Capitalism and Spirituality

DollarSunriseOne advantage a libertarian author has when working with Invisible Order is that we in the Order are well read in the relevant literature and have worked extensively with both scholarly and popular texts.

For example, one writer recently asked us what Ludwig von Mises would have to say about a passage he had found online:

Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological complexities of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to “democratic” capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.

Here is my reply:

I don’t know anything about Schelling beyond a quick perusal of his page at Wikipedia. I’ve searched Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism for his name and found nothing, so I don’t know what Mises had to say about Schelling’s philosophy or whether or not the student you quote is accurately representing Schelling’s thinking. But he seems to be making a claim that Mises does address at some length — that capitalism promotes materialism and diverts our thinking from more important spiritual concerns:

It is assumed that there is little connection between the two aspects of civilization, that the spiritual is more sublime, deserving, and praiseworthy than the “merely” material, and that preoccupation with material improvement prevents a people from bestowing sufficient attention on spiritual matters. (Theory and History)

According to Mises, this assumption

serves the American socialists as a leading argument in their endeavor to depict American capitalism as a curse of mankind.… Reluctantly forced to admit that capitalism pours a horn of plenty upon people and that the Marxian prediction of the masses’ progressive impoverishment has been spectacularly disproved by the facts, they try to salvage their detraction of capitalism by describing contemporary civilization as merely materialistic and sham. (Theory and History)

Implicit in this position on capitalism and materialism (and, I believe, in the Schelling student’s claims about capitalism making people “forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground”) is a claim about history: “They bemoan the passing of a way of life in which, they would have us believe, people were not preoccupied with the pursuit of earthly ambitions” (Theory and History).

But this implicit historical claim is false: “It is hard to find a doctrine which distorts history more radically than this antisecularism” (Theory and History).

“Modern Western civilization is this-worldly,” Mises concedes. “But it was precisely its secularism, its religious indifference, that gave rein to the renascence of genuine religious feeling” (Theory and History).

“Wisdom and science and the arts thrive better in a world of affluence than among needy peoples” (Theory and History).

“[T]the drop in infant mortality, the prolongation of the average length of life, the successful fight against plagues and disease, the disappearance of famines, illiteracy, and superstition tell in favor of capitalism” (Theory and History).

And here are a couple of passages from Human Action on the classical-liberal belief that laissez-faire promotes the higher concerns:

They [the market liberals] do not share the naïve opinion that any system of social organization can directly succeed in encouraging philosophical or scientific thinking, in producing masterpieces of art and literature and in rendering the masses more enlightened. They realize that all that society can achieve in these fields is to provide an environment which does not put insurmountable obstacles in the way of the genius and makes the common man free enough from material concerns to become interested in things other than mere breadwinning. In their opinion the foremost social means of making man more human is to fight poverty. (Human Action)

The nineteenth century was not only a century of unprecedented improvement in technical methods of production and in the material well-being of the masses. It did much more than extend the average length of human life. Its scientific and artistic accomplishments are imperishable. It was an age of immortal musicians, writers, poets, painters, and sculptors; it revolutionized philosophy, economics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. And, for the first time in history, it made the great works and the great thoughts accessible to the common man. (Human Action)

I hope I correctly understood the PhD student’s claims and your question about their connection to Misesian thinking, and I hope these passages prove helpful in addressing that question.

Thanks,

BK

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Filed under Austrian Economics, Editing for Liberty, History, Libertarian Letters

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