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Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny
by Bob Cheeks
15 March 2004Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny

The fundamental tension between technocratic capitalism and the Christian Church has generated brilliant, academic essays and debate best typified by Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny.


In 1947 Carl F. H. Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism. This seminal work challenged the then nascent Christian Fundamentalist (or Evangelical) movement to take “Biblical verities” and apply them to the problems of modernity.

Fifty-five years after Rev. Henry’s call, and with a significantly altered worldview, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the John Templeton Foundation, under the editorships of columnist Doug Bandow, and Dean David L. Schindler, have accepted the task of examining the efficacy of “Free Market Capitalism” on wealth, poverty, and human destiny from a Christian or “Western religious tradition.”

The editors have gathered an eclectic group of theologians, philosophers, social critics, a priest, a lawyer, a columnist, and a farmer to plow the rather formidable hardpan of techno-democratic capitalism. Indeed, many have assumed the question moot since the collapse of the totalitarian command economies of the Soviet block. Even Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, Centesimus Annus, has “given his qualified blessing” to free markets.
So what’s the problem?

Well, for starters, you might want to ask yourself if “free markets” are really free? Or is liberal economic theory (free markets), as Adrian Walker posits in his essay, "The Poverty of Liberal Economics," “…a bad model of what free economic exchange itself is.” Has society already begun the decline into homo economicus? Man the producer/consumer, gradually losing his “capacity for communion” with his neighbors. A segregated fellow, insulated from community, corrupted by his concupiscent desire for material wealth from attaining the “poverty of spirit” urged by Christ in the Gospels.

William T. Cavanaugh’s powerful argument in his essay, "The Unfreedom of the Free Market," explains that the “Free Market” is defined in the agnostic negative and “there is no common end to which desire is directed.” St. Augustine, Cavanaugh points out, has written that  “freedom” is only found when one chooses to be in the Will of God. And, that there are no “individual” contracts acted on within the economy. Rather, we are creatures of community and we must have a “community of virtue…in which to learn to desire rightly.”

Absent the God ordained “right desire,” we are merely subjugated by the power of market forces: the creation of an immoral desire by marketing practices (addictive consumption), consumer surveillance -- the gathering of consumer information, the domination of culture by media, the “concentration of power” in giant, international corporations and the subsequent reduction or elimination of real competition, and the willingness of these corporations to manipulate labor and destroy communities by moving capital overseas.

To his credit Cavanaugh does not call for a command or state controlled economy, rather that the “…freedom of each economic exchange is subject to judgment based on a positive account of freedom, which must take into account the good ends of human life.”

On the other hand, Michael Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, sees democracy and capitalism -- “at their best” -- as the only viable hope for “embourgeoisement of the proletariat.” Indeed, the author argues that the Catholic (Christian) idea of the “primacy of spirit” has superseded the secularist’s materialism. Even with the spiritual temptations associated with capitalism, many people continue to minister to the physical, mental, and moral needs of their fellow man.

Novak further suggests that globalism has trumped localism because, from a Christian perspective: “Are human beings not planetary creatures, one another’s brothers and sisters, members of the same body, every part serving every other part?” Novak’s argument is simply that Catholic social teaching, as expressed by the pope, concurs with the idea that free market and democratic societies offer the best hope for people, worldwide, to rise out of poverty.

The question is, Will people rise out of poverty as a result of free markets and democratic societies, and is that enough?

Professor Arthur Davis, God bless him, has introduced me to Canadian philosopher, George Grant, in his delightful essay: "We Are Not Our Own." Grant, an opponent of “unlimited” technology, believed that “technological capitalism” represented the “…triumph of the unchecked human will.” Grant warned that, “We have come to view our world almost exclusively through the prism of science and capital, as if no other way of viewing it were possible.” George Grant was aware that he was a “minority man,” that the vast majority of people had embraced the utilitarian principles of technocratic capitalism. There is a certain fatalism in his comment: “…(a) society whose whole end is making money is not going to be a good society.”

Father Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things, reveals a rather heated clash between the “neoconservatives” and conservatives concerning the effort “…to square Catholic teaching with the American democratic experiment.” Father Neuhaus’s chief antagonist happens to be one of the editors of the book, Professor David Schindler of the John Paul II Institute, and their confrontation is most illuminating.

Neuhaus defines American conservatism as being “…in the cause of reappropriating and revitalizing the liberal tradition.” He argues that the encyclical, Centisimus Annus, in its teaching about “modernity, democracy, and human freedom has a stronger reference to the Revolution of 1776 than to the French Revolution of 1789.” Also, the pope in the same encyclical commented that; “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude a person takes to ….the mystery of God.” Neuhaus argues that this idea is “commensurable with the constituting ideas of the American experiment,” indeed, the Declaration of Independence upholds the idea of  “self evident truths” that are the work of “Nature and Nature’s God.”

Schindler’s disagreement with Neuhaus begins with man’s place within God’s creation. Schindler defines the concept as “homelessness,” and says: “Home and homelessness…refer most basically to the sense in which man is made to be in harmony with his earthly surroundings, in relation to God as his origin and end.” Man is then at “rest” when he is in spiritual communication with God, within the family, and community. He argues that the market economy, with its emphasis on production, consumption, and the acquiring of wealth acts, in the intrinsic sense, to separate man from God, his friends, and family thus casting him into a condition of “homelessness.”

Schindler also constructs the theme of family, community, and man as “gifts.” Man’s being is a gift “that elicits and is completed in being-as-gratitude.” And, the intrinsic meaning of gift and the anthropology of gift, are found in the Incarnate Christ.
 
He then defines wealth and poverty not in economic terms but as, “…being in relation and not being in relation, respectively, in the sense indicated by home and homelessness.” Schindler applies the gift and gratitude theme to economics and compares the God generated “love” at the core of his postulation with the “profitable self-interest” motivation of free market capitalism. He cites, as an example, a mother’s home cooked meal, made with loving attention, to a restaurant meal, prepared with keen awareness given to profit.

Schindler’s differences with Neuhaus, “…lies in differentiating the sense in which “order” -- toward God and transcendent truth -- anteriorly forms freedom in its first act relative to God and truth.” Neuhaus argues that we cannot “reorder” our social and political foundations that have been established on the liberal traditions best exemplified by documents such as the Declaration of Independence. Schindler replies; “…I fail to see why things are so different with respect to American culture from what they have been with respect to dominant cultures throughout history. We are called to attempt to transform whatever culture we live in, hence including that of America, in accord with the truth about man and God as we understand it.”

Wendell Berry’s essay, "The Total Economy," directs its attention to “supranational” corporations, economic globalization, and their pernicious effects on government, the environment, community, and the person. He charges that our livelihoods have been placed in peril by global free market capitalism, that the tools of restraint, once utilized by government, have been removed, and our economic security threatened. Now corporations freely merge into giant, worldwide conglomerates, mirroring the centralizing tendencies of the state and overwhelming their adversaries.

“And so we have before us,” Berry opines, “the spectacle of unprecedented  “prosperity” and “economic growth” in a land of degraded farms, forests, ecosystems, and watersheds, polluted air, failing families, and perishing communities.”

Berry asks: How are we to protect ourselves? He suggests the idea of the “local economy,” where people do for themselves, turning their back on a homogenized culture, bringing the consumer and producer closer together; a “back to the land movement” with panache!  Where towns and villages supply the craftsmen and their products and where the local farmers supply grain, vegetables, meat, milk, eggs and raw materials, carefully harvested from the Earth.

Why must eggs and milk travel such long distances to market? Wouldn’t grass and grain-fed beef, locally raised, be healthier and better tasting than beef bloated on chemicals and medication, animals forced to stand or lie in their own manure? Wouldn’t the “local economy” provide a healthier and more humane way of life? Wouldn’t the “local economy” provide a better environment in which to be a Christian, to engage in the economy of “gift and gratitude” so eloquently described in previous essays?

Rhetorician Richard Weaver, in his speech, Reflections of Modernity, declared that we had lost our agreement or consensus about “the definition of man.” He argued that there were now two “schools” of thought regarding the “nature” of man. The first, he labeled “scientistic,” and the second, “the traditional theory.”  The scientistic view denied that man had a “nature;” rather, he was merely a component of the Darwinian evolutionary process. The traditional theory, on the other hand, believed man had an “image,” and that this image was the “…product of our total awareness of what man has been, is now, and…what man ought to be.” Indeed, the final element was always determined by religion and is “…the oldest and most widely received view of the subject, which is that man is a creature in whom a creator takes a special interest and whom he holds to a standard of responsibility.”

At some point in history science and capitalism were joined cheek-to-jowl. Perhaps, it was inevitable. Technology supplies an endless procession of “new” products, and capitalism manufactures and distributes them. Neither could function within the “limits” prescribed by religion -- by Christianity -- indeed, both science and capitalism require the unfettered will of man-in part, what the Nashville agrarians referred to as “unbridled market capitalism.” And, in order to attain that goal the tenets of the Judeo-Christian worldview had to be displaced.

The techno-capitalists are the new Jacobins. They have defeated the communists while seducing the church. They abhor the past, and they are the true misanthropes! Man is merely an instrument, a means to an end that will be utilized in their “…zeal for power, systemization, regimentation.”

Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny is a profound collection of essays that asks and answers the most intrinsic question: How then should we live?  The book shows us that, as Americans, if we are not prepared to consider first, God and our relationship with Him, our families, communities, indeed, ourselves, if we do not address the spiritual and moral realities that confront us, then in time we shall surrender our remaining remnant of “freedom and liberty” to the tyranny of greed and nothingness!

It is obvious that the east and west coast of the United States, along with the major urban centers, are prospering as a result of free market capitalism and globalism. On the other hand America’s heartland is and has been economically devastated. Communities that, in the past, provided tax “incentives” to attract business are crushed when capital is moved to Mexico, China, and India. All too often unemployment leads to divorce and ruined families, drug and alcohol addiction, and crime. A man who has worked all his life does poorly on government handouts.

I am reminded of a line from one of Bob Dylan’s songs; “…it’s an empty, hungry feelin’ that don’t mean no man no good.” If the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota is right, trouble is brewing in the heartland. Both political parties are wedded to NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO; neither offers any hope, let alone relief. It won’t be only anarchists and student radicals you see at the next anti-WTO demonstrations.
 
The fundamental tension between technocratic capitalism and Western orthodoxy -- the Christian church -- have generated brilliant, academic essays and debate best typified by Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny. In the end, however, the question may devolve into upheaval, chaos, and anarchy. But, we must consider that it was Christ, Himself, who said; “The meek shall inherit the Earth.”

Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny is available on Amazon.com.

Bob Cheeks has written for The American Enterprise, Human Events, Southern Partisan, and The Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

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