Capitalism is like sex. It can feel great and glorify God all at the same time, or it can be used to abuse and dehumanize. I think that capitalism by itself is morally neutral. I want to go ahead and get that out there in the beginning so there is no confusion on where I stand. My own personal experience has led me to a place of great caution (which borders on fear and paranoia, at times) when it comes to capitalistic machinations. However, I realize that my viewpoint is the result of my particular life path and may not accurately reflect the breadth and depth all that capitalism has to offer. Still, the adage “once bitten, twice shy” applies in my case.
As a Christian among other Christians it is, at the very least, uncomfortable to question capitalism’s benefits against its risks. There are many who believe that capitalism is literally a God-send. It enables the spread of democracy and the gospel, allows for wealth creation and stewardship, and offers opportunities for people to find meaning through earning a wage in their “calling” (more on that later). The trouble comes when questioning capitalism by pointing out its potential downside–avarice and hoarding, tendencies toward monopoly and/or oligarchy, exploitation, environmental destruction, and usury–a move usually interpreted as questioning the God who is assumed to have ordained the capitalistic-democratic society. But how did it get this way? Where did this idea come from that good Christians = good capitalists?
The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the idea of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is not treated as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. (loc. 779)
Weber’s summation of the peculiar ethic typified by Franklin’s writing still rings true today. When one questions the necessity of increasing one’s personal capital, that person is viewed as an oddball at best but more often as a lazy freeloader unwilling to contribute to society. He has forgotten his “duty.”It is from Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Tradesman” that we get the maxim “time is money.” Franklin explains that when one earns a daily wage, any day of leisure must have the value of the lost wage calculated as an expense in addition to any actual out of pocket expenditures. You might as well throw that amount of money into the sea, he offers. That is easy enough to calculate for the hourly or daily wage earner, but what about salaried workers? In my context, a wealthy suburban professional county near a major metropolis, the obsession with time as unrealized monetary gain is seen most strikingly among parents of young children. In many of these dual-income houses any time not spent and work or school is filled up with organized activities for the children, usually sports or dance. Every weekday afternoon and evening is spent on some combination of homework, practice, or rehearsal, and weekends are spent at games and recitals. The modern family has little time for leisure or religion. Those that do squeeze in church are more likely to attend twice a month, when it doesn’t conflict with the kids’ extracurricular activities on Sunday mornings. Any expectation of involvement during the week is ignored. Why is this? At first blush these parents just “want the best” for their children. I can understand that. I’m a parent myself with grade-school aged children. Yet when pressed, “the best” means something much more than childhood friendships and fun competition. Here’s how a typical conversation with a parent might go: “Hey! You guys coming to church this Sunday? Haven’t seen you around in a few weeks.” “Oh, well we’ve been really busy. Sara is playing travel soccer and most of her games are on Sunday afternoons. It’s nearly impossible for us to make it from church to the games on time.” “Yeah, that must be tough. Seems like Sara’s pretty busy with sports. She plays tee-ball and dances too, right?” “Uh-huh, and plays piano. Most nights we’re running off to some practice or rehearsal! But she loves it.” “Seems like a lot for a 7-year-old.” “Well, we just want what’s best for her.” “Have you thought about having her focus on just one thing for a little while? It might make things seem a little less crazy.” “Right now we’re just trying to expose her to as much as possible, see what she likes, and then we’ll really hone in on that.” “Oh. Why is that?” “For her to be competitive in Junior High and High School, we need to get a good base developed now.” “Yeah? Why does she need to be able to compete in Junior High?” “So she make varsity sports as a Sophomore, or maybe even a Freshman.” “Varsity? Wow! Good for her. But why varsity?” “Because it helps round out her college application. I mean, she’ll also be involved in Girl Scouts, so that will help. And we’ve started lining up some volunteer work for later on down the line. We’re not just holding out hopes she’ll be a jock.” “I had no idea that colleges were that competitive these days.” “The best ones are. And we want the best for her.” “I’ve heard that the community college here is a hidden treasure. It has really good academics and instructors with a bent towards practical application. Plus, as a resident she’s virtually guaranteed admission.” “I’m sure that’s fine for people who need that kind of thing. But Sara has so much potential. We really think that she is Ivy League material.” “That’s great! But those schools cost a lot of money.” “That’s why we’re saving now. We opened a 529 in her name when she was born and have had her grandparents and relatives make contributions to that in lieu of birthday and Christmas gifts each year. Plus she’ll probably get an academic scholarship if she studies hard and either a dance, piano, or sports scholarship, too. If she has to take out loans that’s okay also, because once she graduates, she’ll be able to start making a pretty good living, if you know what I mean.” “Yeah. Sounds like it. So that’s the plan, huh?” “Yup. I mean, we can’t know for sure exactly what’s going to happen, but we just want her to be happy.” “So, maybe I’ll see you at church next Sunday then?” “Hmm. Probably not. Playoffs start next weekend. If her team wins their two games on Saturday, which they should–they’re the best team in the league, we made sure of that by checking out the coaches before we signed her up–then they’ll have the semi-finals and finals next Sunday.” “Okay. Well hopefully the following Sunday!” “You bet, unless that slot in Ms. Palinchenko’s intermediate ballet class opens up. Fingers crossed!” For these parents, “the best” means trying to assure from a young age that their child will grow up able to become wealthy. They think they’re chasing happiness, but what they’re really chasing is money. Money in the form of “duty” and “obligation.” And many of them do this as “good Christians.” In a misguided attempt to try and secure opportunity and a bright future, these parents are binding over an entire value system oriented around being “dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of life” (loc. 807). Weber’s final chapter of the first part begins to explore the roots of this peculiar economic rationalism. He starts by conceding that avarice is not, in and of itself, new. Yet there is something different about this particular marriage of religion and personal acquisition. He writes, “one thing was unquestionably new: the valuation of the fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. This it was which inevitably gave every-day worldly activity a religious significance, and which first created the conception of a calling in this sense” (loc. 1135). He traces this back to the Reformation and Luther, in particular. Though Luther’s conception of calling never strayed far from a more traditional idea of a divine appointment by God to ministry, he did till the soil in which Calvinists and Puritans would later plant the seeds of capitalism. An increasing emphasis on the role of the individual in salvation and the Pauline priesthood of all believers, coupled with a burgeoning middle class led to an increase of individual earning potential and individual responsibility in responding to the salvific work of Christ. Weber closes the first half of the book with a reminder that the “spirit of capitalism” we’re exploring was present only in a nascent sense in the lives of reformers like Calvin. We shouldn’t expect to look back at their lives and writings and see a fully developed spirit of capitalism. Yet without understanding its origins, it is difficult to understand our present dilemma.