More Capitalism

April 13, 2004 | 19 comments
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Rather than post a comment deep in Richard’s wonderful thread about capitalism, I thought I’d bring my thought to the front of the queue.

The question of whether capitalism is compatible with the gospel was answered the moment Richard listed the fruits of capitalism: immense salaries, notoriety, perks, honor, authority, power, and influence. In other words, pride and the vain things of the world.

One of Mormonism’s central tenets is the notion that this world is at odds with God’s will (Nate’s first comment in the thread is wonderful and touched on this point). We refer to this world as Babylon precisely because it is Zion’s enemy. As I read the comments, however, I was struck by the suggestions that our objective is to remake Babylon, rather than flee to Zion.

It is seeking earthly treasures that Christ condemned — not the form in which they are sought. Rust and moth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal, no matter that our treasure was acquired through an economy that pays parents and educators rather than golfers and writers. We may seek riches to serve our fellow men, but it is how those riches are used, and not the intrinsic merits of the underlying work, that King Benjamin addressed.

There are many valuable acts I might do, none of which are currently compensated in our economic system. How much *should* I be paid to tell my children I love them? How much *should* I be paid to plan a thoughtful date for my wife? How much *should* I be paid for home teaching, serving my neighbor, or returning a lost coat? It is undoubtedly beneficial to society that my family feel loved, that neighbors help one another, etc., but it’s a mistake to criticize our economy because it doesn’t compensate every social good. This is because there are, to use the cliche, many things that money can’t buy. Heavenly capital can’t be exchanged into dollars. These are the things that cannot, and should not, be compensated by any economy. That’s the way it works and the way it should be — society cannot provide earthly treasures proportionate to eternal significance.

Gospel followers must challenge the importance of wealth, notoriety, power, and every other vain thing of the world. Our mission is to highlight the priceless — especially loving relationships. That is where happiness is found.

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19 Responses to More Capitalism

  1. Aaron Brown on April 13, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    Hooray! Matt Evans is back from the dead.

    Aaron B

  2. William Morris on April 13, 2004 at 3:15 pm

    Yes. Hooray! Great post.

    My question is how much or in what ways do we/should we justify the means that allow the heavenly treasures to be sought and won, loving relationships to form and flourish?

    I think that we both overemphasize and underemphasize the need for physical comforts, material goods and [perhaps most importantly] time in order to seek the heavenly treasures.

  3. Dave on April 13, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    Matt, nice you’re back. It’s really no fun agreeing with people, and since I disagree with most of what you say, I really enjoy your posts!

    Why is a nice income, power, authority, and perks a bad thing? Education, talent, and financial resources are the lifeblood of the Church, not a threat. Learning to live in the world, not of it, is a personal challenge we all must take seriously, but if God had wanted a church full of humble peasants, He would have restored the gospel in Bolivia, not New York.

    I think the whole prior discussion overstated the role that the economy and work plays in people’s lives. Work and career are important, but most people (LDS or otherwise) place more importance on friends, family, and personal spiritual growth than these stereotypical sermons against wealth are willing to admit.

  4. Lyle on April 13, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    I hope you are right Dave. I think the persistent complaint is that looking at the “ranks” of Bishops & Stake Presidents…it seems to be made up of those Fathers that work & preside…and leave their family, literally in the hands of their spouse & the Lord.

  5. Joseph N on April 13, 2004 at 3:42 pm

    Aren’t worldwide temples a fruit of capitalism?

    Sure, temples can be and have been built of donated labor and materials, but how could the saints in the poorer places of the world be able to have temples so soon if it weren’t for the weathly capitalist contributions in the USA?

    And the PEF? And the church welfare system?

    I think Dave really said it well in his post.

  6. Charles on April 13, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    It is the “love of money that is the root of all evil”. This is a pretty common thought and very much loved quote that is often misquoted in the world. When viewed correctly we see that it is the desire for money that is the root of evil in the world. Capitalism is one of the most successful models for offering the most money to the most people. We could then try to make the connection that capitalism is evil.

    Capitalism to me is very much like a democracy. Instead of casting our votes at the local district we do so with our checkbooks. Instead of political speeches and debates we have carefully designed advertising to win our votes.

    Since the church is a theocracy, it stands to reason that the two are at odds, but I think there is always a way to find the middle ground.

    As stated earlier our works are part of the formula. It isn’t enough to condem a person for thier motives, or works alone, but the two together can paint a pretty bad picture.

    The church may seek after riches but the works with which they are doing with them is for the building up of Zion. Helping those who cannot help themselves and providing meeting houses for the saints. The other notable difference is that the church as a whole is relying on tithing to do this. I understand that there are some church held companies working in the capitalist market but they don’t seem to be ‘advertising’ the way most public companies are.

    Most companies seek after riches for the sole reason of having them. This is where capitalism shows itself to be a powerful tool. Like most tools it can be used for good or evil.

    I would however, dissagree with Dave.
    “…if God had wanted a church full of humble peasants, He would have restored the gospel in Bolivia, not New York.”

    God does want us to be humble? That is one of the things we all are supposed to be striving for. Humility means being teachable, knowing that we are not everything we could be and not elevating ourselves in pride. Without humility I don’t know if the atonement would be atainable. Did you mean poverty or poor? Be careful thats a slipery slope of saying that worldly possessions are a manifestation of ones spiritual achievements.

    The setting, whether it be Bolivia or New York, was his choosing based on which would have the greatest opprotunity to spread or accomplish his will.

    This is of course one of the possible reasons I think makes sense. I have no idea why God chooses one thing over another, but since we taught that this is a choice land, and divinely inspired, it would make sense for this to be the location for the resurection of the gospel.

  7. Ben Huff on April 13, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    Since when are air travel, General Conference live over the internet, Pavarotti at the Met, Joni Mitchell on CD in my living room, fresh mangoes in Indiana in March, medical supplies delivered to earthquake victims in Turkey from the other side of the world in time to actually help, kidney transplants, and the modern university, just plain vain things of the world?

    I think these things are virtuous and praiseworthy, delight the eye and gladden the heart. I don’t see that the production of any of these things needs to be motivated by greed or lust for power or fame. I don’t see how they can be vain, unless it is because they are pursued to the exclusion of something of deeper importance, or by vicious means, or in pursuit of something else vain.

  8. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    I think we ought not to give up on Babylon too easy. It’s true that we can’t make Babylon be Zion, especially not with the unwieldy force of the law. But customs and conventions, and yes, even laws, can go a long way to teaching what is good and what is desirable and thus help prepare the way for Zion. The nation can’t be the body of Christ, but it can be John the Baptist.

  9. lyle on April 13, 2004 at 6:58 pm

    And look! There is hope for those MBA students after all! They are learning about corporate responsibility for externalities that are hard to measure & just plain olde good will!

    http://www.cnn.com/2004/EDUCATION/04/13/socially.aware.students.ap/index.html

  10. Clark Goble on April 13, 2004 at 7:54 pm

    Who says we can’t make Babylon a Zion? Heavens, Joseph thought he could even make the deepest coal pit of Nova Scotia a heaven! (One of my favorite quotes, being from Nova Scotia)

  11. Matt Evans on April 13, 2004 at 8:20 pm

    I should have clarified, for those unfamiliar with my world view, that I have no gripe against capitalism per se. The second paragraph in my post should have specified that the answer was obvious based on how Richard *framed* capitalism. Capitalism is, to purloin a phrase, the worst economic system, except for all the others.

    I see Richard and many of the commenters actually fighting materialism, and not capitalism in the sense of “free markets.” Free markets produce what people want, so most critics of capitalism are ultimately saying the choices people make are wrong.

    My point was to show that it is at this individual level — the ways a person chooses to use their resources — that the gospel speaks loudest. In hundreds of ways, the gospel teaches us that our priorities and concerns are wrong and misguided. The capitalist economic system merely reveals our collective choices. If everyone worked and invested for the benefit of their neighbor, capitalism (again: free markets) would dovetail with the gospel.

  12. Clark Goble on April 13, 2004 at 9:04 pm

    But Matt, if the values of society are sufficiently off, then critiquing a capitalism which merely promulgates those values seems to follow quite naturally. For instance I think few would argue that pure capitalism ought to determine how we treat the environment. Further for all the benefits and strengths of capitalism there is always that problem of information flow. For instance how most scientists see global warming and the associated value of goods and projects is radically different from how average consumers do.

    From a religious point of view the same thing follows. The recent thread on pornography is a great example. Clearly the treatment of values within religion and society towards pornography are quite different. Thus the move away from capitalism by many – either because they feel the true costs are hidden to most or because they simply feel people can’t be trusted.

    My only point in this is that those who criticize capitalism often are doing more than simply criticizing any particular set of values.

  13. Matt Evans on April 13, 2004 at 9:13 pm

    Aaron, it’s good to be alive again. Too bad it won’t be for long.

    Adam, Ben and Clark,

    It’s the pursuit of wealth for ourselves, and not capitalism, that is the sin of Babylon. I completely agree that if we could improve the morality of society so that people cared more about eternal things and less about earthly things, those preferences would reshape our capitalistic system into a Zion economy. My point of distinction was aimed at those who believe capitalism is structurally flawed. It’s the inputs that are flawed, not the system.

  14. Matt Evans on April 13, 2004 at 9:23 pm

    Clark,

    I’m not arguing for free markets in the sense that anything goes. There’s no inherent conflict between capitalism and laws that require high emissions standards, or prohibit logging in old growth forests, propornography, cocaine, or the retail sale of hand grenades.

    Is there an alternative economic system that intrinsically incorporates a concern for the environment? I can’t imagine how such a system could be structured.

  15. Greg Call on April 13, 2004 at 9:34 pm

    Matt,

    I’m the least qualified of anyone here to talk about economics, but I’m not sure I agree with you entirely. Capitalism is terrific at efficiently responding to consumer demands, and I do agree with that in some sense “the problem” is with those demands, not capitalism.

    But Richard wrote that capitalism intrinsically rewards savings, investment, hard work, and management skills, and leaves behind those who reject these values. Aren’t the values of capitalism a different problem than the fact that capitalism is just as good at delivering cheap food as pornography?

  16. Clark Goble on April 14, 2004 at 12:02 am

    Matt, perhaps I conflated two issues confusing things somewhat. There is the issue of regulation. Then there is the issue of taking resources and allocating them via some non-capitalist system. So if I decide to tax and allocate resources for the environment, then that is clearly not capitalism. I’d also say that, depending upon the level of regulation one is inhibiting free capitalism. But so I don’t muddy the waters more, I’ll leave that alone. (I might also quibble about the difference — if I limit where resources can be allocated am I really being capitalistics? If I require everyone to spend a certain amount on say opera?)

    Now of course we still think of this as capitalism. Simply because there is sufficient amount of it. But if for instance there were some panel of scientists, independent from direct election, who could by fiat tax and spend to say prevent global warming. Would it still be a capitalistic system?

    One might say the alternative to capitalism is a kind of oligarchy by the educated. You’d still have the benefits of capitalism as it would have the information flow and discovery abilities but the values of those perhaps better able to value. I’d never promote such a system, of course. There’s the ever present problem of what counts as “educated” and then the issue of equality. But I suspect such a system would truly be more efficient than our current ones.

  17. Charles on April 14, 2004 at 10:19 am

    Capitalism is not only economic but also political. It is the most democratic of the economic systems I am familiar with. We vote with our dollar and as mentioned before our demands are met. The problem isn’t capitalism, per se, but the values of our demands.

    Capitalism is the vehicle which is most commonly favored. If capitalism rewards people for exhibiting thier leadership skills, hard work, etc. that is hardly poor grounds for attacking it. The only issue I see with it is that it is the most efficient at rewarding these kind of behaviors. These behaviors are often cultivated because of greed or pride as people continue to push the envelope of thier lifestyles.

    Other economic forms that come to mind such as Communism do not reward people for moving above and beyond the minimum requirements. Dictatorships only reward those at the very top.

    Capitalism is a great tool when used with the proper intent by entities that recognize thier responsibility to thier surroundings, but it is a powerful weapon when in the hands of the adversary.

    If we as a church, and community strive to turn Babylon into Zion we do so not through economic reform but through value reform. Elect ethical leaders that recognize thier roles, work hard to achieve status in companies where we can influence the ethical choices those companies make. Its trickle down ethics in that sense. Then our values will reflect Zion and capitalism would be our tool to do good for others.

  18. Dubhdara on April 17, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    All economic systems are capitalist – they use (or attempt to use capital) – but we usually use the word to mean private capitalism or free enterprise.

    I like the term free enterprise. What is it free from? From government. Free enterprise (capitalism) is certainly NOT political, unlike its collectivist opposite.

    Capitalism (not necessarily capitalists) is to me based upon the Gospel in its principles of individualism and reward according to effort, and of course in respect of our agency unlike other economic systems.

    One LDS lawyer who wrote a book on the Constitution described the United Order as a kind of religiously motivated capitalism. (see J. Horowitz, The Elders of Israel and the Constitution)

    Here’s what President J. Reuben Clark said:

    “…I repeat again, the United Order recognized and was built upon the principle of private ownership of property; all that a man had and lived upon under the United Order, was his own. Quite obviously, the fundamental principle of our system today is the ownership of private property.” (Conference, October 1942)

    Whenever there are problems in the world – be it famine, disaster, or (genuine) enviromental concerns – the question we should ask is, Is it right for one group of people to force others to try to correct the problem? Capitalism champions persuasion, initiative, the motive of self betterment, freedom of the individual to grow and choose his way – the more humanistic philsophies of the world so prevalent in today’s thinking favour force, uniformity, and robbing man of every opportunity for genuinely moral acts.

    Dubhdara.

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