Capitalism and Our Culture
MARCH 01, 1958 by EDMUND OPITZ
The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.
The current revival of interest in religion in America has been variously interpreted. At the very least, it means that many of us may be disposed to re-examine the spiritual foundations on which our culture has been erected. Our heritage of free churches—religious bodies possessing an authority of their own, independent of the State—is obviously rooted in the unique intellectual and cultural soil of the West.
But we need to be reminded that our other cherished institutions spring from the same soil. Modern science, education, our tradition of limited government, and our taste for free enterprise or capitalism are all anchored to the same spiritual foundation; and, as superstructures, they are all affected by the decay or the loss of prestige of their foundation.
Shoring up this spiritual foundation directly is one thing; defending it against the indirect erosion which results from an attack on one of its autonomous offspring such as science, education, or free enterprise is another. Science and education have able defenders, so the attack on our culture often centers on economics where it sometimes achieves a semblance of plausibility. It was a unique combination of cultural factors which encouraged the emergence of capitalism, and it may be argued that the very survival of free private enterprise depends as much on getting these cultural factors back into proper focus as it does in knowing the case for the free market.
In the philosophy underlying the practices of capitalism the market is used as a device for making economic decisions—the "market" being the pattern precipitated by the voluntary buying habits of free men and women. Men engaged in economic activity at any level may be guilty of coercion and fraud, just as they may be guilty of coercion and fraud in any other context. When this is the case, they may properly be censured for their malpractices. This is worlds apart, however, from the wholesale condemnation of the institution of the free market by collectivists, or the thoughtless criticisms of otherwise thoughtful people.
Economic activity, subject to the same ethical and institutional restraints that hedge all human actions, is no more properly subject to political invasion than is religion or science or any other human venture. Economics, moreover, occupies a strategic position among the various activities of man. Economic activity is not merely the means to material ends; it is also the means to all our ends. Thus, while it may serve on a humbler level than science, education, and religion, economics is a necessary means to these ends. If its integrity as a means to these ends is not respected, it may become the instrument to destroy them as well as to impair the spiritual foundation they rest upon.
A great social upheaval occurred several centuries ago—one of those great, deep, tidal changes in the human spirit manifesting itself on the level of society as new institutions and a new outlook on life. Different aspects of this transformation were labeled the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation, the whole affair being religious in nature. Men felt the urge to love God for himself; and, as a parallel development, to pursue truth for its own sake. This latter urge is the wellspring of the scientific method.
But like other people, specialists in science easily lapse into an attitude of unawareness of the unique spiritual and social conditions which make their specialty possible. They are "radically ignorant," writes Ortega y Gasset, of "how society and the heart of man are to be organized in order that there may continue to be investigators." And so we now have science perverted, and some scientists placing their talents at the disposal of politicians in the planned State. This is bound to happen when the metaphysical foundations of science are ignored.
A human culture is born as something "cultivated," something developed by education, discipline, and training. Its spiritual foundation is constructed slowly and painfully, like the building of a breakwater by throwing in bag after bag of cement until finally the top of the pile appears above water. Modern culture had been in preparation for centuries before it erupted in the sixteenth century and allowed a new outlook, a new spirit, and a new set of values to release and direct human energy. Men threw off the dead weight of ancient restraints—the various justifications for the tyrannies of political government, the controls on man’s productive energy, the discouragement of efforts to investigate the natural universe.
The material prosperity we know and have known in America is a direct outgrowth of the spiritual and social upheaval which surfaced about four centuries ago. The critics of capitalism became aware of this connection at least fifty years ago when Max Weber published his enormously influential book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The revolutionaries, however, had employed this strategy much earlier. G. Zacher, in 1884, wrote in The Red International, "Whoever assails Christianity assails at the same time monarchy and capitalism!"
If our common Judeo-Christian heritage paved the way for the rise of capitalism, then a subtle way of causing a decline of capitalism would be to refrain from openly attacking it while concentrating on weakening the foundation which holds it up. This would kill two birds with one stone, in the manner advised by the French revolutionist two centuries ago who said, "Don’t attack the monarch, attack the idea of monarchy."
The East and the West
Perhaps the importance of the spiritual and cultural foundation of the West may best be illustrated by comparison between the Oriental and the Western scene. A traveler in the Orient is struck immediately by the amount of human muscle power still used to do the heavy work of society. The streets of an Indian city are crowded with men carrying things, pushing things, and acting as beasts of burden. The strong impression which these scenes evoke is that the Orient needs machines so that horsepower can relieve manpower.
Questions and Answers
Why doesn’t the Orient have the machines which would lighten human toil? Is she too poor to buy them? So was Europe a few centuries ago; and then the energies of Europeans poured out and channeled themselves in patterns of relief from much of the backbreaking toil which is still the fate of their brothers in the Far East.
Might it be that the people of the Orient are not bright enough to invent and build their own machines? To the contrary, many of her people are bursting with creative energy, and they have inventive minds, as witness their philosophies, their arts, their handicrafts. And rich natural resources are available to them.
Perhaps the Oriental society has been shackled by its prevailing forms of despotic government. There has been despotism in the Orient, native and foreign; but the questions arise: Why have people over the centuries quietly consented to submit to tyranny? Why has the idea of limited government gained so little foothold among them? Why doesn’t the Orient invent the machines, embrace the technology, and set up the industries which would provide the goods and lighten the burdens that now lie so heavily on the backs of half a billion people?
These are questions that cannot be answered on the level of technology or on the level of political and social organization. The answers must be sought at those deeper levels where vital decisions are made which permit or repress the emergence of a belief in the dignity of man, and in freedom, and in such of its natural corollaries as science and technology. Natural resources and opportunities are of secondary importance; what is of primary importance is the possession of a religious heritage—or an attitude toward the universe—which encourages men to take hold of natural opportunities. This heritage Europe had in the Judeo-Christian tradition in which was embodied elements of Greek culture—the whole being called Christendom. When that tradition came to renewed life at the dawn of the modern era, it was the fountainhead of great changes in Western society. Population increased many times; simultaneously the well-being of individuals increased. Famines disappeared; some diseases were eliminated altogether, and the ravages of others were mitigated. Education spread to the outermost edges of society. During the same period of modern history Oriental society has been virtually static—until the ferment of the last few years.
Equal Before God
At the heart of the great Western upheaval was the idea that the individual worshiper could come into the presence of God without the mediation of any special class of men, or of any group, or of any nation. According to this faith, the Creator and Sustainer of life, the Lord of the universe, is nevertheless, and paradoxically, close to every person and interested in the most humble.
Think what this belief, strongly held, would do for the humble who walked the earth, how it would straighten their backbones and lift their chins! Think what this belief would do to tyranny. If every man thought of himself as the creature of God and potentially God’s child, he certainly would not long submit to being the creature of any other man or of any group of men or of any government! No longer could it be regarded as right, or as the will of God, that any man be placed at the disposal of any other man or group. Thus, every person was conceived to have "rights" which no one should impair, and out of this came a concept of government as a social institution set up voluntarily by men to secure each of them in his "rights."
We are proud, and rightly so, of the experiment in government set in motion on these shores a little more than 175 years ago. Perhaps the keynote of this new kind of government was struck by James Madison in his thirty-ninth Federalist Paper when he wrote of the determination "to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." This cannot be construed to mean that Madison suffered from any illusions as to the utopian possibilities locked up in the average human breast. But for the first time in history the individual person was not to be a creature of government or its minions. Inherent rights were lodged in each person as his natural endowment from God, and the exercise of his individual energies was strictly a matter of his own business—until he trespassed on the rights of other individuals.
In the American scheme, men had a larger measure of political liberty than men had ever had before, and they obtained their measure of freedom by limiting government to taking care of the one interest men have in common—the removal of barriers to the peaceful exercise and exchange of human energy.
The American concept of government did not spring into being full blown from a few brains; it was hammered out in the course of long experience and debate. By the middle of the eighteenth century Americans were protesting that the exactions of the British crown were violating their rights as men, whereas but a generation earlier they had demanded their rights as Englishmen. A revolution in thought and outlook separates the former concept from the latter. In drawing the lines of battle on their rights as Englishmen, the colonists had in mind the concessions which their ancestors, beginning with the barons at Runnymede, had wrung from their sovereigns. In standing on their rights as men, the colonists drew upon another dimension, the theological. This is probably what de Tocqueville had in mind in 1835 when he wrote of Americans that "religion . . . is the first of their political institutions."
Religious Aspects of Political Liberty
When religious considerations are introduced into political theory, government is ideally limited to securing the ends of liberty and justice for all men alike. Political liberty thus has spiritual antecedents, and it serves spiritual ends by providing the social conditions which enable persons to achieve the goals appropriate to human nature.
Political liberty also serves man’s creaturely needs. Under political liberty a certain pattern of economic activity emerges, properly called "capitalism." There is no more warrant in common sense or in theory for fettering men’s economic activities than there is for arbitrarily curtailing his scientific, educational, or religious activities. But by constant repetition of untruths and half-truths, it has been made to appear that every ill from which our society suffers is due to freedom of economic enterprise, whereas the real cause of many of these ills is actually the result of the impairments of that freedom.
In recent years, business and industry have gone through the wringer. Businessmen, who are as good and as bad as any other group of men, have been singled out for special treatment. Industry as a whole has been tied down with a network of laws and controls. While some branches of it were treated to special privileges by government, other branches suffered from political discrimination.
During this same period a new conception of government has gained popularity. It is the very concept against which eighteenth century Americans protested and fought—the concept that government is the seat of ultimate power in society and therefore possesses all the rights which it dispenses provisionally to people as political expedience dictates. Thus the older American concept of the relation of government and people is turned inside out.
Whenever men have yielded to the lust for power and the greed for possessions, there have always been impairments of political and economic liberty of great or less degree. In the past when the going got rough, men pulled in their belts, grumbled, and consoled each other with the literature of freedom, sacred and secular. They were sustained by their faith that those who loved liberty were on the side of the right, and that the right would eventually triumph. They might perish, but their principles would outlast any tyrant. But now the situation is different. Values have been transvalued, and impairments of political and economic liberty are made on principle. Thus the blows struck at limited government and free enterprise do not stop after doing their damage there. They go deeper and strike at the spiritual and cultural bases of our society, at that substratum of our life which we, until recently, have so taken for granted.
In our present situation, the most immediately oppressive things seem to emanate from an overgrown, bureaucratic government. Merely to remove these restraints and directives is of little use, however, if we leave intact the concept of omnipotent government—or the seeds of this concept—to spawn more restrictions. An erroneous idea of government must be replaced by a correct idea. But when we seek to refurbish the American idea of limited government, we find that originally the concept stemmed from a spiritual foundation which is itself badly in need of rehabilitation. It is at this fundamental level that the most intensive work needs to be done. But because so few people are aware of the importance of this level, almost no one is working at it. Unless this spiritual foundation is rehabilitated, work at the less profound levels cannot endure, touching as it does only the margins of the problem.
Ideas On Liberty
Rome fell because the nation collapsed spiritually; because a hardy race succumbed to the insidious poison of the idea that "the government will do it"; because rulers bought power at home and favor abroad by gifts of treasure and food; because integrity and thrift and industry gave place to corruption and waste and indolence; because the nation bartered its ancient heritage of hard-won freedom for the specious ease and false security which a corrupt government promised it.
Franklin Bliss Snyder, President Emeritus, Northwestern University