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As a political scientist, I have had many conversations concerning the Pinochet regime in Chile and its human rights abuses. Invariably, to my exasperation, someone in the conversation will say, “Yeah, but the economy grew.”
Pope Francis has written of the “idolatry of money,” inciting the wrath of laissez-faire capitalists, a few of whom have called him “communist.” I would wager, however, that the pope’s detractors haven’t read his words. The pope doesn’t speak to revolutionaries, but rather to my exasperation.
There are several ways in which today’s economic conversation can veer off into idolatry. But first, let’s be clear about what is not idolatrous.
It is not idolatry to recognize the power of markets. It is not idolatry to highlight the tremendous creativity that capitalist organizing principles harness or the productivity that has resulted from them. Nor is it idolatry to point out the failures of alternative organizing principles.
By the same token, however, it is not communist to warn of the ways in which our bedazzlement with capitalism’s successes can blind us to its possible dangers. Like Churchill’s remark concerning democracy, capitalism may be the worst economic system except for all the rest.
Idolatry is the worship of false gods. There are at least three manifestations. The first occurs when we turn to something else (food, television, shopping, worldly or churchly success, etc.) for ultimate fulfillment.
In the words of the pope, "The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades."
A second manifestation of idolatry is the worship of a material object — a pagan statue or a golden calf. The pope is especially good on this score. His now famous economic statements, for example, come couched in a broader discourse concerning the dignity of the human person. “How can it be,” he asks, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Human creations displace God’s creation. The golden calves we erect in our image replace God’s children formed in his image.
A third manifestation of idolatry is anything that helps us to avoid a challenging reality by substituting an alluring yet unreal la-la-land more to our liking. This human tendency — to drift off into fantasy worlds — was the original impetus for the rise of conservatism. It chided the progressives of past centuries for creating fantastic utopias and acting as if they described reality. For all their good intentions, conservatives warned, utopians wreak havoc.
Today, however, some who are called conservative (but may not be) fall into the same trap. The problem is not the successes of capitalism, but rather its idealization; one that blinds us to reality. (Or, in the words of the pope, our “naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”)
Gordon Bigelow’s 2005 essay in Harpers provides the best short analysis of how this came to be. Fervent, well-meaning Protestants of centuries past looked upon capitalism as “God’s economy,” rewarding the virtuous and hard-working with wealth and punishing the vice-ridden and lazy with poverty. They took a human creation (capitalism) and baptized it. In the process, they subverted the gospel.
Individuals were no longer seen within the context of their times, but rather in terms of prior categories. Thus, whereas the conservative Tory Party responded to the 1845 Irish famine with economic aid in the form of imported American cornmeal, its free-market Whig successors dismantled what they termed the “monstrous centralization” that such “artificial intervention” in the market entailed.
Poverty wasn’t an unfortunate circumstance, but rather a sin. The self-indulgent Irish needed reforming, something that dependence on the state wouldn’t help, so Whiggish tough love cut them off.
Millions died of starvation; millions more emigrated, or at least tried to (families were found dead by the side of the road); and the population of Ireland has yet to recover. The actual cause of the famine — potato blight — couldn’t save the Irish from the pre-established moral categories with which the evangelical Whigs interpreted their world.
Modern economists inherited this framework but substituted “nature” for God, and capitalism entered the realm of science, which is the secular equivalent of being “sacralized.” Rather than being a human creation, it was thought to be akin to nature.
Either way, however, capitalism became untouchable. After all, if it is divine or natural, then the more pristine, the better, because you don’t argue with God or gravity.
Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.
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