Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ethical capitalism?

The New Orleans' Saints have incurred the wrath of the National Football League for not acting like saints. They promised a bonus of $1500 dollars to any player who hit his opponent hard enough to put him in the hospital. If you hit the opponent hard enough to have him carried off the field, you only get $1000. The National Football League wants it to be known that it does not allow players to get paid for injuring other players.

Some people believe that the ruckus is silly. Football is a business and all businesses give bonuses to employees who perform exceptionally well. Only look at Goldman Sachs. But the supporters of the National Football League point out that businesses ought not to give bonuses to employees who act unethically. Yes, the point of business in a capitalist society is to make as much money as you can, and if your employees are particularly productive, it is a good practice to reward them– but only as long as their actions are ethically justified.

Having said that commentators think that they have said everything there is to be said: capitalism is just fine as long as it is ethical. They assume that ordinary capitalist practices are of course ethical. Who would question that?

It is interesting, in that context, to think of Jesus cleansing the temple of the moneylenders and to remember that for the last 5000 years many religions – Jews, Christians and Muslims – have been very critical of people who lend money for interest. They certainly would not have thought that charging 17% or more interest on a credit card debt is ethically justified.

Medieval governments made illegal certain standard capitalist practices because they regarded them as unethical. Buying goods from a farmer or a shoemaker before the producer could come to market and then selling the goods at a markup was unethical and illegal. Manipulating supply by buying up large quantities of a commodity in order to raise the price, was regarded as unethical and illegal. Raising prices when supply was short, the central practice in a so-called “free market”, was definitely regarded as wicked. When harvests were poor, the millers and the bakers raised their prices and the people would riot because they felt cheated. In medieval trade everyone was supposed to observe a 'fair price.' Charging what the market will bear was definitely immoral.

Well, you say, times have changed. We are definitely more enlightened, we have discovered the free market and its blessings. Our ethical ideas are different and who is to say that our ideas are wrong?

The interesting question is why our ethical ideas have changed. 
We have lived under capitalism for close to 200 years. The capitalists have given generously to churches, to schools and have been able to spread their message through the media which they own. For 200 years we have been told that it is ethical to buy cheap and sell dear, that it is perfectly alright to get as much labor out of your employees as possible with minimal expense. It is all right to compete and put other people out of business. The sorts of things capitalists do regularly – think of Romney and Bain Capital – are ethical.

Some people have swallowed that message so completely they think that the unregulated market will bring us the millennium. We don't even need the Messiah to come to save us if only the government will keep its hands off the marketplace. Most people however, know better: we need someone to make sure that the food the supermarket sells us is not tainted and will not make us sick. We need to make sure that the doctors who charge large amounts for their services are qualified, and that the same is true of the man who builds my house. Capitalists unsupervised may well sell us poisonous food or build houses that will fall down on top of us. That, many people think, it is surely not ethical. 
Poisoning people with the food you sell them or injuring them with poorly built houses or defective appliances injures the buyer and that is unethical. But about paying people so little money that they need to go on welfare although they're working? New employees at Walmart are told how to apply for food stamps and Medicaid because the wages they are about to get are clearly in adequate. Is that not unethical? The same is true when the big box store or chain hardware store comes into town and puts family-run stores out of business. A lot of people lose out. They also lose when their jobs migrate to Cambodia. Is that ethical?

Capitalist procedures cause a lot of pain. Some of those injuries are considered unethical and have been made illegal. Others are still accepted even though they too inflict serious injuries. We should not be so quick to believe that what capitalists do is ethical.

If it is unethical for football players to be rewarded for inflicting serious bodily injuries on the opponents, why is it legal to put a small grocer or small hardware store out of business just because you are much bigger and have more money in the bank? Are the injuries you do here not unethical? If the Saints are to be penalized for the bonuses they give, why should we not penalize Walmart for the poverty they inflict on their employees?

If you want to know whether capitalism is ethical, don't ask the capitalist.