Thursday, February 28, 2013

Catholic University professor offers major piece on capitalism and inequality

It is a bit gratuitous to review a long journal article as a “book”, but there is a substantial piece by Jerry Z. Muller in the March/April 2013 issue of “Foreign Affairs” titled “Capitalism and Inequality”, starting on p. 30. The basic link is here
Muller points out that the belligerent attitude of the far right to using taxes to pay for a social safety net can be downright dangerous for stability and sustainability of capitalism.  On the other hand, he believes that the left should relinquish its idea of victimization and by trying to bypass ideals of individual merit. 

Muller points out that in early human history, most immediate needs were met at home outside the market economy, and that the expressive freedom of people was limited by religious or familial (or perhaps feudal) institutions that demanded loyalty of the individual to ensure stability.

A market economy allows individuals to specialize and avoid engagement in activities in which they are weaker and emphasize their strengths.  But this does not happen without the social development that normally must occur in the family.  Muller spends some space tracing how the relationships between family, gender, and the workplace changed over time with technological revolution. 

Muller does not take the role of family as far as he could, instead, toward the end of the essay, talking about the proper perspective on the public safety net and on programs to try to develop human capital, which may be less successful in the future than they used to be.
I do think that social stability does have some relationship to the idea of an individual social contract, the idea that any person should achieve a certain level of functionality in the ability to relate to and help others outside a direct economic interest.  Much of this expectation would relate to taking care of other generations, and that isn’t limited just to the choice to have or not have children.  But any society has, just as a matter of logic, to decide what to do when some members don’t do certain things as well as normally expected.  Value of human life and human rights requires respect for that person’s potential, but it has a “pay if forward” component, in that the person (given some slack) in term becomes more generous to others.  If that ethic is expected of everyone, there is less incentive for corruption in leadership at the top.  Yet, there is also something about character here:  it’s not good if people say, “I can do the right thing only if I think others will”, but that seems how things really work.
Although Muller doesn’t mention gay rights, it’s clear that the gay community can become a target of such discussions, because gay people usually are less likely to have their own children or (perhaps) conform to cultural gender expectations as to how everyone “pitches in”.  There is an issue of freedom, and yet sometimes freedom is used to make (narcissistic)  choices that don’t advance stability and prosperity for others – and then we realize that this problem is already quite familiar in the conventional heterosexual world already.
I can remember, during my own coming of age, a certain almost violent repudiation of the “idea” of capitalism by some members of the far left.  At a personal level, as to the appropriate use of personal expression and choice, the Left can be more moralistic than the Right. 
Muller is s professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.  Perhaps this article is a fitting read on the Pope's last day in power.  

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