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The Selfish Capitalist & Less Than Two Dollars a Day

The Selfish Capitalist:
The origins of affluenza
Oliver James
Vermillion, 288pp

Less Than Two Dollars a Day:
A Christian view of world poverty
and the free market
Kent A Van Til
Eerdmans, 180pp

The appearance of these two books is testimony to the ongoing liveliness of the debate about capitalism. Kent Van Til's book addresses the question of whether the free market can meet the basic material needs of all human beings. Because all humans share God's image and God's world, he argues, it is a matter of justice that they have access to basic sustenance, without which they cannot take part in human society.

While the free market is responsive to consumer demand, he says, it cannot respond to the needs of the absolute poor because they lack the spending power to convert their needs into economic demands. Drawing on the school of thought emanating from the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), he propounds a system of justice, based on the idea of social 'spheres', in which all people receive their basic needs, citizens are treated equally and producers are rewarded in proportion to their contribution.

Van Til is adamant that his scheme incorporates and complements, rather than opposes, the system of distributive justice provided by the free market. Indeed, he insists that it does not entail any judgement of capitalism. For him, the market is necessary to address absolute poverty, even though it is not sufficient.

It is unusual to find a Christian writer prepared to affirm the market economy. But with the freedom of the market comes responsibility and Van Til's readiness to resort to the old solutions of taxation and charity in the fight against poverty means that he underestimates the potential of business to be a moral agent that can advance human dignity, social justice, the development of institutions, environmental conservation and liberation from tyranny and oppression.

Consequently, he ignores ways in which, when the market fails, business models can achieve social ends: for example, the rapidly growing fields of social enterprise, micro-enterprise and 'bottom of the pyramid' enterprise. In such cases, the enlightened self-interest of business leaders is generally all it takes to ensure the needs of the absolute poor act as demands. Market failures can simply reflect a failure of moral imagination.

Oliver James shares none of Van Til's confidence in the merits of capitalism, or rather, in the form of capitalism that has prevailed in the English-speaking world, which he dubs 'Selfish Capitalism'. For him, this form of capitalism contrasts sharply with the 'Unselfish Capitalism' of mainland western Europe, meaning that English-speaking nations are much more emotionally and psychologically distressed than their mainland western European counterparts - a distress caused by materialism, or to use the term he coined in his previous book, 'affluenza'.

James lampoons his selfish capitalist straw man for seeing the market as the cure of all ills, able to meet every human need. So fierce are his polemics that he could not countenance Van Til's suggestion that, while the market economy cannot meet all human needs, it can meet some of them rather effectively. James would also struggle to explain the fact that the US - in his estimation the country most guilty of selfish capitalism - is home to the world's most generous people, who voluntarily give away high proportions of their income to causes designed to meet the human needs they do not expect the market to be able to fulfil.

Lacking the intellectual nuance and economic sophistication of Van Til, James presents English-speaking capitalism as a zero-sum game, in which wealth 'trickles upwards' from the poor to the rich. The naivety of his rants is epitomized in his absurd characterisation of the Iraq war as the ultimate expression of selfish capitalism and his conspiracy theory about 9/11 being a self-inflicted attack, which he bases on a casual conversation he had with an anonymous military leader.

Such irresponsible adolescent positioning undermines the credibility of some of his more valuable (if unoriginal) arguments about the harm caused by consumerist and materialist attitudes and life-styles. Likewise, his castigation of the short-comings of cognitive behavioural therapy and evolutionary and positive psychology would bear more weight if his attacks on such 'pseudo-science' were soundly based on research, rather than on sharply opinionated rhetoric. Phrases like 'evolutionary psychology's urge to universalism often makes it run the risk of being ideology, not science' may well be true but they ignore the beam in his own eye.

James' vision for how affluenza can be remedied is no less myopic. And, given his thesis that politicians (notably Thatcher but also Brown and Blair) are responsible for foisting selfish capitalism on us, it is bewildering why James should have such confidence that politicians will deliver us from its clutches: 'The solution is simple. Instead of continuing with Selfish Capitalism, our politicians must start the work of persuading us to adopt the Unselfish variety…. Sooner or later, a politician or party will emerge who offers a radical alternative to the hollow materialism of the present lot.'

The uncomfortable truth even Van Til cannot admit is that experience proves that external restraints on the ills of affluence are ineffective. Intrinsic motivations and goals, such as obeying one's conscience, are much better at promoting well-being and undermining distress. Without the exercise of virtue, the market economy is a place for selfish behaviour leading to the depression of which James is so keenly aware. Market freedom, just like any other, contains a built-in moral challenge. We need to be encouraged to step up to it, not given a vague hope that one day politicians will deliver us from the patterns of behaviour inflicted on us by other politicians.

Adam Smith understood the primary importance of conscience, virtue and responsibility in ensuring economic justice. Apparently, the debate about capitalism, though still lively, has not progressed that much since he launched it over two centuries ago.