This is the 3rd in a series introducing the book Redeeming Capitalism by Ken Barnes. You can pick up the start of this series here. See the chart here for the context of PURPOSE in the major historic forms of capitalism.
"At its most basic, the driving force for the development of traditional capitalism was framed by a desire to emerge from the drudgery of subsistence living. Now, it is easy to lose sight of just how difficult basic survival was for most of human history. With the establishment of nation-states, emergence of an accessible banking system, improvements in the division of labor, international commerce, laws of incorporation, increases in population, and newfound political and religious freedoms, a post-subsistence existence became a distinct possibility.
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Free markets provided a vehicle for enterprising individuals and companies to create the wealth necessary for people to enjoy life, not merely to survive it. For the first time in history, education, healthcare, the arts, democratic government, and countless other benefits were available to large portions of the population and not just the landed gentry. It was a noble purpose and led to economic, technological, and social advances, many of which are still enjoyed today.
As technology advanced at breakneck speed, though, and as the Industrial Revolution brought about previously unimagined improvements in production, the ability for some people to accumulate vast amounts of personal wealth became the primary purpose of modern capitalism. While many of the wealthiest industrialists chose, primarily for religious reasons, not to enjoy the fruits of their wealth, they nevertheless fed the economic ethos that would lead to postmodern capitalism's insatiable appetite for conspicuous consumption. The avarice and hedonism that drives much of capitalism today has led to huge disparities of wealth and an almost palpable contempt for the poor.
Supported by a narrative that distorts liberal economic orthodoxy, governments have colluded with the super-rich to perpetuate the false notion that wealth concentration and economic excesses are necessary evils to be tolerated in order to ensure the efficacy of the free market. This is a completely false notion. While closed economic systems may indeed be less efficient than free-market capitalism, markets themselves are far from infallible and require ethical – and sometimes regulatory – constraint. As fund manager George Soros rightly said:
If we care about universal principles such as freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, we cannot leave them to the care of market forces; we must establish some other institutions to safeguard them.
The general purpose of virtuous capitalism, then, is neither wealth accumulation nor conspicuous consumption but a genuine desire to see the power of free markets used for the purpose of human flourishing. By flourishing I mean wellbeing in all of its forms - economically, socially, spiritually, physically, and politically. In other words, capitalism would once again be the servant, not the master, of humankind.
Virtuous capitalism would be free enough to create wealth sufficient to benefit all of humanity, while still rewarding those who take reasonable risks, work hard, innovate, and are motivated to succeed. Benefits for the common good would be achieved, not by imposing a utopian egalitarianism or an arbitrary redistribution of wealth, but by creating a new narrative around the purpose of wealth-creation and the development of an ethos of generosity.
Believing that we are all in this together certainly is not a new concept. At the end of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that if they truly love him, they must 'feed [his] sheep' (John 21:15-19). While it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus was speaking of spiritual food in this passage, we cannot ignore the obvious connotation that his disciples were also responsible for the material wellbeing of their neighbors, as demonstrated by the early church's communal environment (see Acts 2 and 5). At the very least, maintaining a just and properly functioning economic system is paramount to following Jesus's admonition." (Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism, p. 189, 191)(Emphasis throughout is ours)
We at BetterCapitalism.org are fond of the phrase, “Questions are the engines of thought and action.” From that posture, we invite you to give thought to a few of our questions.
Have you been taught that wealth concentration or economic disparity is a necessary evil of capitalism? Do you think capitalism MUST be evil? Why?
Do you think humans are capable of reforming capitalism, a system we humans created? If you think not, why?
Do you think capitalism can be returned to its original purpose of helping all of humankind to flourish? If you think not, why?
How might these questions prod you to re-think your perspective of capitalism? How might these questions prod you to make different marketplace decisions?
Stay tuned for future excerpts of Redeeming Capitalism. Or. Why wait for us? Buy and read a copy for yourself now.
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