Christians, Capitalism, and Culture: A Response to David Bentley Hart


Instead of engaging in sweeping condemnations of contemporary capitalism, those concerned about the present state of Western culture should focus upon the theological and philosophical errors shaping our time.

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In an article praising Pope Francis in the December 2015 edition of First Things, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart confesses his bafflement at “the anxiety, disappointment, or hostility he clearly inspires in certain American Catholics of a conservative bent.” Referring to Francis’s environmental encyclical, Hart states that “I can quite literally find not a single sentence or sentiment in Laudato Si’ to which it seems to me possible for any Christian coherently to object.” Hart adds that he “simply cannot find an assertion anywhere in its pages that strikes me as anything other than either a plain statement of fact or a reasonable statement of Christian principle.”

Such comments are audacious but untenable. Close examination of some of Laudato Si’s arguments does raise questions about their coherence. Many of the encyclical’s “plain statements of facts” are equally debatable, including by Catholics who (1) hold to the Church’s settled teachings on faith and morals and (2) understand that the magisterium does not claim any authority to rule on scientific and empirical matters qua scientific and empirical matters. As Cardinal George Pell stated in a Financial Times interview not long after the encyclical’s promulgation, “the Church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters.”

All this, however, is peripheral to the main thrust of Hart’s article, which is to censure what he calls “late modern capitalism.” To be sure, there is much about contemporary economic life with which reasonable people can and should take issue. I would suggest, however, that Hart’s particular critique leaves much to be desired.

Facts versus Claims

When Laudato Si’ was promulgated in June 2015, few “Catholics of a conservative bent” disputed the encyclical’s theological approach to the environment. As Pell stated in the same interview, “There are parts of it which are beautiful.” In this regard, Laudato Si’ extends previous magisterial teaching by Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. Instead, the criticisms concerned some of the encyclical’s statements of facts and the soundness of some of its arguments, especially regarding economic matters.

Take, for instance, the encyclical’s avowal—as if it is simply self-evident—that “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment” (LS 56). Who, one might ask, are these “economic powers”? And where do they articulate this type of justification? In short, until evidence is provided to the contrary, this is a contention rather than a fact.

Or, consider Laudato Si’s statement that “In fact [quidem], there are ‘proposals to internationalize the Amazon, which only serve the economic interests of transnational corporations’” (LS 38). Strictly speaking, this is not “a fact.” It is—in fact—a claim for which the encyclical provides no evidence. The only support offered for this statement is a footnote to the Conference of Latin American Bishops’ 2007 Aparecida document. But the specific reference in that text offers no proof of the factual basis for the contention being made. What we have here is an assertion based on an assertion.

The coherence of some of the encyclical’s economic claims is also questionable. Laudato Si’ invokes, for example, “global north and south” (LS 51) language to characterize what the encyclical portrays as the “south’s” exploitation by the “north.” The soundness of this characterization of the global economy, however, is doubtful. The terminology of “global north and south” is less reflective of the truths about economic development in the twentieth century than it is of the language and arguments associated with the long-discredited dependency theory. To this extent, the encyclical is inattentive to the fact, as illustrated in First Things, that many developing nations—Chile, China, India, Uruguay, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan (to name just a few)—have gone a long way toward escaping poverty (and, in some cases, are now formally classified as developed economies) by doing the opposite of what dependency theorists and other “north-south” paradigm promoters proposed and, in some cases, implemented.

My point is not to belabor the encyclical’s inadequacies as it ventures into subjects ranging from economic history to air conditioning’s environmental impact. Rather, it is to illustrate that some of Laudato Si’s statements (1) lack coherence or (2) present certain contentions as “facts” that turn out to be claims that any faithful Christian can reasonably dispute, either because of an absence of evidence or the existence of substantive evidence to the contrary.

Capitalism and Trade-Offs

Unfortunately, Hart’s broad generalizations are not limited to Laudato Si’. They are also manifested in his observations concerning what he calls “late modern capitalism.” For instance, Hart wonders how anyone can doubt

That, in fact, in many places, the operations of transnational capital—far from extending access to property, creating general prosperity, promoting democratic institutions, or advancing the causes of law and justice—destroy functioning local economies and communities, sustain and deepen poverty among those capital reduces to the commodity of cheap labor, exploit unjust labor systems, support despotisms, take advantage of conditions in regions too poor to impose or enforce environmental protections (for their ecosystems or their peoples), and are often complicit in the procedural abuse of persons who can hope for no legal redress?

It is not difficult to find examples of transnational corporations and banks behaving badly. They abound. Nonetheless, it is hard to understate just how much is missing from Hart’s picture.

One reason, for example, why millions of people in parts of East Asia and Latin America have escaped absolute poverty and substantially increased their incomes and lifespans is that some countries in these regions have opened their markets to foreign businesses and international capital flows. Plentiful evidence demonstrates that this type of openness has helped provide employment opportunities to millions of people and contributed to their escape from situations of bare subsistence living, in which one’s only job prospects were the type of back-breaking, low-paid, rural labor that (like thirty-year lifespans) characterized most of the pre-Adam Smith world.

Certainly, this has involved trade-offs. Not everyone wins from the changes associated from globalization. The smog that regularly envelops Beijing testifies to some of the environmental costs (most likely transitional) of economic modernization. But who actually denies this? Moreover, the benefits of these transformations go beyond the material. They have helped facilitate new horizons for millions once unlikely to venture five miles beyond their insular, poverty-stricken villages and who spent most of their time thinking about how to survive. Improving economic conditions have allowed many of these people to contemplate educational possibilities and political potentialities once limited to well-educated Westerners.

What Drives Capitalism?

More generally, Hart seems convinced that modern capitalism is underpinned by a range of unhealthy cultural phenomena. Can anyone disagree, he asks,

That among the cultural concomitants of late modern capitalism are a morally corrosive materialism, a libertarian individualism inimical to Christian virtue, and a consumerist ethos of interminable acquisition and waste that is not only spiritually debilitating, but also—from any vantage informed by the teachings of Christ—morally execrable?

This is a common critique of modern economic life. Indeed, many market-oriented economists have warned us against capitalism’s potentially corrosive effects on life’s non-economic dimensions. To say, however, that materialism, consumerism, and radical individualism necessarily accompany contemporary capitalist economies is less defensible.

Is there any evidence, for example, that people living 200, 500, 1000, or 2000 years ago were any less inclined to materialism than we are today? Is there any economic system in which consumerism has not reared its head? Surely the temptation to give undue significance to material things exists in all economic arrangements. As the Hebrew Prophets and Christ taught us, man is perennially tempted to worship Mammon rather than the Lord.

Although Hart targets “libertarian individualism” as a capitalist concomitant, the key protocols and institutions of modern capitalism—such as private property, free prices, free exchange, the free movement of capital and labor, banking systems that circulate capital and charge interest, limited government, and the rule of law—precede libertarianism by centuries. As the doyen of medieval economic historians, the late Robert S. Lopez, demonstrated in The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages (1971) most of these acquired “modern” form in medieval Catholic Europe. No one would describe this world as one characterized by radically individualistic cultures.

Likewise, there is nothing specifically libertarian about some of the crucial habits on which market economies rely. No dynamic capitalist economy can do without attributes such as hard work, trust, initiative, and economic creativity. More generally, Hart may underestimate how much modern capitalism depends on people being focused on meeting others’ needs in new and imaginative ways. Nor does Hart seem aware that extensive surveys of entrepreneurs illustrate that, although material rewards form part of their motivations, greater incentives include the desire to work for themselves, be inventive, and do something that genuinely interests them. Are any of these spurs premised upon accepting libertarian philosophical claims? I think not.

A Way Forward

Late modernity’s ills have less to do with capitalism than with the prevalence of bad ideas. Hart rightly states, for example, that “a technological, industrial, or commercial advance is not necessarily an instance of ‘progress,’ and may even constitute a step towards barbarism.” Conservatives, religious or otherwise, generally agree. But the thinking here that Hart criticizes is reflective of the secular progressivist outlook, a viewpoint easily found in distinctly market-unfriendly societies and movements.

Indeed, many of the attitudes and beliefs appropriately criticized by Hart—relativism, materialism, technologism, voluntarism—long predate modern capitalism. Philosophical relativism, for instance, was first articulated by Protagoras of Abdera in the fifth century BC. Voluntarism is indelibly associated with the writings of the medieval theologian Dun Scotus. As for technologism, Benedict XVI and many others have traced it to the thought of Francis Bacon, a man of the early Enlightenment.

Many people living in late modernity are, whether they know it or not, relativists, voluntarists, nominalists, or some combination thereof. We should hardly be surprised that they act accordingly. Market economies are susceptible to magnifying the effects of such actions because they give more scope to free choice than other economic arrangements. The answer, however, does not lie in the path of loudly denouncing capitalism and all its works. Nor does it involve extolling some of the alternatives mentioned by Hart, such as the “social democraticism” presently helping to bury much of Western Europe in a morass of economic decline, soft despotism, and political impotence.

Law, institutions, and better aligning of incentives can help address many of contemporary capitalism’s dysfunctionalities. Yet these will probably prove ineffective unless people who believe in the illuminating power of reason and the light of revelation invest resources in explaining why materialism, relativism, consumerism, and voluntarism are errors and unworthy of man. This is indispensable for the long-term development of cultures in which entrepreneurs understand the fallacies of techno-utopianism, consumers know why some things should never be bought or sold, and everyone realizes that neither practical nor philosophical materialism can meet man’s moral and spiritual needs.

Pursuing such a path is harder and more nuanced than engaging in holus bolus denunciations of an economic system that, for all its flaws (1) continues to help reduce poverty, improve health rates, and increase lifespans at historically unprecedented rates; (2) creates a plentiful material basis for more people to pursue goods like knowledge and beauty; and (3) allows growing numbers of people across the globe to realize previously unattainable opportunities. Difficult though it may be, we ought not only to eschew emotivism when discussing such matters but also to take both cultural renewal and capitalism’s achievements seriously.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.

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