Calvin the Capitalist?

In his Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation, Ronald Wallace shoots the tired old hypothesis full of holes.  After first surveying Calvin’s teaching on usury, and pointing out just how restrictive his “permission” of it was, he tells us: 

“Though he believed in the necessity of some distinctions remaining, he believed that the appearance of extreme differences in wealth and poverty within a community was inexcusably evil.  His comment on Paul’s ideal that ‘through giving there should be equality’ is illuminating.  ‘Equality’, in Paul’s mind, he thinks means a ‘fair proportioning of our resources that we may, so far as funds allow, help those in difficulties that there may not be some in affluence and others in want’.  The vision given in Christ’s parable of Lazarus in heaven lying at the bosom of Abraham implies that riches do not shut against any man the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven but that it is open alike to all who have either made a sober use of riches, or patiently endured the want of them. 

“Calvin believed that Christ’s command to us to ‘sell your possessions and give alms’ might under certain circumstances demand the giving away of capital as well as current income.  It enjoined that ‘we must not be satisfied with bestowing on the poor what we can easily spare, but that we must not refuse to part with our estates, if their revenue does not supply the wants of the poor.  His meaning is ‘Let your liberality go so far as to lessen your patrimony and dispose of your lands.’ . . . The answer the Lord gives to the greedy who argue too much about their rights to keep their own is, ‘It is indeed thine, but on this condition, that thou share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that thou eat it thyself alone.’ . . . This teaching tends to have more in common with medieval thought than that which lay behind the vigorous growth of Capitalism.”

In short, Calvin appears to have held back to the traditional Christian teaching that private right to property must serve the end of common use, otherwise this “right” degenerated into a wrong against the neighbor, and that the persistence of significant inequality in resources was therefore immoral insofar as it was avoidable.  But it gets even more interesting.  Wallace suggests that Calvin challenged the ethos that is perhaps the chief pillar of capitalism and of modern life, an ethos that few even think to question, so deep is our faith in its benefits—competition:

“It must be noted at this point that Calvin could never have approved of the idea of a competitive society.  Rivalry and struggle of one member with another is impossible within a true Christian body.  No member is living in full health while competing with another.  It is interesting to find how closely on this mater Calvin’s thought comes to that of Kropotkin the anarchist.  In contrast to Hobbes, and to all thinkers who look back to the natural state of man in society as being one of continuous struggle, Kropotkin believed that ‘the law of nature was the law of cooperation, of mutual aid rather than struggle.  Within each species mutual support was the rule. . . .’

“Moreover, Calvin was always warning about the deadly effects of covetousness—an unquenchable and irresistible fire in the soul destructive of all individual and social good.  He called those who extorted cheap labour from the poor, blood-suckers, murderers of a worse type than any street thug.  He was never weary of castigating those who used their financial power to draw money from others to themselves.  He expreses his dismay that when prices were so high wealthy merchants could keep their granaries closed in order to raise the price even higher and thus to cut the throat of poor people’.  Nothing in the commercial world, he believed, could be lawful which was hurtful to other people, and ‘all bargains in which the one party unrighteously strives to make gain by the loss of the other party’ are condemned.  The idea that any form of rivalry in commercial enterprise could help society or tht self-seeking could further the common interest could never have entered his mind.  He believed in restraining rather than in setting free the competitive spirit.  

“The spirit of Calvin has therefore nothing in common with the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’.”

To be sure, so insistently does Wallace press his case here that it seems that he has an anti-capitalist axe of his own to grind.  Nonetheless, most our modern cheery capitalist-cum-Calvinists would do well to consider these points of rivalry between the two creeds.


If Corporations are People…

After a spell of travel-induced inactivity, I return with some more half-baked musings loosely inspired by Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands.

If corporations are people, then shouldn’t they pay the same taxes as everyone else?  Why should corporate tax rates generally be lower than personal income tax (the US is an exception here, though exemptions and loopholes mean that many companies pay far less than the 35% rate)?  If corporations are people, then why can they relocate from one jurisdiction with relative ease, without having to go through immigration and naturalization?  Why, for that matter, can they split themselves into pieces and be in several countries at once?  I certainly can’t do that.  If corporations are people, then why can they live forever?  And why shouldn’t they be beholden to those who brought them into being (viz., the government—”The state is the only institution in the world that can bring a corporation to life.  It alone grants corporations their essential rights, such as legal personhood and limited liability….Without the state, the corporation is nothing.  Literally nothing.”—Joel Bakan, The Corporation)?  My parents had enormous authority over me through my first eighteen years, but corporations, we are told, should be free from regulation by the legal regime that brought them into being.  

If we’re going to push the concept of corporate personhood to insist on “human rights” like “free speech” for corporations, then perhaps we should be consistent.  As it is, corporations are not simply persons, but highly privileged persons provided by law with opportunities and powers unavailable to most people.  

 

On a related note—

If competition is the essence of a free market, then why should the market be exempt from the constraints we apply to other forms of competition?  If I wanted to participate in the Olympics, then I would have to go through a rigorous selection procedure to ensure that I was a legitimate participant and would have to meet relevant national and international codes and standards merely for the opportunity to compete.  Once I was in, I would be subject to general rules established to minimize opportunities for cheating, bribery, etc., and to extensive tests to prove that I was not using performance-enhancing drugs.  To comply with regulations against such drugs, I would have to avoid even a number of perfectly legitimate drugs that contained restricted substances (as Andreaa Rudican so tragically learned at the 2000 Olympics).  In addition, my particular sport would be governed by a lengthy list of rules that established the manner in which I was to compete and restricted me from taking any unfair shortcuts or conduct that would unfairly sabotage my rivals.  These rules would be enforced by referees who would closely oversee the whole event and would be authorized to nullify my results or eject me from the competition if necessary.   

Of course, no doubt we could complain in some cases about bureaucratic overkill, obsessive and demeaning drug-testing, and hyperactive refereeing.  But surely we would all admit that without extensive rules setting both the terms of participation, the nature of the game, and the legitimate means that could be employed in competition, most of the organized sports that we love would be impossible.  If sprinters could dope as much as possible, they might be incredibly fast, but no one would bother to watch—the races would no longer be athletic competitions, so much as medical experiments in responsiveness to drugs.  If football players could do whatever they wanted to get the ball to the end zone, then football would degenerate into rugby.  Ok, just kidding—even rugby has rules, and plenty of them.  Football would degenerate into a brawl.  

To be sure, in an amateur pick-up game, referees will probably be unnecessary, and even rules can be somewhat loose and flexible; general goodwill and commitment to gentlemanliness may ensure that competitiveness does not get out of hand.  But the higher the level and the higher the stakes, the more precise rules are necessary—exactly when does the race start? exactly what comprises the strike zone? when is a foul a flagrant foul?—and the less one can rely on the participants to self-regulate.  Indeed, the employment of outside referees should not be seen as an insult to the integrity of the players, but as doing them a favor—with an outsider charged with making sure the rules are followed, the players can focus on playing the game, rather than always watching the other players out of the corner of their eye for violations.  They can rest assured that, even if they get carried away by emotions in the heat of competition, there’s a reasonably objective third party who will still judge clearly.

 

Free marketeers love to invoke the idea of competition.  Competition is what makes capitalism work.  But then they are prone to turn around and deny that this competition needs the kind of rules and refereeing that any other competition needs.  And yet, if anything, in business, the stakes are far higher than in football or gymnastics.  A trophy or a gold medal might be exciting, but in the end, how much depends on it?  But businesses are engaged in creating and destroying people’s livelihoods; indeed, in developing countries, business competition can be a matter of life and death for some people.  And yet, we are assured, even if football players shouldn’t be allowed to regulate themselves, corporations should.  Again, if markets are all about competition, then let’s get real and start treating them like one.