Capitalism and Our Culture

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.

Spiritual Foundations

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
Spiritual Collapse

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