The persistent Mormon academic criticism of ‘capitalism’

Mormon academics love to criticize “capitalism.”  Hugh Nibley famously denounced the entire economic system of the United States in favor of communalism.  We’ve even published some academic criticisms of capitalism on these very pages.  Now comes Richard Bushman in the summer 2009 issue of Square Two saying that capitalism is “insidious” and needs to be resisted.

I think it is important first of all to define our terms.  Bushman defines capitalism this way:

So where does Mormonism stand in relation to capitalism by which I mean the concentration of wealth in the hands of a capitalist class which enrolls labor by paying them money and not out of any sense of mutual loyalty?

I think this definition gets right to the heart of Bushman and many Mormon academics’ misunderstanding of capitalism.  And the point is, what system in our modern world is better, fairer, more democratic and, most importantly, allows more free will (agency) than capitalism?

To develop this line of thought, let’s go back to the beginning.  How did the first humans trade goods?  If Adam and Seth and Enoch produced stuff, which we can suppose they did, they probably spent some time trading that stuff for other stuff from other people.  We know that this system inevitably resulted in some people being richer than others because Enoch set up Zion in which there were no poor.  Jesus said the poor are always with us, which means on this world there will always be some people who are richer than others (which explains why Zion was such a great place by comparison).  So, even today in the United States, where the primary problem of the poor is obesity and obesity-related illnesses, there are still poor – people who have less money than the rich.

So, it would appear that even in the earliest days of human beings there was trade (early capitalism) and there was a difference between rich and poor.  And there was a recognition that the best societal situation was one in which there were no poor, but there was also a recognition that achieving Zion was nearly impossible given human nature.

My contention is that criticizing capitalism is a bit like criticizing the air or the rocks or the Earth — it is simply the way things are and the way things always will be, at least on this Earth until the Millennium. People have always traded and always will want to trade.  In early feudal societies, farmers traded their goods (produced by their labor) for other goods and perhaps for gold and silver.  Kings offered protection and took a portion of the goods for that protection.  But the essential nature of the system — goods are produced, they are traded or sold and some people produce more goods and become richer than others — has always been with us.

Now, of course we have a much more complex system, but at its core it has not changed from the days of Adam.  Let’s say you work designing web sites.  You produce goods (web sites) in exchange for payment in dollars.  Let’s say you are a university professor.  You produce goods (articles, books and lectures) in exchange for payment in dollars.  Nothing has changed.

What has changed, in fact, is prosperity, and this is directly related to the wonders of  a more developed capitalist system.  Until the 19th century, life was miserable for the vast majority of people.  Their life span was short and the goods they produced were barely enough to sustain themselves and their families.  If you study Joseph Smith’s early life, this was even the case for him and his father — they barely made enough to survive as farmers in Vermont and New York.

If we want to discuss freedom — including the ability to move around, see the world and to make choices with our lives — what system provides more freedom:  the life of Joseph Smith and the subsistence farmers in the early 19th century or our lives now?  Now, we can quit our jobs and move to another one, or we can travel the world, or we can have a wide variety of careers.  In the early 19th century, our choices were extremely limited, by comparison.

I am not arguing that our lives are necessarily happier now — that depends a lot on individual choice.  Having more choices inevitably means many people will make bad choices and bring themselves misery.  But it seems to me that the increasing number of choices in our modern society is directly related to the development of modern-day capitalism.

So, let’s consider again:  capitalism is a bad system, but which system is better?  Certainly the 20th century has shown us that the alternatives — Communism, fascism, authoritarianism, monarchy — do not provide people more freedom.  In fact, the greater economic control over a society, the less freedom for individuals.  And there is a crucial point — no matter how much tyrants try to stamp out capitalist activity, it always exists.  Some of the best capitalists in the world are free marketeers in Cuba, who make money on the margins of the Communist system.

Now, you can argue, as most modern-day academics do, that the American system of capitalism is clearly inferior to the Western European brand, where governments take more money from the rich and distribute it more freely to the poor.  But the primary problem with this argument is that you are not arguing against capitalism — which still exists even in Western Europe — you are arguing about what form capitalism should take.  Personally, I would choose the freedom of America over the government control of Europe any day, but the point is that the Western European system is still a capitalist system.

The only alternative we can imagine is a modern-day Zion in which people live together in harmony, sharing their goods and making sure there are no poor.  Personally, I believe the Millennium will be like this, and I look forward to it.  But, over time, human beings have tried various versions of modern-day Zion, and none of them has worked.

I would also like to add that I have no problem with Bushman pointing out the problems of consumerism and workaholism, which are definitely byproducts of our modern-day capitalist society.  But it is worth emphasizing that modern-day prophets remind us of this all the time.  Yes, we should avoid getting in debt and buying too much stuff, and we should spend more time with our families, but we should also be nice to our spouses, perform our callings and go to the temple.  Such reminders are basic common sense.  I’d bet that in Zion there will be all kinds of people who spend too much time in meetings when they should be with their families — such problems seem to be universal and part of human nature.  Does Bushman think that Communist party leaders in the Soviet Union were not focused on consumer goods and didn’t spend too much time away from their families?

Bushman makes a few more claims that bear examining.  The first is that capitalism reduces receptivity to the gospel.  And, again, compared to what?  The gospel has been much more successful in the capitalist United States than in, for example, the Communist Soviet Union or in fascist Italy or Germany.  In fact, I think we can make a strong argument that capitalism has directly increased receptivity to the gospel in the vast majority of countries.  Where is the gospel most successful today?  Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Central America, West Africa, the Philippines.  In all of these cases, the success of the gospel has been directly linked to an increase in political openness which has also allowed greater economic freedom.  Brazil during the 1970s was a military dictatorship and a corporatist state economically.  Now it has a much more open political system and a much more open economy.  This freedom has brought Brazilians to the gospel in droves.  This is the case in all of the places where the gospel has been most successful.

Bushman’s claim that capitalism is godless shows no practical experience in the modern-day world.  In fact, to cite the above countries, there is a direct relationship between joining the Church and becoming more successful economically.  As adherents join the Church, they stop smoking and drinking and fooling around.  They save more money and work harder.  They can send their kids to college and maybe even go back to school themselves.  The entire Mormon infrastructure encourages such behavior because of our teaching that members should better themselves.  In my experience, such encouragement cements people to the Church because they see the Church as a key contributor to their climbing out of the ghetto.  So, the capitalist system has made them more spiritual and more loyal to the Church — not less so.

There is no doubt that many people substitute worldly success for spiritual success as they become more prosperous.  Every person reading this post knows somebody who has made decisions to abandon the gospel for worldly prizes — either fame or fortune.  But, again, it is not the system that is the problem — in what system currently existing would people NOT make such choices? — it is the nature of free will.

So, to sum up, Bushman is a great writer and a great Mormon academic hero.  But this essay shows a common problem among many mormon academics:  they seem to believe that capitalism is a bad thing, but they fail to answer the question, “compared to what?”  And when you start doing the real-world comparisons, you are left with the inevitable answer that capitalism is the least worst system available to us — until Zion can be achieved.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

55 thoughts on “The persistent Mormon academic criticism of ‘capitalism’

  1. I enjoyed your article.

    Personally, I would choose the freedom of America over the government control of Europe any day…

    America’s economic freedom subject to suspension in cases such as Amtrack, GM, Chrysler, etc…

    The capitalism that so many criticize today is not capitalism. It is government-enabled corporatism and government-created monopolies, both of which are subsets of fascism (the marriage of government and business).

    …capitalism is the least worst system available to us — until Zion can be achieved.

    I argue in this post that consecration (our covenanted goal) can only be implemented fully/effectively under a secular economic system of capitalism. Only capitalism affords the freedom and agency necessary to voluntarily choose to consecrate one’s life and earnings.

  2. There was a TV show some years ago that started off with (I am paraphrasing) “Democracy is the worst form of govt., except for all the others.”

    It isn’t the economic system that is particularly at fault (should we be so lucky) – it is the people. If we are not righteous as a nation, we can not be free and the best economic system will not a kind to us.

  3. Captalism is bad, when we forget that there are people invovled and become selfish. Making a profit is not a bad thing, as long as it’s done honestly. And there are many honest people who participate in the capitalist system every day. The problem with communial living, is that people have a hard time overcomeing those selfish desires that all of us have, and eventually it fails. That’s why I think Zion will work, we will have our hearts in the right places and will be willing to go with out or to give to others so that there is ‘no poor among us’. However that said, capitalism allows people to be self reliant and generous with their means, more so than a command economy. And the heads of those fallen command economies, kept back the best for themselves, all in the sake of “the people” or the community, or what have you.

  4. Brian, you sound surprised. 🙂

    Connor I agree with your points. I think we need to be clear that the economic system we have in the United States falls far, far short of a truly free-market system. Such a system has probably never existed and probably never will, but there has been government intervention in the economy in one way or another ever since the founding. Your second point is extremely important for statists and anti-capitalists to understand: Jesus asks us to help the poor, but he asks us to help the poor voluntarily. If you are forced through high taxes to “help the poor” it takes away from agency and separates you from the service involved in volunteering. Local giving is clearly the most efficient and charitable system for helping the poor, which is why we are asked to pay fast offerings for distribution to the poor on a local level rather than a church-wide level. One final point: if you want to see what the scriptures say about taxation, do a search on “taxes” some day. There are no positive references to taxes in the scriptures — every reference is negative because it inevitably involves taking money away from people in the least efficient and corrupt way possible.

  5. It is easy to criticize the status quo, when no alternative is presented. Do we have a historical record of any large scale economy that was more free, and indeed where wealth and prosperity were more evenly distributed than in contemporary capitalist societies.

    No one is stopping anyone from forming voluntary United Orders or comparable organizations. Real world capitalism has rough edges – so use your voluntary United Order to fix it. Experience has shown that full blown compulsory state socialism, i.e. where everything is centralized and socialized by force of law, isn’t exactly the highway to health and prosperity, due to free rider and a number of other problems. An organization with voluntary participation might, but it is highly likely that for a number of reasons such a society would closely resemble contemporary capitalism in a number of respects. Ask the Chinese.

    For example, in a society run by the government, how does anyone know how much anything should cost? Who decides that this enterprise is a failure and should be shutdown in favor of this one. Widget manufacturer A wants to produce a continuous supply of widgets, at a minimum to keep everyone employed. What if no one wants to buy those widgets, or not enough of them to pay all the employees?

    Do we keep paying everybody to produce products and service that while of some perceived value, few really want enough to pay for? I would like to be paid to do such and such for a living. What if no one wants it? Should the government / United Order, whatever keep paying me? Assign me to a new job? What if the social need is for tedious jobs that no one wants to do? Do we pay them more, or conscript them?

    Until a critic answers these basic questions, and is willing to put his own livelihood on the line, I would say a generic complaint like “capitalism is bad (and should be replaced with something better)” is a bunch of hot air.

  6. Good thing I have limited access to the internet this week. I now have more reason to love Bushman. You all have a good week.

  7. 4th Nephi 1:3
    And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor…
    It was reality at some point, at least if you take these scriptures literally (and granted, I don’t always take scriptures literally, so I don’t expect everyone else to take 4th Nephi literally).

  8. Chris H, I look forward to you joining the discussion. I hope you can focus on the actual arguments in the post better than TT did.

    Tim, I’m not sure what your argument is. There are at least three times in the scriptures that I can think of that describe Zion-like settings. One for Enoch, one for the Nephites as you describe and one in the New Testament. Everybody owned everything in common and there were no poor. In addition, I can think of literally dozens of times in actual human history when human beings have tried to set up Zion-like settings. The Pilgrims tried to do it, the Amish still try to do it, the Shakers tried to do it, and the Saints tried in several different ways during the 19th century.

    The point is that none of these systems lasted and are not possible today because of human nature. So, given this unfortunate history, what are we left with? Capitalism is the least worst system until we can get Zion set up again sometime in the future.

  9. Good point, although I’m not sure how many LDS academics are really anti-capitalist. I know just enough politics and economics to be dangerous. But many of the criticisms just seem so vague and muddled so as to never be clear to me what they are actually saying. For instance Bushman’s quote about mutual loyalty seems odd as certainly capitalism doesn’t deny that. It just doesn’t require it.

  10. Clark, first I would agree with you that the Mormon academic hatred of capitalism is probably not the dominant feeling among Mormon academics. But it certainly cannot be ignored as a fringe ideology when you have people like Nibley and Bushman (probably the single two most prominent Mormon academics of the last 30 years or so) espousing such ideas.

    I think such fuzzy logic comes about for several reasons. The first is that the Book of Mormon clearly and repeatedly denounces pride coming from money, so many people believe the Book of Mormon is denouncing money in general. Many academics make the mistake of saying, “well, if money is bad, then capitalism must be bad.” But the Book of Mormon also clearly shows that healthy, happy Zion-like societies are fleeting things and difficult to sustain.

    Hatred of capitalism is a worthwhile point in theory but not very worthwhile in practice. Somebody has to pay academics, and it turns out that academics, especially in the Ivy League, are very dependent on capitalism. All those evil investment bankers are the ones who build Colombia’s endowment, and it is another cabal of evil capitalists who pay the exhorbitant tuition.

    But denouncing capitalism (even though it is the system that sustains you) is very politically correct these days, and makes academics feel better about themselves. Thus, you get claims like the above.

  11. Unacademic defense of capitalism =
    1) Invent a mythological pre-capitalistic system
    2) Wrench a quote out of context that implies that Jesus loves capitalism
    3) Insist that capitalism belongs to “nature”
    4) Invoke the USSR as the only alternative to capitalism
    5) Claim that the Lord blesses the righteous with wealth
    6) Pretend that there are no alternatives to the increasing concentration of wealth, the abuse of 3rd world populations, the eternalization of harms and the privatization of profit, and the centralization of power.

    I apologize that I don’t really have much to add besides snark since I really have no interest in disputing the mythological ideology of “capitalism,” at least not since I was 17. I will just say that critiques of capitalism are not required to provide “alternatives” as if they are by definition calls for systemic economic change. Rather, critiques of capitalism can point out ideological flaws, such as consumerism, that don’t really require any structural change, but rather a cultural one. In this sense, capitalism isn’t just a “system,” but a set of beliefs about how the world works. Those beliefs may or may not be challenged independently of the system, and when they do require change, like, ‘Hey, corporations shouldn’t really have control over news media outlets because there is an inherent conflict of interest,” doesn’t mean that one is advocating the October Revolution.

  12. I don’t disagree with what you wrote, but I think you may be misinterpreting their criticism of capitalism. Capitalism has no inherent morality — whatever the market decides is fine. Manipulating the market and anti-competitive business practices (at which Americans are masters, eg. Qualcomm, Microsoft, Intel) are simply an extension of it. Certain parts of capitalism are antithetical to the gospel — primarily the concept that it’s okay for you get something for nothing (interest is actually and example of this).

    Furthermore, capitalism is inherently unstable — it leads to winners and losers, and once the winners get on top, it’s no longer possible to compete with them. (or, it can even lead to bank collapses!)

    Consequently, capitalism is used as PART of a system, not the system itself, and its fundamental instability is damped by anti-trust laws, full-disclosure laws, taxes on estates on the wealthy, public schools, etc..

    The idea that “capitalism” leads to prosperous nations is misguided, IMO. Unfettered, I think it leads to greed and selfishness, and I agree with Bushman. “Capitalism” combined with morality, fair play, full disclosure, honest work ethic, mutual responsibility, etc., now THAT leads to prosperity for everybody. Instead, we have to settle for government regulations.

    Oh, and government intervention isn’t necessarily bad. You can’t argue that public schools, the freeway system, the internet, and even the space program haven’t contributed to the wealth of our nation.

  13. What TT said represents my sentiments exactly (except he is far more brilliant than I)..

    I would disagree, but that would just be me arguing against the rocks and the Earth…..or something like that. I have always known I was a fool, but at least now I know that I am a fool with Nibley, Bushman, and TT. Not bad.

    The entire body of my blogging and academic work is along the lines of what Bushman has to say (though I am far more radical). Check out my blog. Between this and J. Max, I need a long vacation from M*. I will offer my pearls about the Bushman essay away from the swine.

  14. TT, I will ignore the inevitable snarks.

    However, once you set that aside, I think we are actually not that far apart in this discussion. If Bushman’s article had been the standard-issue liberal/leftist boilerplate that capitalism needs to be reformed in various ways, I probably would have rolled my eyes and ignored it. But that is not what he says. He makes a much more fuzzy and illogical assault on the entire system without offering an alternative. So, if you want to say that the U.S. system should be like Sweden’s that is one argument that I would disagree with but would probably ignore. But if you want to make the argument that the entire capitalist system per se is against the gospel (and, by the way, Nibley makes similar arguments — just read “Approaching Zion”) without offering an alternative then it seems to me such ideas need to be smacked down as just plain silly. That is the main point of this post.

    Martin, you are making the same mistake as TT above. I am not arguing for unfettered capitalism. Personally, I think the FTC is a pretty good idea, and some anti-monopoly laws are a good idea, and I probably would even agree that Social Security has been a success for the most part. And I think that any good business school should include classes on business ethics, and I would encourage businesspeople to be ethical. Again, if Bushman had argued for these things, no problem. But he is attacking an entire system without offering an alternative.

  15. Martin, I have to take issue strongly with one point you made because it is clearly ahistorical. That is: “once the winners get on top, it’s no longer possible to compete with them. ” Funny, that’s what people used to say about General Motors. Ever hear of Wang Computers? There was a brief time when they were on top, and now they don’t even exist after going bankrupt in the early 1990s. The beauty of capitalism is that it is exactly the opposite of what you claim — winners are never safe, competition always promotes innovation and advancement. It is when capitalism is controlled by the government that you get systems that limit competition.

  16. Your apparently stylistic concern with the fact that Bushman poses a question without furnishing an answer has nothing to do with the merits of either market capitalism or any of its critics, including Bushman.

    Your assertion that Adam and Seth practiced capitalism, rooted in your ability to imagine them doing it, is a bit silly, but far from persuasive. I could just as easily imagine Enoch’s followers founding Zion by collectively seizing control of the means of industrial production, installing a dictatorship of the proletariat, overthrowing the capitalist class, and ushering in a communist utopia. Doesn’t mean it actually happened that way, though.

  17. Brad, gotta disagree. If you re-read Bushman article, he is a bit uncomfortable with what he is saying because he acknowledges he has made a criticism without offering an alternative. He seems to recognize the central flaw of his argument, but his ideology blinds him.

    The assertion that Adam and Seth practiced capitalism is impossible to prove. However, archeology has proven that early human traded with each other on a most basic level. If you want to insert “early humans” rather than Adam and Seth, knock yourself out.

  18. Right, because (so silly, I forgot this part) the circulation of produced goods = capitalism. I guess that’s not a stretch for someone who also analogizes it with “air” and “nature.”

  19. Geoff B, capitalism’s fetters are what allows the winners to be challenged, not capitalism itself. I maintain that in unfettered capitalism, the true winners cannot be deposed by upstarts. Go ahead, try and depose Ticketmaster why don’t you. Look at what Microsoft, Intel, and Qualcomm have done to maintain their dominance.

    Laws are required to keep the market free. When the USSR fell, there was rampant de-socialization and after a free-for-all, power was consolidated into the hands of a few. Eventually Putin mastered the oligarchs, and the experiment with unfettered capitalism is over. The system of law and justice was absent.

  20. Brad, I don’t think I recall you commenting a lot on M* in the past. One of the things we try to do here (and we don’t always succeed, but we try) is to engage people in respectful conversations in a respectful way. I would ask you with all possible kindness to follow those rules on this blog. I have expressed ideas that you find silly. Fine. You can be snarky about it, you can ignore it or you can make substantive arguments. If you would like me to explain my reasoning again, I’d be more than happy. But your tone of commenting does not promote true dialogue. Thanks for understanding.

  21. And, by the way, I’m far from asserting that capitalism cannot be defended. It should be defended for what it is, not as some mythic, universal, magically undefined, undefinable, ineffable, eternal essence of freedom and goodness.

  22. Martin, I’ll bet you Laban’s sword that Microsoft and Intel’s and Qualcomm’s dominance will be on the wane in one way or another in the next two decades. Qualcomm is already having problems because cell companies are dropping CDMA technology left and right. Microsoft is being challenged by Google and by Apple in a lot of unexpected ways. Who knows what new technology will come along to challenge Intel.

  23. Geoff,
    I think that some of the reason that people are uncomfortable with your post is that you attack one of the most decorated Mormon academics with a bunch of pretty weak arguments that seem to demonstrate a relatively weak understanding of capitalism and its critiques, and also suggest that Bushman is “blinded by his ideology”! Is the ideology that you Bushman is blinded by called non-alternativism?

  24. Geoff,
    I know you personally value civil exchange, and you are yourself a model example of it (much, much better than myself). But we both know that you permit disrespectful comments all the time, provided they articulate a conservative position, and that you block (or permit others, even guests, to block) perfectly respectful and civil comments simply for articulating disagreement with the thrust of the post. Be that as it may, I was out of line with my level of snarkiness, andI will try to play nice when I comment here.

    I offer two quick starting points as a substantive critique of the position you have outlined here:

    1) Capitalism is about labor, the commodification, purchase, and selling of labor power. It is not merely about trade, markets, money, the exchange of commodities, etc. You can read Smith, Locke, Marx, or Althusser on this.

    2) Without presuming to speak for him in all things, I can assure you with absolute certainty the Richard Bushman does not believe that the Soviet Union was fairer, freer, or more democratic than the capitalist west.

  25. I think my problem is that I’m never quite sure what is being attacked when people make vague attacks on capitalism. It’s so vague and equivocal that I’m never even sure if I agree.

    For one, I tend to think Bushman is portraying a fantasy of what economics in the 19th century was like. While there were some “successful” equality communities (like Orderville) they tended to be equal in that no one had much of anything. Yet Brigham Young lived quite comfortably in a very large house while most Saints lived nothing like that. Ditto Nauvoo and many other eras. Were there cooperatives? Certainly. I’m not at all clear how a freely entered into cooperative is somehow opposed to capitalism. Now it’s true Bushman portrays capitalism as a few rich controlling most things and employing everyone else. (As opposed to a system with a few powerful who then direct everyone else like the de facto theocracy in Utah at the time) The only problem is that cooperatives are a manifestation within capitalism. There’s nothing anti-capitalist about the credit union down the street that I can see nor is there anything within capitalism that suggests the caricature of a few ultra wealthy controlling everything ought be done.

    The problem is that there isn’t one capitalism unless one qualifies ones language a great deal. Of course there are more technical senses, but I never quite get the impression in Nibley or here that they are speaking technically.

    On his point about capitalism and missionary work it just strikes me as odd. It seems to me that the phenomena he outlines is people are more receptive during social upheaven not that it ends with capitalism. I’m not saying one couldn’t make the argument but certainly he hasn’t really done so. I think all missionaries recognize that people experiencing periods of stress are more receptive to the missionaries. When things are stable and people are comfortable they aren’t.

    I also think he’s wrong on his “capitalism is godless.” That’s about as meaningful as saying “feedom is godless.” The fact is that under capitalism people are free to value what they will. Making lots of money need not be the highest good in a capitalist society. As to capitalism being indifferent to religion, I’m sure Mel Gibson who made nearly a billion dollars for his movie of Christ along with the Christian music market would disagree.

    As to consumerism that can be quite bad, but I don’t see it as an inevitable feature of capitalism. More a problem of our media obsessed culture.

    It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to some of the directions Bushman is headed. It just seems to me that he’s arguing simultaneously at too high a level without making and real criticism. One can make good philosophical criticisms here. (Say Heidegger’s critique of technology) I think the problem is that people fixate on the vague category of capitalism. Were the to be more targets I think the arguments would work much better.

  26. I maintain that in unfettered capitalism, the true winners cannot be deposed by upstarts. Go ahead, try and depose Ticketmaster why don’t you. Look at what Microsoft, Intel, and Qualcomm have done to maintain their dominance.

    There is no unfettered capitalism. Heck, by most standards of “economic freedom” (admittedly subjective) many so-called socialist countries in Europe are far more free (and thus “capitalist”) than the United States.

    But as others noted your examples are just bad. Ticketmaster faces competition from the sports teams themselves many of whom have aligned themselves with stub hub. I was listening to a show on NPR this week that noted eBay and related “scalping” actually is estimated to make as much money as ticketmaster. That is if concert tickets make $500,000 there is a after market that generates the same revenue. It’s a 1:1 mix. Ticketmaster is attempting to fight back by not giving tickets until the day of the show and requiring picture ID ala plane tickets but concerts doing this (Miley Cyprus) apparently aren’t selling well.

    Microsoft is actually having its cake eaten by Apple right now. Apple used to be the dominant figure in PCs until IBM/Microsoft came around and then Microsoft did in IBM which is only a pale shadow of what it used to be. Look at the major players in the early 70’s and most are out of business. Apple is becoming dominant right now but are making big mistakes opening themselves up to competitors.

    Qualcomm is in trouble, as others noted.

    Intel’s doing quite well although they came close to losing their spot about 6 years ago. They were lucky to come back the way they did. And on various platforms, such as cell phones and related devices, they are an also ran.

    Things are much more dynamic than you suggest.

  27. Brad, you may be interested to learn that, to my knowledge, M* has only ever banned one commenter, and that commenter was a right-wing commenter who was banned for consistent nastiness. We have placed another left-wing commenter’s comments in moderation (for consistent rudeness) but he has not been banned. I have personally warned “conservative” commenters probably 20 separate times on separate posts to tone down the rudeness or their comments will be deleted. I cannot answer for other M* bloggers because they are responsible for their own posts, but I can say that rudeness in general is certainly discouraged.

    As for your 1) that is your definition of capitalism and it is probably where Bushman is heading. My point is that capitalism (meaning the trading of goods for one’s labor) by my definition for the purposes of this post has always existed and always will. Capitalism is simply the way things work — it is the building block of economics. Regarding your 2) I never claim that Bushman believes the USSR was fairer, freer or more democratic than the capitalist west. He never says what his alternative would be, however, so it’s hard to know what he thinks would be better in the real world.

    TT, based on the responses to this post, more people seem to be comfortable with this post than uncomfortable with it.

    Clark, as always, you say it better than I did.

  28. You’re defining capitalism in such a way that it is impervious to critique. You might as well just say that capitalism is sexual reproduction, or metabolism, or freedom, or truth, or communication, or consciousness, or language. If you define it as everything, then it is impossible to negate or suggest an alternative for. But capitalism does entail a break from economies past, and its most brilliant theorists, proponents (like Smith and Locke) and critics (Marx) agree on a fundamental definition. Economic relations are different now than they were before capitalism. You can choose your own personal alternate definition, but you then lose the ability to reasonably argue against those who critique something other than the idea you have in your head.

  29. Brad, that’s kind of my problem. “Capitalism” as a term of criticism in these sorts of debates isn’t useful. (IMO)

    Pick a different term. Be particular in the criticisms. The problem is that either capitalism of the sort attacked never existed or else capitalism is so broad as to withstand the charge.

    At to your final point, what’s a good Brad? What counts as trade? You’re almost trying to define socialism as being exactly like capitalism but without any intermediary – including promises. That’s not going to work either I think.

  30. I’m not defining socialism as being exactly like capitalism; I’m saying that Geoff is. I’ve given a very basic and specific definition, one shared by Smith, Ricard, Marx, et al. One that Geoff rejects in favor of capitalism = exchange, or something.

  31. Brad,

    Geoff just defined capitalism as the basis of economics. You are therefore not allowed to disagree. Remember, to disagree with capitalism (or in this case to disagree with any argument for capitalism) is to rail against the rocks, the wind, and the earth. Why do people like you and Bushman hate both freedom and the truth?

  32. Re: 4 Nephi. I don’t think we can easily classify that economy as “large scale”, nor classify it as one we have a historical record about. We know next to nothing about what went on. We have much better modern precedents.

    I think the most amusing thing about Bushman’s article is the injunction to “resist capitalism”. By blowing up bridges? No, by negotiating better working hours. I am not sure the latter is anti-capitalistic by any reasonable definition.

    In general, blaming capitalism for all the ills of society makes about as much sense as blaming everything on an anonymous “they”. The devil made them do it, I tell you.

  33. The lack of details in 4th Nephi is frustrating. My impression is that the system was successful for a time. In any case, the no rich/no poor thing seemed to be a positive thing for them. I’d argue that a society like that in Europe (still rich and poor, but not as rich or as poor as in the US) is a better system.

  34. Brad, there is no record that Smith or Ricardo ever used the term “capitalism,” which really didn’t enter into popular usage until Smith was long dead. Marx’s use of the term capitalism was primarily negative, as I’m sure you know. Modern-day conservatives have adopted the word capitalism (some would say co-opted) to mean “free market economics based on the universal realities of free trade and interchange of goods and labor.” Forbes, for example, calls itself a “capitalist tool.”

    My point about the building blocks of modern-day capitalism (which I think I explain pretty well above) is that the rules of modern-day capitalism are built on the rules of trade that have always existed. People exchange things of value with each other for mutual advantage. Smith and Ricardo also discuss these concepts at length — Smith goes so far as to say there is an “invisible hand” guiding trade (wow, what a myth — an invisible hand!).

    Bushman defines capitalism as an economic system in contrast to communalism. He seems to favor owners and labor voluntarily entering into contracts based on “mutual loyalty.” This is a wonderful desire in theory but as I have said repeatedly does not work in practice.

    As Smith and Ricardo and economists all the way up to Friedman in the modern day have pointed out, in the real world people enter into these contracts based on mutual advantage. I agree to work for you because you’re willing to pay me $10 an hour. I get money to pay the rent. You get labor. We both win. Bushman’s scheme, as far as I can understand it, is similar to what we get at Church — ie, I will help you move into your house on Saturday morning because I am part of the community and you are part of the community, and it’s the right thing to do. I will help you rebuild your roof after a tornado because we are both part of the community. Personally, I love this about the Church, and I look forward to such a system on a national or even worldwide scale someday, but that day is not today.

  35. Brad is right, we are dealing with different definitions here.

    When conservative people talk about capitalism today, they usually make no distinction between capitalism, the free market, and freedom in general. I used to not get criticism of The Market. In my mind, the market was simply the aggregate of peoples’ choices, and complaining about it was like complaining about the mirror because you don’t like the way it makes your face look. For righties, capitalism = freedom to acquire, hold, and dispose of property as one sees fit. What could be more basic than that? That working definition is fine as far as it goes, but it fails to recognize that as recently as 50 years ago, and especially 75 and 100 years ago, capitalism meant something else. And the something else is what Bushman and probably other people have in mind, and consequently we have a lot of misunderstanding.

    One good place to start is with the concept of usery. Conservative people honor what they call traditional Christian values, but the idea of charging interest is a relatively new development and has been almost universally frowned upon within the Christian tradition. Where would our concept of capitalism be without the time value of money?

  36. Yes, Geoff. Capitalism is a term Marx coined — to describe the modern economic system as articulated by Ricardo, Smith, Locke, et al. He meant the term to be primarily descriptive, though he did not hide his dissatisfaction with the system. Capital-ism, because its defining feature was a new kind of power — capital, made possible because of the commodification of labor power. Capital is an accumulation of labor power, congealed into privately property held by a capitalist, all made possible by the fact that the worker earns less for his labor than the exchange value of the commodities his labor produces (which he does not own, but is owned by the individual or entity that purchased his labor). The value of human labor is captured in capital. For Marx, the ethical problem with capitalism was not inequality or rich and poor or exploitation or working conditions. It is alienation. When labor is alienable, man is sundered from the work of his own hands. In Marx’s rendering, the laborer becomes alienated from his work, the products of his work, nature, his fellow men, and himself.

    Marx’s solution, acknowledging as he did that the the entire framework of industrialized capitalism depended for its existence on the modern state, was to reconcile human beings to the essence of their own productive and creative being by using the coercive power of the state to return to workers control over the means of production, over the products of their labor. He advocated a spontaneous, worker instigated revolution, the culmination of which would be the dissolution of the state. In short, a revolution which, to date, has never taken place. Stalinism or Maoism are no more evidence against Marx’s critique of capitalism than the crusades are evidence against Christianity. Capitalism is not simply exchange or trade or freedom (reduced, under capitalism, to the freedom to sell one’s labor at market value) — those things all existed under pre-capitalist social formations and exist in socialist economies.

  37. Christian lenders and borrowers used various subterfuges (accounting tricks, mostly) to get around the prohibition of usury at least seven centuries ago.

    Money doesn’t have a time value, really. What is really going on is that people have time preference for consumption of resources. People who want to retire someday, for example, prefer to consume a certain portion of their income far in the future. Others, businesses and small families especially, need resources to expand their operations in the here and now.

    The real interest rate is simply the market rate for this time preference. Since most people, on average, need and prefer to expend most of their income in the here and now, net borrowers pay a premium to them to get them to delay it until future years. This is the sort of thing you can hide, but not eliminate.

    Suppose the local United Order wants to build a new warehouse. In real terms, this requires the members of the order to reduce or delay other expenditures. Less food on the table in the short run, for example. Why in the world would they ever want to build a warehouse today instead of fifteen years from now unless it was worth more to them now instead of then?

  38. Chris H. :


    Geoff just defined capitalism as the basis of economics. You are therefore not allowed to disagree. Remember, to disagree with capitalism (or in this case to disagree with any argument for capitalism) is to rail against the rocks, the wind, and the earth. Why do people like you and Bushman hate both freedom and the truth?

    We have finally gotten through to you, Chris!! 😉

  39. Mark, that’s sort of my point. However in my experience even people spouting neo-Marxist are unclear what exactly they are attacking when they attack “capitalism.” Thus my concern that it would simply be useful to get rid of the term in these discussions. It’s a term that confuses more than it enlightens.

    Brad, I actually am pretty sympathetic to the alienation critique of things. The problem I have with most critiques is that it privileges certain kinds of labor from others. Thus the labor of middlemen is devalue or outright denies while the labor or assemblers is privileged. And I think we can see that even in your comments.

    That’s partially why I suggested earlier on that perhaps there are better philosophical ways to make the case. (I suggested Heidegger’s account of technology, for instance)

  40. This idea of surplus value of labor is misleading, and reason number one is risk. A passive investor in any real enterprise is running the risk that he will lose all or part of his investment. So the operators of a new, labor employing enterprise are willing to pay a risk premium to account for that risk.

    The “risk free” interest rate is rarely far above the the rate of inflation. Checked the rates on (federally guaranteed) savings accounts at your local credit union lately?

    The real problem here is that a relatively small number of people have an unusually high level of business ability, the market rate for their abilities is high, they are rewarded accordingly, and they (and their children), even after near punitive levels of taxation, accumulate wealth far beyond the average.

    There are no doubt market inefficiencies (many of them created by the government) that distort this process in favor of certain well placed actors, but otherwise about the only realistic option is to persuade those with such abilities to freely share their surplus with others, law of consecration style.

    Price (salary) controls are ineffective for various reasons, so we already have a highly progressive taxation system to discourage this sort of thing.

  41. Clark,
    There are no middlemen whose alienated labor can be devalued prior to the alienation of raw productive labor. The middle class — Marx’s bourgeoisie — is a product of well-developed capitalism capitalism, not a precursor to it. They cannot exist (and never have existed) without the alienation of proletarian labor. Indeed, they are defined by their relationship to surplus labor power, captured in the form of capital.

  42. I don’t understand the temporal issue you are interjecting with “before.” Surely if I buy, transport goods, and then sell them I am laboring. Now the goods have to first be produced, it’s true. But so what? It’s not clear upon what justification their labor doesn’t matter. Further in what sense is the alienation occuring? If I buy beans (as I do) from a farmer and then pay someone to ship it to me, exactly why is the farmer alienated whereas the people driving the trucks, loading the boats, and so forth not alienated? And why are my employees alienated (which you’d argue) since they are part of the production of the chocolate but come temporally after the middlemen.

  43. I read an article which claimed self-identified conservatives contribute four times as much to charity as do self-identified liberals. Which group has the greater empathy, and self-sacrifice?

    Why do those who advocate greater government control believe they are so much more empathetic? Has anyone looked at Obama and Biden’s charitable contributions?

  44. Capitalism always contains the seeds of its own destruction.

    The system is based on the premise of continued success of those who are successful in competition with others.

    The problem is that once a particular entity becomes successful enough – and therefore powerful enough – it will immediately translate that power into the means of rigging the game to ensure its continued success. Thus an initially successful player can cement its own position. After that, it doesn’t matter if the player continues to be successful or not – because the game-rigging ensures continued dominance over other players.

    Thus capitalism is always in a process of destroying itself.

  45. The comments in this thread illustrate a grave failure of our educational system. Woe is us.

  46. Bookslinger, I’ll admit that some of this coincides with a large gap in my education.

    It seems to me that one thing Marx and I agree upon is that a person working as a cog in an industrialized economy has been swallowed up in something larger than himself, such that there is real risk of losing a bit of humanity. This is why I don’t have a problem with using robots to build things like cars. People should not be treated like robots, because they are so much more than their car-building ability. Not to mention robots are awesome.

    Another thing lost when one becomes simply a cog equivalent is self-reliance, which is making a big comeback these days, mostly for green reasons. But the satisfaction that comes from eating food grown in one’s own backyard is lost to the factory worker who has income and time only for TV dinners.

    That said, I don’t seem to agree with Marx’s suggestions, e.g. I think the Labor Theory of Value is rubbish, for reasons Mark D. suggested above. In addition, self-reliance and that je-ne-sais-quoi bit of humanity seem to be given up still when a proletariat-based dictatorship is established, so is it worth what is gained?

    I welcome further education on this subject, especially if I’m totally off on something.

  47. I think we also need to note that Bushman states the following: “There are strong reasons for embracing all three; the benefits of science, democracy, and capitalism are widely known. Are there also reasons for holding back our endorsement and of questioning their premises and functions?” There are benefits and reasons for embracing capitalism. But I think he’s saying that there is something better.

    Many LDS academics realize that the “something better” will be a Zion-based society that will be different than the capitalism of Ayn Rand. There is a mutualism to it, as Bushman seeks, where everyone will seek the welfare of his neighbor (D&C 82).

    Can that happen with capitalism? It can, but only with a Zion people. Otherwise, we end up with people who seek to consume their wealth upon their own lusts, and leads to a greater evil. That is part and parcel of why we’re experiencing the current economic crisis: people focused so much on greed and a quick return on their capitalist goods, that they let their brains fall out of their heads.

  48. One other note: capitalism is NOT equal to freedom. It is considered a requirement in order to have a free society (as we now know it), but in and of itself does not equate to freedom.
    China practices a form of capitalism as we speak, and I highly doubt anyone would consider them free.

  49. Personally, I think it is the academic world which most militates against the gospel. Where is there most derision of religion? In the academic world. Where do people think that they are learned, and therefore wise?
    The academic world. Where do we have least success in winning new converts? Amongst PhD’s. Where is the infighting nasty, brutish and long? In the academic world.

    I would not think of using those arguments to condemn the pursuit of knowledge. But people who live in glass houses…

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