Andrew G. Bjelland: Christian social justice and the two faces of capitalism

Do we choose capitalism with a humane face or capitalism with a greedy scowl?

In a recent column, David Brooks confessed: “I’m groping for a social justice movement … that would be anti-oppression and without the dehumanizing cruelty we’ve seen of late. I tried to write a column describing what that might look like — and failed.”

Brooks then interviewed Esau McCaulley, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College, and was inspired to write a column in praise of the Christian vision of social justice — the vision grounded “in respect for the equal dignity of each person … based on the idea that we are all made in the image of God. It abhors any attempt to dehumanize anybody on any front. [It stresses] a fundamental human solidarity in being part of the same creation.”

Within advanced democracies, individual liberty — the competitive freedom distinctive of capitalism — is in tension with equality of opportunity. Although the Christian vision of social justice acknowledges this tension, it grants egalitarianism and communal interdependence pride of place.

Within the mixed economies of Northern Europe, the other-directed empathy central to Adam Smith’s “Theory of the Moral Sentiments” counterbalances the competitive individualism of his “The Wealth of Nations.” Entrepreneurial freedom and a strong social safety net are promoted as mutually supportive. A communally oriented ethos affirms: “We are all in this together.”

On a daily basis, citizens witness their tax dollars working for them. Their experience falsifies the claim: “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Higher education, trade schools, health care and elder care are widely accessible and affordable. Workers’ rights are safeguarded. No one is dehumanized to the status of a replaceable part within the economic machine. Government, by serving the people, promotes egalitarianism and social solidarity. Such economic systems are consonant with the Christian vision of social justice. Within such systems capitalism displays a humane face.

In American capitalism, competitive individualism holds sway. This capitalism prioritizes short term profits over long term social benefits. Considerations of abstract economic efficiency often drive social-economic policies. Privatization of social services and public utilities is encouraged. Mergers and acquisitions prove richly rewarding. The financial sector takes center stage. The manufacturing sector is pushed to the side. Intense competition and a winner-take-all ethos elevate Masters of the Universe — narcissistic individuals who are strangers to empathy, sympathy and social justice — to the pinnacles of power. It generates an elite who follow the profits, but who are virtually above the law.

America’s conservative politicians assert that highly individualistic and maximally competitive capitalism best ensures the greatest good for the greatest number — and ignore all evidence to the contrary. They often dismiss programs that benefit the least advantaged as “socialism.” They preach that taxes are a burden, not the price we pay for civilization. They rail against wealth and income “redistribution.” They extoll “the makers” and disparage “the takers.”

The greediest among us oppose the expansion of educational opportunities and healthcare services for the neediest among us. Many on the right underestimate the extent to which such an expansion would promote the long-term social-economic welfare of all.

The enhancement of shareholder value and increased executive compensation constitute the prime objectives of corporate enterprises. Workers’ and consumers’ interests are subordinated to the foregoing. The utilization of artificial intelligence machines, other technological advancements and offshore workers increases abstract economic efficiency.

The consequences: job insecurity for many workers; far too great an influence of money in politics; too-big-to-fail near-monopolies and attendant diminished competition; costly and, for many, inaccessible health care, elder care and higher education; intense political polarization; stagnant wages; a shrinking middle class; increased homelessness; a crumbling infrastructure; increasing environmental pollution; ever widening and deepening wealth, income and education gaps.

Egalitarian Christian social justice will continue to be preached from pulpits, but, within the context of American capitalism, social justice for all citizens and communal solidarity will remain distant ideals.

Which best ensures democracy’s full flowering? Capitalism with a humane face or capitalism with a greedy scowl?

Andrew G. Bjelland

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus, philosophy department, Seattle University and resides in Salt Lake City.