Editor's note: This article is the second of a two-part essay, the first part of which was published yesterday.
But Miller offers an additional response to this charge, and this is that critics have missed the point, for this critique "is really aimed at something else: industrialization." He is correct that capitalism and industrialization are not the same thing, and that one can exist without the other, although his attempt to locate the beginnings of capitalism in the 8th century A.D. is more than a bit ludicrous.
In any case, industrialism in itself is not the issue. The issue is who controls it and for what purposes, for any technology, primitive or industrial, can be used to promote the common good or a totalitarian political end or the market-fueled "creative destruction" that Miller favors. When he says that "many of the critiques of modern capitalism...are more precisely critiques of industrialism than of capitalism or the free market per se," Miller is correct only to the extent that the more powerful the technology, the more quickly and widely can the forces of free-market "creative destruction" operate.
But Miller saves what perhaps he considers his best point for the last, and he asserts that,
While capitalism does indeed transform, and even destroy, aspects of traditional cultural life, I would argue that the most destructive forces of cultural transformation especially in the developing world come less from market economies than from the Western, secular, organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the NGO industry, and the U.S. and European governments.
It is undoubtedly difficult to say who is most to blame in these matters, but it is hardly very exculpatory to say that, well, yes, I'm creating a nuisance here, but look at that other guy, he's so much worse than I am. Moreover, is it so far-fetched to think that the attitudes and behaviors that free-market capitalist consumerism promotes are related to a more ready acceptance of "secular ideas of family, motherhood, sexuality, abortion, contraceptive, and forced sterilization"? Miller himself already admitted that "new technologies alter traditional roles of women and men in the house."
Capitalism has been probably the most potent force for cracking open traditional cultures and unleashing selfish and destructive forces that had been partly held in check by cultural norms and institutions and sometimes by authoritarian political regimes. These cultures were hardly perfect and some of them suffered from serious defects, but the way to reform them was not to force an entry at the weak point of human greed, as market economics has done. The fact that so many other ills have followed whenever capitalism has opened up a traditional culture shows that Miller's and Schumpeter's "creative destruction" is more destructive than creative.
Miller next brings up his third criticism of capitalism. He says, "Critics also charge capitalism with promoting radical concepts of autonomy." But, he continues:
While the market does enable people to indulge in a lifestyle marked by the illusion of radical autonomy, the main sources of such thinking and behavior are not market economies, but a number of harder to diagnose intellectual and spiritual crises that plague the west.
These include "things like reductionist radicalism...; a nominalist conception of human freedom; the radical individualism of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau; and radical skepticism...." Certainly all these are serious intellectual errors, but can Miller really not see that free-market capitalism operates precisely by dissociating economic activity from its place in the hierarchy of human social goods and rooting it in those very "radical concepts of autonomy"? Not all of the philosophical errors that he specifies arose in connection with the emergence of a market society (though some of them did), but an economy and society founded on the ethic of free competition are firmly wedded to these and other errors in both the intellectual and moral realms.
Lastly Miller writes: "Perhaps the most powerful critique of capitalism is its relationship to consumerism." And, "The consumerist ethic, with its hyper-sexuality and advertising to young children is especially troubling." What reply does Miller make to this?
But the question...is whether this is the result of the free market per se? There is undoubtedly a relationship between the two, yet consumerism exists in socialist countries as well. There have also been capitalist societies that have not been consumerist and have encouraged high levels of savings and investment.
In order to reply to this it is necessary to make a number of distinctions. First, certainly our political regime could restrain advertising, as was formerly somewhat the case, for example by restraining its "hyper-sexuality and advertising to young children." One might note though, that in general the Acton Institute, with which Miller is associated, has opposed efforts to restrain the freedom of advertisers, even in instances of "hyper-sexuality."
And it is likewise true that not all capitalist countries are marked by an equal degradation of taste and lack of restraint in their advertising. As Miller himself said, and as I agreed, there are different varieties of capitalism, and both legal and cultural norms can do much to restrain the culturally and socially disruptive logic of the free market. But a capitalism severely restrained by legal norms is hardly the type of capitalism that the Acton Institute has historically promoted.
Fundamentally, though, the inherent logic of capitalism has been to reject restraints; to claim for the economy an autonomy from both legal and cultural and even moral norms. That is one of the reasons why free-market capitalism and "hyper-sexuality" go so well together. Explicit sexuality is probably the most potent tool for breaking down any sort of cultural restraints, and capitalists instinctively recognize this. In addition, such a breaking down of cultural restraints is an excellent means to induce people to spend money beyond what is prudent, for a state of sexual excitement can undermine other virtues besides chastity.
In his conclusion Miller summarizes three reasons why capitalism is "an easy scapegoat" for "the actual, but harder-to-diagnose sources of cultural breakdown."
First, he accuses critics of capitalism of "a tendency toward economic determinism," of tending "to appropriate the Marxian view of the economy as the driving force of culture...."
Classical Marxism indeed saw the economy as the determining source of culture, and of course that view is false. Nor would I see "the economy as the driving force of culture." But there is indeed a tendency for capitalism to corrupt the entire culture. This is not "economic determinism," but simply a recognition that the economy is one of the most powerful elements in a culture, and that, given the fallen state of human nature, its logic will work to shape the other elements of a culture in its image, just as other powerful aspects of a culture tend to do. Any society that realized the destructive effects of free-market capitalism would immediately begin to make changes in order that its economy would work in harmony with the culture as a whole.
Miller's second and third points of his summary are really the same, and are that "capitalism often becomes a proxy for a critique of problems that lie deep within modern liberal society" and that it "also acts as a proxy for other issues that would be politically incorrect or at least politically imprudent to address directly."
Undoubtedly capitalism is not the only culprit in the creation of secular modernity, but it has been probably the principal one in spreading widely the false religious, philosophical and political ideals that have shaped modernity. Capitalism, especially in its free-market variety, has been an important means of bringing modernity to the masses, as it were, probably the chief way of making people who never heard of Descartes or Locke or Hume behave in ways consistent with their philosophical tenets.
Miller closes thus:
Capitalism is not perfect. Like democracy, it needs vibrant mediating institutions, rich civil society and a strong religious culture to control its negative effects. But we wouldn't trade democracy for dictatorship. Nor should we trade the market for some bureaucratic utopia.
We need not settle for an economic system with built-in "negative effects." Our choices are not between capitalism and "some bureaucratic utopia." When contrasted with socialism, especially with its Soviet variety, capitalism does indeed seem appealing. But that is a false choice.
Miller mentions distributists at a point in his article, and he is surely aware that the distributist alternative does not involve a "bureaucratic utopia." That is the real debate: to contrast capitalism with its humane and Christian alternatives. Of these distributism is the principal one and lately has experienced a considerable revival.
It is true that no system of government or of economics or of education or of anything will work perfectly in a world tainted by original sin, but the faults of distributism are the faults common to any human enterprise conducted by the sons of Adam. Unlike capitalism, distributism does not rely upon or incite corrupt impulses of our fallen nature to achieve its purposes. There is no need to embrace or accept a system of organizing our economic activity that is inherently flawed. There is an alternative.