Vital Signs

Capitalism and Civilization

Michael Novak has repeatedly argued (recently, in a lecture here at Elizabethtown College) that our economic system is “permanently attached to a Judeo-Christian culture,” but history suggests otherwise.  Although capitalism developed within a Christian culture, it has also actively undermined that culture’s moral and spiritual foundations, as the use of the market by the entertainment industry shows.  Nihilistic sentimentalists can profit in our society by selling their opinions as movies, as surely as do those who print and distribute the Bible.  But that does not prove that capitalists must aid the forces of social disintegration or that the free market inherently favors those forces.  The “capitalist system” is neither the sworn enemy nor the firm friend of social/cultural traditionalists.  It does not operate in a political vacuum, nor do those who pursue profit necessarily believe in any particular worldview.  

It has long been assumed that political centralization and economic development are necessarily related.  The larger industrialized economies become, the more they require political control to sustain themselves and to develop further.  Such a connection has seemed axiomatic to such diverse analysts as Gary Becker, Karl Marx, and Michael Novak, who have all argued that economic modernization presupposes highly centralized and ideologically homogeneous...

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