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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Part IIA: The Problems with Capitalism

"Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition." Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

"Comforts that were rare among our forefathers are now multiplied in factories and handed out wholesale; and indeed, nobody nowadays, so long as he is content to go without air, space, quiet, decency and good manners, need be without anything whatever that he wants; or at least a reasonably cheap imitation of it." -Chesteron
, Commonwealth, 1933

Unbridled Competition

The capitalist freemarket thrives on unbridled competition. This is problematic for several reasons. First, it weakens local economy and correspondingly local community. The rootedness and stability of local community depend upon the strength of the local economy. We must remember, the spiritual value of strong local community is more important than material prosperity, though they often go hand in hand.Perhaps it is more efficient and less costly, at least under our present system, to supply American grocers with apples from China. But such a process effaces the personal relationship between the local farmer and the local grocer, which is more important than cheap produce. [Coincidentally, local produce is healthier, simply because it's local, but also because
it is fresher and not denuded of nutrients by irradiation.]

Medieval guilds provide a helpful example of a more balanced system. For each trade, guilds only permitted a limited number of businesses in their city and they also regulated prices. For example, suppose a city had 200 families. The baker's guild would decide how many bakers could earn a reasonable living in their city. Perhaps they might decide 15 bakers would be enough. Once fifteen bakeries were established, they would permit no more bakeries in the city. They also set a uniform price for bread and regulated the quality. This still allowed a certain degree of competition - an industrious baker could bake more loaves and a courteous, responsible baker could attract more customers. However, that kind of competition rewards virtue, rather than avarice.

Secondly, unbridled competition presupposes an errouneous notion of private property, placing no limits on its acquisition or use. According to St. Thomas, man cannot own property in an absolute sense. It is right that men "procure" and "dispense" goods, but in determining their use, "man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need." In other words, the possession of wealth does not authorize you to spend it as you will. Your standard of living should correspond to your role in society, but not necessarily to your income. For example, a certain dignity and splendor befits those public figures vested with great authority and weighty responsibility. However, the profession of actor, athlete, or (gasp) CEO do not merit the same dignity and splendor as that of a judge or a teacher. People often assume that, as long as they tithe, their hard work entitles them to a certain decadence, but the Thomistic account for justice indicates a different standard. In a general sense, one pursues the common good by pursuing the good of the family. Yet, the good of the family does not directly require a cruise or a yacht or a third house, and perhaps we have no right to such luxuries, whilst the less fortunate suffer. [Note, St. Thomas raises this question in the section of the Summa concerning Justice.]

More to come...


Blogger Triumvir Vis said...

I very much like your critique. Of course, you are preaching to the choir in this case, but I find it quite well-written and succinct.

In response to your "more regulated economy" comment on the last post, I think one would do well to simply emphasize how much good might be done by abolishing the current governmental aid given to large, non-local businesses. The US government doesn't need to tax big business extra so much as tax them the same and stop taxing the people at large in order to subsidize the big business. Even our Libertarian brothers could agree to this.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Raindear said...

Good to "see" you here.

Ah, good point!

9:34 AM  

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