Capitalism and Human Values

by Peter Augustine Lawler

So I got another reminder this morning that the American Enterprise Institute has a program called “Values and Capitalism,” which is directed toward Christian colleges and about showing the compatibility between the values of capitalism and what Christians believe. Someone might say we need this program today more than ever, insofar as our Evangelicals are lurching toward the social-justice Left and our young people are all for Bernie Sanders, arguably America’s most serious anti-capitalist candidate ever.

Then there are are studies that show that most young people today reject the brand “capitalism.”

And those that show that the more Americans know Berry Sanders and what he stands for, the more they like him. He’s the presidential candidate who doing the best in the polls, and the only one left who doesn’t repulse a large part of his country.

The Koch brothers, we read at NRO, are reducing their funding of and visibility in national politics, because their aggressive promotion of capitalist libertarianism is undermining their corporate brand. They will, instead, up their efforts to transform our intellectual culture by funding programs at our colleges and universities, as well as those run by public intellectuals. They’re looking to the long term, because the short term isn’t going so well.

Well, capitalists might be able to smile at the thought of the likely surge of the Libertarian party’s presidential candidate, likely to be Gary Johnson. The “double nevers” — never Trump and never Clinton — will probably have nowhere else to go. But Johnson is very definite about reforms that liberate his “primo cannabis” from repressive policies, but more than a bit murky about what we ought do on the economic front. It’s hard to say he’s a capitalist candidate.

When it comes to capitalist optimism about the beneficially productive effects of liberating the market from taxation and regulation, the candidate was Ted Cruz. He was, more precisely, the candidate who most perfectly reconciled Christian values (that is, the values of observant believers grounded in church homes) with capitalism. He had a lot of enthusiastic followers, that’s for sure. But overall his nuanced brand didn’t catch on.

Marco Rubio, by contrast, had a less nostalgic view of the capitalist agenda; he, unlike Cruz, wasn’t for some rollback that might include several constitutional amendments. There’s nothing all that wrong with America today that a little intelligent free-market economic reform couldn’t fix. I would go as far as to say that, despite his earnest eloquence, nobody much at all was listening to Rubio.

And the Republican primaries were dominated by a candidate who rejected many of the values of capitalism.

Well, you might say, the industrialists like the Kochs are out-of-touch reactionaries. The dynamism of the 21st-century competitive marketplace is really working itself out on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. The “big data” of those disruptive innovators dwarfs that of the Kochs and their allies. Theirs is the “crony capitalism” we’re stuck with believing in, and it’s their values that are, in truth, dominating our institutions of higher education. Their candidate is Hillary Clinton. 

You can say that. But you’d have to be alert to the huge way Bernie Sanders has just whipped Clinton this campaign season on the level of ideas. 

What’s happened to “capitalism” the brand? Wait until next time for my full answer. For now, some teasers . . .

Well, for one thing: Capitalism gets us to smile when we think “liberation” and frown when we think “exploitation.”

And arguably what our young folks want (and who can blame them?) is all the benefits of personal liberation — or being able to do what you please when it comes, for example, to primo cannabis, while not having to experience the anxious insecurity of the unregulated competition that’s misbranded as exploitation. They want their choices to be as safe as possible. And they think government bureaucrats (such as those of the Obama administrations can help them out.

For another thing: The benefits of job-creating economic growth might not be as democratically distributed as they used to be. Not only that, the safety nets — both public and private — that cushioned the effects of capitalism on struggling people’s lives seem to be eroding.

Still one more thing, for now: For the capitalist libertarian, there are two categories: individualism and collectivism. But nobody believes in collectivism in the era of human rights. So it’s pretty much impossible to imagine today despotic efforts to turn individuals into comrades or even citizens.  So there’s little memory and even less fear of  freedom-sucking socialism as collectivism.

More soon.

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.