Capitalism and Altruism Are Not Incompatible

A few days ago Jason Kuznicki, provoked by a misguided capitalist prayer, raved against the “monstrous hybrid of Randism and Christianity so often seen on the American right.” Elaborating in comments, he says, “The one is individualist and professes rational self-interest. The other preaches charity and self-sacrifice. Those two don’t go together.”

It seems that Jason’s statements boil down to the belief that capitalism and altruism are incompatible, even though a lot of American Christians seem to try to combine the two. I’m at risk of straw-manning someone I don’t regularly read – I came to the article though an @ATabarrok tweet – but I think it’s a reasonable assessment, especially considering that Alex’s tweet was followed by a retweet of @AynRandBot stating that “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.”

While there are certainly complications and pitfalls, I disagree with the notion that Christian capitalism is a “monstrous hybrid” of cognitive dissonance. I also disagree with the more general idea that capitalism and altruism are incompatible. I do not intend this to be an iconic (or even completely coherent) screed, as I am doubtlessly ignorant on many details, but I do want to make a few points as I mull over this.

At first glance, there does seem to be a contradiction between, as Jason says, “a life of simplicity, humility, poverty, and charity,” and… trying to make a bunch of money. I agree that Christianity is inseparable from selflessness, and also that Christians are often imperfect in their pursuit. Indeed, I could find many ways to quibble with Mr. Murray’s prayer. But I would dispute that the ideal selfless pursuit of Christianity is incompatible with capitalism, because I would dispute that capitalism is inseparable from selfishness.

Any attempt by Objectivists or Objectivist sympathizers to inseparably link the two must at least respond to the much older concept of the “Protestant work ethic.” (There is indeed a comment on Jason’s post that brings this up; as of this writing it remains unanswered.) The history of America in particular is full of Christians who believed in working hard to achieve self-reliance instead of relying on government (I suppose I have to clarify that I’m thinking of, say, blacksmiths and candlestick makers, not plantation owners… Again, I am discussing ideal applications, not woefully imperfect ones).

Statements that capitalism and altruism are incompatible also seem (to me) to completely ignore the rich history of philanthropy. Maybe it’s possible to want to make a lot of money so you can give that money away.

Even if you don’t give that money away, capitalism still doesn’t have to be fueled by selfishness. Capitalists believe that voluntary market transactions make both parties better off. Libertarians like to think about the part where you become better off, but what if you like to think about the part where the other person becomes better off? Most business owners probably think the latter is a bonus byproduct of the former, but who are we to presume how strong of an incentive the latter could be? In a zero-sum world, “giving” and “taking” might be incompatible, but since a voluntary transaction is better for me and you, doesn’t that make it fundamentally possible to simultaneously pursue capitalism (“bettering me”) and altruism (“bettering others”)?

What if you want to help people and you believe the power of markets is one of the best ways to do that? You could make profits by providing what people need, and you could philanthropically donate some of your earnings to voluntarily correct what you see as market failures (see the history of many public libraries). Or you could use a non-profit to loan money to small business owners in third-world countries who would not qualify for loans from more risk-averse banks (see Kiva – what greater example of combining capitalism and altruism can you get!?)

Randian Objectivists and Christian businessmen should be natural allies in the philosophical fight against Big Government. I almost wonder if there’s some mood affiliation by libertarian atheists who identify so strongly with the power of selfishness to fuel capitalism that they see Christianity as a threat to their domain when it attempts to fuel capitalism without it. There are certainly Christians who invite such criticism when they make hypocritical-sounding ego-boosting statements while claiming to follow principles that shun hypocrisy and ego, but that doesn’t mean a more ideal Christianity can’t coexist with self-interested capitalism.

In fact, I think it actually makes it stronger. Capitalism looks its worst when businesses deceive customers to increase their profits. Liberals say we need regulation to fix this; libertarians say the market punishes deceptive business practices as word gets around and they lose all their customers. But when it’s often “rational” to cheat, the Christian “work ethics” of honesty and integrity discourage such deceptive practices even before the market does, which is surely more efficient and better for everyone. In fact, one might even argue that the decline of these ethics has increased the demand for all this government intervention we spend so much time deploring. I believe capitalism and democracy can squeeze the most good and least bad out of completely selfish individuals, but no political or economic system can survive with them alone.

I need to think about and develop this some more, especially that last paragraph, but that’s why I’m spilling these thoughts to see if they can withstand scrutiny or if they should be demolished entirely…

One thought on “Capitalism and Altruism Are Not Incompatible”

  1. I think they can coexist! I work for a charity that proves just that. We give livestock provided from our donors to those in third world countries and we teach them how to use it in such a way that they can run their own business. When there livestock have offspring they give to another family and train them to have their own business. There you have it altruism and capitalism coexisting.

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