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"The Sweet Odor of Gain"

February 25, 2010

The Protestant ethic may have been a friend of capitalism, but Martin Bucer certainly wasn’t.  Some of the most interesting passages in his De Regno Christi are the extensive advice he gives magistrates about economic affairs, and in which he rants against the profit-seeking proto-capitalists.  Two sections in particular intrigued me.  
First was his treatment of the issue of the enclosures, a matter of which I’d never heard before last semester, but which came up a number of times in Theology and the Global Economy class.  The enclosures were the expropriation of small landowners by larger magnates, who wanted to use their property to expand their sheep herds for the lucrative wool industry.  This took place as a result of the breakup of the monasteries, and the distribution of their enormous lands to the members of parliament who supported the king.  These were thus in a position so superior to the surrounding small farmers that they could readily buy them out.  Hilaire Belloc argues that it was these expropriations, transforming England from a society of free small landholders to one of a propertyless working class and a propertied upper class, that enabled capitalism to take root in England, and in such a vicious form as it did, because a division between the capital-owners and the laborers had already been created.  

Bucer was almost as upset as Belloc about what was going on, although he had only just come over from Germany to live in England.  It was clear to him that the land was to be used for the sustenance of the maximum number of men, not the generation of maximum profit: 
“Now, it is apparent that this island has been adorned by the Lord with such good soil and climate that it should be able to produce far richer farm products than it now does, if the fields would be cultivated with a right diligence and if all land were cultivated which used to be and should be cultivated on its own merits and for the good of the commonwealth, at the expense (at least partial if not entire) of the profit in wool.  Insofar as this profit provides only harmful pomp and luxury, it should be turned over tot he purpose of giving sustenance to human beings who are the sons of God.  They say that this trade in wool has now so increased that in most places one man uses as much land for the pasture of his sheep as was used a short time ago to support the life of more than a thousand men.  But what person not completely destitute of the mind of Christ can fail to acknowledge that Christian princes must make it a major project that there should be as good men as possible everywhere who live for the glory of God; therefore, such princes must in every way be on guard lest their own interests more than those of the commonwealth, excited by the infinite stimulus of greed, should displace men from the lands, and rob the state of its greatest riches and ornaments, namely, good citizens....”
To solve this problem, Bucer recommends dramatic state intervention to divide up land for cultivation and to set fair prices:
“It will be necessary: first, to designate for the pasture of sheep that portion of land which the Lord himself seems in his generosity especially to have provided for this work and which ancestral followers of God adapted to this use; secondly, that lands fit for planting should be rented for cultivation at a fair price.  For this price really began to increase enormously after the lands of the monks had come into the power of those men whose insatiable avarice for everything necessary for the sustaining of present life increases daily.”
Second, Bucer also has many other recommendations to the king about how he should restrain a capitalistic greed and the proliferation of luxury in the realm of commerce:
“Marketing is a business which is honest and necessary for the commonwealth if it confines itself to the export and import of things that are advantageous to the commonwealth for living well and in a holy way, but not those which encourage and foster impious pomp and luxury.  In order to benefit men’s piety, this purpose ought never to be absent from the thoughts and deeds of Christians but should always be considered and weighed as scrupulously as possible.”
Notice here that Bucer believes that those involved in “marketing,” which is to say, commerce, cannot plead the excuse that they are merely bringing to market those items which the market demands--an excuse that is sacrosanct in our society--but that they have a responsibility only to bring those items which promote good morals and piety.  He will later insist that the magistrate also has a responsibility to make sure that they do so, since they will probably be too greedy to exercise such responsibility themselves:
“Inasmuch as merchants pretty commonly reject this purpose, they burst forth with wickedness and greed, so that next to the false clergy there is no type of men more pestiferous to the commonwealth.  For, in the first place, for the sweet odor of gain, of which they accumulate an immense amount with little work through their nefarious skills, and for the splendor of pomp and luxury, of which they recognize no measure or limit, they attract the more outstanding talents, which if they were dedicated to philosophy, could be of very great use both to the State and the Church....For they cover their minds with the darkness of perverse judgment, so that they judge nothing to be important but to excel in the accumulation of wealth, through good and evil means, and in the expenditure of what has been accumulated in all kinds of worthless ways of life.”
C’mon Martin, lay off it--can’t you appreciate someone who’s got a good head for making profit?  And if he doesn’t have the incentive of a few well-earned creature comforts, what else is going to make him work?  
“And since they must often live immoderately, they perpetrate frauds in business, multiply profits wherever they can, increase monopolies in order to make a gain not only for their limitless luxury but also for the constant increase of the interest they are taking.  It also happens frequently that they influence the councils and impede the law courts of the princes for their own ends, so as to remove the obstacles to their artful trickery.”
No way, Martin!  You think that good profit-seeking free-marketeers would try to form monopolies, or would lobby the governments to change regulations in their favor?  Don’t be such a cynic!
“Furthermore, they daily invent astonishing enticements for the purchase of their trifling wares, which are designed and prepared only for impious luxury and pomp, and they seduce nobles and other wealthy men of little thrift into buying them.  And when they do not have enough money for these trifles which are esteemed as the ornaments of the nobility and its social status, there is at hand the money of the merchants, but at interest, and such a poisonous interest that within a very brief time whole families are destroyeed and overthrown.”
Oh come now!  Now you have a problem with advertising too?  C’mon, every merchant has a right to tout his product to consumers, and if they choose to buy it, that’s their choice.  They’re responsible individuals, so how can you blame the marketer if they choose to go into debt to buy his products?
So what does Bucer suggest should be done about all this?
“It must be ordered, first, that nobody should be allowed to enter merchandising whom officials have not judged suitable for this sort of thing, having found him to be pious, a lover of the commonwealth rather than of private interest, eager for sobriety and temperance, vigilant and industrious.  Secondly, that these should not import or export merchandise other than what Your Majesty has decreed.  And he shall decree that only those things are to be exported of which the people of the realm really have an abundance so that their export may be of no less benefit to the people of this realm, to whom these things are surplus, than to those who take them to foreign countries and make a profit on them.  So also he should permit no merchandise to be imported except what he judges good for the pious, sober, and salutary use of the commonwealth.  Finally, that a definite and fair price should be established for individual items of merchandise, which can easily be arranged and is very necessary (so fiery is human avarice) for conserving justice and decency among the citizens.”
Wow...certainly not what you’d call laissez-faire.

And to think Christians call Obama a “socialist”!  
(In case Davey should misunderstand, that is meant as a criticism of us, not of Bucer.  And in case others should misunderstand that, I do have criticisms of Bucer.)

2 comments:

Which of Belloc's works deal with this topic?

February 26, 2010 at 4:36 AM  

The Servile State does, I know...I believe An Essay in the Restoration of Property probably does as well, though I have not yet been able to get my hands on a copy...Grrr...

February 27, 2010 at 1:34 PM  

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