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Hobby Lobby and Modern Capitalism

In his latest column, Patrick Deneen argues that Hobby Lobby’s suit against the Federal government is both a little absurd and hypocritical [1]. While the Big Box store is fighting for religious liberty in this particular case, its business practices (price-cutting, the use of overseas manufacturers, the displacement of “traditional communities”), Deneen argues, are immoral:

As Polanyi describes, economic exchange so ordered placed a priority on the main ends of social and religious life—the sustenance of community order and flourishing of families within that order. The understanding of an economy based upon the accumulated calculations of self-maximizing individuals was largely non-existent, and a “market” was understood to be a part of the whole, an actual physical place within that social order, not an autonomous, even theoretical space for the exchange of abstracted utility maximers.

Polanyi describes how the replacement of this economy required concerted and often violent reshaping of the existing life-world, most often by elite economic and State actors disrupting and displacing traditional communities and practices. It also required not only the separation of markets from social and religious contexts, and with that move the “individuation” of people, but their acceptance that their labor and nature were nothing more than commodities subject to price mechanisms, a transformative way of considering people and nature alike in newly utilitarian terms. Yet market liberalism required treating both people and natural resources as these “fictitious commodities,” as material for use in industrial processes, in order to disassociate markets from morals and “re-train” people to think of themselves first and foremost as individuals separate from nature and each other. As Polanyi pithily described this transformation, “laissez-faire was planned.”

In short, it’s not just Hobby Lobby that is immoral, it is modern day capitalism that is immoral. Perhaps I’m misreading that, but I don’t know how else to make sense of “market liberalism required treating both people and natural resources as…material for use in industrial processes.”

I enjoy Patrick’s columns, and maybe he will offer some further comment at some point, but I’m skeptical of this particular argument.

First, it does not follow that we “lose” even if Hobby Lobby wins because it is an immoral agent (if I grant Deneen’s point regarding Hobby Lobby). Lots of evil agents have unwillingly been forces of good in the world. Deneen’s point is that the case will do nothing to curtail Hobby Lobby’s immoral business practices, but that’s not what this case is about, and to suggest that it does not really matter whether Hobby Lobby wins or loses because they will continue their bad practices minimizes the obvious importance of this case for religious freedom in the United States.

Second, is modern day capitalism immoral? Do modern day markets necessarily destroy community, divorce exchange of goods and services from morality, and objectify both workers and buyers? There’s no doubt they can do this, but do they do this without exception? I’m not so sure.

Let me say that I certainly think conservatives should stop viewing markets as inherently good and turning a blind eye to greed cloaked in arguments on the morality of efficiency. That said, I don’t think it requires individuals to objectify others, even if that is a temptation, as I’ve noted elsewhere [2].

change_me

Rather, it seems to me that markets are tools that can be used for both good and evil. Modern day capitalism, for example, has reduced poverty and improved education in the third world (both of which can be the handmaidens of a more moral life), and one could argue that it has, in certain respects, strengthened families through the elimination of child labor, reduced working hours, and so forth. Of course, it can also encourage materialism and cause individuals to think of relationships primarily as a transaction. But I’m not convinced—and perhaps my disagreement is ultimately with Polanyi—that it necessarily does these things.

If it’s not inherently immoral, is modern capitalism worse than what it replaced? It may be true that modern day capitalism, more so than the capitalism of yesteryear, encourages individuals to be “rationally calculating” and to view “economic activity in terms of price…in ways that obscure any connections between what is purchased and its implications for our communities.”

But even here Deneen’s argument seems to require a superficial distinction between modern markets and a folksy capitalism of yore when there was no “separation of markets from social and religious contexts.” When was this time? What was this economy? In Shakespeare’s day, fishmongers were reputed cheats—so much so the word became a euphemism for a pimp. And while some 19th century mom-and-pop stores may have helped bring people together, others were as cutthroat as your 21st century venture capitalist. Of course, it may be more difficult to cut the throats of people you know, but it can also be more tempting when you dislike them. Today’s markets are certainly more anonymous, but also less petty and less likely to be used for personal vindictiveness.

Deneen remarks that no economy is neutral, but that does not mean we need to score each as either “moral” or “immoral.” I think it’s more accurate to say that most market economies are a composite of both good and evil elements that can push agents in one way or another, depending on the tool, the circumstances, and the individual (or corporation of individuals) making the decision.

So how has Hobby Lobby used market capitalism? I don’t know enough to say. I respect their decision to close on Sundays, though Deneen is certainly right that neither this nor the fact that it is owned by a family and plays Christian music makes it either moral or Christian.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Hobby Lobby and Modern Capitalism"

#1 Comment By Devinicus On March 26, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

Deneen is just riffing on Polanyi for the most part. As you seem to have not read Polanyi, you can’t give a terribly useful or informative response to his post. I suggest you digest The Great Transformation, ch. 6, and then start again.

#2 Comment By Micah Mattix On March 26, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Polanyi, which is why I didn’t comment on it in detail here, but from what I remember, he didn’t give any examples that really worked of his pre-modern economy that used exchange to strengthen social bonds, etc. I’m not sure Deneen can either.

#3 Comment By collin On March 26, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

Probably the best way to describe it is markets are amoral as compared to human beings. Markets don’t care if you are a good father or Christian.

However, I would suggest the most competitive nations in the world (Singapore, South Korea, Germany, Japan, US!, etc.) can be described as post-religous societies in which the most successful citizens put off marriage and child until they ~30 years old.

#4 Comment By Jones On March 27, 2014 @ 9:46 am

“First, it does not follow that we “lose” even if Hobby Lobby wins because it is an immoral agent.”

I’m not sure why you think this is the right way to interpret Deneen’s argument. First, he says “I hope Hobby Lobby wins its case,” which seems flatly inconsistent with the way you glossed his point.

Deneen was trying to offer a radical shift in perspective, from this particular skirmish in the culture wars, to the underlying assumptions that structure the whole thing.

Your post, on the other hand, conflates so many different levels of argument its hard to keep track of them.

“Do modern day markets necessarily destroy community, divorce exchange of goods and services from morality, and objectify both workers and buyers? There’s no doubt they can do this, but do they do this without exception? I’m not so sure.”

Ok – then name a country where the introduction of capitalism has not done so. The only places that have survived capitalism with an attractive society have quickly supplemented it with some external moral constraint – most famously through the welfare state. Otherwise capitalism would not have survived.

Your random story about Shakespeare’s fishmongers proves nothing. The fact that greed, or bad people, have existed before capitalism is utterly beside the point. I suspect you are conflating capitalism with commerce. It’s hard even to fill in the logical bridge between cutthroat fishmongers and 21st century global capitalism. I don’t think the two really have anything to do with each other. If the point is that greed, and indeed evil, are universals in human history, I think Deneen would happily concede the point, while observing that it does virtually nothing to support an argument about political economy except to rule out radical Marxism.

#5 Comment By WorldWideProfessor On March 27, 2014 @ 10:44 am

Modern day capitalism, for example, has reduced poverty and improved education in the third world (both of which can be the handmaidens of a more moral life), and one could argue that it has, in certain respects, strengthened families through the elimination of child labor, reduced working hours, and so forth.

Ohmygosh. The elimination of child labor? Reduced working hours? You think these were the work of capitalists? That sound you hear is the progressives and labor leaders of yesteryear screaming from the Great Beyond. They were the authors of those reforms, which they brought about by fighting the capitalists. The capitalists were the guys profiting from child labor and summoning troops to break up workers’ demos calling for a 10-hour day.

#6 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 27, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

I was going to use strident phrasing similar to the good WorldWideProfessor above, but he beat me to it.

I will suggest, in a neutral tone, that the question is falsely phrased. The question should be — in my clearly not humble opinion — how the procedural entity of commerce fit into the cultural and social functional processes.

Be it captitalism, communism, whether commerce was conducted via barter or a medium of exchange, it’s all irrelevant to the question I pose. How did it fit in?

I agree, with only little qualification, that the premise is true: capitalism as it is implemented is immoral. My qualification may be important to some… I find it to be so, but underscores my question. If the system itself is amoral or morally neutral, the evidence proves that actors within the system can be immoral with little or no consequences.

I don’t know the details of the business practices used by Hobby Lobby. I do know the details for Walmart, and offer it as the primary comparison. Walmart as a business is immoral. Their employees have been prohibited from using the classic recourse of unionization. The law offers them no solace. They are exploited, the Waltons are enriching themselves thereby, and I submit we need no futher proof of their immoral stance.

Corporations act badly — yes, sometimes evilly — because they can. They have no moral constraints. They’ve acted to remove legal constraints. What more evidence is needed?

#7 Comment By James Banks On March 27, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

I agree with almost everything you wrote. The one thing that I would add is that even before Shakespeare’s semi-modern times, during the High Medieval period, the economy was still as cutthroat as it is today, if not more so. Anyone who doubts this should check out Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale”.

#8 Comment By Rob G On March 28, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

“If the system itself is amoral or morally neutral, the evidence proves that actors within the system can be immoral with little or no consequences.”

Yes, and in addition, the system itself has no inherent mechanism whereby it can delineate between the moral and the immoral actor. The market, being amoral, rewards the honest man and the cheat equally, and will always do so until the latter either stops or gets caught, of which there is never a guarantee. From this perspective the idea of the “self-regulating” market is a pipe-dream.

#9 Comment By HeartRight On March 28, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

There is a great deal to the explanations given by Franklin Evans et al.
But by the same token there is something missing

We look at the actors performing a given operation.
We overlook the operation itself.

What I mean is this: we look at the exchange of a bunch of goods and services as somehow inherently neutral, and the outcomes are only sullied if an actor performs badly.

Now suppose for a second we step beyond the reductionism and simply [ OK,irony] state that we should expect an exchange of goods to go futher, and insist that every exchange means an increment in mutual responsibility?

And of course [more irony], from a Christian POV I don’t buy the concept of ethically neutral. The absence of good is not neutral, the absence of good is evil.

PS: as for the idea of a Christian,or atheist, or animist legal entity: piffle.
legal entities can have rights { I rather think that defines them] but what they cannot have is emotions. ‘We’re all about xyz’ is a marketing ploy. Wereas people do not necessarily have rights, but by definition do have emotions – unless dead.

#10 Comment By David On March 29, 2014 @ 6:50 am

Perhaps we need to focus on”distributism”as it is incorporated into Catholic Social Teaching. Additional insight can be gleamed from distinguishing “capitalism” from “democratic capitalism.” Suggest reading Zieba (2013) work Papal Economics.

#11 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 30, 2014 @ 10:43 am

Rob G.: That was an excellent addendum to my point. It covered a weakness in the scope of my statements.

HeartRight: I like your point very much. I will quibble with parts of it, but you state an important principle.

I would not agree that I am (and/or others are) devaluing the operation by labeling it neutral. I am (we are) focusing on the consequences of the actions as informed (or corrupted) by the actors. It connects logically with your post script: surely the legal entity has no human attributes per se, but it obtains human attributes from the human actors. A company is a legal fiction, given veracity by the laws, some of which veil or hide the human actors. Piercing that veil is a legal exercise with a long track record.

Rob’s point about ethical restraint is key here, I believe. It challenges the notion that a Christian society will provide those restraints, and the evidence supporting that challenge is, shall we say, too extensive to ignore.

I will neither participate in nor condone making Christianity itself the villain here. It’s neither valid nor necessary. I will hold to that challenge, that Christians do the same thing and look to the consequences first, rather than (as some prominent ones are wont to do) whitewash the criticism with “well, he/she was no true Christian” or some such.

The absence of good is not neutral, the absence of good is evil.

Stipulating for the moment that this is an accurate representation of the Christian POV, a strong implication of the challenge is to acknowledge that but leave it outside the discussion. Some of us, at least personally and anecdotally, have what we consider strong evidence that neutrality exists as a valid entity, capable of being perceived as good and evil depending on the POV of the observer. Further, it remains neutral (in a sideways application of the uncertainty principle) until someone observes it and pushes it to one side or the other.