A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 8 of 12 — Capitalism and Cronyism Confused
Religion & Liberty Online

A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 8 of 12 — Capitalism and Cronyism Confused

[Part 1 is here.]

In his case against capitalism, Wendell Berry argues that the average person not only is anxious because he depends upon so many other people for his wellbeing (truckers, utility companies, etc.) but that he ought to be anxious. There’s a grain of truth here. We shouldn’t become helpless sheep without a clue what to do were the power to go down for a couple of days in January. But inter-dependency, far from a sign of cultural sickness, is the mark of a healthy society, one where enough trust exists to allow for broadening circles of productivity and exchange, for markets that extend beyond clan and tribe.

Berry’s disdain for the cities of present-day capitalism knows few bounds. “No longer does human life rise from the earth like a pyramid, broadly and considerately founded upon its sources.” he writes. “Now it scatters itself out in a reckless horizontal sprawl, like a disorderly city whose suburbs and pavements destroy the fields.” No longer? Cities have been displacing fields for as long as there have been cities, though now that we have the technology to build vertically, they are able to cover fewer acres per capita than they might otherwise.

I’ll agree that there’s plenty of thoughtless sprawl and soulless architecture out there, but why the image of a pyramid? The Egyptian pyramids were built by slave labor and used as lavish tombs for the Pharaohs, geometrical monstrosities without light or whimsy, orchestrated by deeply unfree, top-down political regimes. Sure, they’re cool for being really big and really old, but they’re devoid of the contours, variety, and vibrancy that characterize the cultural artefacts of the Western tradition at its best.

The problem with Berry runs deeper than an unfortunate choice of figurative language. There’s much that is good, true, and beautiful in his writings, but running throughout his work is something bordering on land idolatry, something that goes well beyond a healthy love and appreciation for the natural order of God’s Creation.

Then, too, there his conflation of the free economy with what alternately has been described as state capitalism, crony capitalism, or crony socialism—an economy where the rich and well-connected get together with politicians and bureaucrats to tilt the playing field in their favor and wall small businesses out of the game. Every economy has some of this, but the freest economies in the world today have far less of it.

In Berry’s oft-reprinted essay “The Total Economy,” there are flashes of clarity on the issue of cronyism and how it shouldn’t be conflated with genuine market freedom. For instance, at one point he notes, “The global economy is now institutionalized in the World Trade organization, which was set up, without election anywhere, to rule international trade on behalf of the ‘free market’—which is to say on behalf of the supra-national corporations—and to overrule, in secret sessions, any national or regional law that conflicts with the ‘free market.’”

His use of quotation marks around “free market” here is at least a start on making the crucial distinction between crony markets and truly free markets. Unfortunately, the work of clarification proves abortive. The piece, in toto, makes it sound like the World Trade Organization and other international governing bodies are the unflinching, if bullying, defenders of unbridled economic freedom across borders, when really these governing bodies are deeply implicated in the game of market manipulation.

James Sheehan gets at this point in “Who Needs the WTO?”:

In trade negotiations, bureaucrats have an incentive to maintain trade barriers as bargaining chips for the negotiating process. This is why the GATT/WTO have been at it for over five decades and we still do not have free trade. It is not in the bureaucrats’ interest to adopt free trade, because they would have nothing left to do. They would prefer a perpetual series of negotiations where they can broker power between various governments and interest groups.

Similar criticisms can be leveled against specific “free trade” agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). U.S. Congressman Ron Paul, a consistent defender of free trade, emphasized the problem during Congressional testimony against CAFTA:

If we were interested in free trade, as the pretense is, you could initiate free trade in one small paragraph,” he said. “This bill is over 1000 pages, and it is merely a pretext for free trade.… I believe in free trade, but this is not free trade. This is regulated, managed trade for the benefit of special interests.

Berry misses all this. Instead of doing the patient spade work needed to uncover the distinction between cronyism and economic freedom, he is content to toss out fog bombs like this: “Communism and free market capitalism are both modern versions of oligarchy” (65). But to the degree an economy is an oligarchy it isn’t a free market.

A bit later Berry tosses another fog bomb, calling the global free market a “new colonialism without restraints or boundaries … as if the rabbits have now been forbidden to have holes, thereby ‘freeing’ the hounds” (66). This is also confused. Where the poor of the developing world have gotten access to wider circles of exchange and some measure of economic freedom, they’ve climbed out of extreme poverty literally by the billions, with a World Bank study finding that the percentage of people now living in extreme poverty has dropped from 52% of the global population in 1981 to 22% in 2008.

Apparently unaware of this development, Berry comments in a mocking tone that “sentimental capitalism,” the “free market,” and the “great corporations” promise “unprecedented security and happiness to ‘the many’—in, of course, the future.”

Berry needs to realize that the two billion people who have moved out of extreme poverty by way of global capitalism aren’t living in the future. They’re living now, and living much longer on average than their parents and grandparents. Poverty and injustice haven’t vanished, and they won’t this side of the Second Coming, but a global economic sea change this tangible and sweeping shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere fantasy.

Also, when Berry speaks of a pie-in-the-sky promise from the purveyors of capitalism, he obscures the fact that among the leading approaches to political economy in the modern era, the American Experiment of broad economic freedoms and limited government is the one that is manifestly anti-utopian, since it takes into account the Fall. Its historical competitor—socialism in its various guises— is the one with the utopian streak, imagining as it does that a new man can be fashioned by a clever class of political mandarins from the top down.

Even the Distributism extending from Chesterton and Belloc, for all its homely virtues, has a utopian streak running through it. Two streaks, really. First there’s its falsely idealized vision of Merry Old England before mean old capitalism arrived. Then there’s its groundless expectation that the government could be given vastly expanded powers to redistribute, and to keep properly distributed, everyone’s productive property without those enhanced powers fueling all kinds of unintended consequences, cronyism, and corruption.

The rise of large corporations is partly fed by economies of scale and has, in hundreds of millions of cases, improved the lives of the global poor. Some of those large corporations have abused their power, hurting many vulnerable people in the process. No serious student of economic history would deny this. But what Distributists and other proponents of increased top-down redistributive justice miss is that the growth of powerful multinationals is fed not just by economies of scale, but by the leviathan state teaming up with big business to limit the economic freedom of the poor and wall out small up-and-comers.

Doubling and trebling the power of the leviathan to range ever more deeply into the economy will not turn the creature into a beneficent shepherd.

[Part 9 is here.]