, I’m just finishing up Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, so I’ve got these issues on the brain as of late. A question for clarification: what would be an example, in a purely free market economy, of how one business or businessman might expand/prosper at the unjust expense of others? Put another way, when you refer to one’s business expanding at the expense of others, what kind of thing do you have in mind?

      4. timgombis

        Hey Matt, looking forward to the Bears/Packers game this weekend!

        Bell’s beef isn’t so much with markets or free market economies, but with capitalism. He’s especially concerned with global capitalism, which relates markets of all sorts, and which is abstract, depersonalized, and non-territorial. So, an example might be how goods arrive on our shelves that have been produced in other parts of the world in conditions where people, animals, or the earth are mistreated, abused, or polluted. In such scenarios, companies can make money and grow at the expense of others. Doing such damage isn’t a concern for corporations, which are only focused on making profit for shareholders by bringing goods to markets as efficiently as possible.

  2. Matt Waymeyer

    Hey Tim! I saw in your previous comment (after I had posted mine) that you referred to the distinction between capitalism and a free market economy, a distinction I’m not familiar with. So I guess I have some more reading to do! It does sound like the scenarios suggested by Bell are either exceptions to a free market economy (e.g., using child slave labor in a third-world country to produce the caps you attach to the widgets you sell here in America) or issues that can be dealt with effectively within a free market economy (e.g., harm to the environment).

    Regarding the game on Sunday, if the Packers can get Matthews and Woodson back from their injuries, I feel pretty good about how we match up, especially now that our running game is starting to click. I still think back to watching that MNF game in your apartment when the Bears’ fan jumped out of the stands and caught the ball mid-air after it passed through the uprights!

    1. timgombis

      Bell has in mind the abstracting and deterritorializing aspects of capitalism, or the marketizing of all of life, resulting in the treatment of creation (people, animals, the earth) in ways that are sub- or anti-Christian. He also sees markets of all sorts (free markets here, manipulated markets there) as “neighborhoods” in global capitalism. I’m still trying to get my head around his analysis.

      Doesn’t look like Woodson or Nelson are going to play, but I must say that the Bears are sort of falling apart and I don’t know that the Packers have much to be worried about. I think of that game every time they play! I still can’t believe that guy didn’t break his legs.

    2. timgombis

      Also, Matt, I’m just not sure what Bell would say about free markets. I’m about to get into the section of his book on practical responses to global capitalism’s deleterious effects, so we’ll see if that relates at all.

  3. Pingback: this went thru my mind |

    1. timgombis

      It seems an overly-optimistic conception of capitalism. Too far gone to redeem? It seems that capitalism’s dynamic works against creation’s goodness, so I’m not sure it can be redeemed, even if not too far gone.

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