Capitalism Is Still Closer to Caesar Than to God

At The Freeman, Cody Cook asks “Was Jesus a Friend to Big Business?

He begins by quoting several of the many prima facie condemnations of the wealthy in the Gospels, and notes their troubling implications for the sort of libertarianism (pro-wealthy, pro-business, and pro-big business) both he and The Freeman represent.

With such strong statements against wealth in Scripture, it might seem like a contradiction in terms that a Christian could be a free-market capitalist. If even the New Testament sounds like Karl Marx, how can a committed believer in Jesus be a supporter of capitalism — the exact opposite of what Marx taught?

Cook attempts to rescue capitalism by making this distinction: “One of the hidden assumptions of this question is that ‘capitalism’ describes the economic system of the world in which Jesus and the apostles lived.”

We should note, before proceeding to analyze the rest of the piece, that Cook has some hidden assumptions of his own: namely that the present-day capitalist system is characterized by markets that are “free” in any meaningful sense, that such a thing as “free-market capitalism” is even possible, and that support for free markets entails being “friendly” to the wealthy. Right from the outset, Cook conflates the term “free markets” with the capitalist system we have now, and with the interests of the wealthy. It’s just as well that these assumptions are hidden, because they don’t bear much looking into.

Cook goes on to suggest that it was all right to condemn the rich in Jesus’s day, because the economy then was not the “free-market capitalist” kind we have today.

In point of fact, capitalism as an economic philosophy is only a few hundred years old. Its major contribution to the world of economics is its proposal that the market should be allowed to function on the principles of freedom, cooperation, and decentralization as opposed to centralized economic control exercised through the violent force of government.

The key elements of the first century system, in contrast, were

1. A zero-sum approach to wealth

2. A coercive economic system wherein wealth was intertwined with “extractive imperial policies”

He goes on, elaborating on the points:

Under “‘an aristocratic empire’ in which ‘a small elite of about 2 or 3 percent of the population ruled… by hereditary control of the empire’s resources of land and labor,’ consuming ‘some 65 percent of its production’ and confiscating ‘an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the [peasantry’s] catch, crop, or herd,’” it should be no surprise that merely possessing wealth was seen as theft from the poor. Add to this exploitative picture the reality that a significant percentage of the non-wealthy were slaves, and it isn’t difficult to understand why the New Testament had such a negative perception of the rich. In such a world, every poor person was necessarily oppressed and every rich person was necessarily an oppressor or at least the willing recipient of the fruits of oppression.

Such systems of oppression are known for producing only a limited amount of goods because they obstruct innovation and dull the motivation for personal profit among the producing masses. In these societies, there is only so much to go around, and the powerful take the vast majority of it by force. Surviving and thriving without free markets really is zero-sum.

In contrast, modern capitalistic principles of private property rights, unbiased rules that don’t favor some over others, and free trade create the conditions for upward mobility wherein those at the bottom have significant opportunities to advance themselves economically. In these circumstances, the amount of wealth grows and is actually spread around, even to the poorest among us.

If Cody’s reading this, he might want to sit down for the rest of it. Because the modern capitalist society which he so glowingly describes is, in actuality, a lot closer to Caesar than to God.

Most corporate profit consists of unearned economic rents of various kinds — returns on absentee-owned land and natural resources (the title to which, directly or indirectly, mostly derive from past expropriation), patents and copyrights, regulatory barriers to entry (mostly legislated at the behest of the regulated industries), etc. That is the very definition of a zero-sum relationship, in which one party’s profit comes at the expense of the others.

By far the largest sufferer from such zero-sum exchange is the working class, whose bargaining power is gravely weakened by the concentration of property in the means of production in the hands of an absentee class of capitalist owners. The founding act of capitalism, in the late medieval and early modern periods, was the expropriation of commoning rights and other communal peasant claims to the land. The last phase of this process, the 18th century Parliamentary Enclosures of common pasture and waste in the British heartland of the Industrial Revolution, was explicitly carried out in response to the perceived “problem” of rural laborers being unwilling to work at farm labor as long or as cheaply as the land-owning classes wanted them to, so long as they had independent access to means of subsistence.

These centuries of land expropriation were accompanied by a whole body of draconian legislative restrictions on the free movement and association of the expropriated peasants — vagrancy laws in which “sturdy rogues” and “masterless men” who refused to accept wage labor on the terms offered were whipped into peonage, restrictions on movement from one parish to another in search of better pay, restrictions on the size of public assemblies, and out prohibition of labor organization. 

The land thus expropriated remained concentrated in a few hands, as a result of compound returns on the economic rents accruing to the artificial scarcities and artificial property rights enforced by the state. The result is a permanent pattern of concentrated wealth ownership by the current heirs and assigns of the original robbers.

As for “extractive imperial policies,” from the late 15th century on most of the planet’s surface was progressively subjugated by Europe and by European settler-states like the United States. And the people of the outside world were robbed of their land and natural resources by the imperial powers, in an enclosure process that replicated the earlier expropriations in Western Europe. Even after the former colonies achieved formal independence in the 20th century, the Western capitalist powers under American leadership continued to prop up friendly regimes — resorting to invasions, coups and death squads when necessary — that would prevent the restoration of land and resources to their rightful owners, and would suppress any attempts at labor organization. The West props up, as well, a global legal regime of intellectual property and other statist regulations, by which international trade is enclosed within corporate walls and still more economic rents are extracted from it. 

In short, Cody Cook, like most right-libertarian polemicists, is defending a system that exists only in his imagination.

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