Whatever happens next in Downtown Manhattan, it is terribly important that the core energy behind this protest not be lost behind a blizzard of slogans and rhetoric. The particular motivations of those protesting are, undoubtedly, as mixed as the American people itself. One dominant thread, however, is an (admittedly inchoate) critique of unfettered capitalism.
But the fundamental issue is not that the laws of capitalism are flawed; the fundamental issue is that we are flawed in our attitude to them.
There can be little doubt that capitalism is a productive way to order economic life. But we need to remember, as the protestors have reminded us, that that is all that it is – an economic system based on the entirely reasonable propositions that capital has value, and that supply and demand are the most efficient way to set prices. Capitalism is of no help at all in determining what is morally good – that is something that must instead be determined by the community’s wider values.
And there should be no question that when an economic system fails to reflect those communal values, it should be modified and governed until it does. To say, as some do, that any attempt to control or guide our economic system is neither wise nor possible is to admit that an economic system has decisive control of our lives. For a Christian, such an admission would be nothing less than to yield to idolatry. (Though I do not claim deep knowledge of other religious traditions, I suspect that this is true for them as well.) God alone is the One, and the only One, to whom we can concede such ultimate authority. For the non-theist to make the argument that the laws of economics are immutable is to concede that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. That is the same argument that those in the grip of various kinds of addiction make: “I am not in control, my addiction made me do it.”
As the OWS protestors point out, wealth in our country is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, the real income of the broad middle class has not increased in more than a generation, and the ranks of the poorest among us each year become ever more solidified. These are the facts – and the reality behind them is, quite simply, morally wrong. Ultimately, left unchecked, that reality is deeply dangerous. It is at odds with our vision of ourselves, and as Americans we ignore it at the peril of our most cherished national ideals. As Christians, we ignore it at the peril of our souls.