Still Only Two Cheers for Capitalism

That's the title of Jan 31st's G-file, an email from Jonah Goldberg to his readership. The title obviously alludes to Irving Kristol's book on what capitalism can't do (namely, hold families together), but I wonder if Pope Francis is the reason Goldberg's bringing it up.

In spite of Rush Limbaugh's unfortunate leap to the conclusion that the Pope's a Marxist, he's no such thing. He is a Catholic reiterating the teaching of the Church (if you need further convincing on that point, read this), which means he thinks Marxism is an inherently wicked system and Capitalism -- or what the Church calls "unbridled capitalism" is, while not inherently wicked, and even a force for good, subject to corruption and abuse. If the pope is more focused on the corruption and abuse of capitalism than he is on Marxism, that is because the fight over Marxism is over (except in academia, where we fancy ourselves Progressive but it's always 25 years ago). The wall fell, the Soviet Union is no more, China's on the verge of similar political implosion, capitalism won that debate. That is not our current problem and therefore not the Pope's concern.

The problem of our time is the problem of the corruption and subsequent weakness of the West, and that's why the Pope focused on it. And what did he say that was so wrong, or so offensive to Conservative sensibilities? Isn't corrupt capitalism -- crony capitalism-- by which, using the vocabulary of liberty, big business and government regulators collude to enrich themselves and shut little people out of the system exactly what Conservatives are concerned about today?

Not that the Pope criticized capitalism -- the word does not occur in the Joy of the Gospel, his apostolic exhortation that made the Right so nervous. He denounced the corruption of a system that doesn't put the human person at its center. When the Pope denounces the idolatry of money and the culture of exclusion, his experience might be among the favelas of Argentina, but is that not exactly what Obamacare represents? The collusion of Big Pharma and Big Abortion (Planned Parenthood) with government regulators for their own power and enrichment -- and the millions of Americans thrown out of the insurance market, and the crushing of free speech and free exercise of religion of small business owners and the Little Sisters of the Poor be damned?

So anyway, here's Goldberg reminding us that just because Capitalism is the best and freest system doesn't mean we have to pretend it has no limitations:
Here’s something I don’t say everyday: Capitalism ain’t all that.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still the artist behind the spoken-word album, Capitalism Is My Bag, Baby. But here’s the problem. Because most people on the right love and respect capitalism and pretty much everyone on the right feels the very real need to defend capitalism from the Occupiers, technocrats, sans-culottes, nudgers, equalizers, faux pragmatists, and other members of the Social Justice League, we don’t spend enough time focusing on the limitations of capitalism.
I say “limitations” rather than “faults,” because limitations aren’t necessarily faults. This is a really important distinction that is sometimes lost on people. A car that can’t go more than five miles per hour is faulty. A car that can’t drive through solid rock is simply a car. Water has no protein. But few would say that water isn’t essential or good. Water does what it does, but it can’t do things water can’t do. 
He is so right about that, and it's why so many "third way" and "distributionist" thinkers drive me crazy. It's not that I don't dislike the same things they dislike. But they are trying to make politics and economics carry a weight they can't carry:
But capitalism has its limits. It creates wealth, but is utterly silent about what should be done with that wealth. It provides avenues for accomplishment in certain spheres, but engenders a culture -- on the left and the right -- that often looks with skepticism or hostility at people who want to measure their accomplishments in terms not easily monetized. (Quick! Everyone read some Christopher Lasch!) Because of its insatiable and ingenious capacity to translate human wants and desires into products, it has the tendency to commercialize things best not commercialized, from sex to Christmas to childhood itself.
But the problem “with” capitalism isn’t capitalism. It’s with the institutions outside of capitalism: family, community, faith, and, yes, government. They are failing to keep up their end of the ecosystem.
That is what the Pope is about in the economic portion of Joy of the Gospel -- getting us to talk about the things a free market can't do and calling everyone to do much better at seeing the people right in front of them in their own communities-- ultimately through Christian discipleship, but also through just being decent human beings and not relegating all charity to systems of any kind. The free market is a good, but it can't answer the deepest desires of the human heart, and assuming it can doesn't lead to a society where a human being can prosper. Admitting that is not the same thing at all as denouncing capitalism.

One thing I wish we could have a discussion about is the degree to which the welfare state -- and I am someone who is happy for a certain amount of  "safety net" -- causes the decline of morality. Hayek said somewhere in a passage I remember but can't find that the whole point of liberty is for us to be able to see the fruits of certain choices and thus be able to make judgments about the best way to live. Some ways of life are better than others. If we're going to equalize the results of every choice, if the state prevents anyone from ever becoming a cautionary tale, does it not ennervate the moral sense inherent in the human person? Hayek says in those conditions, liberty loses its moral claim and its value. At what point does the social assistance state actually make the moral life impossible? Is it an accident that Protestant bishops in Scandinavia think the Christianity has achieved everything it can in those countries because everyone is taken care of? It doesn't matter that no one goes to Church because the state itself is caring for people, and so the just society has been achieved? Can you take the American bishops' stand in favor of socialized medicine, open borders, more and more money for the educational establishment, etc., and get a society committed to the dignity of the human person? Is there, after a certain point, an inverse proportion between social assistance dollars and "intentional discipleship"?

Here is Goldberg beginning to have the conversation the Pope is trying to stir up.
Let’s be lazy and compare capitalism to water again. Capitalism, like water, is what it is and does what it does. You don’t create a dam with water (unless you’re the dude from the Wonder Twins -- “Form of an ice dam!”). You create a dam out of some other substance. Over time water will wear down almost any obstacle; the Grand Canyon teaches us that. But you can maintain dams. That’s what a healthy society does: It maintains the infrastructure of a healthy society. When a dam bursts, no one blames the water for doing what it does; they blame the dam (or the dam-keepers) for failing to do what it’s supposed to do.
One of the biggest problems facing the Right these days is an inability to answer the question, “How should we live?” One reason for this is that we don’t want the government imposing an answer. Another reason is that we rightly don’t want to tell other people how to live. A third is that the conservatives who do try to tell everyone how to live are simply buzzkills and pariahs in the mainstream culture. A fourth reason is that we simply assume that the institutions of civil society that we draw meaning from are adequate for others to draw meaning from as well. And maybe they are -- but something is stopping a lot of people from drawing sustenance from the Burkean little platoons of civil society. And, as a result, many are also having trouble making the most of what capitalism has to offer.
Hope I'm not violating copyright law by adding:
This was my point about how the Constitution is powerless against Satan. A healthy society should not have to resort to constitutional arguments to explain why building a shrine to devil-worshippers on public land next to the Ten Commandments is incredibly stupid. Indeed, if all you have left are constitutional arguments, you’ve lost.
“Today, the New Left is rushing in to fill the spiritual vacuum at the center of our free and capitalist society,” Irving Kristol wrote over three decades ago in Two Cheers for Capitalism. Indeed, because they are liberated from the need to pay tribute to the idols of the old order, the Left has always had an easier time telling people how they should live. Conservatives -- who wish to conserve what is good or even eternal about the old order -- are always at a disadvantage in this regard. (Our advantage is that our ideas may be boring but they have been proven to work. “What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln asked. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?”)
Thanks to the mostly healthy influence of libertarianism, conservatives have lost interest in making arguments about right and wrong, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable, preferring instead to fall back on the principles of the Constitution, federalism, and individual liberty. We’ve largely gotten out of the business of telling people how to live. And that’s probably a good thing, at least in most circumstances.
The problem is that the Left hasn’t gotten out of that business -- at all. It is selling people an answer to “How should we live?” It’s fine for us to point out the deficiencies of their offer. But it would be nice if conservatives had a counter-offer that people wanted to hear.
So, conservatives and Catholics. Can we talk about that and quit the sterile and miss-the-point squabbling over whether or not the Pope is a Marxist and/ or invoking him to justify our tired big government answers to everything? He has challenged us to a much deeper engagement with the culture and politics than that.