Response to theocapitalism, Law #4 - Continued
Capitalists are right, or at least partly so: many rich people are good people – hardworking, clever, dedicated, disciplined, and exactly the kinds of people who should prosper. But unless they use their prosperity for the common good, they find themselves working for a theocapitalist prosperity system rather than the love economy of God. In the theocapitalist system, all that is expected is the single bottom line of return on investment, but in the love economy of God, the stakes are higher and success is more meaningful: the bottom line of economic profit is exchanged for the top line of the common good. (221-222)
The phrase “common good” is a favorite of McLaren’s in Everything Must Change. Unfortunately, it is also a phrase that has been used by a wide variety of Marxist and socialist movements over the years. (“Goods held in common for the common good.”). “Common good” has been a major theme of the Niebuhrian Christian Socialist model that still holds sway in many Mainline theological academies today. Rather than envisioning individuals and families with rights to their wealth and to the fruits produced by their property, wealth is viewed as society’s possession. It may be appropriated and used on utilitarian basis for whatever the state deems is in the “common good.” Wealth is something that is privately held only insofar as it serves the state’s definition of the common good .
There is a profound epistemological question here: What is the common good? Who decides? What actions achieve it?
One economic epistemology views markets as functioning with near perfect efficiency. They achieve the highest approximation of the common good. Therefore, what “is,” is optimal. Another epistemology posits that there is an optimal state of being we have yet to achieve. Therefore what “is,” is not optimal. Markets must be managed to the higher common good. We are back to my George Brett analogy. Should I seek his autograph because three out of ten times over his career he managed to get a hit or should I be embarrassed for him because seven out of ten times he failed to accomplish his objective? Just because Brett was better than all but a handful does that mean that we can’t create a future crop of players who would make Brett look mediocre?
Now let’s be fair here. I don’t recall McLaren calling for state ownership of private property anywhere in this book. I expect he would balk at the idea that he is promoting socialism. Yet he has made clear that a well functioning prosperity system is a matter of for the state, with charitable institutions and non-governmental agencies springing up only as remedial institutions to plug in where government fails. The “common good” is our highest aim but theocapitalists have locked us into a suicide machine. There is impending environmental disaster and resource depletion just over the horizon. Economic growth must be halted and wealth redistributed to the world’s poor. Who has the responsibility for correcting the situation? Isn’t it the state?
Nowhere does McLaren make an explicit case for a socialist economy. He does make general suggestions about what we might do on an individual micro level. Still, I see nothing in what McLaren describes in this book that would seem to preclude at least a soft socialist economy as a viable and even laudable development to protect the “common good.” The lack of clarity is unhelpful.
I think the problem enters when begin with the idea of either individuals having ultimate property rights or in seeing all property as the states. All that is belongs to God and he ordains how it is to be used. Stewardship is paramount in God’s eyes and there can be no stewardship without economic freedom. Yet there are communal obligations that God demands from us in the use of our wealth. This tension seems to me to be the place to begin a discussion.
Later McLaren writes:
U2 front man and rock-prophet Bono also understands the challenge: “Distance does not decide who is your brother and who is not. The church is going to have to become the conscience of the free market if it’s to have any meaning in the world – and stop being its apologist.”
Economics need not be a dismal science or the study of so-called filthy lucre. It can instead be the story of human beings working together for the common good in God’s love economy. Each person using, the gifts she has been given, through trial and error, success and failure, struggles to become the best she can be at what she is gifted to do. She brings into the world her own unique good works or good deeds … each an expression of her uniqueness as a person created in the image of God and as a citizen in the kingdom of God. Through the medium of money, she exchanges the fruits of her labors with others who bring different goods and services to the economic table.
Together they are deeply grateful for all they earn and have, and they are careful to share with those who are in need. Where there are systemic injustices that privilege some and disadvantage others, they work for justice so the system becomes more of what it can and should be. Those who are more prosperous, believing that more is expected from them, seek to use their advantages to help those who are less prosperous, and together rich and poor seek to build better communities that in turn, build a better world. This collaborative pursuit, they discover, brings the co-liberation of true prosperity. (223)
I’ve been following U2 since 1982 and I’m a big fan. However, I don’t look to Bono for economic analysis. :)
This passage is confusing. In the first paragraph, McLaren characterizes the free market as evil. We must cease being its apologists. Then in the next two paragraphs, he gives a very good description of living in a free market economy. People doing non-coerced work trading with others in non-coerced markets. People with wealth exercise benevolence toward others. Or as Adam Smith said:
And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, Book I.1.44)
Free markets are similar to free speech. Most Christians would defend free speech but fully recognize that justice requires some limits. You can’t falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowed theater or slander another person. If someone does slanders another we don’t mount a movement to rally against free speech. We rally against the slander.
The free market, or economic freedom, is not an absolute freedom either. Partnering in business with corrupt officials who suppress other’s property rights is not a valid free market arrangement. We should oppose corruption in support of legitimate free markets. I doubt Bono or McLaren would call us to cease being apologists for free speech in the face a slander. So why call for us to cease being apologists for free markets in the face instances of corruption? I don’t get it.
Finally, an aside about the dismal science. The phrase came from an 1849 publication by political economist Thomas Carlyle in response to arguments made by John Stuart Mill. (see article) Mill made the case that slavery should be abolished and Africans should be treated as free workers with markets deciding appropriate wages. Carlyle took exception to this, arguing that slavery was ordained by God and Mill’s vision was a destruction of the social order. Mill countered that Carlyle was merely arguing from the standpoint of “the law of the strongest,” something the greatest teachers have called upon us to abandon. Carlyle called Mill’s perspective the dismal science because it would undo the social order. He found Mill’s egalitarianism dismal.
However, the mythical, but widely attributed, origin relates to the Malthusians. As we saw earlier Malthus believed that improved human conditions would only lead to population growth beyond carrying capacity before famine, war, or disease would cause the population to collapse back to earlier levels. The science was dismal because it occupied itself with gloomy impending cataclysms. While there are various revivals of Malthusianism from time to time, it has not been more than a minority voice over the past century. Ironically, it is McLaren’s neo-Malthusian perspective that is the dismal science, not economics.