Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Maybe Marx was right

Karl Marx said that capitalism is a step along the way to socialism.  This is a very uncomfortable thought to me, I must confess.  To gain some perspective, it helps to look at a little history.

In the late 1700s, there was a lot of dialogue about what makes a good government.  John Locke (1638-1715) and French enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) advocated the separation of powers in government.  Our constitutional form of government was forged during this era of philosophical/political thought.  Government should be limited, they believed, and this is clearly expressed in the the Tenth Amendment of our Constitution:  "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."  In other words, the powers given by the Constitution are the only powers the federal government can have.  This provides for most laws to be determined by individual states.

Thus our Founders put together a system of government, based on the prevailing wisdom of the day, and began the great experiment in government known as the United States of America.  It was based on the belief that liberty is a gift from the Creator and not to be taken away by any government.  With that freedom comes the right to free enterprise, or freedom to carry on commerce with limited interference.  We also know this system as capitalism.  The wisdom of this experiment can be seen with over 200 years of freedom and unprecedented prosperity.

But there is a problem with capitalism.  The owners of the means of production can become selfish.  They can begin to seek only profit, while taking advantage of the workers.  Think of history's sweatshops and factories relying on child labor.  Marx (1818-1883) said that these conditions are a necessary by-product of capitalism, and that the workers will eventually push for a more "fair" distribution of profits and ownership.  This has happened in Eastern Europe through bloody revolutions, and has happened in Western Europe through democratic reforms leading to socialism.  Most of Europe is now socialist.

But things have not (yet) gone that way in the U.S.

Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his book called The Wealth of Nations, describes the process of free enterprise as a self-regulating system.  The marketplace rewards innovation and quality, while punishing poor systems and low quality.  The marketplace takes care of this as people buy good products and services and don't buy the bad stuff.  Good businesses prosper, bad businesses go broke.

For this system to work, however, Smith notes that the culture must have a moral foundation.  Entrepreneurs must be motivated by more than pure financial profit.  They must also seek to benefit society through their businesses:  they provide valuable goods and services, they provide jobs for their employees, and they also feed their own families (that is, they earn a profit).

The U.S. was begun with a uniquely moral foundation, based upon the Christian beliefs of many who settled here from Europe.  Historically, our nation has experienced numerous "awakenings," in which great numbers of people have surrendered to Christ.  This moral foundation has served as a check against raw capitalism.  It was the moral outcry that shut down the sweatshops and led to laws against child labor, for example.

So the United States experienced favorable conditions for prosperity:  freedom and morality.  The freedom was granted by the Founders who created a form of government and trade based on liberty.  The morality was the inheritance of the early settlers who sought freedom of religion.  Of course neither our commerce nor our morality has been perfect.  There have been many failures in both areas.  But the free market, based upon morality, has arguably produced the greatest nation in world history.

But when the Church fails to share the gospel, problems develop.  Capitalists forget that there is  a higher value than profit.  The poor become neglected as the church lets government feed the needy.  The social unrest creates the conditions that Marx describes.  The masses come to prefer the security of a strong government to the freedoms which made our country great.

So, where will we go from here?  If we rely on the prevailing philosophical/political thoughts of today, then we will clearly head toward socialism.  That's where Europe has gone.  I do not believe that the European Union can begin to match the greatness of our country.  Marx seems to have ignored the corruption that comes with power.  The Soviet Union collapsed, in part, because of the corruption of its leaders.  Notably, one other contributing factor in the fall of the U.S.S.R. was the rise of the Church behind the Iron Curtain.

We can return to the political structures of our Constitution, but the freedoms granted there will only go so far without a rise in our national sense of morality.  That's a job for the Spirit of God to be carried out through his people, the Church.  Jesus changes hearts and lives.  We need another awakening.