There’s been a lot of talk in academic and economic circles lately about our nation’s love affair with capitalism. Has that marriage seen its better days? Is the GOP actually the “invisible hand” of the (so-called) free market? Are the Democrats dancing with socialism? Is something new in the works? Is it time?
The economic argument is above my pay grade. I studied Adam (not Adam Smith), so, like nearly every other subject, this one interests me because I’m prone to think this conversation actually has something to do with theology. Since economic systems and the Kingdom of God both purport to be about the welfare of the people, people of faith ought to be interested. And, specifically because our allegiance should be to that Kingdom and not to any system, economic or political, we are compelled to ask some questions and to offer some critique. Indeed, that is the role of faith in our public life.
“‘Merit’ is an illusion that is mostly afforded the privileged.”
I am not a socialist, though my occasional willingness to critique capitalism apparently opens the door to that accusation (including responses to a few of my BNG columns). I just happen to believe the ethic of Jesus is not “pie in the sky” and that biblical justice is actually an achievable reality – here and now, not merely in the sweet bye and bye. Of course that reality will have to be achieved through human systems, with policies and practical considerations structured to prioritize the common good, not just individual rights.
So, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how many Christians are among those who say the American system, a kind of economic “meritocracy,” is fair for all. You know, if you trust the system and work hard enough, then the sky is the limit. Whatever you earn is yours, by your merit. (This came up last year, in a slightly different form, when President Donald Trump disparaged immigrants from certain “‘less-than-desirable’ countries” (my G-rated translation) and promoted “merit-based immigration” instead.) In other words, if you already have some merit – i.e., something we consider of value – to offer us, then “welcome!” If not, go back to where you came from.
I’m grateful that wasn’t the official government policy when the “tired, poor, huddled masses” who were my own immigrant forebears came here with nothing but empty in their pockets and yearning in their eyes. “Merit” is an illusion that is mostly afforded the privileged.
Which brings us back to the topic at hand – this idea that we reward citizens who actually deserve it, because they have worked hard, literally earning that reward. Anyone who is aware of their own prejudices and committed to the secular and religious ideal of “liberty and justice for all” ought to be able to see that we live in a far different reality.
Here’s what I mean:
Back when Barry Bonds was making headlines for juicing his arms, if not his bat, to set the Major League Baseball home run record, I joked with some friends: “I’m not supporting steroid use, but I could take enough steroids to stagger an elephant and I would still never hit a single ball out of Oracle Park!” Or, while some athletes may be able to “jump out of the gym,” I’m proof of the humorous title of the 1992 Woody Harrelson movie “[At Least Some] White Men Can’t Jump”!
“Our system rewards the lucky few. Period.”
Coaches often say that extraordinary athletic ability is “God-given.” The truth is that we don’t just honor athletes with fame and fortune because they’ve worked hard enough to earn it. Many of them have worked very hard. But there are many who have worked even harder who just didn’t start with the right genes. The same is true of musicians and entertainers. Only one in hundreds of millions can sing like Pavarotti, and it was not just “merit” that enabled Mariah Carey to make $60 million on her hit song, “All I Want for Christmas is You.” I’m not questioning whether the pop idol worked hard, just that her success was not based on hard work alone. There is also rare talent (which cannot be merited) and, let’s just be honest, a boatload of luck.
Every celebrated success story is a combination of talent, opportunity and hard work that the vast majority of people never experience.
Ditto with any other profession. For every zillionaire CEO on Wall Street there are dozens just like her – just as bright, just as hard-working, just as “deserving” – for whom all the stars didn’t seem to line up just right. The proof of this is that when she crashes and burns, as is commonplace even for the most talented, there will always be someone there to take her place.
Don’t misunderstand; there’s none of the so-called “politics of envy” in my argument (a criticism sometimes lobbed at us bleeding hearts). Just a healthy dose of reality. Our system rewards the lucky few. Period. As a professor of public policy once told me, “The most important decision you ever make in life is how well you choose your parents!” Bingo.
So, why are we so willing to settle for a system that tolerates, if not promotes, extreme inequality and truly obscene wealth in the hands of a very lucky few, while most people struggle paycheck to paycheck? And why would we delude ourselves, pretending that system has anything to do with merit?
An old adage says, “I’d rather be lucky than good!” If we could acknowledge that luck, as much as or even more than merit, determines everyone’s welfare, we could have a serious conversation about how our economic system is – and should be – structured. And perhaps our faith communities would be good places for that conversation to begin.