By Stewart Clem
Remember when Amazon was an online bookstore? You can still buy books on Amazon, of course, because you can buy just about everything there. But what was once simply a place where you could save a few dollars off the retail price of the latest John Grisham novel has now become a ubiquitous fixture of life in America. Amazon doesn’t just sell us stuff — it has woven itself into our home life with its artificial intelligence (personified as “Alexa,” named after the library in Alexandria, the most comprehensive and magnificent in the ancient world), and it fills our roadways with its fleet of delivery vehicles. If Amazon has its way, it will soon be filling our skies with delivery drones and roaming throughout our homes with its robots (currently named “Vesta,” after the ancient Roman goddess of the hearth — notice a theme here?). It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine life in the 21st century without Amazon.
And then there’s Facebook. Like Amazon, Facebook is technically a private business. Sure, it’s a publicly traded company, but it’s not a public utility or a government service. But this doesn’t stop people from decrying Facebook’s practices of censoring and manipulating information. Why? Maybe it’s because about one-third of Americans get their news from Facebook. If Facebook can decide what you read and how it’s shared, the net effect isn’t all that different from government censorship. Facebook is so ubiquitous that those who choose not to engage it must “opt out.” In today’s society, not having a Facebook profile is almost an act of rebellion. If you’re a business, not having a Facebook profile is basically a death wish.
As much as we might bemoan these corporate behemoths, we tend to accept their presence as the natural outcome of free enterprise. Businesses are supposed to grow, right? Isn’t that the point? If you’ve ever watched Shark Tank, you’re familiar with the basic pattern: John and Jane Entrepreneur invent a product that meets a perceived need. “Need” is simply defined by whether people will pay money for the product, whether that product is something like Pet Paint (spray paint that allows you to turn your pet into a work of art) or DrumPants (you guessed it: a pair of pants that can be played like drums). Their market research reveals that customers are willing to pay up to a certain price for this product. They manufacture the product in small numbers, and sales indicate there is larger demand.
To meet this demand, the Entrepreneurs need help. One or more investors (the “sharks”) offer to loan money to the Entrepreneurs, usually in return for a share of company ownership. What matters most is that the company’s concept is scalable. Sure, some sharks will only invest in products they personally “believe” in, but this is never a sufficient condition in itself. On Shark Tank, businesses exist to generate wealth, and generating wealth requires increasing production and increasing profits.
Most of us assume that this is just what business is. While circumstances have changed throughout the centuries, and technological advances have opened new horizons for commerce, we take for granted that this is the way the economy has always worked. But this assumption reveals our historical amnesia. For starters, the fact that we think of the market as the essence of the economy is a modern innovation. We need economic historians like Karl Polanyi to remind us that the economy was not always controlled by markets. Whereas today we tend to think of the economy as exchanges within the market, Polanyi demonstrates in his classic work, The Great Transformation, that “gain and profit made on exchange never before played an important part of human economy.” Every society possesses an economy of some sort, but oikonomia (the Greek word from which the English economy is derived) simply used to refer to the way in which a society strives to meet the material needs of its members.
As G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “In all normal civilizations the trader existed and must exist. But in all normal civilizations the trader was the exception; certainly he was never the rule; and most certainly he was never the ruler. The predominance which he has gained in the modern world is the cause of all the disasters of the modern world.”
Our lack of historical awareness is also tied to our inability to imagine the economy as anything other than it is today. When Americans debate economic issues, we find ourselves trapped in the binary of “the free market” versus “state intervention.” One side points to the tendency of unrestricted markets to increase countries’ GDP; the other side points to the tendency of welfare states to increase the overall well-being of their citizens. Whether we realize it or not, this binary reveals our commitment to the creeds of neoliberalism. The market and the government are two discrete, powerful entities, rather like King Kong and Godzilla. If you’re a right-leaning neoliberal, you hope these two beasts will never come near each other; if you’re a left-leaning neoliberal, you hope one will be able to subdue the other.
But what we never do is question whether we have let the market become something it should never have become: a beast.
What is the proper size of a market? The question sounds absurd. Surely whoever asks such a question must not understand basic economic principles. We think this because we are moderns. The ancients would have considered it foolish not to ask such questions. Aristotle once wrote that there is a “due measure of magnitude” for things, ranging from animals, plants, and tools to city-states, and when one of these things is too small or too large, it will be defective and in some cases will lose its true nature.
Channeling Aristotle, the economist E.F. Schumacher insisted that the question of the proper scale of things is “the most neglected subject in modern society.” His best known book, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, first published in 1973, is frequently dismissed today as nostalgic and naive. It’s unfortunate that people only associate his work with 1960s counterculture, the Green Party, the Whole Earth Catalog, and other movements whose cultural moment has passed. The roots of Schumacher’s economic philosophy are deeply Catholic, and I think a rediscovery of his work is in order. At the very least, it might lead us to ask the kinds of questions that we didn’t even know we could ask about the economy and its role in our lives.
The problem with the outsize role of the market in our lives is not simply that it leads to exploitation, unjust wages, environmental degradation, or mass-produced goods of poor quality. These are serious problems, but in another sense they’re red herrings. Advocates of the market economy will propose solutions to these isolated problems and point to large corporations that are doing far better than others on each of these scores. Their left-leaning critics will advocate for increasing the minimum wage and promoting corporate social responsibility. And thus begins another King Kong vs. Godzilla debate.
The problem with big business is not reducible to the harmful side effects it has brought about. The problem with big business is its very ubiquity.
When the market is accepted as the essence of oikonomia, trade becomes the heart of society. “When God looked on created things and saw that they were good,” Chesterton explains, “it meant that they were good in themselves and as they stood; but by the modern mercantile idea, God would only have looked at them and seen that they were The Goods.” When we abandon the question “What is the proper place of the market in human society?” we cease to reflect on the order of creation. We assume that the market economy is what naturally emerges when human beings freely and rationally interact with one another in society.
As I’ve already suggested, this claim rests on a false historical narrative. It also rests on an anthropology that is incompatible with Christianity. Before you dismiss this as mere hyperbole from an overzealous moral theologian, consider the words of one of the foremost champions of free-market economics, Ludwig von Mises: “A living Christianity cannot exist side by side with, and within, Capitalism.” Mises claims that the teachings of Jesus demonstrate a failure to understand that people cooperate socially “because this best serves their own interests. Neither love nor charity nor any other sympathetic sentiment but rightly understood selfishness is what originally impelled man to adjust himself to the requirements of society.” This Enlightenment anthropology insists that human flourishing consists in maximizing individual interests (whatever they happen to be) rather than an end that is inscribed in the very nature of humanity.
For economists like Mises, human society and the market are coterminous. Yet, as Christians, we must acknowledge that something has gone horribly wrong when questions like “What is the proper size of the market?” or “When is a business too big?” are no longer intelligible. A business is too big when it becomes something more than a “business.” In other words, when it becomes something that humans must serve rather than something that serves human society. This happens all too often in an economy that has become synonymous with the market.
You’ll notice that I’ve come nowhere close to proposing a solution to this problem. The predicament I’ve described is not one that lends itself to five practical steps. We cannot retreat to the past, as if we could undo the creation of the modern world, nor can we create the false utopia of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” where there are no possessions. But this does not mean we must accept the status quo.
What we must do is renew our minds. Rather, we must ask God to renew our minds. Because clearly we have failed to imagine what a humane economy might look like. To imagine such an economy will require the metanoia spoken of in the New Testament—a total conversion of our thought patterns. Make no mistake: I am not suggesting that this is simply a ‘heart problem’ that will be solved when individuals adopt the right mindset toward material possessions. Neoliberalism refuses to be baptized. As the people of God, we must ask the Spirit to reveal to us how we can work together to build a true oikonomia, an economy in service to human beings who are created in the image of God.