Capitalism may not have a soul, but working relations between Jim Wallis and Arthur Brooks might have a future.

The event last Thursday at Wheaton College turned more tea party (of the proper variety) than cage match.  Even when Jim Wallis announced that they had finally reached a point of disagreement, they weren’t allowed to linger long enough to engage in anything approaching a substantive debate.

That disagreement, though, is an important one.  Some brief summary, followed by analysis:

When asked whether and when income inequality is a problem, Arthur Brooks pointed out that when people get above the subsistence level, their happiness is more determined by whether they feel they have created their success than their actual level of income.  Income inequality, he contended, is largely treated as a problem because we feel as though it isn’t fair.

Wallis retorted that God cares about income inequality, and then pointed out from archeological evidence that prophets only arose in periods of extreme inequality.  He isn’t interested in total redistribution, but does want the prosperity of the society to be shared.

Two points about this:  first, I haven’t read all of Wallis’ works, so I can’t comment on whether he does this elsewhere.  But in the context of the debate, his decision to go outside the Biblical text itself to the archeology to make this point seems to presume that the correlation is actually one of causation (so the prophets arose because of income inequality, rather than some other sign of social decay or rebellion against God).

More importantly, as Brooks pointed out in his comments following, this emphasis on income inequality seems to reinforce the very materialism that is at the heart of our social problems.  Instead, Brooks emphasized throughout the night that the equality we need to strive for is the equality of opportunity to create value.  Brooks sounded variations on this theme throughout the night, underscoring that free enterprise isn’t about creating wealth (and often doesn’t lead to wealth for those entrepreneurs who most embrace it) but is about “productive flourishing.”

Yet ironically, it was on this very point that Brooks was also at his weakest. At a previous point in the debate, he affirmed that capitalism would encourage materialism and individualism only if we didn’t have a strong underlying culture.  He was asked directly again by Michael Gerson whether materialism is inherent to capitalism, to which he responded that “materialism is human tyranny” that isn’t the province of capitalism alone.  Whether the structures designed to promote free enterprise inherently promote materialism, however, are crucial questions that we needed much, much more clarity on. A strong does of Acton-style anthropology would have been helpful.

The real story of the evening, though, was how similar Wallis and Brooks sounded throughout the night. Wallis was clear he did not want to destroy capitalism, but called it a “tool” that should be evaluated by its fruits.   He spoke positively of the importance of trade at lifting countries out of poverty, and suggested he wanted a multi-faceted approach to solving income inequality.   Throughout the evening, he positioned himself as a pragmatist who simply wanted to do what works.  If he is opposed to capitalism, it is entirely on those grounds.

At the same time, Brooks was able to affirm that equal opportunity sometimes required intervention by the government in order to level the playing field, particularly (and maybe exclusively) in the realm of education.  At that point, he took over the pragmatic mantle and suggested that government simply hasn’t done a good job in that sector.  The clearest moment of agreement came when Brooks hammered subsidies for the way they give America and Europe an unfair advantage in sectors like cotton, a critique that Wallis gave full-throated affirmation to.

In conclusion, let me offer a few very tentative reflections prompted by the evening.

Wallis was at his best telling stories, and substantively most effective when discussing the role of profits for Christian businesses.  The reality is that profit for Christian companies should serve a very different end than secular companies, a point that Christians of every economic position need to affirm without reservation (even while disagreeing over the extent of taxation).

I have reservations that beneath Wallis’ positions lie an anthropology that treats humans as primarily consumers, rather than creators and producers.  I haven’t read enough (though I’m changing that) to know that for sure, so I register it simply as a worry.   Either way, it would have been interesting for the conversation to move into those deeper questions.  The question “what “works?” begs a gigantic “for what?” and that latter question is not properly the realm of economics, but is rather the sphere of theological anthropology.

At the same time, the left and right have competing stories about what “works.”  The left emphasizes those areas where government works and free enterprise fails, while the right emphasizes those areas where free enterprise works and government fails.  This isn’t to equate those two narratives for their accuracy, but the comparison should give us pause.  The neat symmetry suggests there are deeper unities than anyone would want to admit.

Finally, I have become increasingly convinced that the central problems of our global society are not tied to whether our society is capitalist or socialist, but whether it is consumerist and materialist–which everyone seems to be.  I am not suggesting that capitalism and socialism are equally productive of human flourishing.  I happen to think they are not.  But capitalism tied to materialism and consumerism may be far more destructive to society than when socialism is so tied.  That doesn’t mean that we should solve the problem by substituting socialism instead.  That would be simply to try to remove the symptom without curing the disease.  But it does mean that we need to reflect deeply about the best ways to eliminate materialism and consumerism from our structures of thought and our habits of life.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • I have become increasingly convinced that the central problems of our global society are not tied to whether our society is capitalist or socialist, but whether it is consumerist and materialist–which everyone seems to be.

    Yes! This is a clear-sighted and accurate diagnosis of our central problems. Thanks for sharing about “the debate that wasn’t.”

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  • Matthew,
    Thanks for the good post. I’ve written a response at my blog about it. Keep up the good work.

  • Dr. carter,

    Thanks. I saw that, and mean to have a reply up at some point tomorrow or Wed.

    matt

  • Anika

    Matt,

    Thanks for the rundown; I was looking forward to this debate for a while. I think it’s interesting that you find the problem with materialism and consumerism. There are several capitalists who argue that capitalism is actually anti-materialistic (see especially George Gilder in Microcosm). Another Acton fellow currently developing that line of thinking is Jay Richards, whose “Money, Greed, and God” is a great intro to the whole debate.

  • Anika,

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll add Gilder to my growing list of books to read.

    One of the fun facts that Brooks pointed out was that entrepreneurs report being the least motivated by material goods out of anyone, while federal employees are the most motivated by material things (I report, you decide).

    matt

  • I like this line: “I have become increasingly convinced that the central problems of our global society are not tied to whether our society is capitalist or socialist, but whether it is consumerist and materialist–which everyone seems to be.”

    Depending on the individuals on the ground or the culture(s) at large, I would agree that each system certainly *could* be more materialistic than the other in certain circumstances. In application, capitalistic elements certainly don’t guarantee a perfect society (any given African nation), just as socialistic elements don’t guarantee a terrible one (Norway…even though I think it’s terrible). You need other elements like trust, property rights, infrastructure, social stability, blablablabla. In application, I just think that debate is wide open.

    However, it seems that on the whole — on a more theoretical, system-oriented outlook — socialism as a system is more inherently *structured around* or *built out of* materialism than capitalism. I see materialism as being in its most basic sense an unhealthy desire for material things. I hate to bust out a dictionary definition (I hate it when people do that!), but here’s how the Oxford Dictionary describes it: “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.”

    Aren’t the “spiritual” elements the very things that socialism, both in its aim and effect, tries to inhibit? Sure, some people lump positive spiritual elements in with “greed” or “lust for power!” (e.g. ambition, flourishing, succeeding, prospering, giving, investing, developing, etc.), but it seems that socialists typically don’t care what spiritual endeavors they are stifling. In the end, they think material equality is more important than individual growth. Socialism assumes that risk is a bad thing and material security is supreme, when on the spiritual side, risk may very well be *more* healthy and constructive for the individual and his/her community.

    In capitalism, there are plenty of folks who have the freedom to be materialistic in their thinking, but they have just as much freedom to walk away from everything material. The system itself may promote opportunities for materialism, but the logic of the system itself is not grounded in an elevation of the material over the spiritual.

    Anywho, thanks for wrapping up the event. It sounds like a great dialogue to get moving and I’m glad Wallis wasn’t as blatantly anti-capitalism as I assumed he’d be.

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  • Mark

    >> Finally, I have become increasingly convinced that the central problems of our global society are not tied to whether our society is capitalist or socialist, but whether it is consumerist and materialist–which everyone seems to be.

    As Joseph pointed out there is more freedom not to be in capitalist systems that in socialist ones. Laslet and Illich can tell you why consumerism is endemic to *modern life*, not to capitalism or (socialism) per se. People throw around the term *consumerism* as a perjorative, but the fact is that when our culture stopped making things for ourselves we’re all forced to be consumers. After WWII 30% of homeowners built their own homes to live in. Now few know how to even drive a stick-shift or fix a tire, let alone build a house. Hello professionalism and welcome consumerism. The culture of professionalism never enters the discussion though, and that is one of the many reasons this debate is impoverished. It is one of the keys to understanding how we are now that no one notices.

    http://www.eric.ed.gov:80/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED163888&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED163888

    Not only is the culture of professionalism unseen, but “consumerism” is used ambiguously and equivocally as is “capitalism” in this stew. I don’t mean to sound preachy but I don’t think we’ll get anywhere by concentrating on some features of modern life to the exclusion of its most decisive features. On the capitalism, here is Laslet in “The World We Have Lost”:

    “Capitalism, then, is an incomplete description and historians’ language is marked by many other incomplete descriptions too … The historical distortions which come about from the uncritical use of ‘capitalism’ … have arisen from an obliquity which we an only now begin to correct. With the ‘capitalism changed the world’ way of thinking goes a division of history into the ancient, feudal, and bourgeois eras or stages. But the facts of the contrast which has to be drawn between the world we have lost and the world we now inhabit tends to make all such divisions into subdivisions. The time has now come to divide our European past in a simpler way with industrialization as the point of critical change.”

    And I’m amazed that no one has pointed out that envy is “the sin of socialism”. It truly is, as has been noted and observed by many of the wise for generations. As one of the seven deadly sins, envy tends to corrupt far more effectively and deeply than consumerism and materialism. Truth is that the “consumerism” and “materialism” spoken of is a very soft form among most and can hardly be avoided for the reasons I mentioned. Economic cycles and the memory of them even have a tendency to curb consumerism and materialism. Once envy gets ahold of most people they’ll not be able to shake it and it’s like a cancer.

    At then end of the day I think the rants against “consumerism” and “materialism” are usually wide of the mark and misguided. That people are so willing and ready to critique “consumerism” and “materialism”-we’ve heard this all since childhood -is an indicator that it isn’t the heart of the matter.

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