I want to preface this by saying I really like McLaren’s new book Everything Must Change. I think it succinctly and efficiently explains massive failures in Christian theology and the effects those failures have had on our culture. However, I just can’t fully agree with his take on Capitalism and Economics.
McLaren takes common jabs at Capitalism, criticizing things that should be criticized, but I think he errs in his understanding of the causes of poverty and wealth disparity around the world. Greed and bottom line production are not the causes of poverty. Massive capital accumulation and corporations are not the cause of poverty.
“Well then, what is the cause of poverty?” you might ask. I think the better question is, “What is poverty?” How you define poverty is intrinsic in finding its causes as well as its solutions. In order to truly understand poverty and how capitalism effects it, you must look at poverty throughout history.
When the Industrial Revolution began in the United States, the way our citizens lived would be tantamount to how we see Third World Nations. Not so much in population density, but most certainly in luxuries afforded by citizens. No running water. No constant source of food. Constant threat of death from major storms, drought, lack of nurishment (anyone remember playing Oregon Trail and dying because there were no animals to kill?) . Clothes might be changed and/or washed weekly. People lived in Log Cabins with a wood burning stove for heat, bathrooms were outside, no toilet paper, etc etc. Life back then was far from comfortable.
But when Industry entered the country, people began leaving the agrarian lives for those in the city where they had steady jobs, and steady incomes. Were working conditions bad? Absolutely. Were people paid terribly small wages? Yes. But people chose that lifestyle, because, for better or worse, it beat the hell out of farming cause you knew at least you wouldn’t starve.
And what happened when this migration began? One of the biggest results was a new market for many living needs… clothing, food, shelter, in the city. These factor workers now had money but no way to provide these things for themselves, so those who couldn’t get jobs in the factory now could support themselves by providing these needs for those who were unable to provide for themselves. Eventually a self sustaining economy developed, and industry was no longer needed. Jobs were more plentiful and with jobs being more plentiful, competition forced wages to a point where industry left for greener pastures. Namely the American South.
And this process repeats, still today. In India, China, Mexico, etc.
Point being, we can’t compare the standards of work in Third World Nations to what we have currently here. What we may think of as terrible is possibly not problematic for people who live day to day. Having a factory job at 20 cents an hour is possibly the best thing that ever happened to them. And just because a business is paying someone those wages does not mean that they are being “greedy” and we shouldn’t force them to provide American standards in factories overseas.
Now, Christian business owners, whether in America or in Foreign Nations, should hold themselves to a higher standard. But it goes without saying that their presence in these countries, regardless of work conditions, is beneficial to these countries as a whole.
Another thing that McLaren addresses is sustainability. Does our constant consumption constitute a crisis for the earth? In some ways, yes… it does, but in others, it doesn’t. Are we running out of oil, or land, or coal, or other natural resources? Maybe. But when those things get scarce, new technology that previously wasn’t economically feasible suddenly becomes so. And when that technology is developed further progress is made. Could we have made solar panels and wind turbines without oil? Could we have acquired the technology needed to recycle and produce goods with less pollution without initial pollution? Probably not. We are polluting now. There is no question. But that constant development, whether its sustainable or not, is what pushes us towards new ideas that lead to new, more environmentally friendly options.
Most critics of Capitalism fail to notice that.