What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Money in the Garden of Eden?

by Tony M.

One of the perennial questions – though considered somewhat lightweight – is whether, had there never been sin in the world, would money have come into existence as part of the world of commerce? I admit that it may seem of small moment, given that sin DID occur, and that for several thousand years now we have seen money as not only an item of temptation but even in some sense a core facet of the sin of greed. Yet I think that answering this question helps put economic principles into a clearer light, and for this reason it is not wholly trivial.

I will be working with the Catholic understanding of the state Adam and Even enjoyed in the Garden of Eden, which may have a few small differences from how most other Christians view the matter. In that understanding, Adam and Even enjoyed what we call “original justice”, which entails a special set of gifts over and above the basic and all-important one of sanctifying grace (which is the indwelling of God Himself in the soul as its enlivening principle of spiritual life). The most important gifts in original justice show up in the fact that with their human wills being conformed perfectly to love of God through grace, so also their other faculties – including the appetible faculties and emotions – were subject to reason and will so that they were obediential rather than disruptive: they would feel hunger when and to the extent it was reasonable to feel hunger. One consequence is the immortality they were endowed with: with the body subject to the will, and the will corresponding to God, they were not subject to illness or death. This freedom from illness was (so far as I understand the teaching) extended to the external world as also freedom from intrusive events that would have been gravely troublesome, such as fatal earthquakes, floods, fires, etc.

Likewise, and importantly for this discussion, the Garden of Eden was a land of plenty, where God’s gift providentially provided for Adam and Eve without extreme effort, and without risk of severe hunger or cold, etc. Hence Eden is conceived as a garden paradise in which only good things happen.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that Eden meant a place where no activity at all was necessary, where (say) Adam had only to think “Gee, I would like that banana up there in the tree” for it to fall into his hand.

Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. (Gen. 2:15)

1. Other translations have “cultivate” instead of tend. Apparently, the Garden was not wholly maintained by pure miraculous intervention; rather, God intended that Adam and Eve (and their children) would participate in the production and maintenance of good things in this Paradise. Hence it follows that God did not wholly suspend the laws of nature, either, and allowed ordinary secondary causality like what we see today from natural causes, so that actions by humans would have also their ordinary kinds of (ascertainable and understandable) effects. At a minimum, it would seem necessary that people would have to harvest the produce. But eventually, for ease and convenience and planning purposes, in the long run it is likely that they would have added furrowing and planting to their “tending” the Garden. And if God allowed natural causes and effects to follow from human activity so that Adam and Eve could participate in the making of good things for each other and all men, then I think it also follows that Adam and Eve would have discovered some things work better than others in helping nature produce for our benefit. Thus, even if Eden was a land of plenty and no illness, no grave accident or death, there was still room for trial-and-error learning about natural causes, for experimentation, for the gradual development of learning and science through experience. If God’s miraculous intervention prevented all efforts that would not directly bear fruit, this would seem to preclude people learning the laws of nature – which is unseemly, unfitting for men intended to have dominion over it all.

2. In addition to men “tending to” the Garden and helping it along in how it provided the means of sustenance for all people, a further human participation would be expected, that of man inventing and making artificial goods: good things that are derived from what nature provides, but changed into something nature unaided cannot provide. This can be as simple as bowls and spoons, or as complex as a Stradivarius violin or a Saturn V rocket. This would be a major calling of activity for men, once there was a wide society of descendants of Adam and Eve. Even aside from the vast, incredible array of things that we have learned to make out of necessity in order to provide the minimum needed to sustain life, (in the face of a Nature who does not easily and automatically provide for us preferentially), we have also learned to make a great many things that make life better, and WOULD make life better in the absence of sin and in the center of Eden. Visual arts, musical instruments, scientific instruments, etc., these and more are useful not because of sin but because they enhance our ability to make use of natural goods. So, it would be a FEATURE of human civilization that men make things that increase our understanding and enjoyment of the good. Given that natural causes would have their ordinary effects, humans would readily and rightly make use of natural things as instruments to enhance our lives, and thus there would be extensive manufacture of artifacts as desired. Good things would consist not only of goods that occur naturally, and goods that occur due to our tending and persuasion of nature, but also goods that come about solely because we make them.

3. There is every reason to think there would be wide variation in humankind. This is apparent first from the differences God instituted distinguishing man from woman: the two together are a complementary set, neither one having the fullness of all of the good attributes of being human in the fullest degree. More generally, we see in all of nature that God delights in showing forth His vastness by using multitudes of individuals, distinct from each other, to hint at excellences that He holds simply in Himself: one is strong physically, another is clever at disguise, a third excels at enduring difficult conditions, yet another wise in rooting out first principles. I think we are safe to say this variation would also have applied to men and women descendants of Adam and Eve without the Fall, without any sin in the world.

Yet variation extends to more than just innate capacity to apprehend or act on nature; we would also see variation in what is desired in terms of degree: where one likes beaches and oceans best, another might like mountain lakes and streams best. Where ones like flowers and living “jewels”, another might better like the beauty of gems and “living” stone. It is true that there are hierarchical principles of goodness by which we could objectively judge A better than B where there is essential differentiation between them, but for things that are in principle on a similar plane of goodness, one person can be better “attuned” to the goodness of one good rather than that of another: one person can taste wines better and discern between them, while another can taste spices better and be more able to discern (and enjoy) them.

4. As a consequence, there would be variation in demand for goods. It follows upon variation in desire that different people would desire this or that good to a different degree. There might well be a norm, a central value of desirability that a certain good would hold for men in general, but in particular cases individuals would vary from the average by a smaller or greater degree. One person might like citrus fruit very much, an another might like apples better: the former might prefer to have 3 oranges over having 1 apple, and the latter might prefer 3 apples over having one orange, even where the average desire among all sits at a relative equality of 2 apples for 2 oranges. To the extent such desires would not interfere with good health and orderliness, it would be normal and wholesome to satisfy the different preferences with different goods made over to each one. This is implied in the term “paradise”.

5. It is impossible for all good things to be equally accessible to everyone without any effort. Even if we limit ourselves (first) to goods that nature herself produces, it is manifest that it is impossible for there to be enough room next to each and every person for him to have easy and equal access to every single kind of fruit tree, every kind of vegetable, every kind of spice, every kind of gem, every kind of hard or soft stone for using as a tool, etc., all within just a few steps of each person. There will be higher-concentrated pockets of goods of X sort, and (relatively) areas of lesser amounts of that X good. It would do little good to have one stalk of wheat within reach, interspersed with one apple tree, one head of lettuce, one oak tree, one stalk of asparagus…if you wanted to make bread, you better have enough wheat all in one place that you can harvest a bunch of it at one time.

Similarly, the tending and cultivation of the Garden implies that man will be involved as a participant in helping nature produce what is good for man. Thus man would eventually “help along” Mother Nature by putting the good things into more useful arrangements, more suited to our purposes than random chance would have them. There would be fields of wheat, orchards of distinct fruit, and so on.

When it comes to artifacts like tools and instruments, it goes even further: a man who undertakes the extensive effort to make a grand piano isn’t going to be equally devoted (in time and energy) to growing wheat and making bread, mining ore for metal, and making telescopes. When he is done making the piano, he would have a piano readily accessible and not a telescope or a violin. He might have to travel across town, or cross-country, to find other things accessible.

This separation of goods is even more true of goods that nature produces due to different geography: a person cannot have both a warm beach and a ski slope be immediately accessible to him so that both can be reached with no effort.

There will be variation in accessibility of goods.

6. Because there will be variation in desire, it will not be automatically and manifestly clear how much of manufactured artifacts will satisfy the desires of the populace: it will take time and effort to discover where the average lies, and how far off the average occurs the frequent variances. But this holds also even for natural goods, even if we can expect to have (to some degree) a more innate ability to predict the “ordinary” level of desire to be expected for such goods, we cannot hope to discern how large is the standard deviation from the middle of the normal range without some experiential inputs.

7. Hence there will be (a) local concentrations of good things, which others (not nearby) will want to enjoy; and there will be variation in the degree to which those who are not nearby will want to enjoy them. Thus there will necessarily be required a certain degree of EFFORT in transporting goods from where they first occur in higher concentrations, out to those who would like to enjoy them but don’t have any close by, or to move people close to the goods (e.g. beaches). And there will be, similarly, concentrations in effort for those who MAKE artifacts, in their work to produce good things, which will result in local concentrations of artifacts which require effort to bring into existence as well as effort to disseminate to those who are interested in them.

However, in addition to it taking effort to disseminate goods from local concentrations to a more spread-out population to enjoy, there is another need for managing these goods: allocations. For the goods that nature herself supplies in abundance so that there is enough and more for all, it merely takes effort to disseminate them. But for the goods that nature and man work together at to produce (i.e. through cultivation), we need to have some degree of knowledge of how much is needed and when to produce them / disperse more. For the artifacts that men make out of resources, men have to know how many to produce. Even if you imagine not a large complex society, but merely one family producing such goods, the adults have to plan for the use/consumption of the children who are not up to being able to produce each what each one needs and legitimately desires. Abundance in nature and prevention of natural disasters does not per se cause an abundance of the supply of artifacts – these will take human effort, and therefore it will take human allocation of effort to decide where to put more human resources and where not to: if more people enjoy violin music than bongo drum music, we need to have more effort go into producing violins and violin music than bongo drums. And since by and large nature will continue to follow the laws of nature, man will need to understand those laws and plan for development of goods with those laws in mind – i.e. the limits of natural laws as they impinge on producing new goods.

8. So, without any suggestion of sin or greed, or any suggestion of problems in nature or in man, there will still be limits of goods at least to the extent of goods accessible here and now until someone goes out and makes (or collects) some more. And because that effort of getting more, and transporting them, must be undertaken by people, the whole process will require information about (a) the total amount of desire for a certain kind of good; (b) the limits which will affect local or widespread supply over various time-frames; and (c) the relative variation of desires for different goods which can serve in place of other goods.

This just is PRICING information. It is through pricing that consumers indicate their relative levels of desire for different goods that could be available, it is through pricing that producers know whether to produce more or fewer items. It through pricing that producers indicate how much effort it takes to produce more of a product, and what the limits of resources that are affecting the supply chain. Money will be needed in order to allow the many different economic choosers to register their choices about where effort is best put to effect. Regardless of what is used as the money, whether gold or aluminum or paper, we will need the money to allow the market to convey the information needed about the interrelation between desires and limits.

If humans were run off an assembly line, where each human had exactly the same needs, in exactly the same degrees, and had exactly the same desires, and if a top executive had all necessary information about the natural and human resources available and how they could be used to satisfy the needs and desires, it might be possible to have a top-down economic model of allocating to everyone X apples, Y melons, and Z hours playing a piano on a fixed schedule. A picture of ants, perhaps. But humans are not like that, and no human authority has knowledge like that (for one thing, humans are constantly devising new ways to meet old needs, ways that are more efficient than past ways, ways that could not be anticipated before-the-fact of the new discovery or invention). Given the impossibility of any human authority being able to regulate all goods and efforts by directive mandate so that everyone had equal enjoyment of every good available, no such top-down economic model is a humane one. The only one that can be humane is a free marketplace, where each person is allowed to register his or her own preferences and capacity to help produce goods through buy and sell pricing that exchanges the goods available. In free marketplace, the information about how much effort it takes to produce or transport a good to make it available to others can be known both in general, as an average against the typical level of desire by typical buyers, and also respond to particularized information from one person whose need or desire is significantly higher or lower than the average: someone like Wilt Chamberlin needs a lot more food to stoke his furnace than a Napoleon would – but so is his greater ability to plow furrows, if that’s what he is good at and likes to do.

My picture of the economy of a developed society without the Fall and without sin includes a large marketplace for goods and services, with the following differences compared to what we endure: (1) Nobody is dis-valued for their being lesser able to do X activity than Y activity, all are valued not because they produce but because they love God and are part of that circle of friendship. (2) Everybody likes to do some sort of “work”, and usually several different types of work, because they have not been cursed by sin and the punishment for sin being to find work distasteful – i.e. they rejoice in work because it serves the good of the human family, and they undertake it with joy as well as for need (even relative "need"). (3) There are no disruptions of nature or of supply of goods from nature, due to bad weather, difficult climate changes, natural disasters, blights or the like, causing drastic reductions in the availability of goods. (4) Everybody’s basic needs are continuously and readily met with relative ease, with a modest but ongoing effort to improve on nature’s existing bounty. (5) Everybody’s desires for goods beyond those of basic need are inherently regulated by the limits of their availability: everybody is ready and willing to take a turn at enjoying a good when its availability (i.e. effective cost) is within reach, and to pass it up when its cost is too high, and to rejoice with others who can enjoy it even when they themselves cannot due to such limits. (6) People will use some sort of money to register their own personal preferences on matters of taste so that producers can tell how much to produce, and producers will inform buyers how much effort it takes, via pricing. (Oh, wait, that last isn’t different from our current condition, at least to the extent we have a more-or-less free market.)

Comments (20)

This is an interesting piece of speculative thinking Tony. Thanks for putting it out there.

I wonder: would the whole socialism vs capitalism clash of ideologies disappear in a no-fall world? Socialism fails because it does not recognize that man is fallen. Capitalism fails at times because man actually is fallen. (But for me, the occasional failures of capitalism are accidents, whereas the failure of socialism is essence.)

You are thinking about economics in the but-for world of no fall. My own speculations go to the question of whether in a no-fall world mankind would spread not only beyond this planet but to the stars. Would interstellar and even intergalactic travel become even feasible? I'm thinking of a progressive unfolding of creation. And, even more pragmatically, in a world with no death, population would increase and increase absent some sort of "you've been fruitful enough for now" order from God.

Joe, those are worthwhile questions, and I have considered them in one light or another. As for socialism: in my analysis above, I intentionally skirted the question of whether there would be private property as such, because I think the problem of allocation of resources (including human time and effort) require money even apart from private ownership. But I also think what I said above makes it clear that private property is natural and not merely an outflow of the Fall and ongoing sin. For one thing, looking at it from the perspective of just within the family, parents need to be able to allocate resources to each of their children - i.e. dealing with persons too young to know how or be able to correctly analyze their own needs against the needs of the larger society(s) and balance them - and in order to do so must be able to effectively set aside goods as retained and destined in the future for the good of specific persons. And that just is the meaning of private property. I would love to do a separate discussion on that, but it is a very involved issue. Edward Feser has an online essay of some length that delves into some (but not all) of the basis for private property: Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation I think I have a copy if you want it.

Ultimately, all private property is potentially usable in a sense as fostering the development of other goods. Hence there is no truly essential difference between the goods that are "means of production" and other goods, and thus there is no foundation for setting the "means of production" off-limits from the ownership of individual men.

My understanding of the clash of socialism vs capitalism is that it mirrors the inherent tension between subsidiarity and solidarity. But (again, unlike capitalism) socialism asserts something essentially mistaken, i.e. that it belongs to a fundamentally non-private role of deciding how to use the "means of production" for producing new goods, a role that cannot be exercised in the judgment of a private citizen and can only be exercised by one in authority for the common good. This socialist theory is wrong on many levels, but (in my opinion) most critically in its denial of the principle of subsidiarity as a co-equal principle of social dynamics: men achieve their best human flourishing in the context of making decisions that serve their own private good and also serve the public good at the same time, under different aspects or modes,* and these decisions necessarily include those of production, distribution, and consumption of goods. You can't take the decisions about production out of the hands of individuals without also taking away the decisions of distribution and consumption, and that just is a denial of subsidiarity altogether (and it naturally ends in totalitarian statist views). Men are not ants.

(* I believe that socialism is also weighted with a false assumption about the nature of the basic commercial transaction, namely the error that it is a zero-sum game, any profit to be had by one party necessarily implies a loss to the other party. Capitalism, whatever its flaws, does not make this mistake, and correctly allows for the different values to the individuals of the goods involved in a transaction, a principle rooted (as I indicated above) in the differences between individuals themselves as well as differences in their circumstances caused by Mother Nature not as a result of sin but as a result of variation in geography (among other things).

Nevertheless, the fact that there is inherent tension between subsidiarity and solidarity does not mean that it arises due to sin - quite the opposite, I propose that they were in tension even in the Garden of Eden (that's in part what I mean by "inherent"), because of the distinction between proper goods and common goods. Proper goods are those appropriated to specific individuals, because in use they are consumed or at least made inaccessible to others, whereas common goods are not diminished for others' use when used by one individual. Food is a proper good, person A eating a banana means person B cannot eat it. Knowledge, or a song, are common goods because person A enjoying knowledge of a fact or enjoying a song does not diminish the capacity of B knowing the fact or enjoying the song (it actually is the opposite: in friendship the two persons both enjoying the same common good enhances their enjoyment of the good, their sharing the same good is more joyful than each having it alone). In the Garden of Eden, then, the tension would be constantly and happily, joyfully resolved with mutual choices that properly balance the good of individuals (including consumption of proper goods that removes them from the total pool of goods for all the rest) with the good of the whole society. That proper balance is not a balance that DENIES any tension, it merely addresses the competing nature of the different levels of good with proper recognition of the hierarchy of goods and options available. Without greed (and with abundance of basic goods necessary for survival), in Eden each mature adult would readily acknowledge and readily make choices that serve the larger good of others when that was the appropriate choice, and would find pleasure in so choosing. (It doesn't hurt that in Eden, like what we now have, a mature healthy adult is well able to produce considerably more than each individual needs; but in Eden the youthful period before productive years would be lessened, and there would be no sickness and old age against which it would be necessary to store up value for later. Thus normally there would be "plenty" even aside from the fact that nature would not present men with constant natural crises like droughts and floods.)

As to expansion to other worlds, and excess population: I have speculations, but I admit they are merely that. We do not see clearly any basis for a limit in God's grant of "the world" to our use that tells us the moon and planets, and other planets in other systems, are off-limits to us. But the language of Genesis does allow for the possibility that God really did intend us to limit ourselves to this world, this planet (or maybe this solar system). Furthermore, God's blessing to Adam and Eve with respect to being fruitful and "multiply" carried with it a limiting phrase of its own: "fill the earth". C.S. Lewis, via Perelandra, speculates on the possibility that when the planet had been filled with people, there would have been a definitive end to the earthly phase of existence (in which temptation might occur), passing over into the everlasting phase of beatitude, in which we enjoy heaven and glorified bodies. Unless we suppose the licit expansion of mankind into space (which I am fine with in general), I would argue that the natural as well as sin-affected tendency of mankind to multiply implies a probability that God would step in with an intervention when the world is full of people, such as by the foretold end of the world.

If humans were run off an assembly line, where each human had exactly the same needs, in exactly the same degrees, and had exactly the same desires, and if a top executive had all necessary information about the natural and human resources available and how they could be used to satisfy the needs and desires, it might be possible to have a top-down economic model of allocating to everyone X apples, Y melons, and Z hours playing a piano on a fixed schedule. A picture of ants, perhaps. But humans are not like that, and no human authority has knowledge like that (for one thing, humans are constantly devising new ways to meet old needs, ways that are more efficient than past ways, ways that could not be anticipated before-the-fact of the new discovery or invention). Given the impossibility of any human authority being able to regulate all goods and efforts by directive mandate so that everyone had equal enjoyment of every good available, no such top-down economic model is a humane one. The only one that can be humane is a free marketplace, where each person is allowed to register his or her own preferences and capacity to help produce goods through buy and sell pricing that exchanges the goods available. In free marketplace, the information about how much effort it takes to produce or transport a good to make it available to others can be known both in general, as an average against the typical level of desire by typical buyers, and also respond to particularized information from one person whose need or desire is significantly higher or lower than the average: someone like Wilt Chamberlin needs a lot more food to stoke his furnace than a Napoleon would – but so is his greater ability to plow furrows, if that’s what he is good at and likes to do.

This is really well written and articulates well a big issue with centrally-planned top-down economies. (BTW, your talking about Wilt Chamberlain furnace needing stoking as well as his "plow"-ing is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I have ever read.)

Men are not ants.
This is a really pithy rhetorical riposte to socialism that I don't think I've ever heard. It sounds almost like a Chesterton turn of phrase.


Miscellaneous replies (not worthy of your writing, but I'll put them out there)

(1) Regarding your mention of Perelandra: it may be my favorite piece of fiction. There is this haunting scene at the end where, after surviving the temptation of the Un-Man, Ransom sees what was reserved for those who did not fall, the coronation of the king and queen of Venus, IIRC he falls to his feet in sadness at what humanity lost.

(2) Let's say the speculation that man was made for this planet alone ends up being true of the but-for world. I then wonder what the "point" of the sheer vastness of our observable universe (not to mention the actual universe) is beyond God's doing "art for art's sake" or something. But even if we could explore the stars in the but-for world, I guess in the end we'd still explore a vanishingly small percent of what is out there anyway before whatever the end would be. So what would the point be of, say, all those galaxies we will never discover and apparently have no causal effect on ours, given their distance from us?

I'll stop speculating since this thread is about money in the but-for world, so apologies if I've used it as an excuse to go on about too much off-topic stuff.

I gotta admit that I didn't think of the other sense of Wilt Chamberlain "plowing" when I wrote it. But how did you know it was unintentional? :-) I might possibly have been a sly little devil.

Fully with you on socialism, but I do not see where the belief that private property is a good implies capitalism. We obviously had private property long before capitalism arose.

My basic problem with capitalism is not the private property aspect, but the fact that it necessarily tends to avidity in accumulation. It has, in the words of Edward Skidelsky, emancipated avarice. This is inherently morally problematic if Matthew 19:24, I Timothy 6:10, and James 5:1-6 are any indication. You can't just wave a magic wand over avarice, thinking that by changing its name to "self-interest" you've thereby solved the moral problem.

Thing is, capitalism is most likely here to stay, so the realist question isn't actually about alternatives to it, but rather about how we rein in its excesses and reduce its destructiveness.

Tony, this is a good post, and I very often find that the informational aspect of money/pricing is lost on people. As also the sheer fact of scarcity. Even in an unfallen world, things could not simply be "made free," because of ex nihilo nihil fit. It would still take work to produce wheat, for example. To make it free and therefore to insist that wheat-producing A must provide wheat at no charge to apple-producing (but not wheat-producing B), rather than *trading* (which will involve either money as a stand-in or actual barter), is to treat wheat as though it is produced automatically, from nothing, at the wave of a wand.

It frustrates me when it is assumed that the high price of certain goods (very complex goods, such as, say, ventilators or medications) must be the result of avarice and that, if there were no avarice these would be free or as cheap as the person vaguely and arbitrarily imagines they "should be." In a world without natural evil, we can stipulate that these matters of ideology would be less urgent, since complex goods (like medicine) would not be needed to save people's lives. But the fact that nothing comes from nothing and that things cannot simply be "made free" by fiat would nonetheless be true.

It has frustrated me a bit that those who are perhaps in the best position (the Catholic natural law theorists) to use the principle that nothing comes from nothing in an economic context have not done more with this concept to push back against the attempt to fix prices by fiat or to demand that various goods and services simply be made available for free on the grounds that they are needed by someone else. That this de facto would amount to a form of enslavement if enforced is, again, something that natural law theorists are in an especially good position to see and to articulate well.

Fully with you on socialism, but I do not see where the belief that private property is a good implies capitalism. We obviously had private property long before capitalism arose.

Nice, what do you mean by "capitalism"?

In my original post, I did not mention capitalism at all. In the comment by Joe and my response, the point was not "capitalism = a good thing", but rather "socialism makes a mistake that capitalism doesn't make". It remains possible that capitalism ALSO makes mistakes, but not that one. Joe indicated that he doesn't think capitalism is wrong essentially whereas socialism is. I didn't say one way or another - yet.

My proposal in favor of money (and indirectly private property) as belonging to the human condition by nature and not solely as a result of sin did not rely on, imply, or require the presence of capitalism, only of markets. Free markets, at least in the sense of people setting prices not by some higher authority but by personal input. That's not capitalism.

And I think you agree with that, because we had markets a long, long time before capitalism arose.

Whether one wants to claim capitalism is good in principle (but, often, damaged or degenerate in practice due to accidental accretions) depends very importantly on how you define capitalism. Which is why I asked you how you define it up above. I invite you to supply your idea of what "capitalism" means before you go on to read my next comment.

As for myself, I recognize that capitalism is used in different, and equivocal (or, at least, distinct) ways, even if they are derivative. So I would distinguish.

First, there is the root principle that lies at the bottom of capitalism. There may be some debate about WHICH root principle that is. For example, specialization of work into job types. But that has been happening for 5,000 years or more - probably since well before recorded history, when some people made stone knives and others made arrows.

I think the correct root principal is gotten at when you focus on the core of the word: capital. The essence of capitalism is found when some person or persons put up some capital to be used in productive enterprise, and other people do the work (or some of the work) of production itself. The principle is that the person or persons who put forth the capital are owed a part of the profits (if there are any).

Interestingly, it is almost impossible to find anything like a clear demarcation time point between periods so that before that point, the above sense of "putting capital to work" is simply not found, and afterwords it was found. As far back as you can go in history, (so far as I can tell), you can find rich men who venture capital that other men work with to produce a profit. So, if that's the case, the fact of the modern era being one in which we find capital being so used does not, by itself set us off from prior ages. So what does?

Arguably, something more than the mere possibility of putting capital to work. Perhaps the modern corporation, with its many features but especially the personal responsibility drained out of it. Perhaps it was the advent of mass production? Or maybe the conversion of pricing from individual haggling to a system of one-price-for-all-buyers, marked in advance, becoming nearly universal? All of these are certainly significant features of our system, but it is hard to say they define it. To me it seems that it is not any one thing specifically, but the complex of all of them (and more) that constitutes a developed and integrated system that allows (to pick something that is distinctive without being the very essence) the possibility of a capital owner putting up capital to an enterprise as a wholly impersonal commercial act without either party having any knowledge of the other, and with the capitalist being free to pull out his capital without even a moment's notice to put it somewhere else.

I think that it is very likely indeed that the type of capitalist system we now have - the type we casually associate with "capitalism" without making much effort to distinguish anything - is the result not only of some principles that are embedded in private property and the like, but also the result of a large number of accidental accretions that could have been otherwise without much difficulty. Early modern banking might have been different. Early medieval (feudal) property law might have been different, giving rise to completely different approaches to land. Corporation law might have developed quite differently. Given the large number of factors that could have turned out very different, it is entirely possible that we could have developed a "capitalist" system that is wildly different from the one we have now. Hence I tend to look with a great deal of skepticism at assertions that the ills that plague us in our own capitalist system are due to the very principles of capital, and are not to be attributed as much or more to things that are distinguishable from the principles of capital and (maybe) could be eliminated from our system without eradicating capitalists.

but the fact that it necessarily tends to avidity in accumulation. It has, in the words of Edward Skidelsky, emancipated avarice.

Necessarily? Prove it. Avarice was with us long before we had capitalism.

Let's be frank: the more wealth there is, the more the possibility of some amassing towering amounts of it without killing off the rest to accomplish it. Even if it were true that what had happened over the past 300 years amounted to the rich gathering 100% of the extra wealth generated, with the other 99% being left in the very same level of poverty, it's not clear that it would make sense to describe that condition as an "increase in avidity".

I admit freely that there has arisen a strain of economic thinking that declares unrestrained self interest to be "good". But there remain many other schools of economics that denies it, and it remains true that the great masses neither understand nor care a whit for the economic theories, they just want a good life. Can you substantiate that the number of people who literally think "greed is a wholesome human quality" has become dominant?

In case anyone doesn't follow me on Facebook and is wondering, I've gone from being somewhat concerned about friends who (way back at the beginning) didn't realize that the Covid19 thing was a real, serious health concerns to (now) being absolutely appalled at the economic recklessness of various governors and attorneys general. Literally there are places that are trying to make a case-by-case decision about what products are "essential" in a centralized fashion. Target in Lansing has stopped selling clothes. Lowes has entered into an agreement with the AG of Michigan not to sell paint. In New Zealand, people are not even permitted to drive in order to find a safe place to exercise, so families are walking along the side of paved roads without sidewalks just to get out somewhat.

The information built into the price system is being recklessly thrown away on the assumption that it can be regained at the drop of the hat "when all this is over," and anyone who raises concerns for the loss of life (yes, real loss of life) that will probably result from economic depression is being characterized as valuing money over people. Which is ridiculous.

I am swiftly losing my patience with those who are so clueless about the fact that economic costs are human costs and that so-called "inessential" goods and services are inextricably entangled with so-called "essential ones."

So anyway. That is at least somewhat related to the topic of the o.p.

Agreed. I have been concerned with this all along. About a month ago I proposed to friends that we should try to support local businesses by buying gift cards and the like, because they don't have the resources to just shut down for 2 months and pay everyone. Now (thank goodness) our county has introduced a program along those lines.

The government payments (i.e. hand-outs) to people will help some, but it will inevitably miss a share of the people who will need help. It will, most likely, not help the illegal immigrants who don't report income to any government agency, or at least not directly. I recognize that at least in part that's the nature of deciding to be an illegal, you aren't on anyone's radar in quite the same way as a legal resident, but it still has important ramifications to public health as well as humanitarian concerns. These people will be forced to continue working at whatever jobs are providing them income, (if their clients can still pay), regardless of whether it is "essential" to the public health project or not - it is essential to THEM. Another (small) item: labs and medical systems all over the world are smack in the middle of long-range testing of of thousands of trials of various sorts - trials that are not essential right now - but if you shut down operations on them, the entire body of data (and the funding that paid for that info) will go down the tubes. The same concept can apply to construction projects: stopping mid-stream might put the half-made building at risk. Maybe there is a straightforward method of determining (on a broad basis) what can be shut down without undue damage to the rest of "the system" but I doubt anyone knows what it is.

I am of two minds about the efforts of the authorities: on the one hand, they have a responsibility to take measures that are necessary for public health; on the other hand, they are operating somewhat in a vacuum in terms of what, precisely, is most needed for public health. Effectively, we don't know how best to balance the needs of an ongoing economy and quelling the outbreak, because it's too complex to know for sure. If we are lucky, people at the top have engaged in lot of "war gaming" sessions on epidemics to practice the decision-making processes to figure out what definitely doesn't work (even if they didn't figure out what actually works). But most likely, only a handful of governors have done so. Maybe more of their health officials have done so, but then those governors have to trust in those health officials' ideas - but more likely than not, in most states, nobody bothered to tie in gaming sessions of the health offices together with the offices most tied to the engines of the economy. So in a lot of places there is a very good chance that the people who need to make those balancing decisions are lacking essential knowledge about the downstream effects of this or that option. Tie this in with the fact that in our federal system, the primary authority to regulate health matters is not federal but state, and you have some interestingly different results from state to state.

Another thing I have been saying since late February is that if they are smart, governments around the world will use THIS epidemic (which only has a native death rate of perhaps 1%) to learn from and prepare for the much more worrisome possibilities of diseases that have death rates well above 1%, or even above 10%. However, another worry is that the globalists will use this as a stick with which to put much more power into the hands of international agencies, and even to give the UN or WHO or something like real teeth (i.e. military power). Heaven help us if that happens.


On a practical note, I think that the federal government could have been more proactive in one or two specific ways that could have had a major difference. For example, early on (say, Feb 25th or so), upon finding a lack of testing kits and labs, and a lack of masks, they could have gone to manufacturers who could ramp up quickly and simply say "we will give you cost plus 10% to stop whatever you are making right now and switch over, (including penalty fees for failure to meet other contracts), and go flat out in making test kits, or masks, or clorox wipes, or hand sanitizers." The manufacturers or the feds could then have sold the resulting resources to states and cities at whatever price makes sense, (with the fed gov eating the difference between that price and the cost+10%) and allocated them where the need was greatest (like NYC, which is STILL mired at a ratio of 1 positive test per 3 tests made, which is FAR lower testing than needs to be done.) Another idea: (apparently) South Korea got a big jump forward in limiting the spread by using cell phone data to track who was near whom that tests positive. We (quite legitimately) have privacy concerns about the state intruding on such info, but (a) it would be possible to make such a thing an opt-in notification (like we already have for storm warnings and Amber alerts), and (b) it is readily possible to have all of the management of the info (i) done entirely within the hands of the cell phone carriers themselves, so the gov never sees it, and (ii) to protect privacy by having the system be automated in a way that never pin-points to any human being that X person was near Y person (kind of like online targeted ads are capable of doing). There are still legitimate privacy concerns about even having the cell carriers manage that data (and learn how to), but frankly, they are already using far more intimate data than that anyway. We need to have an informed national debate about the management of our personal data, true, but let's not pretend that the data isn't already being used for both economic and social purposes.

"I tend to look with a great deal of skepticism at assertions that the ills that plague us in our own capitalist system are due to the very principles of capital, and are not to be attributed as much or more to things that are distinguishable from the principles of capital and (maybe) could be eliminated from our system without eradicating capitalists."

I agree, but would argue from the other side, so to speak, and say that the possibility that the "the ills that plague us in our own capitalist system" are possibly due to the very principles of capital, and that this possibility should not be ruled out. Thus I don't think that the entire thing is necessarily rotten or evil, but I do find it at least suspect, given its history. It need not be utterly poisonous to be tainted. And by tainted, I mean tainted beyond that of the universal failings present in every fallen human endeavor.

"the more wealth there is, the more the possibility of some amassing towering amounts of it without killing off the rest to accomplish it. Even if it were true that what had happened over the past 300 years amounted to the rich gathering 100% of the extra wealth generated, with the other 99% being left in the very same level of poverty, it's not clear that it would make sense to describe that condition as an 'increase in avidity'".

But if the capitalist revolution served to take the brakes off avarice, wouldn't this necessarily result in increased "wealth production" and accumulation? I mean, isn't the argument that the results of everyone's own self-interest help society at large and not just themselves? It doesn't seem to me that you can have it both ways. That avarice is now seen to "help" other people rather than just oneself doesn't make it any less avaricious. "Wealth-getting" per se was almost always seen in a negative light prior to the beginnings of the capitalist revolution.

"I admit freely that there has arisen a strain of economic thinking that declares unrestrained self interest to be 'good'. But there remain many other schools of economics that denies it, and it remains true that the great masses neither understand nor care a whit for the economic theories, they just want a good life. Can you substantiate that the number of people who literally think 'greed is a wholesome human quality' has become dominant?"

That's not the problem. The problem is that what was once considered "greed" is no longer called that; it has morphed into "self-interest." Greed/avarice have been redefined as "wanting more than enough," "wanting more than one's fair share," etc., etc. The word hasn't changed, the understanding of "enough" has, right along with the understanding of "self-interest."



I agree, but would argue from the other side, so to speak, and say that the possibility that the "the ills that plague us in our own capitalist system" are possibly due to the very principles of capital, and that this possibility should not be ruled out.

I suppose that one can entertain the possibility and search for an analysis that would prove that or at least provide strong evidence for the thesis that it is the very principles of capital that are at fault. But given that Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and Pius XI in Quadragessimo Anno more or less explicitly upheld the very principle of capital that I laid out above, I think I am standing on pretty good ground to grant it the benefit of the doubt until a stronger argument comes along. So far I have not seen one.

But if the capitalist revolution served to take the brakes off avarice, wouldn't this necessarily result in increased "wealth production" and accumulation? I mean, isn't the argument that the results of everyone's own self-interest help society at large and not just themselves? It doesn't seem to me that you can have it both ways. That avarice is now seen to "help" other people rather than just oneself doesn't make it any less avaricious. "Wealth-getting" per se was almost always seen in a negative light prior to the beginnings of the capitalist revolution.

The proper argument from pre-Smithian capitalist theory was that in a due and upright transaction, both parties will realize a gain of value. (See Redeeming Economics, reviewed here: http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2013/09/to_fix_economics.html.) This is only self-interest-in-a-sense, not unbridled self-interest. The fact that each party is first focused on their own benefit does not imply that they are out to gyp the other person in order to "get everything I can." The primary focus is on realizing a benefit, but the underlying intent (is supposed to) remain in charity.

Let me give an example. I have only done buying or selling of a used car very infrequently, given that I tend to keep a car forever and drive it until only the junkyard wants it. But at one point years ago, I had a used car that was somewhat shaky in terms of reliability, but still good for some use, but which I had replaced by a newer car so I wanted to unload it. But I knew that it was unreliable, with a suspect transmission. How to set a fair price to sell it at? The problem is that it might have lasted 3 or 4 years, or 3 or 4 weeks, and nobody could be sure without a major investment in labor to figure out which. If I sold it for a price reflecting only 3-4 weeks survival, but it lasted longer, I would have felt gyped. If I sold it for a price reflecting 3-4 years survival, but it didn't last anything like that long, I would have gyped the other guy. One can argue that this means that it's "real" price was "somewhere in between", but that too is merely a GUESS at how long it might last, not a price based on its actual longevity, and anyway, whose guess was a better one?

I ended up selling it to a friend for $X per month, payable monthly until it was "dead", i.e. needed repairs costing more than $Y total. The ultimate price was thus directly based on its survival after the fact, not on pretty thin, uninformed guesswork about how long it might survive.

The principles of fair bargaining assume that both parties are well-motivated (i.e. that both want to gain a reasonable advantage), but they do not assume that each party wants to "get everything they can". The latter approach is degenerate thinking about bargaining, i.e. not in an upright manner. Likewise, fair bargaining requires that both parties have a reasonable knowledge of the assets to be exchanged: nothing about this "reasonable knowledge" implies that one party "ought" to try to conceal known defects about one of the items in order to "get ahead". Quite the opposite, according to the neo-Scholastic economic theory, such dissembling and hiding of facts is contrary to good economics, because it contradicts the charity that ought to lie underneath ALL interactions between two persons, economic or otherwise. That charity assumes that both parties are trying to realize a reasonable advantage from the sale, and any practice by one party that impedes such a gain by the other party is effectively against charity. Justice is (like all the virtues) rooted in charity.

Any version of economic theory that implies "get all you can get" and "fool the other guy" is, therefore, not based on the root principles of capital, but on something else.

~~The proper argument from pre-Smithian capitalist theory was that in a due and upright transaction, both parties will realize a gain of value. (See Redeeming Economics, reviewed here: http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2013/09/to_fix_economics.html.) This is only self-interest-in-a-sense, not unbridled self-interest. The fact that each party is first focused on their own benefit does not imply that they are out to gyp the other person in order to "get everything I can." The primary focus is on realizing a benefit, but the underlying intent (is supposed to) remain in charity.~~

Yes, I agree with this, and with what you wrote about the two encyclicals. I misunderstood what you meant by the "principles of capital." Obviously there are forms of self-interest that are not avaricious, including financial ones. My point has to do with what might be seen as the expansion and eventual "systemization" of self-interest under which wealth-getting came to be viewed as an unalloyed good (it was only bad when one went about it the wrong way). It is this feature of capitalism, in its form as a system or an "-ism," that to me proves to be inherently problematic.

My thinking here is guided primarily by Hirschman's The Passions and the Interests, Edward Skidelsky's First Things essay "The Emancipation of Avarice," the book by Skidelsky and his father, Robert, How Much Is Enough?, and the chapter on economics in Gregory's The Unintended Reformation. Also Christopher Franks' He Became Poor: The Poverty of Christ and Aquinas' Economic Teachings.

I agree with you about what has become effectively the systematization of self-interest in such a way that a great many people and institutions cannot even grasp the meaning of the question "should I try to get that much from the sale" as a moral question. To them, the only question is whether they CAN, not should they. To them, economics has ceased to be a moral consideration at all, only "what works" in the sense of keeping "the system" running. I hold no truck with such versions of economics, and of idealizing such systematization as if it were the ideal realization of human activity.

On the other hand, as far as I can see, Skidelsky makes 2 clear errors and 2 muddy errors in his short First Things essay.

Sirico’s defense of the free market is premised on the claim that “private property confers on individuals and families an area of autonomy that is necessary for human freedom and civil liberties.” This at least is properly Christian and Catholic and, most important, true.

I don't know if he correctly describes Sirico's book on this point, but if he did, he should not have agreed so quickly. The problem is that private property is not something that is good for men on account of "autonomy" for the sake of "human freedom and civil liberties". At least, saying that way clouds the issues unnecessarily. Humans don't need to receive the autonomy implied in private property from civil institutions, and don't receive the civil liberties implied in private property from civil laws and authorities. More fundamentally than civil authority, man has by nature certain powers over things in the world, and has by nature the authority to use them. Societies, and civil authorities, are therefore obliged by nature to recognize and PROTECT these nature-given powers and authority that belong to man innately. Skidelsky has made it seem, from his infelicitous wording, that private property arises out of a context of social prescription for the sake of man being better able to achieve certain things. It is true that by having society provide rules for private property, man IS better able to achieve happiness, but it should always be kept in mind, and repeatedly stated, that society is recognizing private property, not creating it nor prescribing it for the sake of some good that is merely better achieved with it than without. Society has no right to fail to recognize private property, even if she has the right to put fences around it for the common good.

Sirico’s error lies in his next step, which is to elide the right to property with the right to trade. “Freedom to trade is a necessary adjunct to private property rights. A secure right to property means little if people are not permitted to exchange their property for other property that they desire more.”

This is a non sequitur. Private property has existed since time immemorial; the free market is a modern innovation. Medieval nobles were not free to sell their estates. Nor, for that matter, are most modern British aristocrats. The chief value of property to its owner lies in his power not to sell but to use it, for sustenance or for enjoyment. Only the compulsive accumulator sees every possession as a stepping stone to further possessions.

This is his first clear error. To the extent nobles were not free to sell their property, just to that extent it wasn't ENTIRELY their private property, but a mixed bag of privately and publicly held property. Nowadays ownership of a thing is characterized as holding of a "bundle" of rights over the thing, with "ordinary" ownership amounting to holding more or less of the sticks possible in any given bundle, differing for different kinds of property and in different societies. Land, for this purposes, is one of the worst quagmires of bundles, because of the vast range of different sticks in the bundle and how different societies arrogate them to one person. For example, in the US, land usually includes the sticks consisting of "mineral rights" lying under the surface...but NOT necessarily water under the surface (especially in the drier western states). In other countries, owning "the land" may not be held to imply owning the coal or steel under the surface. Similar things can be said for rights in the space above the surface of the land (including right-of-way and advertising space rights). So nobles had some of the rights of ownership of property but not all. If Skidelsky wants to be clear, he should use an example of property wherein all of the sticks in the bundle of ownership are clear and easy to draw out, and for which rules have tended to be pretty much the same everywhere. If you grow a tree in your yard (or "your" yard), and cut down a branch, dry out the wood, and whittle it into a figurine, it's pretty much going to be your property in every sense of the word, ie. with respect to all the sticks in the bundle of ownership. And being yours, you can exchange it for something else if you want - subject to very uninteresting limitations (you may have to wait until tomorrow if today is the Sabbath, you may have to pay taxes, etc). That's all that's necessary for Sirico's point, and its an entirely valid point. Furthermore, it is too a necessary aspect of property ownership: because (as I illustrated above) goods WILL be distributed unevenly throughout the world, (even in a world with no sin), and because it takes EFFORT to move goods around, the RE-distribution of certain goods from the immediate control of some people who have more of something than they particularly want to others who have less must necessarily be accomplished through free interactions or through top-down directed ones; and the latter is not a humane society, it is incompatible with human nature.

Skidelsky overplays his hand with his last sentence there: "Only the compulsive accumulator sees every possession as a stepping stone to further possessions."

When a person exchanges something less desired for something more desired, he is not simply "accumulating more" possessions. He is EXCHANGING them. Presumably, he does so to improve his holdings into holdings that are more satisfying than before. But (presumably), SO DOES THE OTHER PERSON in the transaction. This means that BOTH parties would be accused (by Skidelsky) of entering into the transaction merely to acquire "further possessions". Nonsense. The whole point of my OP is to show the use of money to improve the wealth distribution by having everyone better able to influence which parts of the overall total wealth THEY would have, because in principle the free transaction is a win-win situation. The same total wealth (total set of goods) results in greater benefits by being re-distributed according to greater desire.

It was common, among various schools of the ancients, to accuse traders of having an immoral line of activity, immoral as such, because (so the accusation went) they "bought low and sold high". Meaning that either they bought goods from the maker for less than they were worth (an injustice to the maker), or they sold the goods for more than they were worth to the consumer (an injustice to the consumer). Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas all recognized the error of this thinking, in one way or another: the traders brought something else (of economic value) to the mix than merely buying from one and selling to another. As a middle-man, he either bought in bulk (so the maker could spend more time making than hawking his goods), or he transported them, or he stored them for slow seasons, etc. I thought that one of the benefits of modern theory was to embed this principle in ALL economic thinking (aside from the marxists, who are blinded by their other errors) so that whatever ELSE is in dispute, THIS is not in dispute: the sale of goods between one and another can work on the basis of both parties benefiting, without changing the total goods held.

His second muddying attempt is:

In order for private property to fulfill its function of providing individuals and families with “an area of autonomy,” it must be broadly distributed, yet the inherent tendency of free-market capitalism is toward a concentration of wealth.

It is the "inherent" tendency of EVERY system toward a concentration of wealth, because in every system there will be scaliwags, and some will be smart, and will figure out how to manipulate the rules toward their gain, and will make arrangements to hand down that increase to those they care about. No existing or imagined system has ever prevented this (including communism). Distributism isn't a "system" precisely because it is merely a description, a snapshot, of a set of conditions that would be nice, it has never been a description of either how to (justly) get there from here nor how to (justly) keep it once we have it. Nobody has ever mentioned a just system of keeping a man from amassing enormous wealth as a result of brilliance, effort, and windfall good luck - without taking away his private property, that is, merely on account of its being a great amount. A "system" has to have moving parts and be able to adjust (correct for) disorders that will arise.

I grant (as said before) that our current system DOES have a complex of disorders that add to the possibilities, from greed, for amassing great wealth. They are not part of our system either on account of the proper meaning of private property nor on account of the above-stated principle of capital. It is not the "inherent tendency of free market" capital to cause concentration, it is a tendency borne out in cases of free market capital badly organized, badly conceived, and badly justified. It's the wrong anthropology of Smith and Mills (and Mises), not wrongness in the free market itself.

In the Catholic tradition, property is an ethical and political institution, a safeguard of personal liberty. From this perspective, it matters very much who owns what, for it is this that determines the distribution of power in a society....

Economic inequality does not matter morally, argues Sirico, so long as everyone has enough for “the basic necessities of life.” Indeed, inequality is a good thing insofar as it is a necessary part of an economic system that benefits everyone, including the poorest.

But might there be a moral issue here? Many on the right are prone to dismiss any concern with relative income as an expression of envy or class hatred. But we are not pigs who care only about our bellies; we are spirited beings moved by questions of status and honor. To dismiss such concerns as “envy” betrays a blinkered view of human motivation, and one that may find more agreement with socialism (in its reduction of all human interests to material interests) than with the Church.

Here again we see at least one error if not more. Property is not a "political institution" on account of arising from political causes, but because polities are obliged to recognize it in law.

But that's just the start. In any society, there will indeed be "status" and "honor", but using them to defuse accusations of envy (about goods) is pretty pointless: status and honor are misused just as much as goods are, and are envied by those not accorded honor or status. Where a person's status is not measured by the goods he has amassed but by other things, there are just as many tendencies to mis-align accorded status he has so that it does not match his actual worth (e.g. his sanctity or wisdom) but by some other mechanism by which it is "measured" (i.e. assigned), such as membership in a clan. Or to use his actual value on one measure (brawn, in a society that needs to defend itself from marauders frequently) as if it measured value on other qualities having nothing to do with it (e.g. prudence) and then misuse that status. "Honor" as a social recognition of status may have originally taken its name from the moral quality, but by late medieval years it was used not to refer to real moral quality but to refer to de facto social status as measured by membership in what happened to be "honored" clans - completely regardless of any remaining real quality in them.

Besides, the humble man no more pursues "honor" or "status" (Skidelsky's "other motivations") as things to be highly desired than the person imbued with the spirit of poverty pursues wealth as something to be highly desired. Just because status is not measured by a physical thing doesn't mean pursuit of it is not a worldly pursuit.

Christianity has never said that societies should or should not use descent from certain families, or wealth, as default mechanisms in place of interior qualities that cannot be directly known by others, in order to assign social status or power. Monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy are all licit modes of political order. Christianity says rather "there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither master nor slave" in the order of grace, and that the order of grace is not a mandate on how to order society or political power.

Which is not to say it doesn't matter how society should be arranged: it must needs HAVE SOME SPECIFIC arrangement, and some are better than others for helping the people toward virtue and salvation. Which specific arrangement that is best at a given time for a given people will depend on that people's needs and their strengths and weaknesses: 17th century France had an aristocracy overly given to vanity and "honor" in degenerate senses, and could have used something that corrected for these failings (but not necessarily a removal of that ruling order). Americans of the 19th and early 20th century were afflicted with a social disorder that was expressed as "manifest destiny" (the British had the same disorder as "white man's burden"), and could have used a corrective to that disorder - but not necessarily one that revolutionized its whole social order into something entirely other.

What Sirico was saying is that inequality of goods, as such, does not define a social disorder or a political problem to be corrected. It does not inherently imply moral or social wrongs or sins. Even great wealth doesn't. THAT a person has great wealth doesn't imply sin, its how he got it or what he does with it that may or may not imply sin. God gave Solomon enormously great wealth (and power) as a gift and as a testament to God's pleasure in Solomon preferring wisdom over wealth or power. Because inequality, even great inequality, does not per se amount to a social disorder, it "doesn't matter" in terms of merely defining the complex of good social mechanisms by which we arrange wealth-getting and management.

And anyone who tends to find in inequality as such as necessarily constituting a failing of civil law is someone who has misplaced his distrust of envy. Maybe he has done so in his pursuit of solidarity, but solidarity is a coequal CO-principle with subsidiarity of man's social order. The two must always be employed with the other in mind.

As I suggested above, there will be inequality of goods from mere differences of geology, climate, luck and other such causes outside of our control, along with differences of intelligennce, physical skill and endurance, etc. Due to man's inability to control all outcomes, it is impossible to arrange a system of property in which temporary inequality will always be rendered neutral quickly. In a world-wide Eden of Paradise, where there would be no natural disasters or epidemics, we may well presume that nobody would ever lack for the basic goods of life. And that whenever anyone discovered a brand new source of wealth, they would immediately begin to share it with others. This does not preclude situations where a person might happen into a discovery of a vastly desirable new good - desirable so, as long as a person's other needs are already being met, that is. In such case, there might for a time be a temporary large concentration of wealth in few hands, at least compared to others, at least until the market had a chance to level out and re-distribute goods based on the new wealth.

Adding in misfortunes and other effects of Original Sin (but not DIRECT sin by the persons involved), it will be all the more likely that in certain cases a person will amass great wealth WITHOUT sin (Solomon). If the person then uses that great wealth for the good of others, taking it on himself to advance their welfare as his own burden more than he otherwise would, then he is using the wealth suitably. In such case, there is no essential necessity of there being civil laws that take away from him his private property right (and duty) to direct his wealth for the good of others within his ambit. His great wealth (relative to others - i.e. the inequality) does not itself constitute a claim that a less wealthy person has on him in justice (as we normally mean the term). He has, rather, an obligation in charity to regard the good of his fellow men insofar as he can improve it (taking into account his other duties in charity). Laws that treat his inequality of wealth as per se injustice are bad laws.

But he errs in thinking that capitalism “emerged from an exalted vision of man and his inherent and transcendent destiny.”

I have no idea why Sirico would say this, and on its face it does sound nutty and contradictory to any reasonable understanding of the Church's teaching about economic matters.

~~Skidelsky overplays his hand with his last sentence there: "Only the compulsive accumulator sees every possession as a stepping stone to further possessions."~~

No, I think he's right here, actually. It borders on the pathological to be "always looking for a deal." If your primary purpose in acquiring things is not to use them, "for sustenance or for enjoyment," as he puts it, but to "trade up," you are already on the wrong road. As Wendell Berry says, that's the condition of the man who looks at a forest and sees only board-feet.

"It is not the "inherent tendency of free market" capital to cause concentration, it is a tendency borne out in cases of free market capital badly organized, badly conceived, and badly justified. It's the wrong anthropology of Smith and Mills (and Mises), not wrongness in the free market itself."

Agreed, but you misquote Skidelsky here. He did not say "free market capital" but free market capitalISM. Those three letters make a big difference. I see nothing in this piece to indicate that he has a problem with free markets per se. Neither do Berry, the distributists, or other such critics of capitalISM for that matter. (Note that John Medaille's book on distributism is titled Towards a Truly Free Market.) If it's an error to equate the free market with capitalism, it's necessarily an error to do so either from the right or the left.

As far as the bad anthropology goes, I agree with you there. I believe, however, that this bad anthropology has worked its way into the DNA of the system itself to the point where the two things are close to inseparable. Only by a willingness to analyze the thing as a whole might the bad stuff be filtered out. But to my mind this requires looking at it pre-Smith, etc., and being willing to propose criticisms even there.

I think you misunderstand what Skidelsky means by "inequality." In context it seems to me that he's talking about "correctible" inequality -- that which stems from injustice, stupidity, or the like. He doesn't strike me as either a utopian or a Leveler. If "laws that treat his inequality of wealth as per se injustice are bad laws," it would seem to be equally true that great inequality of wealth must nevertheless be viewed as suspect, even if not inherently unjust. James 5:1-6 still stands, and there is a great deal of literature in the tradition, both Christian and classical, that links inordinate wealth (not simply inordinately acquired wealth) with oppression, Solomon notwithstanding.

"it will be all the more likely that in certain cases a person will amass great wealth WITHOUT sin (Solomon)"

Perhaps, but extremely unlikely today. It would seem to require both an unhealthy intent and a great amount of compromise.


Related to capitalism and inequality this is of interest. Milanovic is one of the world's leading scholars on the subject of inequality, but he's in no way anti-market.

https://promarket.org/avoiding-plutocracy-would-require-a-political-change-branko-milanovic-on-the-future-of-capitalism/

Agreed, but you misquote Skidelsky here. He did not say "free market capital" but free market capitalISM. Those three letters make a big difference. I see nothing in this piece to indicate that he has a problem with free markets per se. Neither do Berry, the distributists, or other such critics of capitalISM for that matter. (Note that John Medaille's book on distributism is titled Towards a Truly Free Market.) If it's an error to equate the free market with capitalism, it's necessarily an error to do so either from the right or the left.

I deliberately cut short my quote of Skidelsky because one of the things I am doing here is highlighting the difference between the conception of capital broadly used in an economy, and an actual instantiation of that concept in an actual historical example. In the actual historical example, many concrete facts will be particular to that instantiation that do not belong to the pure concept, but are accretions of history that might have been different. (Just as the concept of "triangle" does not require any specific color, but an instantiation of an actual triangle will have a certain color: the color is not to be attributed to "triangle-ness" as such.)

You and I largely agree that there are vastly many defects in the current concrete situation of the modern economy, some of them very deeply entrenched. The question to be addressed here is whether there are defects and deformities that are from the sheer concept itself, such that they cannot be eradicated without eradicating the capital-based economic model itself?

The problem with the discussion is that there is no current terminology for the distinction between the sheer concept and the actual instantiation of the concept in the modern world - they both run under the term "capitalism". I was trying to avoid the confusion of using the same term for two different meanings. In the Milanovic article (quite a decent article) he quite clearly is using "capitalism" as meaning "this instantiation we have here today". He is saying that in the current world, the particular instantiation of capital-used-broadly-in-the-economy has become dominant and no reversal of that is foreseeable for quite some time: in that sense, capitalism has "won" the debate. What he is not in the least implying is whether the capitalism that "has won" is, itself, in a crisis in the (moral) sense that it harbors the seeds of its own destruction because it is inherently deformed. He is making an historical remark, not a theoretical, moral, or even economic one. (Analogously: The Roman State started its decline in moral terms before Augustus Caesar, even though it reached the peak of its political dominance something like 140 years after. It kept on "winning" (in Milanovic's historical terms) even though it was in the process of losing its core meaning.

If you have a suggestion for better terminology, I am open to a change.

~~~The question to be addressed here is whether there are defects and deformities that are from the sheer concept itself, such that they cannot be eradicated without eradicating the capital-based economic model itself?

The problem with the discussion is that there is no current terminology for the distinction between the sheer concept and the actual instantiation of the concept in the modern world - they both run under the term "capitalism".~~~


Exactly, and that's the rub. The idea of "capital" vs. the system of "capitalism." Seems to me that unless you reject the idea of private property you can't get away from the former, and it's certainly true that the arguments of those who do reject it are often very different from those who don't, critical of capitalism as they may be.

In regards to the terminology I've read some writers who delineate the two by (ironically enough) capitalization: capital (the sheer concept) vs. Capital (the 'system' or instantiation). Not sure how widespread that usage is though.

The historical question for me is relatively simple to pose: since there is a worm in the apple, when did it get there? This is an important point, as it relates to how long, and how deeply, that worm is dug in. But answering it is much more complicated than posing it, of course.

I can work with "capitalization" as a term. Better than nothing.

As to "when the worm got there", I would have to agree that it makes sense to look closely at Adam Smith and his era. But it is important to realize that there were essential threads of the capitalization approach already in existence before him, and there was a gradual series of changes that marked the increase and ease of capitalization. For instance, the "technology" revolution had started long before the steam engine. Specialization of tasks was part of the ancient world, and that gradually morphed into early factories owned by "factors" where something like assembly lines existed - in the 15th and 16th centuries, a good 200+ years before steam power was even envisioned. Banking firms were widely used in late medieval times, especially associated with Lombard, Florence, Venice, and Holland lenders; bank notes made a notable (!) change in the financial picture starting in the 1500s or so. Shipping magnates and joint shipping concerns owning multiple ships (and warehouses, and distribution agents) existed in late medieval times. Corporations were invented before the 1700's some as charitable enterprises, and then some like the East India Company. (Although, admittedly, America bought into the corporation idea as early as the 1790s.) Perhaps the most significant turning point, between the former conditions of individual threads of capitalization toward an integrated economy of capitalization were the initiations of the London and NY stock exchanges, in 1801 and 1817, respectively.

Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary relates that the idea of a corporation is a vehicle to make profit without responsibility, and while this is fair enough as a practical description, it didn't get that way merely from the initial concept of the corporation itself, because (as I understand it) in the first instances the officers of any corporation would have been held responsible. It took, I think, a series of laws and judicial decisions in addition to the mere concept of incorporating that enabled us to arrive at such irresponsibility - including the kinds of judicial decisions that aren't even about corporate law itself (e.g. the determinations that a homeowner with home insurance is legally responsible for the medical costs a visitor incurs when he does something stupid and injures himself in the home of the homeowner.) This is the kind of thing I mean by accidental accretions of "the system" that are not inherent to the principles of capitalization.

It would be possible to imagine other sets of rules and rulings that would militate very strongly against some of the worst excesses of our current arrangement. For example: that a corporation could not have more than X number of shareholders (say, 500, or 1000). Or that a shareholder could not sell his stock for at least a year unless he voted against a new policy that the shareholders as a whole voted for. Or that officers of corporations are morally and legally responsible in the same way the owner of a sole proprietorship is responsible.

Yes, it is just this kind of historically-based analysis that's needed. We have enough of the ideologically based sort that either uncritically praises the thing to the skies or, conversely, attacks it as totally corrupt and unsalvageable.

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