A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 11 of 12 — The Challenges
Religion & Liberty Online

A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 11 of 12 — The Challenges

[Part 1 is here.]

Economic freedom does generate certain challenges. The wealth that free economies are so effective at creating brings with it temptation. Wealth can tempt us to depend on our riches rather than on God. The temptation can be resisted, as we see with wealthy biblical characters like Abraham and Job. But it’s a challenge the church should be mindful of, helping its members cultivate a balanced view of money and of our responsibility and opportunities as stewards of the things God has given us.

The free society also can be hard on communities, since the free enterprise system makes for such a mobile society. Michael Miller talks about this: the opportunities and demands generated by a complex market economy mean that people often end up moving far away from their childhood homes and the network of relationships that surrounded that home. In seeking to meet this challenge, we need to ask ourselves what strategies would effectively address the problem, and are there well-intended policies that are likely to make the problem worse. In essence, we need to exercise the virtue of prudence.

The sociologist Robert Nisbet has some useful insights here. In his 1953 work The Quest for Community, he developed the case that greater centralized political authority and social safety net spending beyond a certain minimal level actually begin to undermine civil institutions and community, since people depend less and less on their family and community bonds and more and more on state-sponsored humanitarian assistance.

More recently David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute and columnist with the Irish Independent, spoke to this phenomenon in an interview he did for the PovertyCure initiative. “If you went into a parish in the most economically deprived parts of Dublin, you might find that mass attendance is two or three percent, and it’s overwhelmingly older people,” he said. “What you’ll find in these areas, by the way as well—and it’s not just in Ireland; it’s the case right around the Western world—is they’ve detached from religion; they have detached from politics pretty much; they don’t tend to be involved in trade unions; they’re not getting married. So they have retreated from all forms of institutional belonging essentially, and the one relationship that they have is to the welfare state.”

So, contemporary free market capitalism does put certain pressures on communities—people moving here and there to chase good jobs, for instance—but the answer isn’t a larger welfare state. That strategy has made things worse in lower income neighborhoods, and there’s reason to think the same holds true for society as a whole.

Nineteenth century political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the danger a century before Nisbet, after he came to the United States to study its people and institutions. His book Democracy in America is his attempt to help his fellow Frenchmen recognize some of the important ingredients in the American Experiment that were missing from the disastrous French Revolution.

The book is, in many ways, a celebration of the American republic, but in the course of the book, Tocqueville includes a warning about a danger he saw within American democracy, the potential for what he termed “soft despotism.” This is not the tyranny of the militant dictator, but a more insidious form of despotism he feared would take hold “in the very shadow of the sovereignty of this people.”

As he went on to write, “I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal” and above them “stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed.” It’s a ruling power, he continued, that “spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules” until it “reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.”

We have moved dangerously close to the culture Tocqueville foresaw, one where a growing number of people cede their freedom and responsibility to a benevolent state.

The dynamism of the free enterprise system puts special stresses on families and communities, but the answer isn’t “the government as shepherd.” The answer is what Tocqueville suggested in Democracy in America: to cultivate what he encountered and admired on his visit to the United States—strong civil institutions and local organizations, including churches, families and voluntary civic organizations, and to guard the kind of cultural food we consume.