This will be a new series of relatively short posts that will center around Jerry Z. Muller’s lecture series “Thinking About Capitalism” (follow the link for transcripts of the first 18 lectures). In previous posts, I have strongly recommended his “The Mind and the Market“, and I wish to reiterate that recommendation. While there is a lot of overlap between the lecture series and the book, I will stick to the former since 1) it breaks things down into manageable, 4,000 word chunks and 2) it doesn’t require anybody to go out and buy a book. For these and other reasons, I strongly suggest that people read the lectures that I have linked above.
First, a little overview of what to expect. Muller is an intellectual historian who has a clear but guarded preference for free-market capitalism. He knows that capitalism is not perfect and is fraught with several dangers and moral costs, but thinks that its benefits justify those costs. Like most liberals (I will insist upon the European sense of this term while reserving “socialist” for left-wing despisers of the free market), he has a tendency to draw strong connections and parallels between right and left-wing critics of free market liberalism. While we should be on guard for this, his approach does provide a lot of historical context and continuity to various left-wing criticisms of capitalism. Now, moving on….
Muller’s first lecture, “Why Think about Capitalism?” is mostly a preview of what is to come. Nevertheless, he does raise a few questions that address the ambiguous relationship between the united order and capitalism. If there is any person in the church that hasn’t wondered what differences, if any, exist between communism and the united order, I haven’t met them. On the one hand, during and after the Cold War quite a few church authorities strongly declared that the united order was grounded in private property. On the other hand, we read in Acts that the saints had all things in common. I don’t think it’s unreasonable if this gives us a little bit of confusion.
Perhaps the worse thing we can do when approaching this question is to phrase our options in terms of an either/or. The united order was quite obviously not the state ownership of the means of production since 1) there wasn’t a very powerful state, let alone one that owned the early church members’ land and 2) there wasn’t really any industrial means of production that could have been nationalized and/or given to the workers. If these things are what one means by “private property”, then the united order was absolutely compatible with it.
But this does not automatically imply that the united order was fully compatible with capitalism either. A lot of this has to do with what one means by “capitalism”. Consider the Muller’s list of economic changes that taken place in the West and see if you can confidently decide which features a capitalist society must have or which are fully compatible with the united order:
- The mass increase of overseas trade that was pioneered by the Portuguese, then the Spanish, then the Dutch.
- Cottage industry where a household makes a surplus of some good with the aim of selling or trading that surplus at the local or national market.
- The financial revolution where national banks created a market for state bonds and low-interest loans.
- The consumer revolution where households begin purchasing “luxury goods” that had previously been available only to the relatively well to do.
- The industrial revolution where factories based in a strong division of wage labor mass produced goods for the purpose of trading them within the larger, international market.
- The invention of limited liability corporations, where ownership extends far beyond a single person or family thus diversifying liabilities and minimizing loses of each investor.
- The bureaucratic revolution where a salaried management becomes something totally separate from ownership.
And so on…. The point is that “capitalism” is not a simple or uniform practice, and we should not expect an unambiguous answer to the question, “Is the united order compatible with capitalism?” This is especially the case since the united order was implemented within a historical context in which many of the practices and institutions above simply did not exist yet.
That said, Muller does focus on three features that he (and I) will take to define capitalism:
- Private property that excludes the moral, traditional or legal appropriation of property against the owners will after the manner of fiefdoms.
- Exchange between legally free individuals through contracts, wages and prices rather than centralized redistribution or collectivist provision.
- Production and distribution is operate primarily through the market mechanism, rather than being geared toward household subsistence.
Such a definition suggests that the united order was not at all compatible with capitalism.
Before addressing the incompatibilities, I will deal with that aspect that the united order absolutely did endorse: private property. In order to understand what private property was, it is important to understand what it arose in opposition to. Traditionally, all land was owned by the King who granted land to nobles while retaining ownership rights. In other words, the King retained the right to re-appropriate this land at will to his own purposes. This same relationship basically held all the way down the great chain of being. Private property said that from nobles all the way down to peasants, the owner of some property did not stand in any continuing moral dependence or obligation to their lord. The united order to absolutely compatible with this…. Although we will complicate this picture in later posts.
Let’s skip to (3). Production and distribution within the united order were clearly not done “primarily” through the market mechanism. The united order functioned much more like a large, collective of households – ideally tending toward one, collective household – in which at least 90% of what a household consumed was produced by and within the household itself. Yes, some things were bought and sold within a very limited market, but this is not the defining feature of capitalism.
Now for (2), which is the most difficult to answer in any definitive sense. The starting point should be an understanding the difference between exchange and reciprocity. Within smaller, tribal communities, different people produce or gather various forms of subsistence for the entire group. This process is regulated by moral condemnation and social status. Thus, such societies are very much structured around charity and gift giving. As these groups grew over time, they introduced a form of centralized redistribution where goods flow into a centralized, governing power who then distributed these goods along traditional and morally enforced lines. (The bishop’s storehouse is a partial example of this.) The main point is that neither of these types of groups are structured around exchange. Communists love this point since it shows that the supposedly “timeless and universal” laws of modern, free-market economics are nothing of the sort. The united order agrees with the communists’ criticism, but totally rejects their solution, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
While the above mentioned societies are structured around reciprocal charity rather than self-interested exchange, they almost always did engage in self-interested exchange with outsiders. The easiest way to understand this is the difference between the goods and service we provide for our spouse, children, siblings and parents vs those that we provide to complete strangers. The traditional “household” was a larger version of this familial relationship that included several families that lived within the same “oikos” (oikos is the Greek word for “house” and is the origin of the word “economics”). Civic republicanism, as advocated by the Ancient Greeks, sought to extend these same reciprocal relationships – to some extent – to the entire polis (this being the obious root of the word “politics”).
It is in this same sense that the Deuteronomy says that usury should never be charged to a brother, but only to outsiders. Communism takes this point to the extreme by suggesting that we extend this reciprocal relationship to the entire world, thus abolishing exchange altogether! Whereas most moralities have sought to either reinforce or perhaps expand the boundary between reciprocity and exchange, capitalism seeks to shrink this boundary, if possible, all the way to the individual. It is in this sense that the united order is a rejection of (2): it seeks to – at minimum – preserve relations of reciprocal charity and gift giving within Zion.
That said, the united order most definitely did endorse the “freedom” of labor such that a person was not legally bound to any guild or occupation within or without the united order. The legal freedom that communists often dismiss as “merely formal” played an integral part within the united order.
In summary and conclusion, the united order absolutely did accept private property and in this sense cannot be conflated with communism. It also accepted the importance of formally free labor in which no person is legally bound to some profession or land. It did not, however, seek to structure Zion along the lines of self-interested exchange – this rejection is pretty much its defining feature. Finally, as a matter of historical fact, it did not orient production to the market either.