capitalism christianity
Is money evil? Is profit theft? Is poverty the only way to be holy? Then if so, some of the first Western capitalists - Cistercian monks running extensive factories - didn't get the memo.

Today on MindMatters we delve a bit deeper into Rodney Stark's book, Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, specifically his take on the rise of capitalism.

Running Time: 01:11:22

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Here's the transcript:

Harrison: Hi everyone, and welcome back to MindMatters. Today, we're going to be talking about capitalism. Specifically we're going to reference the book we started discussing last week. What was that book called, Corey?

Corey: The Victory of Rodney Stark.

Harrison: In the book, he talks about the rise of capitalism, which he says was made possible by Christianity and one of the positive developments that we should look at when we think in terms of Christian history in Western civilization. So, we're going to look at some of the things he said about all that, and maybe get into some general ideas about capitalism and a kind of critique of capitalism, really being more aware of and following the culture wars and the battle between the left and the right, the polarization, capitalism gets raised a lot within the academic community as a point of contention.

On the one hand you have people saying, all the greatest things in modern civilization come about from capitalism, then you have the critique that says, well actually, no, capitalism doesn't do anything good, and it's actually responsible for everything bad in the world. So, it's a corollary, or a connection to what we discussed last week, which was a view of Christianity, and how many people will see Christianity as being a totally bad historically and in the present, whereas a guy like Rodney Stark comes along and says, let's look at the actual history, and when you do that, you see that there are actually some positive developments that have come because of the rise of Christianity.

So that's what we're going to be talking about today, maybe I'll turn it over to you, Corey, and ask what exactly does Stark talk about in his book, how does he see the rise of capitalism in Europe, and how does he relate it to Christianity?

Corey: Well, the main thing that he points out to start off is that capitalism, as a term, really came about as a derogatory way of viewing the western economic system. So to define it, it's kind of like defining the word jerk {laughter}, you know, jerks, bunch of capitalists! But capital, the word itself came about in the 14th century to describe using money to make money. It was entirely a rational pursuit, a way of using funds for something besides consumption, which was radically different from Greco-Roman times where if you had extra money, then you were going to use it to consume and throw lavish parties, because you have to show off your social status, because social status was extremely important.

Whereas, in Christianity, as we discussed last week, as Saint Paul said, there is no Greek, nor Jew, nor rich, nor slave in Christ. So, in that sense, social status wasn't nearly as important, and rather what mattered was Works. So many historians look at the collapse of Rome and think that the Dark Ages must have followed, just because Rome was so great, imperial Rome, fantastic.

But, as Rodney Stark points out he takes a people's history perspective on it, and says Rome was this giant, bloated beast that just sucked the wealth, and labor from the borderlands and wasted tons and tons of human energy maintaining this giant bureaucratic empire, and after it collapsed, in the following centuries when people were rebuilding, they actually had a great amount of freedom to tinker, and to find ways to improve their lives without having to worry about their wealth being appropriated by the Roman elite. He points out one of the biggest improvements early on was the use of water mills, and windmills in order to create basic necessities, they used that technology to make paper, and numerous other things to provide basic energy and for manufacturing goods in and of itself.

That kind of ingenuity, and that practice of using innovations in order to make life better was a basic precursor to the rise of capitalism, because you couldn't have capital, excess funds, without being able to work efficiently, and make enough money.

Harrison: To produce enough.

Corey: To produce enough in order to have excess funds, but once they had those excess funds which largely took place in the monasteries, as we discussed last week, was that the monks started using that money to build greater estates, and to prepare for the future of their estates, and reinvesting in local technologies, and in different ways of manufacturing, and growing enough crops in order to feed not just themselves, but also the surrounding population.

So, I've got a couple good quotes, as Stark writes:
"The monks did more than invest in land or lend from their bursting treasuries. They began to leave their fields, vines and barns, and retire into liturgical work, conducting endless paid masses for souls in purgatory, and for living benefactors who wished to improve their fates in the next world. Monks now enjoyed leisure and luxury, the monks at Cluny were given plentiful and choice foods, their wardrobe was renewed annually, the manual labor prescribed by the rule of Saint Benedict was reduced to entirely symbolic tasks about the kitchen."
The monks could have lived like lords, but rather than living like lords they used their money to hire a labor force, and to create a capitalistic system where they were paying wages to people who came and worked on these great estates, and there were thousands of acres of these estates. I think that monastery, Cluny, had 100,000 acres, one in Hungary had fields totalling 250,000 acres. Much of the growth, he writes, was achieved by incorporating previously untilled tracts, as well as by clearing forests and draining submerged areas. For example, monks at the monastery of Les Dunes recovered about 25,000 acres of fertile fields from the marshes along the Flanders coast, and all of this activity would have been unthinkable under the Roman empire, just because there would have been no reason to do it.

The idea of private property was a very Christian idea that early theologians were hammering out, that private property was necessary; even though some of the monks were more inclined to communal property, because they took vows of poverty, but the idea was that you shouldn't be interfered with. The government should not interfere with and take your property. In the Roman empire on the other hand, there's no freedom, there's no private property, if the Roman empire wants your stuff, they're going to come and take it. So, that was an important precursor for the rise of capitalism, this notion of private property, and treating it with a sense of frugality, a capitalist ethic, toward creating greater returns and improving whatever you have been given in this life.

Harrison: Maybe to take it from there, we'll come back to some of the points in the book, but I just want to comment on a few related things. In the critique of capitalism it was originally a derogatory term, critics of the economic system that first started using the word capitalist in ways they identified it as something bad and called it capitalism. But iit hasn't totally remained that way in the 150 years since that idea first started. Now you've many different views on capitalism, so maybe we can define what we mean by it. You already gave a good definition Corey.

It's really simple, using money to make more money. But, there are several ideas that are underlying that, for example, there's this one book by Nima Sanandaji, Birthplace of Capitalism, the Middle East, who is a Swedish-Iranian economist, a policy guy,. He argues that a lot of the ideas associated with capitalism, like the free market (mostly from an Austrian perspective), weren't developed primarily in Europe, in the past several hundred years.

The basic principles that a lot of economists identify with capitalism cropped up in the ancient Near East in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq and Syria, and in ancient China and in these areas you found what were essentially capitalistic ideas. You found the first proto-corporations in India, and you had free market principles among the native Americans, and Confucius and Mencius talking about basic free market ideas like low taxation and private property, the idea that exchanges should be free, and you had contract law, and even the first written records were to keep track of economic information in Mesopotamia. In the first laws, some of the most important things were private property and the laws were about theft, and what to do in certain situations, and what to do when a person has property that someone else says was theirs, and how to prove it, and what to do in all these different cases.

So, these are some of the basic ideas or principles that get associated with capitalism. These are all contentious, because the critics of capitalism will say, oh that's not capitalism, but then the self-declared capitalists will say, well that's what I mean by capitalism, and then other people will say, I'm not a capitalist but I believe in these principles would consider themselves as free market capitalists.

The ideas are private property, minimal state intervention in the operations of the economy, and the free exchange of goods. You are free to do with your money what you want to do with it. You are free to pay someone else for what you want to pay for, and they are free to sell it to you for what you're willing to pay. So the free market would be letting people do what they will do on their own, with certain laws in place to protect property rights, and to ensure fair dealings so that people aren't screwing each other over. A lot of the details get hammered out by the individuals themselves, as opposed to the state dictating everything in economic policy.

For example, high taxation, which the free marketeers and a lot of these ancient cultures would disagree with, fluctuated back and forth between state control and more free markets. But, the state should be kind of limited to letting those things play out, and shouldn't get too involved in the economy. This fluctuation would reach its most extreme version in a totally planned economy, which is impossible, especially in a developed economy or a semi-developed economy. For example, dealing with prices, if you look at some anecdotes from the Soviet Union there are millions of products to determine prices for. Thomas Sowell in one of his books gives a good anecdote of a paper written by these two Soviet economists who were basically responsible for coming up with all these prices, and they were talking about how impossible it is to determine all these prices when there are millions of them. They would give quotas for how much to produce of what, and there's one example, I think it was furs. They wanted to lower the price of this certain fur, and then all of a sudden the hunters were killing all of these animals, it wasn't beavers but something equivalent, so basically killing tons of beavers. Now the state had all of these extra beaver pelts, and they were just rotting in the warehouses because there was no demand for them, and this happened in every sphere of the economy, when you try to set prices like that, to such an extreme degree.

So that would be the extreme. The extreme on the one hand of a totally planned economy which is impossible because there are so many variables you would be unable to coordinate all that, and to be able to constantly track prices and constantly track supply and demand in order to come up with the best price. It turns out the people are pretty good at that, at just determining it on their own, and that's what you would see in the more ancient free market economies, like along the old Silk Road.

Prices were determined by the market, not by someone controlling the market, and when you say by the market, that is just the individuals engaging in these transactions, and even back in ancient Iraq, you had people keeping track of prices in the markets on a weekly basis, and observing this and trying to come up with principles, and it was only in the past several hundred years that we've got our modern kind of economic theories that have come about. What we have nowadays are various capitalisms, because people like coming up with words, and coming up with speculative abstract systems to try to describe things and make sense of them, and therefore try, hopefully, to produce a methodology, like an economic practice that will conform with the theory in order to get good things. Doesn't always work that way, of course, so now we now have multiple capitalisms, and there are various schools too.

So you've got free market capitalists along the lines of Milton Friedman, and then you've got the Austrian school who are different, who disagree on several points, who are more basic free market, in the sense of libertarian, as in let people just do what they do. Then there are the things that get associated with capitalism that aren't necessarily intrinsically part of capitalism. There's this article I read last week on the website for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in the US, and it's called "Does capitalism destroy culture" by Michael Matheson Miller. It's just a short article, he makes some good points, but the main point he does make is that, when looking at, like capitalism, you have to make certain distinctions, because he points out that, for instance (this is something that Peter Berger argued) you have to separate things that are intrinsic from capitalism from things that are extrinsic, like the cultural effects that are actually caused by capitalism. The effects that are aided and abetted by capitalism, so capitalism kind of helps them happen but isn't the prime mover of them, and then all those things that exist alongside capitalism that are often conflated with capitalism. This is what happens in a lot of these debates between capitalism, socialism or any variation on those debates that you can find. You'll often get people criticizing one version of capitalism and people defending a different version of capitalism, and sometimes they are completely different things, and so, coming back to the book, it sounds like the developments that Stark was talking about. Starting out with the creation of these first firms in the monasteries, where you have a group of individuals or monks who expand to a degree that they need to hire a labor force, so they end up making more money so they have more money to do something with.

Right there is I'd say maybe the kernel of the first bone of contention. Is the nature of profit bad? Is greed bad? Well, are those two things necessarily linked? Is any profit made, immediately to be associated with greed? And where are the dividing lines? I'd say that, at least in modern day economies everywhere, everyone tries to make at least some profit. Is that because they are all greedy? Well, no.

They want to make more money in order to be able to live at a certain level. Let's say that you are at that level. If you're confined to such an ideal level, even in any individual case, like where exactly does that level cut off? Okay, here's the level that you have just enough that you need in order to get by. Is it wrong to seek a profit anywhere above that? Well, probably not, if you're making five percent more than that level, it's like, well, I think everyone would agree, well, that would be great. You know, and it would be great to make even a bit more.

I'm going to use a weird analogy, think about squirrels. When a squirrel stores away the nuts that it's collecting for food, it tries to take more than it can fit in its mouth. Not because it's greedy, but it would be good to have those extra nuts around for when food gets scarce. So it's basically what your aims are, what your goals are for that money, and that's the point I made about these monks. It's just that they weren't just seeking money for money's sake, just to get a hoard of gold and cackle over it, and be an evil kind of Scrooge McDuck.

They were actually using it for something, and they had a framework and a world view in which that profit had a use for it, and it wasn't just devoted to enriching themselves for their own personal profit, there was some use to which that money could be put, some goals, some aim to which that profit could be put, and so right there's a distinction to be made between actual pursuit of profit, which always sounds, I mean, I kind of feel kinda dirty just saying it cause it's such a, it just sounds wrong?. Anytime you save something, anytime you make a little bit more than you have to make just to survive, that's normal, like that seems just absolutely normal for any human to not only want that, but that it's actually a good thing. Because, with that profit, you can do so many different things with it, as opposed to just hoarding it and gloating. Like, you can save it for an emergency. That's a good thing. You can invest in something else to make more money, and is it a bad thing to have more money? Well, no, not in and of itself, but then the debate becomes, well how much is too much more?

And, that's where a lot of the kind of criticism of capitalism comes into play, is that they see a little bit of profit is okay, but a lot of profit, millions of times more than the poorest person is making, that's too much. And I can even agree with that sentiment. I can see where it comes from, and even myself, that rubs me the wrong way too. But what exactly are the principles involved, and what is the cut off point? So to get back to the book, we can talk a bit about if there's anything relevant in the book to what I just said, go with that, or if not, just bring up another point in this history, because I want to know about how these things developed and where they went.

Corey: Okay, so I'll just begin with just addressing that final point that you made by reading the definition of capitalism that Stark provides, which is really concise, as concise as you can get for this complex topic. He writes:
"Capitalism is an economic system where privately owned, relatively well organized and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relatively free, unregulated market, taking a systematic, long-term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth, directly or indirectly, in productive activities involving a hired workforce and guided by anticipated and actual return."
The reason I think about that is because it makes me wonder about these exorbitant amounts, this exorbitant display of inequality that you see between people in the west and people in the other parts of the world. When we're talking about this exorbitant amount of money, I wonder if we're really talking about capitalism? I wonder if it's in line with what he's talking about with the Roman empire. Is this an imperial-type thing that we're seeing, and it's not capitalism proper in the sense that these firms are taking in money and reinvesting it in activities in order to be more productive. Because, as you were saying, Harrison, if you're a squirrel, and you are so bloated on nuts that you're dying, you're not reinvesting, you're {laughter} dying, and squirrels too maybe, in some of these firms.

Yeah, is that capitalism? I would argue that in many ways it's not. What we're really saying, when we're critiquing it, is we're critiquing this more imperial-type, just exorbitant consumption, I'm just so rich, and I love it, you know. That's not really free-market capitalism, and I'm sure that's debatable, but, yeah that's what I thought of when we were discussing that huge wealth gap.

Harrison: You talked about the monasteries and their kind of development of these proto-firms, but what does he have to say about how that developed later on? Was there a Christian aspect to the rise of capitalism as we think of it nowadays? Tthe total economic system that Europe has developed over the last few hundred years. What does he have to say about that?

Corey: Well a lot of it is based on his idea that it's these Christian ideals that originated in these monasteries, where they forged capitalism. And then you skip forward in time and in other places, the same type of thing occurs. So, he traces it back, the first time you see these stable, well-run, organized firms engaging in capitalist pursuits were these monasteries. When you look in the 13th, 14th century, at the Italian city-states, you see a similar thing. But they're also functioning under similar constraints as these monasteries were, in the sense they have relative freedom. They are Catholic, and they also have the ability to play off different imperial powers against one another.

So it's like the conditions in the monastery, but in the real world, because they have just the right geography, the right ways of transporting goods here and there, and then the fact that they can play off imperial powers against one another, that they have a sufficient amount of freedom to engage in these exact same pursuits, and so then in these Italian city-states, he goes to point out how in the less free places, where there's tyranny, and people are having all their stuff stolen, there's no way you can lend somebody without this ruler being, "bah, you know, I decided not to pay it back because I'm the king."

In one situation the Catholic church actually excommunicated a king or a prince, or lord or something, because he refused to pay back a loan, they excommunicated him and made him pay it back at 50 percent interest over eight years! With these Italian city-states, you have the conditions in order to pursue capitalism and they went about it with a huge amount of fervor in creating the educational institutions where they created this capitalist class. It was able to calculate interest and to devise ways of managing firms long-term, and stably, and then they outsourced that to other areas of Europe.

So you started to see more capitalism, capitalistic-type activities taking place in England, and in other areas where there was enough freedom from warfare, from tyranny, and yet still enough ingenuity and desire for this kind of efficient way of reusing your wealth in order to create these stable and long-term forward looking firms.

Harrison: Well, that takes me to my next question. I was going to ask, why does Stark think this is a good thing? This kind of gets to the debate on the anti-capitalist perspective. Why was the development of capitalism a good thing, as opposed to the way that a lot of anti-capitalists would see it as just another arrow in their quiver for attacking capitalism and Christianity, as the two went together. So, why does he think that we should kind of see this as a good thing, essentially?

Corey: Right, the name of his book is The Victory of Reason, How Christianity led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. So, basically if you don't like the West at all, there's another reason to hate Christianity, because it led to "freedom", and the West colonizing the rest of the world. Well, I think he is Western-centric. This one aspect is that the West is the best, and that's a part of being a Westerner.

For a lot of people, that's just how they see their own culture, it's the best. But, another reason is that he ties into these ideals that as we've discussed seem to be in practice the best kinds of ideals that you can have about your role in life and how to interact with other people and chart your course into the future. That you should consider yourself as being an individual person, an individual moral agent that has to answer to your creator, the higher god. And that, as we were talking about these early monks, when faced with what do we do with all this money, they chose not to just use it for lavish displays of consumption, but rather to reinvest it in the community, in their own estates, and into creating an order, a habitable order that was as we see years on, manifested in things like the Notre Dame cathedral, and other great, huge monuments to the sense of the beauty in the cosmos, the beauty of god on earth.

He's a sociologist on religion and he's written so many different books on Christianity, so he comes at it from a Christian background, and for people in the West, who are conservative and traditional, obviously are going to have a fondness for Christianity, because that's where our culture came from. I understand what you are saying, but capitalism, is it really good? Well, he argues in the book that, yes the capitalism that we're discussing, as a technique to use wealth, to increase wealth, is a good thing. It's a rational thing to do.

It's reasonable and when you look at all the different ways that you can use your money, it seems to me that it's probably the most rational way to reinvest your money that we know of at this point. The fact is that you can't analyze an economic system without looking at all of the other different aspects of a society, as you pointed out. Society has so many different centers of gravity, and different ways of viewing the world.

You have the arts, technological achievements, your religious views, your moral views, your social connections and whatever, ethnic strife, or all of those different things that all feed into how and what a culture is. Not even factoring in the hierarchical aspect of it, the levels of inequality, also the spiritual hierarchy; whether or not the society has a higher view of life than just a primitive desire to accumulate wealth. I think that when you factor all those things in, then you see that capitalism is just a part of society, just a technique of economic activity that seems very rational.

But, you can also be completely irrational in a religious sense. So you could inherit the most rational capitalist firm, and yet you can use the wealth not to redistribute it into your own firm, to create greater forms of efficient productivity, but you can use it for lavish displays of consumption. The society could experience moral decay, so that everybody are sheep. Everyone sees one another as just another sucker born every minute, and so, when you take those things into consideration, you can see how capitalism can become evil, can become ponerized, I guess, for lack of a better word.

Just because there's so many different cycles that society goes through, so when you look at Best Buy today, or Goldman Sachs or something, and then you compare it to the monastic estates that were loaning money. They were loaning to individuals and they were practicing usury, these early Christian communities. But, they did not have quite near the same reputation as Goldman Sachs has today.

Harrison: I want to get to this article that I mentioned, "Does capitalism destroy culture?" The main point he makes, one that I thought of before, is this idea of what he calls the solipsistic individualism and consumerism. So this goes back to the last point that you made, Corey, about the way to see capitalism as like a tool, and that of course it can be used like any tool for different types of purposes, and when you look at capitalism and the critique of capitalism, the two things to separate are the economic principles involved in a system, in a society, but also the cultural, kind of baggage that gets associated with capitalism.

So, in the example of Western capitalism, seen as this kind of individualistic, consumerist society that is the case, but those phenomena are distinct. They just happen to be combined. Like capitalism by itself does not need to inexorably lead to a consumerist society. Like the monks practicing this early form of capitalism weren't consumerist, total individualists. If anything they were collectivists, collectivists in the sense of living in a monastery and sharing resources amongst each other, and taking vows of poverty too. There was a type of individualism involved, like you mentioned, like Stark mentions, this idea of seeing yourself as an individual. Seeing everyone as an individual with their own responsibilities, what we'd call the rights that come with those responsibilities, too. They would see it as like the divine within each individual, the value within each individual.

But then there's a different type of individualism, there is toxic individualism which is really just selfishness, self-centeredness, seeing yourself as more important, and the other as not having any value, or very little value. I'd say that that's pathological individualism, compared to just individualism in the sense that I just mentioned, like everyone has a spark of the divine, everyone is responsible for their own actions, and everyone has a responsibility within themselves to develop themselves, to live up to their potential, to be responsible in the world, for yourself, and for others, and for the world in general.

That's really the positive aspect of individualism. When you look at the West, we don't see a lot of that type of individualism. We do see a lot of pathological individualism, the kind of me first attitude, called in the article, a radical concept of autonomy, and that is one aspect, but it happens to be tied with a materialistic, capitalist culture, but it is only one element of, it is one aspect, it is one characteristic combined to make that world, that system.

But you do have cultures that practice some form of capitalism, that have free markets, that aren't so individualistic in the negative sense, aren't so solipsistic, aren't so materialistic.The Arab Muslims even before Islam was a thing, had free market practices.

And they all had belief systems which were anything but materialistic. All these early instances of capitalism and free markets were in religious cultures, or cultures with a very developed, spiritual philosophy. These were not materialistic cultures. So, the two can coexist, they can exist apart from each other or together. They're not necessarily linked in any way. So, what we have today is really a combination of some great things and some really bad things. And when you get a combination like that, you can have good developments, and you have bad developments at the same time, and it's tough to tease them out.

It's tough to really identify what the positives and what the negatives are. I think you can do it, not necessarily perfectly, but you can get some idea. So in the West there are still good things about capitalism even as it is arguably practiced. If we look at the base level of people's quality of life. The base level is pretty good, comparatively. There are still things that you can identify as bad, and not ideal in any sense, but really comparing the people in the lowest 10 percent of the United States, which is seen as the global centre of capitalism.

Which is arguable too, but even those lower 10 percent are living a lot better than people who were living even 200 years ago, and just like you can't write off the good things about the past, like the positive developments that came out of Christianity, you can't really write off the things that are good things that have come out of capitalism no matter how much you hate capitalism. You're still benefiting in some way, even if you might be resentful of it.

You've also got some negatives about the overall culture, not necessarily just about capitalism. In the development of the worldview of the West over the past few hundred years, there's the argument that the Enlightenment was a great thing, and arguably, good things came out of the Enlightenment, but there are also some bad things that came out of it. One of the things that came out of the Enlightenment and all the philosophies that were developed, was this Cartesian split between mind and matter, seeing reality as two separate, distinct substances, and matter is this mechanistic thing going on, and mind as this kind of divinely gifted thing, ability, the soul. After that division, once science developed and religion was criticized enough, with no reason to believe in god, all you were left with is the mechanistic universe.

And without that without the mind being an essential part of that universe, you were just left with the mechanism, and that led to the development of all these different philosophies over the past several hundred years that don't have any divinity in them, they are these mechanistic philosophies. What we have nowadays is a materialistic philosophy, a materialistic worldview. This has nothing essentially to do with capitalism. It can be strictly divorced from capitalism, it may have grown up in a capitalist environment, but the ideas themselves aren't in any way essentially tied to an economic theory.

Some economic theories have adopted these philosophies, but that's how these things have combined. So you have this worldview, whether you're aware of it or not, that there is no such thing as objective morality. There's no such thing as anything that is intrinsically better or worse than anything else. And that leads to a kind of determinism or a world in which there is no personal responsibility, there is no thing that is essentially in and of itself better or worse than another thing. While that's a totally wrong-headed philosophy, because it's inherently inconsistent and self-contradictory, it provides the raw material, even on an unconscious level, for people to disvalue things that are truly valuable, and to therefore value themselves more than they are worthy of being valued.

That leads to this really pathological selfishness and self-centeredness, because there's no reason to believe that you should be living your life in a virtuous manner, that leaves you free to operate on your own base instincts. When you cut off that kind of controlling frontal lobe inhibition of your worst impulses, then that leaves those worst impulses to play themselves out mechanistically, automatically, and I think that's what we see. I think that gets to the heart of why capitalism is bad, more than anything else.

It's not really capitalism, it is really the philosophy, or the religion that you're living by, whether you're aware of it or not. This comes back to the Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson debate that we talked about months ago, where the point Peterson makes repeatedly, which I think is absolutely correct, is that no matter what you think or say you believe, your actions are predicated on an unconscious belief system, which he calls a hierarchy of values. No matter what you do, perceive, or say, it is acting upon a system, a hierarchy of values of some sort.

If you haven't defined those values, and you actually reject a system of those values, the way it seems to happen is that, if just left to your own devices, you act on the lowest part of yourself. If you don't define your hierarchy of values, or if you don't have it defined for you, that would be like the worst system. The ideal situation would be that you have the raw material available around you from which you can form your own hierarchy of values, using your own reason, using your own conscience. But, barring that, the next best thing would be to have a society that basically has a system of morals in place, that if you follow it, even without thinking, you'd at least be better off than not having such a system.

We don't even have that so much. It is there, but it's not quite in the form where it would be a good thing, because you have this system where people don't really have that star to guide them. We do have a system that reinforces the worst things about ourselves, that does reinforce the consumeristic, self-centered aspects of our own personality. In such a situation, where you have society that provides the raw material for those beliefs, and you have the lack of an internal structure guiding your own morality, your own behavior, it puts you in the worst of both worlds, where you can't make the right choice, because you're not even aware that there is a right choice to make, and oftentimes you deny that there is a right choice to make, that there is a better choice to make.

Now combine that with capitalism, and you get the worst aspects of capitalism, so-called. I don't think they're capitalistic, they're facilitated by capitalism, and capitalism facilitates them, they can do an evil tango together. But in that tango, each of those dancers can be separated, and capitalism on its own within a philosophy, a worldview and a religion, within a hierarchy of values that is more healthy, that doesn't need to go in the same direction essentially. You can have monks making a lot of money, that are still doing something for their community, anything to say about that?

Corey: No, I agree wholeheartedly with what you just said. The only thing I can think of is when I'm thinking about this capitalistic ethic, this drive to acquire wealth, I think the conditions we are in now in the West aren't that much different than privileged Roman senators, or the elite of any other system in history, where life is good, other people are doing the work for you, even if you are working, life is still good, and well what else are you going to do? Be hedonistic, consume, and enjoy your life.

So as you pointed out it's not capitalism, it's more just a confluence of many other things that capitalism fed into, but it's also more to do with the lack of an aim, an aim to live by. If Stark is correct, then the capitalism originated in the bosom of Christianity, and so you'd imagine that in those conditions, that's where it functions best, and when you look back at it, especially the Christian monasteries and the Protestant ethic, where people are explicitly aware of their value hierarchy because it was given to them, then all of these activities make sense, and they're balanced out, your rights and responsibilities are balanced out.

As Jordan Peterson points out we have all these discussions about rights, but we never really talk about responsibilities. Well, in Christianity, they went hand-in-hand. Our rights, and our political rights, how we should treat one another and be treated, these were all very big ideas in the forefront of Christian thinking and Christian morality, but we also had a responsibility to not sin. Sinning. That was the capital crime, don't do all of these things, behave correctly, behave properly, aim true, think of Christ, live in Christ, live as you would think Christ would want you to live.

All of this was a huge burden of responsibility that produced a lot of guilt and shame. It also produced a kind of suffering, a kind of conscious suffering, in order to improve your life, the kind of suffering that does not go hand-in-hand with just eating Jolly Ranchers and watching TV and eating Taco Bell, and complaining about everything. We have the fruit of the capitalistic ethic that apparently was informed very strongly by Christianity, but we don't have the Christianity. We're like zombies, we're like Christian zombies.

It's very strange, not just Christian zombies, but zombies in general. A lot of us are the walking dead, and that's why you see the nihilism, the large increase in drug addiction, and why we have an economic system that seems to have kicked so many people overboard and are watching so many of them drown. It's not just capitalism's fault, because as we've been saying, it is a tool, it is a part of the economic structure that we chose, our ancestors chose to do things this way, and they chose to do these things this way because arguably they worked, and they were successful.

They made money, they established firms, they established large firms, they were able to live better off than the generation before them. Everything is not pure progress, and as you pointed out, Harrison, there's been a big gap between our capability for technological and economic achievements, and our moral and religious achievements. We pretty much abandoned the latter as being unimportant. But, they're not unimportant. Not by any stretch of the imagination are religious values and having a consciously structured hierarchy of values unimportant, because as we've seen, not having them leads to chaos.

Lacking religious values leads to aimlessness, aimlessness leads to a bunch of zombies, and zombies lead to chaos, and then pretty soon everyone is saying, "what the heck happened?" Well, two years ago, you kicked your reason for living overboard, then you went hog-wild {laughter} creating different kinds of sodas to sell all over the world. But obviously all of that economic activity is just a part of humanity. As you pointed out, capitalism goes all the way back to the ancient Near East, there's roots of it there, but that's just economic activity in general, and it's been a long ways to develop this system.

It's taken a confluence of a bunch of different factors, and if Stark's right, these factors are highly positive, are a very positive set of ideals, and being capitalistic in the sense that you establish frugal firms that are stable, and managed, and supervised, and that can exist to reinvest wealth into greater and greater amounts of wealth, it's not necessarily a bad thing. But I can still say that there is a definite evil that arises when you create these said firms, and that is that you introduce into society a new lifeform that has its own reasons to live, it's own ways of gaining sustenance. It's not the church, it's not the government, it's something different that doesn't really necessarily owe it's allegiance to the church, or the government.

This firm takes on a life of its own, so the Chinese don't view private property very favorably, because they view it as being inherently unstable, and it is, especially in the form of creating capitalist firms, because you create these entities that accrue their own power, and they're unaccountable, and they grow and they metastasize within society, for better or for worse. I don't like to use the term metastasize, because that makes it sound inherently cancerous, but it's still true that you gain these new little fiefdoms, these new little kingdoms within a society. When you look at America, one of the problems I think that you see in American-style capitalism, is that you don't have this large, strong set of principles that says this is our country, the government is, the president has this kind of authority, you are all subordinate to this centralized authority.

You have this globalist mentality, whereas in China, as Zizek pointed out in the debate with Jordan Peterson, you have a very strong and centralized state that can force the capitalists to reinvest in the country, which seems like a very capitalist idea.You've got all this wealth, so lets reinvest it here in the country. All these different firms without a centrally unifying command structure, why reinvest it in the country? Just reinvest it in my firm, but I'll reinvest it in my firm in this other country, or that other country, or wherever. You don't have this centralized authority to really have those discussions. Obviously if you did, then you'd have questions like, "well, is that really the free market?" Then you also run into the question of "How free should the market be?"

Maybe, as they pointed out, with globalization in Western companies, and just corporations in general going around the world to find cheap labor, it's benefited other people, so it could just be the case that a rising tide raises all boats. But when the tide is so low in other places, our boats are going to have to sink quite a bit before other people's boats get up to the same level. However, there's such a lack of debate and discussion about it, that you've got this haphazard set of free market economies, or free market firms, that are reinvesting in their own firm, doing whatever will maximize their own profit. That's part of the core critique of capitalism, is that these firms don't really have an allegiance to their communities or core Christian values.

They have their own imperatives that may or may not coincide with the imperatives of the town in which they operate. But also part of the free market is that over time they still have to pay the price.

Harrison: Right.

Corey: If you are going to piss off all your consumers, you'll have to pay the price. Sooner or later, if you pollute their towns, and you pollute this and that, there's still some natural consequences to that kind of behavior.

Harrison: Right. Yes, the point I was going to make is this idea of the firms as these new fiefdoms, kings of their own castles, reminds me of a book I've been listening to by Murray Rothbard, who was an Austrian economist on the progressive era. He actually looked at all of these dynamics in the late 1800s in the United States, and the example he gave was that they were in it for themselves. They wanted to make as much profit as possible, they wanted to be the only guy in town, they wanted to get rid of their competition. But the point that he makes is that that never worked. That there were always consequences for bad decision-making and even immoral decision making. These guys all had it coming, and it came eventually. But, if it didn't come eventually, the reason these firms were able to survive is that they got in bed with the government who basically subsidized them and made them like a state monopoly.

The governments gave them the power to stay in power in their own fiefdoms and basically survive. Otherwise they were either in the process of being defeated in the competitive free-market because of their own mistakes, because of their own poor decision-making, poor planning, and poor management. Rothbard basically argues that till the 1890s, early 1900s, that America was very much more a free market economy than it became, and that with the progressive era, this was when a lot of state interventionist policies started being implemented, with the creation of state monopolies, and subsidized firms and things like this.

But before that there's no evidence that Standard Oil ever engaged in predatory pricing for instance. The way that Standard Oil got so big was by buying up all the competition. But even that proved to have a downside, because when people saw Standard was buying all of these new oil firms, they just essentially created fake firms, fake operations, with fake factories, and started selling them to Standard Oil!

Standard Oil would buy them and then realize that they've bought nothing essentially. They'd just wasted however many hundreds of thousands of dollars buying this company that didn't actually exist, and new companies were popping up as competition to Standard Oil. I think the highest market share it had at any one point, was maybe 90 or 95 percent, and that was steadily going down before the antitrust suit against Standard Oil.

Rothbard shows examples of this in all these different areas where it was the consequences of the market that basically punished these companies for being such jerks, such capitalist jerks.There's a few interconnected myths about economics in general, and in this period of history in particular, about why certain policies got put into place, like what economic practices work or don't work, the cons or pros of competition. What a lot of capitalist critics don't get is how when you look at least this type of free market capitalism, how pro-consumer it was, that is pro-you, as a buyer, not even as an owner of a corporation. One of the reasons that all of these corporations were looking for state intervention is they wanted to charge more, and they couldn't, because the other companies were giving a good deal to the consumer.

"Oh look, I can get this", "I can pay for this train ride", or "I can buy this product for less money", and that's a good thing, and all these competitive, evil corporations were happy to do that, and then the big corporations were like, well no, we can't have that, that means we make less money. That's where greed enters. The greed enters when you want to stop competition, eat up market share for yourself, and eliminate that competition. But the only way to achieve that looking at this history and through this type of analysis, as Rothbard argues, is for the government to intervene, for the government and big corporations to actually get into bed together, to make that happen, because left to their own devices, the free market system, it doesn't work.

Because new corporations do show up that are able to undercut the big firms, and one of the reasons that takes place is because the big firms, the big established companies and corporations have all of this old infrastructure. This is just one reason. They're using old technology, and they don't want to update. They don't want to innovate, they can't innovate and they don't want to innovate, because they want to keep their profits where they are, and to invest more money in themselves would be to lose those profits.

So, a new company that has the latest technology comes in and says, "Oh, I can do this better than what this giant corporation can do it and I can charge a lower price", and that company then grows and the big company gets resentful and says, "Well, I don't like this, I don't like them taking a bit of my pie". It's actually the free market, through these other corporations, that are actually acting as a dampener on greed, the nasty bit of capitalism. Why would you want to eliminate capitalism which is this competition that goes against this greed aspect, arguably because of the greed of this other corporation, but that's another issue.

That seems to be the strange direction that anti-capitalists go in. We should take away the freedom for that other firm to come in and do a better job than the big firm. That, unfortunately, is the type of capitalism we have today, especially in the United States. The type of capitalism that benefits the big corporations because of the links between the government and the big corporations.

There isn't a free, competitive market, because of regulatory capture, the lobbying and the revolving door of boards of directors and government, and the backroom deals that they make with each other in order to give themselves an unfair advantage. Really, it's an unfair advantage. A fair advantage would be not to have special privileges, and let them duke it out in the market, essentially.

I would argue that it's the free market system, the free exchange and the free competition is probably the most moral system you could put in place. People are free to be, people are free to be evil, people are free to be good, people are free to either punish the bad guys, that they perceive as bad, or do as much good as they possibly can. When you remove that freedom then you're basically dictating a moral outlook, and that is the worst form of totalitarianism. When you tell a person what the good and the bad thing to do is, and then strictly enforce it, and don't give them any freedom to actually make the choice on their own.

To actually give people the freedom to make their own choices is what comes out of this, coming back to this book, Christian idea. You are your own individual, you have your own responsibilities, it is your job to figure out what is right and wrong. Not necessarily to come up with your own ideas of what are right or wrong, but to discover them. Because there are things that are objective goods and objective evils. It's difficult to figure them out, but it really does come down to the individual to understand for themselves, and to discover for themselves what those are.

There, I just gave a religious defence of capitalism. I don't know how good it was.

Corey: I'm sold! {laughter} Well, it reminds me of what Alfred White Northhead said about coercive...

Harrison: North Whitehead.

Corey: Did I say, Alfred North Whitehead, sorry.

Harrison: Yeah.

Corey: First about coercive versus persuasive influence, especially from the perspective of god. Either you're forcing people to make this decision, that's the authoritarian approach, or it's the persuasive approach, "Well you know, you should try this". "Why don't you give this a shot", "What entices you, what do you want to do?" "What is within you that you want to bring out?" When you're talking about the free market, that's persuasive at the utmost. You look around, you see what is your calling in the world, the Protestant ethic, what is god calling you to do in the world?

That becomes your profession, with all of these religious undertones to careers, and callings, and living to your potential on the planet. All of these things have been argued before by many different sociologists, and Rodney Stark being one, that this had its roots in this Christian Idea of the persuasive power of god. God's persuading you to come out into reality, persuading you to become someone, and economic activity is just one aspect. That's just one aspect of many, but, that had its roots in Christian theology.

Harrison: Alright, with that said, I think we've talked enough for today, so, yeah, thanks for tuning in and we'll see you next week.

Corey: Bye everybody.

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