Tuesday, July 21, 2009

William Niskanen on Capitalism

This mornings post-worship lecture on the ethics of Capitalism was delivered by William Niskanen, senior economist of the Cato Institute. The title of his lecture was, 'The Undemanding Ethics of Capitalism' and it became immediatly obvious that Niskanen studied under Milton Friedman in his full throated defense of Capitalism. Niskanen was skeptical of suggestions post economic crisis that corporations should be more socially responsible. He correctly in my view saw that there were practices in the housing, particularly the mortgaging area that were major causes of the economic downturn, but offered little by way of an answer to those problems. Self-interest is assumed and even lauded, but when self-interest adversely affects the broader society, say the selling of an inadequate or even dangerous product, Niskanen didn't have much to say accept that this should be illegal. This was the major weakness I thought of his lecture. He was skeptical of Corporate ability or interest in social responsibility, but didn't address practices which endangered the public.

He was skeptical of Pope Benedicts latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate and although I have not yet read this, Niskanen seemed most skeptical of the place of charity in the macro-economic system. In this way Niskanen seems most influenced by Adam Smith who doubted that humanity could be motivated by altruism (charity) and that empirically humanity had proven itself to be motivated by self-interest. This is most likely true, but from a Christian pespective, at least THIS Christian's perspective, part of Jesus' ministry was meant to teach and encourage disciples to broaden their perspective on 'the neighbor.' Or, take the story of Zacchaeus. Was not the lesson that Zacchaues' life previous to encountering Jesus was lived with self-interest, and that his 'salvation' was his altruism? his concern for his poor neighbor, not based on self-interest? The same could be said for the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Perhaps Capitalism and the Free Market Economy cannot be any more than undemanding in its ethics. Regardless of Niskanen's reaction, the church is called to practice charity. How then do we live in and work in an economic system which has little to no space for the most cherished of our virtues? How do we learn to live in a moral geography that is so different from the one we are taught in the gospels, for in free market economics based on Adam Smith, humanity cannot be expected to be 'caring' or to invest time or effort into a worthwhile project without the added value of financial reward, much less our own fianancial investment without the promise of gain. But our faith suggests that we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves, give to all who ask, and the story of Zacchaeus suggests that like him, we find salvation when we practice financial self-sacrifice for the good of our community. Do we create pockets of our own micro-economies, (As Cavanaugh has suggested) in which we can embody charity? Is the practice of tithing meant to teach us how it is that we live in this economic world of self-interest, but live not of this same world?

I ran across this quote from Vincent Miller quite by accident which offers a critique of much that Niskanen assumes. this is from his book 'Consuming Religion' pp 50-51

'The social isolation of the single-family home corresponds to narrowed practical and moral concerns. Although late-twentieth century free-market conservatism arose from a complex of historical factors, its blindness concerning the common good and its suspicion of public investment and social safety nets correspond well to the narrow concerns encouraged by the single-family home.... This results in a trucation of Aquina's ordo caritatis. We may rightly have a greater moral obligation to our immediate family members than to those less directly related to us, but this social arrangement threatens to transform that gradation of obligation into a stark distinction. Social isolation and the burdens of maintain a family in this system make it unlikely that other people's needs will ever present themselves. If and when we do encounter them, we are likely to be so preoccupied with the tasks of maintaining our immediate families that we will have little time and resources to offer'

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