Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Getting Greed to Work for the World’s Poor

Hoping to do 5 or 6 posts over the next couple of weeks that will try to paint at least a semi-coherent picture :^) of both the potential and the limitations of capitalism and globalization as poverty fighting tools. I'll take a look at the unique role Christian folks can play too.

My previous posts on economics have always whacked my hit count. Oh well, here we go again :^)

Setting the Table

A couple of observations to set up the series:

• Seems to me that many “progressive” types, especially lots of folks in the progressive Christian community, have got an irrationally negative jones against market capitalism and globalization. And its not just the neo-granola crowd at the WTO rallies—those folks are pretty easy to dismiss as impractical romantics. Lots of otherwise reasonable people who genuinely want practical solutions to world poverty seem to get instinctively hostile when folks promote pro-big business and free trade approaches to ending poverty.

Not hard to figure out why. Capitalism has done a whole lot of damage in a variety of ways. We’ll get to that later. And trashing business and capitalism in pop culture has a long history from Dickens to Wall Street. Post-modernism—the intellectual spirit of the age—was originally created in part to deconstruct capitalism by exposing it as just the latest sophisticated tool to enable the strong to dominate the weak. And quite a few people simply don’t understand economics very well.

Whatever the reasons, though, I’m pretty convinced that the seemingly instinctive ‘progressive’ hostility to market solutions is counterproductive and contributes to keeping lots of people trapped in poverty.

• At the other end of the scale, the American pro-market lobby seems caught up at times in an almost pseudo-religious reverence for capitalism and globalization. I contrast those folks with their more reasonable European counterparts represented by publications like The Economist.

Strangely--to me--Christian conservatives who are serious about reducing poverty seem especially prone to this kind of idealizing of “market forces.” Some of these folks claim to be balanced and to understand the destructive underside of capitalism, but you’d hardly know it from their rhetoric or actions. Their critiques of capitalism are trivial if they make them at all.

The fact that pro-market conservative Christians don’t subject actual, real world capitalism to a prophetic, biblical critique or point out the obvious ways current capitalism contributes to injustice is literally a shame. At times it feels to me these folks are no longer capable of constructive, prophetic critique. At other times they seem aware of the problems and contradictions of real world capitalism but seem to feel the need to balance the knee jerk anti-globalization crowd by being even more extreme in their support of market solutions.

Either way, this kind of largely uncritical support of market approaches does plenty of damage to the poor as well because it allows some of the worst elements of global capitalism to go unchallenged.

• Seems to me the trick to making markets work for the poor is to steer clear of both extremes, to stay as practical as possible, and to focus on how markets actually work in the real world. Understanding economic ideas is important, but understanding actual markets and how they concretely affect the poor is far more significant. The proof of any actual market system is in the improvement of living standards combined with social justice. Or the lack thereof.

• I think Christians can play a unique role by staying out of the ideological wars and offering up a rigorous prophetic critique of real world capitalism and globalization. Right now we’re not doing either very well.


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