E/RS debate examines capitalism

Final installment of interview series discusses capitalist ideals and problems


Newswire photo by Ryan Kambich | (Left to right) Dr. Tim Brownlee, Dr. Staff Johnson and Dr. Gabe Gottlieb discuss the virtues and vices of capitalism.


What are the virtues and vices of capitalism? Reflections on this question drove the most recent installment of Xavier’s Ethics/Religion and Society (E/RS) interview series on Tuesday evening in Kennedy Auditorium. The program took the form of a discussion between Dr. Tim Brownlee of the philosophy department and Dr. Staff Johnson of the finance department moderated by E/RS director and philosophy professor Dr. Gabe Gottlieb.

The interviewees were uniquely qualified for the discussion: Johnson directs Xavier’s Smith Center for the Study of Capitalism and Society, and Brownlee teaches about economic philosophers Adam Smith and Karl Marx in the university’s Private Interest and Public Good Master’s Program. The event also marked the last of six E/RS interviews scheduled to take place during Gottlieb’s three-year tenure as E/RS director.

The first portion of the talk centered on properly defining capitalism. The most basic understanding of the term is that it constitutes an economic system in which market forces direct the efficient allocation of goods and services to individuals. Johnson offered an example he uses often in class; “How is it that an economic system knows how to produce enough coffee to wake people up in the morning and enough gas to get people to work on time? You put supply and demand together and you create a market.”

Brownlee added to this discussion by explaining that while Karl Marx is known as perhaps the world’s most eminent critic of the system of capitalism, he was also fascinated by its ability to spur technological advancements and allocate resources. However, he had deep misgivings about the impacts of capitalism, such as the treatment of workers under capitalist conditions and the centrality of capitalism to the lives of individuals.

With this definition and critique of capitalism on the table, the interview moved into a discussion of the virtues and vices of capitalism. First came the virtues, namely productivity and efficiency. Brownlee chimed in on this point, saying “It is a really efficient system for the distribution of goods, certainly more efficient than any centrally planned system. Also, capitalism made possible an explosion in our productive capacity as a species.”

Johnson added to this praise by talking about technological innovation and wealth creation. “My grandfather grew up riding a horse. By the time he passed away in 1968, he was driving cars.”

Brownlee also acknowledged that capitalism introduces a behavior of exchange in which both parties are more or less equal. This habit of exchange begs the question, “If this is the way markets work, then why doesn’t politics work the same way? Capitalism has been really effective in undermining just about every traditional form of social hierarchy” and has been an ally to democracy, he said.

The conversation then turned to the negative aspects of capitalism, namely inequality and the cultural influence that it holds. Johnson noted that while a chemist might create painkillers for a good cause, the work of advertisers pushes doctors to overprescribe painkillers, leading to the widespread abuse of those drugs that has contributed, to an extent, to the ongoing opioid crisis. In ways such as these, the ethos of capitalism breeds destructive habits surrounding technological and productive advancements.

The two differed on how society should go about mitigating these types of destructive habits. Brownlee endorsed the view that laws and government policies can be used to regulate and push behavior in a certain way and thereby change attitudes about capitalist pitfalls. Johnson, on the other hand, argued that strength of individual character, religion and family structures can help to defeat failures of capitalism by providing individuals a way to resist the destructive habits of the system. This disagreement carried the night and highlighted the main point of contention between the two speakers on their views about the vices of capitalism.

Dr. Steven Frankel of the philosophy department lauded the event and E/RS more generally.

“I think it’s very important for the success of Xavier’s academic life that we have opportunities outside the classroom to continue intellectual discussions…E/RS is one of the best ways to do that,” Frankel said.

The next event in the E/RS series will be a luncheon lecture about the Holocaust with Yale historian Timothy Snyder on Friday, Feb. 26. Those interested in attending should RSVP online at the E/RS website.


By: Ryan Kambich ~Copy Editor~