An interesting post on First Things by Michael Novak, “ Caritas and Economics.” Novak discusses the different understandings embodied in the six different Latin words for love.
In anticipation of some of my own work looking at private property in light of the tradition of the Orthodox Church, my attention was drawn to Novak’s definition of capitalism. I think he is correct in his assertion that, “ Especially in Europe, capitalism is a term supposed to be spoken with faint—or not so faint—moral disapproval.’ He continues that, at least among those who are self-appointed and anointed right thinker, “It is what all are supposed to be opposed to, not only by Marxists, who spent more than a century vilifying (and misdefining) the term, but also by humanists, poets, playwrights, churchmen, journalists, and all sensitive spirits.” The key to his criticism of the critics is, I think, the charge that most of those who reject it do not understand capitalism. While he doesn’t say this, in my own experience I have found that many opponents (and not a few proponents) of capitalism base their views on a straw man. So, let me turn the stage over to Novak and his answer to his own question “What do I mean by capitalism?”
It is not a term accurately defined by (a) private property, (b) market exchange, and (c) private accumulation or profits. That is the way Marx defined it, and that definition applies to virtually every economic system in history, even in biblical times. It is not sufficient to distinguish capitalism from the pre-capitalist systems that prevailed everywhere until the end of the eighteenth century and still prevail in most of what is called “the third world.” Max Weber, R.H. Tawney, and many others noted that something new entered the economic world some time after the Protestant Reformation. ( Post hoc, of course, is not propter hoc.)
So what is it that is unique to capitalism as an economic system? Capitalism “is the first mind-centered system.” In other words
It is the system constituted by social institutions that support human creativity, invention, discovery, enterprise. In this new economy, the most important form of capital is not land, as it was in feudal times (that is, most of human history); nor the cold instruments of production referred to as “capital goods”; nor even financial assets. The most important form of capital is human capital. The best resource a country has is its own people. The human person is the chief cause of the wealth of nations, deploying human skill, knowledge, know-how, inventiveness, and enterprise.
At the heart of capitalism though is a moral anthology that, while incomplete, is often overlooked by critics and defenders of capitalism and the so-called free market.
The moral principles that inspire capitalism, therefore, are three: creativity, community, and personal initiative. Capitalism is first of all a fruit of the human spirit. It depends upon, and nourishes, a special (and demanding) moral ethos. The formerly socialist countries are discovering how high and how difficult its moral standards are. (It depends, for example, on the rule of law and on respect for the free voluntary consent of persons. In nations where law does not rule and persons are treated as means or obstacles, capitalism withers.)
Contrary to what we sometimes think, and again whether we are opponents or proponents,
The most distinctive invention of capitalism is not the lonely individual, as is often charged, but social: the stock association, the business corporation (independent of the state, transgenerational, potentially international), the social market itself, practices of teamwork, brainstorming, and consensus building, and voluntary cooperation. The capitalist vision was the first to imagine the possibility (and moral imperative) of lifting every single person on earth out of poverty, to set the goal of universal economic development, and to bring about the embourgeoisement of the poor.
The whole article is certainly worth reading, especially Novak’s evidence based defense of capitalism and his treatment of the anthropology of love. What I would draw your attention to are the three core values, or better virtues, of capitalism: creativity, community, and personal initiative. Again while acknowledging their insufficiency for the whole of human personal and communal life, I cannot help but wonder if in fact we would not do better not only as a civil society but also as the Church of Jesus Christ if we did not foster more intentionally these three core virtues both in our clergy and laity. While we generally do a good job with the middle term, I think we have a generalized fear of the first and third—a fear I would suggest that while not wholly unreasonable (think heresy and schism) has become a source of much self-defeating behavior, policy and procedure in how we structure the life of the Church in America.
As always, your questions, comments and criticisms are not only welcome but actively sought.