Can Capitalists be Compassionate?

General Thoughts 0 June 23, 2017 544 Lauren

I have heard numerous arguments of the form “if you really valued Christian compassion, you wouldn’t espouse capitalist principles.” Most recently, I read this article in the Baptist Standard, which equates prudence with “worldly wisdom” and then provides a vague admonition to “give to the poor” without worrying about practical considerations. I would, therefore, like to discuss whether compassionate capitalism is possible. And the answer, if you get down to hard logic, is an unequivocal yes.

The statement I have quoted is another way of saying that we can never have capitalism and compassion at once – in other words, if you are capitalist, you cannot be compassionate. This is a very strong claim. In fact, if we brush away the rhetoric, it’s near-impossible to prove that if Tom endorses a specific economic system, he doesn’t care about his fellow man.

Tom may endorse the system without knowing what it is; he might think it the lesser of two evils; he might be frightened for his life unless he endorses a specific system; he might be brainwashed. More likely, he thinks that this system will provide the greatest net benefit to society, or that the benefit he’s giving up is best sought elsewhere. The list of counterexamples goes on; there is no way of proving this claim. Why is this? Because a specific economic system doesn’t need to define Tom. The fact that he thinks the net benefits of this system are greater than that of another system, even if they come with the occasional misfortune, is perfectly compatible with any level of compassion.

This brings me to a very important point, a misunderstanding that in my experience is at the heart of these accusations. In the course of my government class at Harvard, we discussed whether Social Security was a Ponzi scheme. Immediately one student stood up and declared that these senior citizens had worked hard for our society, and she was happy to sacrifice to help better their lives.

This stand reveals a fundamental disagreement about the purpose of government. I see government as a neutral institution, a necessary mechanism by which political and economic decisions are made and regulated. Virtue, on the other hand, is something that exists within and between individuals; government as an institution is ethically neutral. Because of this, while government can be many things, what it cannot be is a gigantic charity.

Now, this does not mean that we cannot use government to improve quality of life and solve societal problems; it does not mean that government is not an option when we talk about healthcare or poverty or inclusivity. What it does mean is that government is one option among many; if I care about people, I do not have to do so through the government, and if I do not want the government taking care of a particular problem, it does not follow that I do not care about that problem. It follows, most probably, that one of two things:

1) I think government is not the best or most efficient option to solve this problem, that it would waste resources and ultimately not be in the best interests of those we are trying to help, or

2) I think giving the government enough power to regulate this problem is dangerous, because ‘the government’ does not actually exist as a vague concept; governments are mechanisms by which some people make decisions for other people. And I think more freedom to make our own decisions is worth a little hardship in the meantime, because giving government too much power never ended well for anyone.

Either of these could be my only reason for endorsing a non-government solution or, in the case of economics, a capitalist or free market option, without stemming from a lack of compassion or ulterior motives. To gratuitously assume such motives is uncharitable and unproductive. I have never heard anyone argue that we should leave the poor to starve in the cold; it is how we should help, not that we should help, that is under discussion. The council of mice could all agree that someone ought to put a bell around the cat’s neck so they could hear it coming, but the plan broke down because no one wanted to actually do the deed. It is easy to agree on broad goals; the devil is almost always in the details.

“Man at Occupy Wall Street” by Timothy Krause is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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