Not Always Impartial

Michael Metzger

Over the last 20 years, one-fifth of the world’s population has been lifted out of extreme poverty. The catalyst? Capitalism. Why then do so many leaders in the developed world, having benefited from capitalism, now castigate it?

The Economist recently reported that between 1990 and 2010, the rate of people living in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day) fell from 43 percent to 21 percent of the total population in developing countries – a reduction of almost 1 billion people.1 The magazine attributes this marvelous development to capitalism. In China alone, 680 million people have been lifted out of dire straits. But the remaining billion worldwide, mostly in India and Africa, will likely prove more difficult. They face many internal challenges, including inadequate education and health care. But they’re also facing external resistance from the developed world, where many leaders castigate capitalism.

This bias is brought out in The Economist’s report. While hardly anyone in the developed world comes remotely close to extreme poverty, “many Westerners have reacted to recession by seeking to constrain markets” in the developing world. The magazine’s editors say the developing world “does not need such advice.” Instead, Western leaders would be wise to revisit Adam Smith, recalling his “impartial spectator.”

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher who held the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow for 13 years. During that time, he wrote two influential books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). In both, Smith was aiming to align free markets with his understanding of human nature.

In Theory, Smith wrote that we operate by sympathy (“to feel much for others and little for ourselves”). In Wealth, he said we operate by self-love (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”). Smith viewed sentiments and self-interest as complementary experiences. They trigger a search for “successful” behaviors, creating habits. Habits form conscience, what he called the “impartial spectator.” By “impartial,” Smith meant conscience is unbiased distinguishing between good and bad.

Smith was only quarter right. He assumed enlightened people properly define success, producing a properly enlightened conscience. That’s a bad assumption. Scripture says conscience acts less as a spectator and more as a courtroom – attorney, judge, and jury. Conscience accuses us of bad behavior and defends the good (Rom. 2:15). But like the occasional judge or attorney, conscience can be bought. It can be corrupted. That’s why the Bible describes four kinds of conscience – arrogant, defiled, seared, and clear. The first three are corrupted. They are not impartial. Only one of four consciences – clear – is unbiased. It rightly divides between good and bad. Smith was only quarter right.

Scripture notes how success is one of our experiences that can corrupt conscience, making it arrogant. Once conscience is bought, conceited leaders no longer heed devils’ advocates. In the case of capitalists, many become unaware of their bias for The Wealth of Nations – self-interest over sympathy for community. It’s a bias that often turns butcher, brewer, and baker into collusive capitalists. Collectivists recoil.

Collectivists originally came from the poor side of the tracks. Scripture says deprivation can also corrupt conscience, defiling it. Once conscience is bought in this way, defiled leaders look to government to redress grievances. But they too are often unaware of a selective bias – for The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Smith’s notion of “empathy.” The irony, noted by the late William F. Buckley, is that “Back in the thirties we were told we must collectivize the nation because the people were so poor. Now we are told we must collectivize the nation because the people are so rich.”

The way forward is recovering an ancient view of conscience. This will be difficult, as the developed world dispensed with conscience shortly after Smith wrote. Historian Paul Johnson notes how, in the 19th century, with the influence of Freud and his circle, “the personal conscience, which stood at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic” was dismissed.2 This divided the discipline of economics into two camps. One operates with a bias for The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the other for The Wealth of Nations.

In his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak writes how Adam Smith, “was the first man in history to conceive of a world from which poverty will be banished, a world of “universal affluence” (his phrase), a world in which every woman, man, and child will be liberated from the prison of poverty.” The world is moving closer to universal affluence. But completing the task will be difficult without a complete understanding of conscience. The faith community could contribute here, but being taken seriously will require being shrewd.

In a 2003 speech, Novak noted how the developed world has moved past Christianity. Given this situation, “it is important to find words to express the common values of the West whose origins may be religious, in terms that are graspable by those who no longer go through the doors of churches or synagogues. It is necessary to express these originally religious concepts in non-religious ways.”3 Can the faith community describe conscience in language graspable to all? How about conscientious capitalism? This would align Adam Smith with an accurate assessment of human nature. And it would help lift the rest of the developing world from extreme poverty while keeping leaders in the developed world – capitalists and collectivists – from a corrupted conscience.

1 “Towards the end of poverty,” The Economist, June 1, 2013
2 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 11.
3 “North Atlantic Community, European Community: Divergent paths and common values in Old Europe and the United States,” a speech delivered by Michael Novak for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003.


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  1. Jesus main polemic was against the rich, as the Gospels testify. In the book of Acts, the rich gave away land for the good of the community of faith.

    Adam Smith is not Jesus Christ, nor is Michael Novak Paul of Tarsus. Christianity does not equal capitalism, and basic capitalism is against the way of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.

    Communism failed as it was based on violence. Socialism of the democratic variety works. The US has done its best to overthrow democratic socialist leaders and nations around the world from Mosedeq in Iran to Allende in Chile to the Sandinistas in NIcaragua- all in the name of Capitalism, the greater good, and it’s god-Mammon.

  2. A compassionate community, resonates where the poor in spirit are blessed, where meek will inherit. Treasures in hearts and minds not the gold of Caesar. Capitalism celebrates an evolutionary theory of life. The Torah celebrates the Jubilee. Poverty of teaching from the Torah reaps riches of the earth not heaven. Ephesians shows where real riches are.

  3. Gary:

    “Everything” seems a little over the top. The year of Jubilee wouldn’t for example contradict conscientious capitalism.

  4. There are two kinds of “haves”. Those who work for their wealth and those who have wealth given to them. The Year of Jubilee was designed to equalize things by taking away from the Haves who had wealth given to them and returning it to the Have nots who lost their wealth for various reasons.

    IMO, the reason we hate the rich is because we can think of so many ways they can use their wealth for good and we get upset when they don’t accept our ideas. Socialism is a government’s enforcement of those ideas on the rich.

  5. Nope,Jubilee is God’s way. Capitalism as conceived May or may not have some degree of conscience, but that would be the exception and not the norm. Capitalism relies on both military ans police forces. Think Matewan.

  6. 1. Two fundamental economic principles come from the very beginning of the fall. Law of scarcity – Adam was told he would work for very little. Why? The most powerful human dysfunction is envy (much empirical footnotes); which birthed the next, division of labor. Being forced to barter and trade for essentials of life caused us to be other focused. In the OT, Hebrew root – a righteous, Godly, man of wisdom – his relationship to God and his community were identical.
    We are in a fallen state. Capitalism is the best way for us to be other focused. The US today is in a state of interventionism – it is a gov’t manipulated post-captialistic state. Read RC Sproul Jr.s recent work on economics. Here again, the economics you see in media and academia is Keynesian – perversion created for Roosevelt’s New Deal.
    What does the Word tell us? That satan comes as an angel of light.
    2. what I love about your broad point Mike is how you point out the dynamic which under girds one of the most universal truisms around the world – shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations. One of the dynamics which causes failure in the 2nd and more so in the 3rd is a proactive deliberation to seperate themselves from the work and effort that created the very comforts that now afford them the lesiure to sit back and pontificate.
    3. John Wesley, when asked about money, he said, “make all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” His life has yet to be emulated since in living out the Gospel’s call, as well as modest lifestyle.
    Sobering words for Christian communistic thinking.
    We must be careful, and well read before we “cast the first stone”. Even Christ said, walk the second mile.
    It was so sad the old – what would Jesus drive? He wouldn’t have had a car, he would have used public transportation, that’s where the people he encountered and interacted with then would be in today’s culture. And this also paints a terrible stroke for the local church which owns a bus so they can do all the work they do for the community. It’s not the mean’s that determine the end. It’s the end that tells us the values and principles underlying the means.
    Did you know that for decades now, there has always been a constant high percentage of new millionaires being people born in other countries.
    Did you know that sluggard is considered lower than the poor in the Word? That even in the Hebrew root, the sluggard doesn’t even deserve to be poor?
    The Year of Jubilee establishes a Biblical foundation of the right to property. That even the things that can happen to man, and even mistakes made by fallen man, could be met with the grace and redemption – in this world, in a real tangible way.
    Only capitalism mandates personal property as above the laws of the state. It’s not perfect, but again, it is what best suits our fallen nature in a fallen world.

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