Calvinism and Capitalism have been cemented in (at least American) mythology as best friends forever. Max Weber wrote a book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Calvinism“, one of the foundational texts of economic sociology, in which he argued that a cultural quirk of protestantism was largely responsible for the rise of capitalism in Europe. But even if this is true I think Calvinist theology and Capitalist ideology make very a dangerous pairing.
It begins with Calvinist anthropology. We’re all 5′ worms. Totally depraved. Human condition is such that, let’s face it, we should be totally unsurprised about the amount of evil and human-created suffering in the world. Our every faculty is twisted by sin so that we can’t trust either our reason, or our will, or our desires. Even when we think we’re doing good, we end up hurting each other.
Starting with this view of humanity Calvinists have often been great allies of the state. Human sinfulness has to be restrained, and the government is who Calvin thought should do all that restraining. The law, the courts, the police, even the military and war have been supported by Calvinists using this argument: people are jerks and God has appointed the government to restrain our jerkiness (even if that means the danger of tyranny).
Capitalism, by contrast was conceived of as a system designed to work with this crappy human behavior. Adam Smith was famously trying to direct innate human self-interest toward the common good. He treated selfishness like a natural resource – an energy that could be funneled into more productive channels. The laissez-faire ideal of a free market is the antithesis of the Calvinist model of the government restraining evil.
These two differing approaches are held by a lot of modern Calvinists as two sides of the same coin: the carrot and the stick of how our society deals with human greed. On the one hand, greed is destructive and we need government to limit the amount of damage people can do to each other and themselves so we have laws against theft and police to protect private property. On the other hand, greed is inevitable so we pragmatically set up our economic system to take advantage of this by encouraging the profit motive.
This strikes me as exactly the backwards approach.
Studies on temptation and willpower show that the best way to handle temptation is to proactively remove the temptation ahead of time to avoid it entirely. It’s when we think too highly of our own willpower and expose ourselves to temptation believing we’ll be able to resist that we end up succumbing. This insight is pretty consistent with Calvinist anthropology – our darker urges are pretty strong and they have to be restrained. The problem is thinking we can restrain them retroactively, after we experience them, or rely on willpower, rather than prevent temptation from arising.
Retroactive restraint is exactly what the courts and police are. The temptation to steal arises in the presence of unequal private property. If police and courts deter theft they do so by punishing those that have already succumbed to temptation. Meanwhile, laissez-faire capitalism holds up the profit motive, perhaps the strongest temptation known to our species, and basically assumes everyone will succumb to temptation and somehow things will work out alright. In both cases we actually create the circumstances which lead to our fall into temptation.
What if, instead of either of those approaches we tried to circumvent the temptation of greed before it arose. Instead of enshrining private property and inequality in law, and basing our entire economy on processes that outright assume greed will win the day, what if we agreed before hand to remove the object of temptation? What if we destabilized the legal concept of private property, worked to ensure everyone’s needs were met, redistributed wealth, and set boundaries on income inequality such that the major temptations of greed were removed? What if instead of gated communities and police forces to guard Wall Street bankers we had affordable housing and robust commons?
Would not, in other words, Calvinism and Socialism make much better bedfellows?