10 December, 2011

Contraception, Vatican II, and a few comments on Classic Capitalism

I spent a while the other day grousing to my boyfriend about this rather awful article by a self-proclaimed "Catholic." He referred me to an excellent rebuttal of Townsend's position (it predates her article, obviously) in the First Things magazine; I liked it so much I had to repost it. It's fantastic to see the empirical social evidence that supports the Church's position on birth control supported so well, since Catholics like Townsend will not respond to the theological argument. Why would you if you were firmly convinced that the role of religion is social, not spiritual? (Then again, why not just head over to the local Universalist church if you believe that?)

For the record, Malthus and Margaret Sanger, the "parents" of the birth/population control movement, were not particularly Nice People. The idea that humans would "breed" and "spawn" was fairly repulsive to their Victorian sensibilities ("Victorian" used here only as a descriptive adjective; Sanger came at the tail end of the Edwardian Era). People are "...human weeds,' 'reckless breeders,' 'spawning... human beings who never should have been born"--or so Sanger claims in Pivot of Civilization. Note that the "human weeds" she refers to are not the members of her own white upper middle class; they are. very specifically, poor people, immigrants, and blacks. (Here's an obviously biased website listing some of her choice quotations. Biased or not, the quotations are real, and one can easily find the works to which it refers.)

On a more positive note, here's a link to an amusing article I came across that (jestingly) reads Star Wars as an allegory for Vatican II. It's way over the top, and becomes more so as it goes along, but it does give a pretty good sketch of the situation post-VII. Hard to take oneself seriously quibbling with a blatantly joking article, but I do find the Tusken Raiders=Muslims thing to be kind of offensive and uneducated.

And the capitalism thing! Gah, allow me to get distracted for a moment by my long-standing frustration with the misunderstanding of capitalism that So Many People take for the Gospel Truth. As I have previously argued, both on this blog and countless times in person, Capitalism is not an "evil system." It's very simply a description of how markets work. Really, I begin to think that no one has even read Adam Smith. Or rather, they've read excerpts, which as I've argued plenty of times before regarding such classics as The Education of Henry Adams, is disastrous to one's understanding of the text. How many people realize that Smith's enormous tome The Wealth of Nations actually contains plenty of cautionary advice to governments acknowledging that if the market is left absolutely unrestrained, it'll kind of make for a Horrible Society?

Précisons: sure, self-interest drives the market, according to capitalism, and that's not entirely a bad thing from its perspective. As Smith observes,
 "By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."
 Of course, this is only saying that sometimes self-interested pursuit of economic profit results in the best public good, and that direct pursuit of the same end is often disappointing. I admit that this possibility is not in itself sufficient reassurance to those who care about developing a just society. However, this is simply one observation extracted from the entirety of the book. What you're not getting in this paragraph is the fact that Smith is restricting his observations to purely economic interactions. "Self-interest" does not mean Being Greedy and Stomping on the Little Guy, and anyone who does those things claiming to be justified by capitalist principles would most likely be roundly censured by Smith (who, among other things, was also the author of the mostly-forgotten Theory of Moral Sentiments). "Self-interest" as understood here is as simple as Person A. selling a bushel of beans that he's grown spending about $2 on seeds and about $30 worth of labor to Person B. for a profit of $40. Of course, Person B. only enters into the transaction if it serves his interests as well. So he's willing to pay $40 for beans because the cost (opportunity cost, in econ terms) of producing the beans himself would have been higher than the cost of buying them. 

Again, this is only economic interactions we're talking about ("economic interactions" strictly understood, because one can understand everything in economic terms, assuming that a notion of values is agreed upon). It in no way limits a person's ability to step outside of the limitations of economic self-interest and act generously, and as I've observed above, Smith actually finds generosity fairly important if the system isn't going to crumble. And he even encourages the government to put some elementary limitations on the system so that it doesn't become dehumanizing. (Great quote from Noam Chomsky: "People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits."--from Class Warfare)

Of course, it's obvious that greedy people looking to maximize their own gains can find ways to manipulate the system, but it's a bit of a mystery to me why greedy people thus manipulating things discredits the very basic economic principles of capitalism. That's kind of like saying that corrupt politicians discredit American democratic republicanism or that corrupt "charitable" organizations discredit charity. Greed is not defined as "working to promote your own advantage." I'm pretty sure that last time I checked, the Church was fine with people earning money and bettering their social position. The problem is when people obsess about it to the expense of more serious matters (relationship with God and others), or, worse (and this almost always goes hand-in-hand with such obsession; it's a logical progression), do so unjustly. In other words, greed is manipulating a system or structure to promote one's own advantage at the expense of others. The "problem" Catholic writers are seeing with capitalism isn't a systemic problem, it's a moral problem. One that I'd attribute partly to fallen human nature, partly to materialism. Now that latter, that's something one can complain about. But I'm not about to get into a discussion of the effects of materialism on society at this point.


Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that people mean two different things by "capitalism": (1) a description of how markets work and (2) a political philosophy centered on the belief that the government should interfere in the market as little as possible.

I agree the confusion is regrettable but I'm not sure trying to make capitalism mean (1) is the way to go. Too many people already mean (2) and it is convenient to have capitalism-(2) available as a contrast with communism. We can just call capitalism-(1)... economics.

But then we'd have to deal with economists and I don't really like pseudoscience. So never mind.

Deniz Bevan said...

"In other words, greed is manipulating a system or structure to promote one's own advantage at the expense of others."
Exactly. And any system can be so manipulated.

Therese said...

Yes Joseph, I know what you mean, and I do agree to a large extent. I think my reluctance to let go of definition (1) is partly related to the lack of an alternate term for Smith's "capitalism". Yes, we could say "economics". (Not entirely sure that I'd call econ a pseudo-science exactly, at least not if that term is based on the fact that it reasons from instantiation, which is how I've understood it; all science does that to an extent. If you have a different definition of pseudo-science, I'd be interested to hear it, also.) But then we'd face the problem of many different schools disagreeing on what economics is. I don't want to get into that, however, since I'm hardly an expert in academic economics. (What UD student is, right? Except those econ majors...)

However, I do actually agree to some extent with the notion that government should interfere with the market as little as possible, so I don't see the alternate definitions you offer as being mutually exclusive. The real sticky point in my opinion is how one defines "as little as possible". Does that imply "as little as possible" in an absolute sense, or "as little as possible" while still existing as a legitimate government, i.e. one that protects the natural rights of its citizens? In the latter case, a totally unconstrained market is not an option. I would suggest that the wisest way for a government to treat actors - whether individual or corporate - in a market is as individuals period. Thus they are "free" to do anything that does not infringe upon the rights of other citizens/actors. Of course, this gets complicated even further once the "market" has become truly international as it is now.

So I'm not so sure that I am defining capitalism the (1) way, though I've carelessly said that before; an "ism" isn't a description, anyway: it's a way of acting based on a principle. So parts (1: principle) and (2: political philosophy) are essential to one another in my understanding.

However, you are quite right to separate the two if you adhere to the (currently) more common idea of how to define (2). If by "interfering in the market as little as possible" one understood that the government was to place no limits whatsoever on the potential ill effects of individual and corporate greed on others, I would absolutely want to deny that that definition (2) is an intrinsic part of "capitalism" properly understood. To me, that would be much like saying that "states' rights" means the ability to, say, decide autonomously whether slavery should be allowed or that "freedom" means the ability to murder someone for one's own advantage. Clearly, in either case, the notion of "freedom" has been perverted until it has been made equivalent to anarchy.

Now that I've cleared up my own terms a bit, I have to admit that it's still not entirely unproblematic to revert to my definition of "capitalism". Sure, I think it's "right" from a historical perspective and according to most good dictionaries, and according to basic economic thought. But, as you say, there's the problem of how people actually use words to consider. Meanings to shift with usage, and try as one may to insist on a "proper" definition, it always is something of a struggle against the demos to do so. Since the once-legitimate distinction between capitalism and consumerism/corporatism is being eroded in practice, is it still okay to distinguish them? That's a really good question. But since the distinction is so conceptually important in my mind, I can hardly help fight for it a bit, even if doing so by now may come off as a bit quixotic.

Meg said...

So, I read this post and the article, and then lo and behold, ran into this a few days later. I think it addresses some of the concerns about overpopulation a little more specifically. It's a really tough topic to argue on, for sure. -Meg http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com/2011/12/catholic-sexual-morality-vs-population.html

Therese said...

That's an excellent article, Meg; thanks for the reference!