In the 1987 film Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) instantly became an icon when he uttered these words, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
While they may try to use more flowery language so as to sound less nefarious, this is actually an excellent summation of capitalists’ ideology. As Adam Smith wrote, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer,” and it is “not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages” (Source). Consider then that the word “greed” comes from Old English grædig, meaning “hungry, ravenous.” In the Gordon Gekko quote above, replace “greed” with “consuming,” and then compare the thinking to Smith. Again, Smith: “Every individual… neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention” (Ibid.).
In other words, the economy is to be understood as an amorphous blob of individuals who are all motivated by their own desire to consume, and producers only matter insofar as their own greed compels them to meet that demand in the name of profit. Neither the consumers nor the producers care about anything greater than their own selfish desires, but that collective greed nonetheless works as an “invisible hand” that produces the most efficient economy, which, in turn, inadvertently promotes the public interest. Capitalists can refer to greed as “self-interest” and profiting therefrom as “voluntary cooperation,” but the meaning is ultimately the same (Source). Indeed, exchanges do not exist in a vacuum where both parties are equally content, but each is rather an effort on the part of the producer to provide the least while charging the most and on the part of the consumer to receive the most while paying the least. In effect, both sides are encouraged to take advantage of the other as much as humanly possible, but a capitalist would argue that the “invisible hand” would strike the best balance between the two thanks to market competition, consumer demand, and the like.
Is that actually the case though? Let’s consider the United States, perhaps the most capitalistic nation on Earth (yet still not capitalistic enough according to laissez-faire capitalists). The national debt is nearing $20 trillion (Source), which actually exceeds the gross domestic product of the nation (Source). The richest 10% of the population owns fully 76% of the nation’s wealth (Source), and the wealthiest 0.1% actually possess as much wealth as the bottom 90% combined (Source). This is in addition to the fact that total household debt in the US is nearing $13 trillion (Source). Since 2000, according to researchers at Ball State University, several hundred thousand manufacturing jobs have been exported to foreign countries, not including jobs lost to automation, and, according to an MIT study, up to 2.4 million American jobs were lost from 1999-2011 due to Chinese imports (Source). From 2000-2017, approximately 1.85 million foreign workers have been allowed into the US under the H-1B visa program, which allows cheaper foreign workers to fill jobs in the country legally (Source). Roughly 95% of H-1B visa workers are from the Third World (Source). That is not counting the some 1 million immigrants that are admitted to the US each year (Source), which capitalists consistently tout as being good for the economy (Source, Source, Source). Unsurprisingly, the US is expected to become “minority majority” in the next few decades (Source), but capitalists are quick to say it is good for the economy (Source).
None of the above appears to speak well of capitalism today, but the capitalists are quick to tell us that consumer debt can be good for the economy (Source) as can the national debt so long as it does not go too far (Source). Despite any misgivings you may still have, we are also assured that the American dream is alive and well because someone from the lowest rungs of society can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and become the next billionaire (Source). Economic policies must be aimed at always helping and never hindering today’s wealthy capitalists because it could be you tomorrow, or so the thinking goes. Of course, the most expansive studies of social mobility in the United States now tell us that the social mobility gap is widening (Source), that there is actually little social mobility to be found (Source), and that estimates of social mobility have actually been exaggerated even when showing little mobility to begin with (Source). Is it any wonder then that the household debt of the nation is nearly $13 trillion as the national debt nears $20 trillion? Americans are being promised untold riches in exchange for incessant consumerism, but what they are really receiving is untold debt, jobs going overseas, and hordes of foreigners coming to take what jobs remain.
Therein lies one of the most intoxicating myths of capitalism: namely, that a true believer could be a poor immigrant and yet become a wealthy man due to nothing more than his own hard work. Who would not want that? Take, for example, the so-called “robber barons” of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. The myth is that those titans of industry were able to become among the wealthiest men in the world because capitalism allowed them to be freethinking entrepreneurs and benefit from their own work, but how true is that? Consider that Andrew W. Mellon was the son of a wealthy banker and judge, Thomas Mellon, who gave Andrew his start in the family bank (Source). Similarly, J.P. Morgan was born into a prominent banking family, and he began working for the international banking interests of his father, J.S. Morgan, and his business partner, George Peabody (Source). In contrast to Mellon and Morgan, Andrew Carnegie was actually an immigrant from humble origins, but he got his real start in capitalism when he began working as the secretary for Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, who involved Carnegie in his then-legal insider trading schemes. By the age of 30, Carnegie was a millionaire due to said schemes, and he would then invest that money into ventures that would make him famous as a robber baron (Source). John D. Rockefeller perhaps had the most interesting background as the son of a con man, but, like Carnegie, his fortune would come through the efforts of others. Indeed, he had entered into a produce business with a partner, Maurice Clark, and it would be Clark and his brothers, James and Richard, who dragged Rockefeller into the oil business during the Civil War (Source). Since the Union government was subsidizing the oil industry, it was naturally quite profitable.
What do these famous robber barons all have in common? Clearly, despite the myth, none of them actually built something from nothing solely through their own efforts. Mellon and Morgan were both born into wealth that gave them their opportunities, Carnegie benefited immensely from what would send anyone to prison today, and Rockefeller was inadvertently dragged by others into the industry that would make him the wealthiest American in history. Thus, are they truly examples of social mobility that should give the masses hope that they could achieve the same, or did they rather each just catch lightning in a bottle? Based on the relative lack of intergenerational social mobility in the US today, it seems safe to say that it is nonsensical to suggest the robber barons were anything but rare. Indeed, the UK today has social mobility similar to the US (Source), which is not saying much considering research presented to the Economic History Society suggests that the “modern meritocracy is no better at achieving social mobility than the medieval oligarchy,” and, “if anything the rate of social mobility is slower now than in medieval England” (Source).
Now, this is where a typical capitalist will put on his Libertarian Party lapel pin and start screaming about “collectivism” and “individual rights.” This is because the core belief of capitalism is not really about economics but rather that individuals should be free to do what they want. If this thinking is followed to its logical conclusion, the state must be deprived of any authority or ability to interfere with the actions of the masses. After all, if the gluttony of the consumers is to be maximized so as to produce the most profit, then they must be left to their own devices so that their hunger is never hindered. This helps to explain why state Chambers of Commerce as well as countless corporations have consistently sided with queer activists (Source, Source, Source, Source, Source, Source). Society slowly succumbing to moral rot and decay is a small price to pay for the profits that could be earned from a new “gay market” full of disposable income. Indeed, homosexuals spent $1.3 billion on weddings in the first year the practice was legalized by the Supreme Court (Source), and some suggest the “gay wedding market” could be as high as $2.5 billion (Source).
In terms of other vices, the American pornography industry is worth more than $10 billion annually (Source), and the “adult toy” industry is also worth billions each year (Source). The alcohol industry is worth more than $200 billion (Source), and, despite only being legal in certain states, the legal marijuana industry is already worth more than $7 billion (Source). It should be noted that the US is not unique in this regard. For example, Japan—another exceedingly capitalistic society with a population about one-third the size of the US—has a pornography industry worth approximately $4.4 billion and creates some 20,000 films annually (Source). Pornography is so prevalent in the country that some “actresses” are nationally famous (Source). Even more disturbing is the fact that 1 in 10 Japanese men owns child pornography according to a government survey (Source), and the teenage prostitution market is estimated to be worth as much as $700 million annually (Source). Indeed, while Japan may be seen “as an isolated pocket of safety and low crime,” a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has found that the nation is involved with human trafficking, the illicit drug trade, smuggling rare wildlife, creating fraudulent goods, and dumping illegal waste (Source). Encouraging sinfulness in the masses and then meeting the subsequent demand is quite profitable.
Of course, all of this highlights another of the great myths of capitalism: namely, that it uniquely provides markets and that said markets will produce the best outcomes for individuals and society. This line of reasoning often works today because capitalists are most often only contending with socialists and communists, neither of whom believe in market-based economies. After all, socialists seek social ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and communists wish to go a step further to entirely abolish private property and social classes. When confronted with other systems, however, the standard capitalist argument quickly falls apart. For example, mercantilism was the prevailing economic system in Europe from the 16th century until the rise of capitalism, and, by definition, it involves profitable trade. Unlike capitalism, however, mercantilistic nations sought to maximize exports, minimize imports, and prevent individuals from engaging in activities that ran contrary to the nation’s interests. In so doing, a nation might amass great wealth at the expense of other nations while nearing full employment (Source).
Capitalists naturally scoff at “collectivist” ideas such as nationalism, or “statist” ideas such as the nation daring to restrain individuals, but the essence of their argument is that individuals should be free to seek profit even where it harms their own nation to do so. For example, capitalists have long criticized government-enforced monopolies under mercantilism (Source, Source), which were aimed at protecting the nation’s interests, but, as history shows, capitalists freely produce their own monopolies whenever possible without any concern for others (Source, Source). It is also worth noting that mercantilism holds that there is a finite amount of wealth in the world derived from physical resources (gold, silver, oil, &c.), which is to be maximized for the nation’s benefit, while capitalism holds that wealth is infinite so long as there are new markets to enter or old markets are growing (even if that means endlessly importing would-be consumers from the Third World by the millions). The latter, of course, ignores that continued growth does not mean wealth is infinite, but it rather means the limits have not yet been reached. When physical resources are depleted, all that would remain would be abstract with arbitrary value, such as fiat currency. The myth of infinite wealth is useful, however, for justifying capitalism to those who have not benefited from the system. It is important that they believe, while they may not be a robber baron yet, the opportunity is still there for them and their children.
Here, again, the capitalists would loudly bark that their beloved free market benefits everyone. For example, they would likely argue that, while true social mobility may be unlikely, capitalism at least offers people an opportunity to be self-employed and start their own businesses. From 1994-2015, however, the rate of self-employment in the United States fell from 12.1 to 10.1% (Source), and it is worth noting that only 1-in-4 of those also employed someone else (Source). Additionally, 20% of new businesses will fail in their first year, 50% within their first 5 years, and only 1-in-3 will survive beyond a decade (Source). Now, contrast that with the fact that the median employee tenure in the US in January 2016 was 4.2 years—meaning half of wage and salary workers had been in their current jobs longer than that—while only one-third had been in their jobs a decade or more (Source). In short, starting one’s own business under this system is unlikely to provide any more stability than working for someone else, and that is without factoring in the fact that the average startup capital needed for a new business is approximately $30,000 (Source). Again, capitalism promises the world to the masses, but the reality is that the vast majority are only food for the beast.
Interestingly, despite capitalists often touting small business as evidence of capitalism’s greatness, it actually exposes a cold truth about the system: namely, that it revolves around separating ownership of productive property from the productive use of said property. Let’s remember that only about 7.5% of Americans were self-employed without employees in 2015, meaning any labor performed was their responsibility alone. Indeed, more than 90% of the American workforce is composed of wage and salaried workers, and that has been the case since 1972 (Source). Now, being employed by someone else is not necessarily a bad thing, obviously, but it is worthy of note that the median wage has only increased 9% since 1979. This is despite the fact that productivity has increased 72% since 1973, and the top 1% of earners have seen their incomes rise by 138% (Source). In other words, the vast majority of Americans are more productive than ever before, but they are merely using the capitalists’ productive property to further increase the wealth of those same capitalists. The system has not empowered the masses to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and “make something of themselves,” but it has rather convinced them to keep toiling away while others reap the benefits, to continue feeding the beast as they are devoured by it, generation after generation after generation.
Once we understand that capitalism is not merely “free markets for free people,” then we can start to question whether or not there is a better way to implement a market economy that revolves around something more than greed and gluttony, and the key is in addressing productive property. A person who owns the productive property needed to provide for themselves and their family does not need to rely on others for their survival. For example, a family which owns a farm and the tools necessary to work the land could produce what is necessary to support themselves without relying on others. It is no coincidence that our capitalist system has slowly destroyed the family farm (Source). When farmers bought into capitalist thinking, they stopped trying to provide for their families and communities and instead sought to cater to the global market. That may have been profitable in the short-term, but it also made their survival contingent on defeating outside competition. As should be expected, capitalists inevitably came in to crush smaller farms and to monopolize markets, and the system allows them to purposely engage in practices to achieve these ends (Source). One of the most nefarious means of doing this involves forcing family farms into subcontracted production wherein the farmers take on most of the liability while the corporations reap the profits (Source):
A farm scholar once asked an agribusiness executive when his corporation would simply take over the farms. The exec said that it would be dumb for the corporation to do so, in that it is not free to exploit its employees to the degree that farmers are willing to exploit themselves.
Now, let’s consider distributism as an alternative to capitalism. As Richard Aleman has said (Source):
Distributism is just like Capitalism, except that we differ on the nature of man, the purpose of economic activity, usury, the maximization of token wealth, the role and legitimate exercise of the state, empirical economics, the meaning of subsidiarity, subordination of economics to the higher sciences, our ends, our means, what money is, what wealth is, what a free market is, production and consumption, regulation, free trade, the moral and divine law in the social and economic order, and, yes, what liberty means.
At its most basic, distributism seeks for productive property to be in the hands of as many people as possible rather than a small number of capitalists or the government. This does not mean that either providing capital while others provide labor or shared ownership are inherently immoral, but the key is that people should be free to make those decisions for themselves. For example, a person may have their own reasons for preferring to work for another, or choosing to collectively own property with others, but it should be their choice to make with the system truly allowing them the freedom to choose. This highlights why usury is such an important concern. Let’s consider a person who needs $50,000 to purchase the necessary tools and such needed to work as a plumber (Source), for which a bank may offer him an interest rate of 6 to 13% (Source). Using these figures and assuming a 5-year loan term, the plumber would pay anywhere from $970 to $1,140 per month (not including any additional fees), and, over the course of the loan, he would pay $8,000 to $18,000 in interest (Source). A bank may offer a longer term length to bring the monthly payment down, but that is itself a trap as he would pay them much more over an even slightly extended term. For example, a 7-year loan would save more than $200 per month with the above interest rates, but he would ultimately pay $3,400 to $8,400 more in interest. Can it really be said that such a system is encouraging entrepreneurship?
We find the same problem with owning one’s own home. Distributism encourages the notion that as many people as possible should own their homes and the land upon which they are built, or at least have the real choice to do so, but our current system is again dominated by usury. For example, the current 15- and 30-year fixed rates are 3.27 and 4.05%, respectively (Source), which, for a $100,000 home, would cost the homeowner approximately $27,000 to $73,000 in interest over the life of the loan. The plumber or the homeowner may be able to afford these usurious charges, but that rather misses the point. It is not whether or not people can afford the parasitism known as usury, but it is whether or not such parasitism encourages people to have the freedom to make choices that benefit both their families and society through increased independence. For context, in any given year, millions of American homeowners owe more than their home is worth (Source) with approximately 1 million homes under foreclosure (Source). Our current capitalistic system seeks to prey on people trying to live the American dream whereas a distributist system would instead encourage such things so as to promote personal and social well-being. Indeed, consider that the current mortgage market can be valued as high as $2 trillion annually with no shortage of profit for the mortgage companies (Source).
How many such examples are needed before we consider the morality of capitalism, or rather the lack thereof? It is a system of greed and gluttony, of predators and usury. It promises freedom, but it has only delivered intergenerational wage slavery. The answer to these problems certainly does not involve socialism or communism, but might it include distributism? The average capitalist does not actually benefit from capitalism, and they are also much more likely to espouse ideals in line with a distributist system: namely, freedom and markets guided by ethics and solidarity with one’s neighbors. It seems unlikely that the average person wrapped up in liberal capitalist ideology truly thinks that greed and gluttony are good for themselves, their families, or society. We have watched as capitalism has ravaged the countryside and our families, encouraging sin as a virtue so long as it results in money flowing to the capitalists. Social mobility has vanished and wages have stagnated even as the masses are told the American dream is more possible than ever. As Jesus once whipped the money-changers, perhaps it is time that we chased the capitalists away so that we may implement a system more in line with traditional Christian morality and values? Certainly, we should be able to say boldly and without question that greed is not good, but God is great.