Does Capitalism Really Promote the Common Good?

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O praise the Lord! O thank the Lord, for bountiful is He; Because His lovingkindness lasts through all eternity.

I don’t think anyone can deny that the global market system has made it possible for hundreds of millions to lift themselves out of poverty.  But does this mean that the market system has served the Common Good?

That term “Common Good” certainly gets thrown around a lot these days.  I think it’s widely assumed that, by making lots of people better off financially, then of course the market system serves the Common Good.

But the point about the market system making individuals better off only serves to establish that a utilitarian-type goal is met.  Now, utilitarian thinking has certain merits to it: it sees each person’s welfare as equally worth enhancing, and it seeks to promote the most aggregate welfare among the population.  However, promoting utilitarian goals is not the same thing as promoting the Common Good.

If we see what’s actually distinct about the Common Good, we’ll see why Christians really should care deeply about it.

In a recent post about the societal benefits of the market system, I noted at the end that there are various ways one might push back a bit against the pro-market argument that capitalism enhances the lives of individuals.  One way to push back is to question whether capitalism actually promotes the Common Good, even as it benefits lots of individuals financially.

The key point about promoting the Common Good is that the good things received by people are received together.  Good things are only part of the Common Good if they are shared.

Now, the free market advocate might say at this point: “Well, by creating wealth, doesn’t the market system provides an increased pile of valuable things, which individuals can share in?”

But this is not really the sense of “sharing” that the Common Good points us to.  The global market might provide lots and lots of TVs, cell phones, cars, and so forth.  And the global market might make these items available at a price many people can afford.  Yet, if individuals purchase these items independently and enjoy them privately, there is no receiving together of something good.

So, the market system may help people be individually better off, as measured in personal wealth.  But what if, as I enjoy individual benefits made possible by the market system, I become more and more oriented toward pursuing these benefits?  And what if this pursuit of privately-enjoyed things naturally makes me less inclined to see and to seek those good things that can only be enjoyed communally, in “common” with others?

For Christians, God is someone we are called to seek together.  And we are intended to enjoy God together.  (In the scriptures, individuals are always called to some community, not merely to an individuated, private relationship with God.)

Christians rightly emphasize this point in talking about corporate worship.  As individuals we can pray, read scripture, and engage in ministry by ourselves.  But Christians rightly speak of the importance of also engaging in corporate prayer, scripture reading, and ministries of service.  We affirm that it is also important for us to pray together, to receive and respond to God’s word to us together, to serve the marginalized together as the body of Christ.

Ultimately, God is simply not the kind of thing that can be finally enjoyed individually.  The heavenly community will be a source of ultimate flourishing for us because our perfected relationships with God and with one another will mirror the interdependent relationships that exist among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Within the heavenly community, our well-being is only attained collectively, as we interdependently receive the fullness of life that comes from God.  Seeking the “Common Good” is ultimately seeking this kind of life together.

So, if the market system makes me better off in purely individualistic terms, but moves me away from the collective pursuit of what can only be shared with others, then in the long-term I’m worse off.  At least, I’m worse off from a Christian perspective of how our ultimate flourishing is achieved.

Does the market system move us away from the true Common Good?  My own view is that, in some ways, it does indeed tend to do that.  A quick glance at the things that are typically advertised on TV doesn’t reveal a lot of things that could only be enjoyed communally.  This isn’t to deny that the market system provides huge opportunities to meet basic needs of food, sanitation, and medical care to hundreds of millions around the world.  But in order to ensure that in the process we aren’t oriented away from the true Common Good, I think we’ll need to take proactive steps.  A discussion of “How Much is Enough?” for us as consumers is one important discussion, I think.  There are no doubt others.

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

6 COMMENTS

  1. While it is certainly true that some technologies produced by capitalism yield selfishness, and that no technology is truly “neutral”, that’s the technology at work, not the economic framework. A family too busy staring at their private screens to speak to one another could not be possible without capitalism. But neither could it be possible for a family to take care of the garden and livestock and sell their milk and eggs to their neighbors, as friends of mine do.

    But socialism – intrinsically, as an economic system, it is based on theft, and where it manages not to create utter destitution, it breeds ingratitude. Threaten to take away the least of what is given to the beneficiaries of socialism, and see if they take to the hardship as a Christian would.

    Capitalism, as with all human endeavor, can go wrong. But it does give a person more leeway to choose.

    • 1) Do you really think nobody could sell an egg to their neighbor or garden before 1650?
      2) You accept technology as not-neutral, but do you think economic systems are? That’s the entire point of the article! What’s the moral status of a Liberal economy?
      3) And certainly don’t act like there are only two possible economic systems—capitalism or socialism. It’s cheap rhetoric. He doesn’t advocate socialism anywhere in there.

      • No, the system does weigh in. My argument is that the climate of a liberal economy is more conducive to Christian morality than that of a social democracy, never mind a fascist, communist, feudalist or mercantilist system. After which I kind of run out of economic options. Well, there’s going Amish. That’s moral enough in isolation, but none too involved with its neighbors.

        • Well this is the real point, isn’t it? That a liberal economy necessarily operates on first principles that aren’t conducive to Christian morality (and, as we’ve seen, actively undermine it). This article puts it in even more straightforward terms: capitalism (specifically) doesn’t even promote the common good it’s so bound to a principle of individuality.

          Now whether or not we just resign ourselves to its flaws because it’s the best of all bad options is a different matter. But I hope we’re not too lazy to try to innovate to produce a more just system. And even if we are that lazy (God forbid), we certainly can’t endorse those first principles of liberalism and sing their glories. Being the best of all bad options—if it even is—still doesn’t make capitalism good.

          • The best of bad options is what we’re stuck with in this life. There is no heaven on earth. Trying to create a heaven on earth is an equation of humanity with divinity, and ends as you might expect.

            The old-school Methodists were, of course, very much about improving the moral climate, and that would of course be why I’m on Seedbed now. But they were no utopian dreamers. They set specific goals: Reform the neighborhood’s alcoholics. Promote the free-soil policy. Look for a fallen woman to evangelize to. And their biggest misstep was Prohibition, because that’s where they let themselves believe that the fallen human spirit could be reformed purely by outside, worldly pressure.

            Hmm. A good specific economic goal here might be to abolish all market speculation more abstract than shares in a company. It’s a form of accumulating wealth that requires no good at all done to anyone, and it’s the level at which you’ll find people for whom money is “just to keep score.”

          • I don’t think we’re stuck how you think we are, and it looks like we don’t see the systematic injustices with the same degree of severity. We’re probably at an impasse. So I’ll take my leave by reiterating that being a better bad option doesn’t make capitalism good. And I hope Christians stop waving its flag as if it God dictated its principles.

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