Capitalism and the Worth of the Individual

I’ve been thinking recently about how our capitalist economic system values individuals. The free enterprise system has been a great benefit to the United States in helping this nation accumulate unprecedented levels of wealth. But that system isn’t very good at distributing wealth equitably according to any standards other than the internal logic of the market: you get paid what the market will allow. Whether the market is pure (unlikely) or warped by all manner of impure power differentials (almost guaranteed), the distributive logic remains the same.

A series of charts published by the Washington Post really brought this home. In what other moral system could we justify valuing 10% of the population equally with the other 90%? And make no mistake, that is what our current economic system has done. Inasmuch as access to health care, education, housing, transportation, and technology depend on our individual ability to pay, the market largely determines our worth as human beings in this society.

As a person of faith, I’m finding this valuation increasingly troubling. But as a member and observer of the body politic, I know that my faith claims aren’t particularly persuasive or useful in articulating a political argument or forming a coherent system of political thought that could be adopted broadly.

So I’ve cast around for an alternative system that (a) does not require a radical departure from U.S. law or history, (b) could be broadly embraced by American voters and politicians, and (c) values individuals on a basis other than their economic standing. The idea is not to replace capitalism as an economic system, but rather to appropriately balance it with an alternative system that can guide us to better governance that is not solely dependent on market concepts.

I think the appropriate system is related to the idea of citizenship. In some future posts, I’ll explore what thinking about citizenship as a complimentary system to capitalism might add to our understanding of how government could and should work.

One Response to Capitalism and the Worth of the Individual
  1. kaahl
    August 3, 2011 | 5:50 am

    I think one element of this train of thought should dip into economics, specifically the work of Hyman Minsky. I have been following Steve Keen out of Australia for a while. Minsky is definitely en vogue in the econ world, but the fundamental insight that perhaps it is best to view capitalism as an inherently destabilizing economic system could be key.

    The Center for New Economic does some work on this,

    I don’t know where they get funding for such a snazzy website. But it is sort of a collective mea-culpa from those econ bastards who got us into this mess.

    Steve Keen though is suitably cheeky and fun to watch: