Abortion and the Politics of Protest

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Kathryn Walker reviewed a book called Raised Right: How I Untangled my Faith from Politics by Alisa Harris.  I hadn’t so much as heard the book before, but my interest is certainly piqued now.  Harris, like so many others in my generation, finds herself, despite having been given a full-blown fundamentalist, pro-life, right-wing upbringing, having somehow wandered across the political divide, so that she is now unmistakably left-wing, though still, I take it, evangelically Christian.  In this book, she chronicles her journey and tries to explain why.  For a fuller summary of the book, I certainly recommend Walker’s excellent review; if I ever get around to reading it myself, perhaps I’ll offer my own review, but for now, I simply wanted to pick up on one interesting question that Walker raises.

Walker does not share Harris’s newfound sympathies for the Left, but she does at least give her a fair hearing, and grant that she may have some good points.  But for Walker, the most important issue is still abortion, and she can’t accept Harris’s rationale for minimizing that issue.  Harris remains pro-life, but has lost her sympathy for the pro-life movement, it’s foot-stomping and sign-waving, and wants to invest her effort into caring for women, rather than politicking.  But Walker asks toward the end of her review why Harris happily engages in sign-waving in protest against Bank of America—”she embraces public displays against injustice, and it’s hard to see any difference in the latter over the former ones, except for the causes themselves. And in this case, it’s not clear why corporate greed trumps infanticide in degrees of heinousness.”

Walker’s question set me pondering a bit, because I must confess I find myself feeling a lot like Harris at times.  Of course I still think abortion is a great evil, a heart-breaking crime against the defenceless children, and often against desperate mothers as well, who are pressured into it.  But I have so little sympathy left for the pro-life movement.  There, I said it.  I’ve admitted it.  I cannot make myself care all that much whether a candidate is pro-life, as a litmus test for voting for or against him.  Of course it’s relevant, but then, so are the candidate’s views on gasoline taxes.  I simply cannot get worked up about the issue as a political issue (though I can get worked up about the issue in other respects; I found the portrayal of abortion in Ides of March heart-rending).  But, I do get worked up about corporate greed.  I don’t sympathize with sign-waving abortion protesters, but I can be brought to sympathize with sign-waving Bank of America protesters.  Is there any good reason from this, or is it just some kind of hypocrisy or something worse? 

Well, there may be a few good reasons, or at least partial reasons, and I wanted to explore them.

There are, I suppose, two distinct issues, though I have elided them here.  One is protesting, the other politicking.  Protesting is of course generally political in its orientation, but is essentially indirect, seeking to influence the attitudes and the milieu within which political decisions are made.  By the latter, I mean direct lobbying for legislative, executive, or judicial action, crafting laws, promoting candidates with desirable positions on an issue and attacking candidates with undesirable positions.

Skeptics like myself (and I would take it Harris) doubt whether the politicking is a meaningful or useful way of advancing a pro-life agenda.  Certainly, prima facie it would seem to be misguided: (1) abortions were widespread in the US well before Roe v. Wade; (2) Roe v. Wade was a judicial decision, not a legislative one, and the judiciary is by far the most independent branch of our government, and the most difficult to influence through political action (rightly so); (3) empirically, it is hard to see that 39 years of feverish pro-life politics have yielded any significant gains.  Digging deeper, it seems like abortion is not really by its nature primarily a political issue.  Of course, legal systems have an obligation to protect life and prosecute murder, but legal systems can only function within a framework of broadly shared moral assumptions.  If a culture has reached the point where no one sees the problem with something, then trying to stop it by outlawing it is like spitting in the wind.  (Of course, this is oversimplistic—there are other less drastic ways of trying to legally limit abortion, which may be effective.)  But of course a second point to note here is that few people get abortions because they think it’s a perfectly fine thing to do.  I don’t know statistics, but my guess is that most women who get abortions don’t like the idea at all, but they’re frightened or pressured or desperate enough to do it anyway.  In such a case, making a law against it isn’t necessarily going to change many of their minds.  It might dissuade a lot of abortion doctors, but there will still be plenty willing to supply a black market.  

Contrariwise, it seems clear that political action is a meaningful and effective way of confronting economic injustice, particularly when that takes the form of large corporations engaging in dubious behaviour that prioritizes short-term profits over long-term considerations and the well-being of society.  I would argue that, normatively, regulation of justice in economic exchange and justice in distribution of goods is one of the core functions of a well-ordered government.  But of course, nowadays conservatives have gotten it into their heads that in fact, it is precisely economic decisions that are private and individual, lying outside the proper purview of public justice.  To be sure, such regulation will not be wholly effective, but the fact that the injustices in question are not simply or even primarily the result of individual decisions, but are structural and institutional in nature, suggests that legislative action is a natural, appropriate, and effective way of addressing these problems.  Indeed, I could go further, and point out that the very mechanisms by which investment banking is made possible do not simply spring out of the state of nature, but are the product of political and legal structures.  The corporation itself is a legal creation, as are the securities with which an entity like Bank of America makes its money—they simply would not exist apart from some kind of legal edifice.  Therefore, to call on the law to redress their abuses, one might suggest, is the most natural thing in the world.  Empirically, we could point out that politicking against particular abuses by big business, in favor of the rights of labor (in the first half of the 20th century primarily) and the rights of the consumer (in the second half of the century primarily) yielded enormous, measurable gains.

 

When it comes to protesting, well, it is worth asking exactly what protesting is intended to do?  Protesting is, to be sure, often quite directly political in orientation.  But such phenomena as pro-life marches and the Occupy movement are not best described as a kind of popular political lobbying.  In its most coherent form, protesting is a form of public witness against injustice—it seeks to call attention to, to name, an evil that is being done amongst us, with the intent of influencing the perpetrators to rethink their actions, and, perhaps more plausibly, of influencing our fellow citizens to become attentive to the injustice so that they will share our judgment of it, and join their voices with ours in calling for an end to it (whether that end come from individual, social, or political action).  

When we put things this way, I think it is possible to see why someone might consider this a rather clumsy response to the issue of abortion.  For it makes sense that a protest should be as public as the sin itself is.  Adultery is rampant in our culture, and while there are plenty of Christian voices calling it to account in appropriate ways, there has not been, to my knowledge, a National Anti-Adultery Rally, or a National Right to Fidelity March, or anything of that sort.  Of course, part of this is because we now consider adultery a sin but not a crime; but that’s not all of it.  For neither are there regularly large Anti-Drunk-Driving protests, despite the widespread deploration of drunk driving and its disastrous consequences.  For these problems, widespread as they are, are essentially an aggregate of individual, essentially private (though I do not mean to say that any sin is entirely private) sins or crimes.  They do not rise to the level of a public sin, a structural sin.  They do not have an institutional form that can be witnessed against in public.  

One could argue that similarly, abortion is essentially an individual sin and not a structural sin, that “the abortion issue” is simply an aggregate of individual evil abortions, rather than a unitary public evil that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The problem is not “abortion” as an abstract force of injustice, but particular acts of abortion—individual agents in the midst of individual crises, making individual wicked decisions.  The situations that lead women to seek abortions are unique to each woman, and so the best way to stop abortions is to work with individual women to help them.  Not, of course, that there are not many wonderful Christians out there doing just this; but we are asking now whether the sign-waving, marching, protesting side of things contributes to this work at all, or rather undermines it.

And of course, there is a “structural” element to the problem of abortion too—the poverty and abuse that drive so many women to desperation, to a sense that abortion is the only way out, the treatment of women as useful objects for sex, for which pregnancy is an awful inconvenience (this is not to say that there are not a great many abortions that are simply wicked unconstrained decisions of convenience).   But it is precisely this structural element that the pro-life movement, as a political movement, tends to most ignore.  

On the other hand, the Occupy movement, inasmuch as it has a coherent message, is bearing witness against a public, structural, institutional sin.  The greed, inequality, usury—however you want to label the core problem—that today infects our society is a structural sin.  Yes, of course, there are greedy individuals, and if no individuals were greedy, then perhaps we wouldn’t have all the problems we’ve had in recent years.  But the evil, and the harm that it does, far transcends individual greedy decisions; it would be possible for most of the investment banks’ employees to be good decent people just doing their job, and for all the problems still to persist.  The systemic usury and injustice of the financial system is the result result of warped incentive structures, poor laws, a loss of sense of the true purpose of financial institutions, collusion amongst the powerful to protect one another and veil their dealings from the public, etc.  Therefore, public protest, as a way of calling attention to the systemic problems, as a way of naming this evil and inviting us all to join in decrying it and undermining is foundations, seems highly appropriate.  

(Of course, I acknowledge that the abortion issue has a counterpart to this kind of corporate corruption, in the so-called “abortion industry”—doctors, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, entrenched advocacy groups, etc., that have a vested interest in perpetuating abortion, hiding the truth, and manipulating the powerful.  I think that pro-lifers perhaps overstate their case here sometimes, but inasmuch as this is a real power, a real fortress of evil, it warrants a forceful public witness.)

Having said all this, though, I think it is fair to admit that neither of these is, I think, the real reason why Harris (and myself) find ourselves naturally more sympathetic with sign-waving against crony capitalism than with sign-waving against abortion.  The real reason is that the former is new and the latter is old.  We grew up with the latter, and we frankly find it a bit tiresome and grating now.  It feels like our sub-culture has been harping on the same old problem forever and ever and it’s time to just deal with it and move on.  Whereas, although for our parents protesting the evils of capitalism might’ve been a common enough part of their experience, for us, it’s new, fresh, and a bit exciting.  

Now, I say all this in a tone of somewhat mocking self-criticism, but there’s more that needs to be said here as well.  For one thing, just because something’s appeal lies partly in its newness does not render it invalid.  I think stodgy Baby Boomers are right to point out that the enthusiasm for social justice causes among the rising generation is partly fuelled simply by the novelty (to us) of the cause; but I would also make the case that the cause still happens to be a very just cause, worth getting passionate about (and yes, perhaps protesting about, though that’s really not my cup of tea).  

More importantly, the newness factor makes an objective difference when one is asking about the appropriateness of the rhetoric of protest.  No doubt part of Harris’s antipathy to pro-life protest arises from her sense that, after more than three decades of it, any positive potential has likely worn off, and it is much more likely simply to have the effect of hardening opponents, and alienating potential sympathizers who are simply sick of the conflict and polarization.  A protest movement is always at its most effective when it is brand new; pretty soon, it starts to grow stale and tiresome, and people just sound like they’re whining, or obsessed, or pathologically combative.  Indeed, just look at three months of the Occupy movement.  A couple weeks in, they were cool.  A couple months in, and it’s like, “C’mon guys, enough already.  Pack up your tents and stop digging pit toilets in the park.”  After the initial point has been made, and awareness has been raised, it is usually time to turn to more constructive, concrete, and patient means of bringing about change.  In large part, to be fair, the pro-life movement has certainly done this, and has succeeded thereby in incrementally reducing the rate of abortion and in some cases improving the legal restraints upon it.  But inasmuch as portions of the movement continue to adopt the posture of angry protest, demonizing opponents and refusing to vote for any political candidate who does not share their fervour on this particular issue, it risks not only failing to be an effective voice in American culture and politics, but also continuing to drive away young evangelicals, contributing to a widening political gap between the generations that threatens to further fracture American evangelicalism and harm our witness to a watching world.


Consumed: A Book Review

It took me more than a year to finish this book–sometimes, that should tell you something about me, but in this case, that should tell you something about this book.  While Barber’s overall thesis is compelling and important, his presentation of it seemed calculated to alienate any possible allies.  Pompous and blustering, he writes most of the book’s 339 small-font pages in a breathless, melodramatic tone of fervent moral passion and outrage (I suppose the subtitle should’ve warned me adequately: “How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole”).  Now, this would understandable as an occasional device.  The subject is one that calls for moral passion and outrage, and I, for one, am sympathetic to the desire to indulge in rhetorically-charged passages chock-full of unusual polysyllabic words.  But intense rhetoric is only effective as an occasional device, as a departure from the benchmark of more restrained rhetoric.  Unfortunately, for Barber, the bombastic was the benchmark, from which he almost never departed.  And as you can imagine, that begins to grate on one. 

As part of his tirade against consumer culture, he seeks to include pretty much every example and phenomenon he can think of, regardless of whether it’s relevant or compelling.  Instead of a focused account of some of the most alarming trends and damning evidence, Barber is determined to offer a comprehensive account of everything that is wrong with the world today under his heading of “infantilization.”  Couple that with the fact that he seems to have been too pompous to have accepted any advice from his editor, and one has to endure many pages of irrelevant or laughably overblown laundry lists of complaints.

And yet, I did the book the honor of reading till the end, because I believe his overall thesis is compelling and very important.  Barber argues that a vast distance separates the consumer capitalism of our own day from the productive capitalism of yesteryear which pundits continue to laud, idealistically imagining that our economic system today is scarcely different from that of 100 years ago, and that today’s critics of capitalism can be answered by appealing to capitalism’s virtues of yesteryear.  As a somewhat nostalgic, rose-tinted view of capitalism’s past, Barber’s portrait leaves me skeptical, but as a diagnosis of our contemporary condition, I think he is spot-on.  Originally, says Barber, capitalism served to meet genuine human needs, and it did a really excellent job of this; now, however, with genuine material needs sated in the West, capitalism has had to turn to *creating* artificial needs and wants that it can satisfy.  Not only that, but although there are still many places in the world with genuine needs, urgent needs, it is far less profitable to service these than it is to continue to feed the pathological desires of consumer society.  

This leads to the phenomenon which Barber calls infantilization, which constitutes the heart of his argument.  Producers, eager to create as much demand as possible to a strategy of infantilization, market to children, and try to turn us all into children.  After all, children have far less sales resistance, far less ability to discriminate what they really want and really need, far less ability to make rational decisions about what they can afford and what they can’t, so it’s much easier to sell to children than adults, easier to get them hooked on brands and products.  Barber chronicles the sinister ways that companies have sought to take over childhood with commercialism, barraging children not only with a surfeit of children’s products, but also colonizing childhood prematurely with the trappings and products of adulthood.  Not only that, but it pays to keep adults in a perpetual state of childlike neediness and dependency, to establish habits of impulse buying and brand addiction that people will never outgrow.  Some of Barber’s examples of the phenomenon of infantilization (e.g., the popularity of Pixar, which makes “children’s movies”) are quite poor, and even hurt his thesis, but overall, as I say, it’s compelling.  Of course, it’s important to note that Barber does not treat this simply as some big conspiracy on the part of manufacturers (although occasionally he comes off that way), but as an overarching social phenomenon of regression and loss of self-control in which we are all complicit.  

This pattern of infantilization carries with it a corollary, which is the other key theme of Barber’s argument—”privatization.”  Barber uses this term not in its common narrow sense of handing over government functions to corporations (though that is part of it), but as a wider problem of the destruction of the public, the atomization of society, and the consequent loss of corporate moral agency (note that “corporate” here and following does not mean “relating to a corporation”).  Although I’m not sure that he cites her at all, Hannah Arendt’s fascinating discussion of the “privation of the private” in The Human Condition provides an excellent foundation for his argument here.  He argues that we have made such an idol out of personal choice and freedom that we find ourselves powerless to oppose all kinds of things that almost no one wants and almost everyone considers harmful–unrestricted pornography, aggressive marketing of junk food to children, etc.  Indeed, he points out in a section that should be of great interest to conservative Christians how this demographic finds itself in a ridiculous quandary.  On the one hand, conservative Christians are most concerned about many of the things the culture is throwing at our children, and the ways that the ubiquity of media and the aggressiveness of advertising make it impossible to escape from, and yet conservative Christians are most likely to eschew any public means of combating this onslaught, and are reduced to each fighting their own losing battles as tiny enclaves.  In the interests of freedom, we have actually accepted a great loss of freedom, since to resist some evils and protect some freedoms, it requires corporate agency–to remain free, we cannot each rely solely on our own resources.  Barber offers a compelling apologia for regulation, understood not as the officious meddling of power-hungry bureaucrats, but as the collective decision of citizens to stand against and rein in forces that undermine society and morality.

Now, we are naturally inclined to suspect that Barber is simply going to take us out of the frying pan and put us into the fire, substituting the evils of big government for the evils of big market.  This knee-jerk suspicion is often unfair, because there is a genuine place for government in restraining rapacious markets.  But in this case, we are right to be a bit suspicious.  Barber is almost as eloquent in eulogizing “democracy” as he is in decrying consumerism.  He has this rosy idea that somehow if we all stepped up to the plate and were willing to be “citizens” again, and engage in real democracy, exercising our corporate moral agency, then everything would be alright.  Given the depth of the cultural malaise that Barber identifies in this book, I’m awfully skeptical.  For this reason, the last two chapters, trying to offer a way out of our current predicament, are the weakest.  

 

For all this book’s weaknesses, however, I would definitely recommend reading the first four chapters, if you can handle that much of the hypertrophied rhetoric.  For a more disciplined treatment of some similar issues, read Naomi Klein’s No Logo.  And for a very concise and thoroughly theological overview of many of the same problems, read Cavanaugh’s fantastic Being Consumed.  And, of course, for a primer on the nature and importance of corporate moral agency, read Richard Hooker. 🙂


Three More Reasons to Ditch the GOP

Unbearable as the experience often is, I can’t resist peeking in on news related to the Republican presidential nomination race from time to time, and each time, it seems, I find another damning testimony which reveals how tenuous the connection between the GOP and anything recognizably Christian is becoming.  Perhaps it is now not so much the party of the “Christian Right” as the “Cold-Hearted Pelagian Right.”  Here are three examples I’ve saved from the stories of the past couple weeks:


The new media favourite of the race, Herman Cain, whose chief qualification for governing the most powerful nation on earth seems to be that he ran a pizza chain once, had this to say about the recent Wall Street protests: “Don’t blame Wall Street.  Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself. . . . It is not a person’s fault because they succeeded. It is a person’s fault if they failed. And so this is why I don’t understand these demonstrations and what is it that they’re looking for.”  

Excuse me?  Not that long ago, even Republican leaders had been willing to join in the chorus of hatred against Wall Street, against a banking system that is fantastically rich and incorrigibly corrupt, and which, after nearly leading the whole world into the abyss, has happily resumed its intemperate ways.  And not only does Cain have the guts to defend them, but he wants to tell everyone who hasn’t managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become super-wealthy, that this is simply their own fault and they don’t deserve any sympathy.  Survival of the fittest, you know.  If you don’t have it in you to succeed in this dog-eat-dog world, then you’re not worth the world’s time, and should resign yourself to being trampled underfoot.  

But Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Meanwhile, Rick Perry has been having a rough time of it lately because he has dared to show any sympathy for the scum of the earth.  Perry, of course, presides over a state with a large number of  “illegal immigrants.”  His state has passed a law that decides to treat the children of these impoverished workers as state residents, with access to Texas’s lower in-state college tuition rates.  Perry argued, sensibly enough, that the alternative is to deprive children of illegal immigrants of the opportunity for an education, thus increasing the likelihood that they will become a costly drag on society, and that “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”  Unfortunately for him, most Republicans do not, it seems, have hearts.  Strategists and pollsters say this is a “90-10 issue” (against Perry) for Republican voters, and voter testimonials confirmed this picture.  One declared that she liked Perry “until I heard about him giving all these kids a free ride.  I absolutely, positively disagree with any benefits that these people are getting, and if it were up to me, I’d round them all up and sweep them out of here.”  Others were turned off by Perry’s disinclination to back the building of a fence along the entire US-Mexico border to keep these workers out.  

But Jesus said, “”When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

 

On one front, though, Perry has shown a hard enough heart to lure Republican voters: capital punishment. In a recent Bloomberg article, Margaret Carlson reports how, “In a debate in September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, moderator Brian Williams tried to pose a question to Perry, beginning: ‘Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you — ’ Before he could finish, Williams was drowned out by lusty cheers and piercing whistles from the audience.”  And she comments acidly, “It’s one thing to support the death penalty. It’s quite another to relish it like fans cheering a winning touchdown.” 

After discussing the troubling record of modern death row cases, Carlson tells us Perry’s equally disturbing response to the question: “Perry confidently told Williams that he had never lost sleep over any of the 234 people executed during his tenure as governor,” and goes on to comment, “It’s an alarming statement if false, a contemptible one if true….It’s worth losing sleep over life-and-death decisions. It’s what presidents, and other moral beings, do.”

But Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

 

(NB: In each of these stories, especially the last, I am at the mercy of how the media is portraying things.  It is possible that each of these stories has been reportedly falsely or one-sidedly, and if so, I welcome the corrections of anyone who follows this news more thoroughly than I do.)


Money, Greed, and Five Favorite Fallacies

As you may have noticed, my passion against Schneider has burned out a bit, since I finished reading him almost two weeks ago, though I will still do my best to blog through the rest of the book.  I read John Medaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market and it was a fantastic breath of fresh air–I reiterate the recommendation I made before I read it: everyone should go read it.  More about it in due course.  For now, though, I’m afraid I have another very unhappy review to share, Jay Richards’ Money, Greed, and God.  (I will admit up front that I did not finish this book.  I made it to the halfway point, and then determined that to continue, with no promise that I would ever be offered a coherent argument, was merely an act of self-flagellation.  I should also point out, lest I seem to be unfairly singling out really lame books to critique, like a scrawny third-grader beating up on kindergarteners in order to feel important, that the back cover of this book is bedecked with laurels like “the definitive case for capitalism,” bestowed by none other than George Gilder, and is rated very highly on both Amazon and Goodreads.  If this is the definitive case for capitalism, then I’m afraid capitalism had better give up and pack its bags.)

This book is laced with unflattering ironies.  The author repeatedly adopts the stance, so attractive to American audiences, as the champion of common-sense over against the obfuscations of intellectuals, who spin webs of fantasy and idealism out of touch with reality.  But he does this while remaining consistently at the realm of abstraction, hypotheticals, and straw men, never deigning to come down and engage economic realities.  Sometimes this equals blatant falsehood, like where Richards asserts that “government spending as a portion of GNP has grown exponentially in recent decades.”  The actual growth?  12% (from 18.4% to 20.6%) over fifty years, and actually a decline in the last twenty.  (You can see all the details here.)

On a larger scale, it means that Richards never actually touches down to earth and tells us what he is talking about.  What is “capitalism”?  Since he never tells us, he can simply duck and hide from opponents as needed–whenever their attacks hit home, he can conveniently claim that as “not-capitalism,” and whenever there is something good that the modern world has given us, he can claim it for capitalism.  This is common enough in books of this genre, as is the tendency to camp out in abstractions and hypotheticals.  We find here almost no real grappling with modern economic realities, but rather platitudes about how an ideal free market functions in principle, and how wealth need not be a zero-sum game.  

Throughout, though, he writes in homely and down-to-earth style, in order to strengthen the impression of common sense over against the distorting sophistications of the academics.  If he used such rhetoric as an aid to clear and cogent logic, it might work, but when it is used to mask the absence of logic, it just makes him look like a demagogue.  Here’s a case in point: “The Ten Commandments–a sort of summary of all God’s laws–take private property for granted.  For instance, the eighth commandment, the one against stealing, implies that we may have property.  Otherwise, there would be nothing to steal, and the commandment would make no more sense than an order not to fraternize with four-headed Jube Jube monsters.  (No, I don’t know what they are, either.  I just know they don’t exist.)”  As I’ve pointed out before, the eighth commandment taken alone merely implies the existence of fixed property relations of some kind–it says nothing about what form those should take–capitalist, distributist, communitarian, or even socialist!  Perhaps Richards hopes that his readers will be so distracted by Jube Jube monsters that they won’t notice the logical lacuna.  

The same complaint can be made against Richards’s extensive use, early on, of a first-person narrative.  He was once an idealistic socialist, he confides in us, back when he was a teenager and it was cool to be radical.  He used to be convinced of all this rubbish, but then when he started looking at real facts, he learned better, and grew to embrace capitalism.  This, presumably, is to help his case, by conveying to the reader that this is not some ideologue, but someone who knows the other side inside and out, and has rejected it for sound intellectual reasons.  However, given that he never deigns to share any of these sound intellectual reasons with us, but resorts to all kinds of straw men and logical loop-de-loops to make his case, this personal testimony just makes him look naive and impressionable.  

Despite the promises of the title and the back cover, Richards does not really attempt in this book to argue positively for capitalism, and certainly not to offer a theological argument for it (inasmuch as Scripture appears, it is generally only as something that Richards defends himself against).  All he really attempts to do is to show that capitalism “is not the problem,” by means of refuting eight “myths” about why capitalism is bad. Rather than deal with Richards’s responses to these as such, I wanted to respond by pointing out five fallacies that pervade his argument through the first few chapter.  The first three are primarily methodological, the latter two primarily substantial.  I will call them The Dystopia Fallacy, The Tweaking Fallacy, The Not-Necessarily Fallacy, The Coercion Fallacy, and The Theft Fallacy.  In a later post, I will discuss the issue of Private Property and Inequality (non-)Problem, which relates closely to the reasons I researched the book in the first place.

 

1) The Dystopia Fallacy

In this fallacy, Richards picks the worst possible example of an alternative to capitalism, and uses it as a bogeyman to scare people away from imagining that there could be alternatives.  The first chapter does this on a grand scale, and in the most fantastically cliched fashion: Look at the massive evils done by countries that were professedly Marxist!  Ergo, capitalism is better than all the alternatives.

For this argument to work, it would require at least these four assumptions:

1) Marxism is the only alternative to capitalism.

2) The countries in question practiced Marxism effectively.

3) The evils that these countries wrought were directly due to their Marxism.

4) Similar evils have not been wrought by countries trying to impose capitalism on unwilling populations.

In fact, I think, all four of these assumptions are invalid.  The first is so baseless that it bewilders me how otherwise intelligent people manage to persist in repeating it.  Richards’ book takes no account of phenomena like European democratic socialism, not to mention of course alternative economic visions like distributism.  The second is eminently disputable.  Leninism, Maoism, etc., have their roots in Marxism, but differ in profound ways from what Marx argued for and envisioned.  One massive and crucial difference is the fact, which Richards notes in passing but pays little attention to, that communism took root in agrarian and Third World countries, rather than in developed Western industrial nations, the context in which Marx developed his ideas.  Unsurprising, then, that it failed so abysmally.  The third fails also, for related reasons.  Again, Richards notes that “revolutions never sprang up in advanced industrial societies where there was a strong rule of law, but rather in poor agrarian cultures with career tracks for despots.”  So Cambodia to the United States should not be an apples-to-apples comparison in determining the relative merit of an economic system.  Many of these evils have been due to despotism in general, and communism is just the particular form it has taken for some countries in this century.  Brutal despotisms on a massive scale have been pretty common historically in places like Russia, China, and Cambodia.  The technology of the twentieth century has merely made it far easier for this brutality to occur efficiently on a massive scale.  This then relates to the fourth assumption.  It would be fair to ask whether, in “agrarian cultures with career tracks for despots,” capitalist regimes of some form or another have practiced terrible brutality and tyranny in the twentieth century.  The recent history of Latin America, unfortunately, answers that question in a resounding affirmative.  

 This sort of fallacy continues throughout the book so far as I have read, using, for instance, examples of a really poorly-conceived and poorly-executed government policy to “prove” that government intervention in the “free market” is always bad; or quoting out-of-context and poorly-worded complaints against capitalism to prove that all forms of opposition to capitalism result from fuzzy thinking.  Meanwhile, he routinely chalks up all the marvels of modern life to free-market capitalism without any argument. This is nothing but post hoc, ergo propter hoc–we had capitalism, now we have the microwave; clearly the latter must come only from the former.  

He is correct, in short, to claim that modern capitalism need not be perfect, only that it needs to be better than any viable alternatives.  But to demonstrate that it, at its best, is better than one particular alternative at its worst, doesn’t get him very far to proving it better than the alternatives.  To be fair, he either needs to compare really bad examples of anti-capitalism with really bad examples of capitalism, or really good examples of anti-capitalism with really good examples of capitalism.  Otherwise, it’s nothing but propaganda.

 

2) The Tweaking Fallacy

This is a common approach among free-marketeers.  What they do is they set up some idealized scenario of a well-functioning market, and then hypothesize one particular change in policy that is intended to make things work better.  Unsurprisingly, the change upsets the system, and ends up doing more harm than good.  But most intelligent people agitating for change don’t just want to make one little change in the system; they want to make a lot of changes, building on one another.  Or they want to change the assumptions inherent in the system.  

An example of Richards’ use of this fallacy (again, quite cliched) is with respect to minimum wage.  If you raise the minimum wage in a well-functioning market, argues Richards, you will increase unemployment, and thus make things worse off on the whole.  Fair enough.  But any responsible initiative to raise the minimum wage would gauge the possible impact of a wage hike on employment (which, depending on the current wage level, might not actually be much at all), and would take steps to avert ill effects.  Or a distributist might propose ways to remodel the entire system so as to both raise wages and employment levels (as quite persuasively argued by John Medaille in Toward a Truly Free Market).

The tweaking fallacy can be conveniently combined with the dystopian fallacy, as Richards illustrates with the minimum wage issue.  He imagines a scenario in which the minimum wage was raised to $1,000 an hour and shows us how bad the effects would be.  Presumably, then, we are to assume that the effects of a smaller raise would be bad too, in the same way, only to a lesser extent.  But logic does not support such an assumption, and the “argument” thus serves only the purpose of alarmist rhetoric.

 

3) The Not-Necessarily Fallacy

In this, another favorite tactic of Richards’s, the logic of the argument runs like this: Opponents of capitalism say that capitalism makes the rich richer at the poor’s expense.  This complaint assumes a zero-sum game–that wealth is never created, only transferred.  But this is not always the case.  Let me show you some examples of how free exchange can make both parties wealthier.  

Ergo, capitalism is not a zero-sum game, ergo, the rich do not get rich at the poor’s expense.  The problem here of course is that almost no critic of capitalism is so daft as to complain that it is always a zero-sum game.  Everyone recognizes that of course it is quite possible for business to actually add net value to everyone concerned, and that this happens all the time, and is much of the reason for the prosperity of the world today.  But do all resources work that way?  Well, no.  Some resources, like land, are fixed and cannot be created.  Some markets–many financial markets, for instance–are essentially zero-sum markets.  

Now, if some significant parts of the system are zero-sum, then it is quite possible, indeed likely, that many people do get wealthy at the expense of others.  It is not always win-win.  And in general, those already most powerful will succeed in entrenching their position at the expense of those less powerful.  The only way Richards could refute the zero-sum complaint would be by demonstrating that all transactions in a capitalist system end up benefiting both parties, and that is manifestly false.  Instead, he confines himself to showing that it is not necessarily true that someone gets rich at another’s expense, and therefore concludes that it is necessarily untrue, which is about as straightforward an inversion of logic as you can get. 

 

4) The Coercion Fallacy

I have written on this before at great length, so hopefully I can be brief.  Richards frequently makes his case by indulging in a sense of moral outrage at the coercion of government coercing people to do stuff, even for good ends, and of course he repeatedly defends the free market by insisting that it is, of course, free.  Whatever you don’t like about it, at least it doesn’t force people to do stuff, but lets everyone meet on an equal level, and exchange what they want less of for what they want more of.  Everything is completely voluntary.  

In a modern world that has exalted freedom as the highest virtue, this sort of argument is taken to settle the question–better for people to do bad things freely than good things under compulsion, seems to be the idea.  Of course, once closely examined, this popular moral presupposition breaks down, but we’ll leave that issue aside.  The more immediate objection is of course that it is not really accurate to speak of all government policies as “coercion” unless one presumes radical individualism.  There is a such thing as corporate decision-making, the public will, and all that.  Or there used to be, at any rate; perhaps there isn’t anymore in the United States.  A corporate decision is only coercive to the extent that the recalcitrant make it so.  But let’s even leave that issue aside.  

The most immediate objection, one that is so obvious that only the most propagandist ideology can ignore it, is that it is absurd to talk about perfectly “free” contracts and agreements in a marketplace constrained by inequality and scarcity.  In a contract between an employer who lives in a mansion with security guards, and is making a 20% profit margin, and 1,000 job applicants who are facing starvation if they can’t find some kind of employment, it would be absurd to speak of the two parties as being equally “free,” or even to speak of the job applicants as free at all in any meaningful sense of the word.

Rather than face up to such real-world realities, Richards insists on making his argument in terms of idealized test scenarios and hypotheses–like the “trading game” that his sixth-grade teacher made his class play once upon a time, swapping toys until everyone ended up with something better than they started with.  “An exchange that is free on both sides, in which no one is forced or tricked into participating, is a win-win game.  It’s a positive-sum game.” But this hypothetical marketplace is one without exploitation (preying on someone’s physical needs to get them to do something you want), manipulation (preying on someone’s emotional needs to get them to do something you want), or deception (ensuring that the other party does not know the relevant facts of the transaction), all of which are institutionalized in many modern capitalist markets.  

In short, I continue to insist that if the defenders of capitalism are to rest the vast majority of their case for the goodness of the market and the wickedness of state intervention on the “freedom” in the former and the “coercion” in the latter, they must provide some meaningful definition of these terms that actually fits the real world.  Otherwise, why should we listen to them?

 

5) The Theft Fallacy

Related to the “Coercion” fallacy is of course the “Theft” fallacy–the repeated rhetorical assertion that any redistribution or contro of private resources by the government is “confiscation” or “theft.”  I’m sure you know the sort of thing I am talking about, but here’s a sample quote:

“Every government has to collect taxes to fund services beneficial to all–to maintain courts, protect citizens from domestic and foreign predators, enforce traffic law and contracts, and so forth.  We have a right to protect ourselves from aggressors, for instance, so we can delegate that right to government. We don’t have the right to take the property of one person and give it to another.  Therefore, we can’t rightfully delegate that function to the state.  Delegated theft is still theft.”  

As I’ve argued before, this argument collapses on its own terms.  Almost any “legitimate” government function breaks down when pressed.  Some citizens have enough mobile capital that if an enemy should attack the US, they could easily pack up and move to London with few adverse consequences, so why is it worth their while to pay tax dollars to defend less affluent citizens.  Maybe they are staunchly pacifist or at least feel that America’s enemies have been stirred up by acts of aggression that such citizens have bitterly opposed.  They didn’t support the actions that created the enemies, so why should they have to pay for the cost of restraining those enemies.  Or what about those of us who live in inner cities and walk everywhere.  Why should we have to pay for the maintenance of the roads and traffic laws?  If societies cannot enact policies that benefit some people more directly than others, then they can’t enact any policies.  Such a reductio ad absurdum suggests that there is a fundamental philosophical flaw in the assumptions behind this “theft” accusation.  

 And sure enough, there is.  The assumption is that private property somehow exists in a vacuum–it is sacrosanct, unconditioned, absolute, timeless.  It pre-exists any society and therefore society has no claims on it.  This assumption turns out to be utterly incoherent once held up to the light of day (and Richards himself discards it in a later chapter when it suits his argument to articulate property differently).  On the contrary, property is, if not a product of society (which I would suggest it ultimately must be from an ethical standpoint), at the very least always conditioned by society.  To say that society has no claims on private property is about as coherent as saying that parents have no claims upon their children.  

Now one can argue that there are limits upon these claims–limits of justice and limits of prudence.  If there were no rules restraining society’s claims on private property, private property would be meaningless.  But conversely, if there were no rules at all regarding society’s claims on private property, then private property would be meaningless.  The relationship is a subtle and dynamic one, not one that is easily defined by throwing around terms like “theft” whenever it is rhetorically convenient.

 

And that last criticism could sum up my critique of the whole book.  Richards acts as if this is a debate between ignorant idealists and people who take economic realities seriously.  But in saying this, it feels like he is critiquing himself.  Economies are subtle and dynamic, and the real world that we operate in is quite different than the fantasy one that Richards has constructed for us with the aid of fuzzy logic and empty rhetoric.



Social Justice and the Jubilee (Good of Affluence #6)

As I mentioned in my fourth post, Schneider does, as a matter of fact, have some interesting and nuanced things to say about the Old Testament economic laws.  He, at any rate, is not content to use in the standard conservative dismissal that says these “laws” were not really laws but merely moral guidance–that would not, after all, help his case, since his interest is not in the duties of government toward the poor, but in the moral duties of Christian individuals.  Nor is he content to ascribe to laws like the Jubilee a purely spiritual and symbolic function, a mere prophecy of the spiritual jubilee of release from sin that Jesus brings (a strategy commonly employed by theonomists like Chilton and North who otherwise insist on taking the OT laws with strictest seriousness as New Covenant legal principles).  As I quoted before, he says at the outset of discussing this material that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight.”  Later he affirms that “Sider is no doubt correct (as well as in line with all mainline Christian moral teaching) in thinking that the jubilee provisions are a model of some kind for the institution of social mechanisms in law and policy that protect people from losing everything they have.”

So where’s the rub?  Well, Schneider pushes us to evaluate more closely what the Jubilee actually does.  They do not universally redistribute wealth from the wealthiest to the poorest.  For instance, he points out, “The poorest people in society were unaffected by it.  For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee.  Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution.”  From this he draws the conclusion, “Strange though it may seem . . . the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence.”  He returns to this theme repeatedly, hinting that the class that the jubilee helped was really what we might call the “gentry,” the “landed classes.”  Although true in one sense, this is deceptive, since the intention of the Old Testament law was that every single Israelite family had land, was a member of the “landed classes.”  Because this ownership was universal and, in intention, fairly equal, it is a serious distortion to imagine these ordinary Israelites as the “affluent gentry,” as Schneider seems to invite us to.  Nonetheless, he does have a point, at least against those who would carelessly invoke the jubilee as being alone a sufficient model for Christian social justice.  However, for anyone who does not take the jubilee on its own, but together with other provisions for the poor in the Torah, the force of his point is considerably blunted, as he himself admits: “Of course there are provisions elsewhere in the law that prove beyond question that the affluent Israelites had obligations of justice to the poor within Israel.”  Moreover, while it is quite true that the Jubilee and the law in general offers much more extensive protections for Israelites, over against foreigners, it seems that this objection holds little water once one transposes these principles into a New Covenant key. 

The Old Testament law is based throughout on a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders, between Israelites and Gentiles.  But of course it is this very distinction that is challenged so systematically in the New Testament, so that we are called to extend the principles of love, justice, and solidarity that formerly applied only to insiders to outsiders as well.  The point of Jesus’ ministry, as interpreted by Paul in particular, is that exodus and jubilee and all the rest is now not only for Israel, but for the whole world.  Of course, there does seem to remain the continuing principle of “let us do good to all, and especially to the household of faith,” because it is simply impossible from a human perspective to make sure that everyone indiscriminately has all their needs cared for.  This will be discussed further when we get to Schneider’s treatment of the New Testament and “moral proximity.”

Schneider also points out that the jubilee law, as a matter of fact, prevented one from showing unrestrained charity.  Since all land had to return to the original owners every fifty years, even if they didn’t actually need it and there were others who needed it more, it was impossible for a wealthy Israelite to permanently divest himself and share his resources with landless sojourners.  The point was to prevent extreme inequality, but considerable inequality was allowed to remain.  Granted, then, that the jubilee does not (certainly taken alone) provide a clarion call for a complete redistribution from all with a surplus to all with a lack; but what then does Schneider think it does provide?  Does he think that the model of an inalenable sacred relationship to the ancestral land is to characterize our economies?  Presumably not.  So we are not, as a matter of fact, restrained from selling our land and giving to the landless sojourners, in the way ancient Israelites were.  Given that the trajectory of the Old Testament laws is to much greater concern for the poor and vulnerable, might we as Christians not be supposed to intensify this trajectory, and go further than jubilee?  Such questions are, alas, left unaddressed.  

Schneider does not, however, leave unaddressed the implications of the jubilee for private property: “In his classic 1954 study of Leviticus 25, Robert North pointed out that the jubilee, properly understood, actually ‘stresses and safeguards the function of private property as an incentive to industrious energy.’ . . . In fact, Leviticus 25 not only affirms and safeguards the property rights of each tribe, it declares such rights to be unalienable, as unalterable and absolute as the God who gave the property to them.”  The jubilee, Schneider goes on, following North, shows us an ideal of liberty that is dependent upon the “independent small property owner,” an ideal supportive of “modern democratic capitalism.”  Social justice advocates of jubilee, he implies throughout this section, use the passage to try to undercut private property rights, whereas in fact it strengthens them.  Well, yes and no.  As I have pointed out in many previous discussions of this passage and others, the logic is in fact neither socialist (as Schneider apparently accuses his opponents of thinking) nor capitalist (as Schneider seems to think), but basically distributist, with some distinctive sacral elements thrown in.  Private property is extremely important, which is why it is important that everyone in Israel have some, and that no one amass too much property at the expense of others.  Property is not the product of one’s labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God.  Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.  It is, to be sure, a model in which property is the foundation of liberty, but property understood in stark contrast to how modern democratic capitalism understands it.  If you want to go to Leviticus 25 for a “high view” of private property, by all means do so, but recognize that it is a radically different view than the modern Lockean one, with radically different implications for economic life. 

 

What would it look like transposed into a modern key?  Does faithfulness to this Old Testament ideal require an agrarian society of some kind?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But we ought to be able to agree that the economic ideal presented is that everyone ought to have enough for their sustenance, and that no one ought to amass more than they can use.  We may debate over whether this principle must be applied politically, or “merely morally,” but either way, it renders the “good of affluence” a qualified and relative good, a good that can become an evil in the face of indigence.