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Overcoming Agrarian Objections to Capitalism

The South, garden of the agrarian critique of capitalism, seems to have found a way to synthesize that criticism into a strong cultural support for capitalism today, as Barton Swaim explains in The New Criterion this week. I thought his article helpful for young adults, like me, who do not like the moral excesses accompanying capitalism any more than we like the moral excesses of any alternative.
The Southern intellectuals had a point in their objections to “capitalism.” The dangers they saw were not products of some “ism” but merely of prosperity. It’s material wealth itself, not the societal arrangement that enables its creation, that eventually undermines traditional social relations. If there had to be a Southern critique of American culture, this should have been it: that once a people begins to ignore all goals but the attainment of prosperity, it ensures its own decline. To the extent that prosperity encourages one to understand other human beings as mere instruments, interesting only insofar as they can gratify one’s material longings, it encourages a moral outlook not much different from that of a slave trader.
Since we are all sinners, there’s no way we can separate sin from any economic system, or assume any economic system—capitalism, socialism, communism or what have you—can save us. Only Christ can. This is, of course, the 500-pound gorilla that economic critics, like the Occupy Wall Street protestors, almost constantly ignore. (Why, then, you say—thank goodness for Values and Capitalism!) The question then becomes, as I feel like I’m always repeating: What systems and structures are most likely to curb and redirect sin—not eliminate it, since we can’t—than to do the opposite? The South, as Swaim explains, has apparently “consensed” (sorry, couldn’t resist) that the answer is capitalism. But that journey has been long and complex, of course, from a society worried that the free-market would destroy tradition and morals to one believing capitalism is “just a highfalutin’ word for political freedom.” The only corrective for every ism’s tendency to focus humans on profit and process rather than other humans, wholeness, and morality is not another ism, or any ism, Swaim writes. It’s for society to liberally salt itself with Christianity. Religion checks man’s inordinate sense of greed as the market or regulation never can.
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