The Acton Institute: At the Intersection of Christianity, Capitalism, and Nihilism

Source: Pakistan Today

Source: Pakistan Today

The Acton Institute is a Christian organization that seeks to promote individual liberty based upon religious principles. Put another way, it’s a Christian organization that attempts to uphold individualism, so you can probably see where this is going.

While they do have many good things to say, overall – especially when it comes to their economic views – they tend to let conservative (Austrian) economics walk ahead of their Christian beliefs. While they do attempt to tie their beliefs back to Christianity, it’s often filtered heavily through a dedicated philosophical viewpoint; the end product is something that would appear foreign to the early Christians. Of course, the same can be said of Christian Marxists or Christian Communists who look at the book of Acts and go, “See, Communism!” But just as we think it silly to justify Communism via Scripture, it’s equally absurd to justify individualism (or laissez-faire capitalism) via Scripture.

Enter Joe Carter’s latest article, making an argument in defense of sweatshops. To give some background onto why he would do this, let me just quote him:

Liberal and conservative, right and left, red state and blue state—there are dozens, if not hundreds of ways to divide political and economic lines. But one of the most helpful ways of understanding such differences is recognizing the divide between advocates of proximate justice and absolute justice…

The primary appeal of absolute justice is its purity. Why align with compromisers and those who are satisfied with “good enough” when you can fight for full justice? Being satisfied with proximate justice sounds more like an excuse to do less rather than a principled position.

The primary appeal of proximate justice is its realism. Since absolute justice is not attainable this side of the new heaven and new earth, settling for less is the best we can ever expect. When absolute justice is our standard we can even end up allowing injustice to continue and flourish.


With that understanding, he goes on to write:

But first I want introduce one of the most paradigmatic, and controversial, of proximate justice positions: the defense of sweatshops.

A sweatshop is the pejorative term for a workplace that has working conditions those of us in the West deem socially unacceptable. Because of Western laws and norms, sweatshops are now found mostly in developing countries…

The absolute justice advocate would say that the working conditions in sweatshops are unacceptable—and the proximate justice advocate would agree. But the proximate justice advocate would ask, “What are the alternatives?” Invariably, the absolute justice advocate’s preference is either unworkable, unrealistic, or would lead to worse living conditions for the sweatshop worker.

Proximate justice requires that we don’t improve people’s lives or bring them justice by making their lives worse. As Benjamin Powell says, “Because sweatshops are better than the available alternatives, any reforms aimed at improving the lives of workers in sweatshops must not jeopardize the jobs that they already have.”

To summarize Carter’s own words, the argument is essentially, “Yeah, sweatshops aren’t ideal, but they’re better than nothing, so it is what it is.” He points out that in places such as China, while we might find the conditions deplorable, the Chinese factory workers like it because it’s better than the alternative:

What Chang is saying is that whether we understand or agree, the Chinese workers believe accepting their current working conditions is better for them than their realistic alternatives and that the work will help them to life a better life. Many of us intuitively understand this point because it has to with meeting material needs (e.g., without the factory job the workers might not be able to feed their families). What we have a harder time understanding is when people endure less-than-optimal working conditions for other needs, such as self-actualization.

Thus, the argument boils down to that while things might not be ideal, they’re better than an alternative, or, it’s better to be a slave than to starve. Now Carter would certainly object to such a summary, but his objection would be without merit as it’s almost word-for-word what he says, only without the round-about way of saying it. 

And it’s not like Carter is some far-right extremist, sitting on the fringe writing from his doomsday bunker with Ayn Rand posters hanging up all over the room. He’s a senior editor at Acton, an editor at the Gospel Coalition (one of the more popular Reformed Evangelical website out there), and works with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (the SBC is the largest evangelical denomination in the United States). Carter isn’t on the fringe, but quite mainstream, at least in the positions he holds.

That he’s not some fringe writer is a bit disconcerting, because someone with so much clout should not support something that is so absolutely evil and disgusting. We can say that sweatshops are helping bring the impoverished out of poverty, but at what cost? It’s not uncommon for Chinese workers to throw themselves off buildings, showing they’d rather die than continue working; doesn’t seem like they really enjoy the “choice” Carter espouses.

There is such a thing as proximate justice, or to quote from the philosophers of our age, The Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try real hard you might get what you need.” The Bible itself is one long recorded story of God using proximate justice to bring his people to holiness. The Old Testament, especially the controversial parts of Israel’s conquest, are partially God saying, “This isn’t ideal, but it’s better than what you currently have, and you’re not ready for the ideal.” Yet, the massive difference between Carter’s article and the Bible is that the Bible says, “This isn’t ideal, so we’ll do it, but it’s going to fade away.” As you move throughout the Bible, the laws for holiness become narrow until the Ideal exists within the world, lives the Ideal life, hangs upon a cross, and rises from a grave. We now live in the age of God’s Ideal, God’s Word, and while we know we can never achieve the Ideal this side of eternity, we will be damned if we don’t try (and I mean that in the most literal sense of the phrase).

Instead, Carter apparently opts for a type of nihilism wherein sweatshops – or certain injustices – are better than the alternatives, so, you know, screw it man and let’s go get stoned. Well, maybe not that type of nihilism, but the one that argues that life will always be hard, sin will always exist, so it is what it is. What currently occurs might not be great, but it’s better than what could be, so why push for change?

Of course, what if someone said this to Martin Luther King Jr (people did say that to him, actually)? What if they said, “Yes, segregation isn’t ideal, but would you want to go back to slavery?” Such a viewpoint is so non-sequitur that it’s hard to believe people held/hold to it, but they do. King, like many other Christians, was an idealist. Though the ideal can’t be achieved, we ought to work to achieve it anyway. There are multiple instances where society was doing something not ideal, but effective, but we still found an alternative that improved lives.

What if he applied his nihilistic idea of proximate justice to his spiritual life? “Yeah, I’m going to sin, so as long as it’s not as bad as the sin before, God’s just going to have to live with it.” I’m not sure that really works. While it’s true that we’ll continue to sin, that’s hardly an excuse to keep sinning. Perhaps Carter believes in steps towards justice, in accepting a partial evil if that evil will continue to shrink and we continue to seek justice; but if he believes in such a thing, it’s certainly not apparent in his article.
The idea that starvation is an alternative to sweatshops isn’t an argument for sweatshops, it’s an argument against starvation. The argument is also a promotion of a type of neocolonialism: These natives would be nothing without the jobs us Westerners provide them. While we’ve been able to move past child labor in the West and horrendous working conditions, these poor natives are just incapable of achieving the same level of justice as us; so while sweatshops aren’t ideal, it is what it is.  Of course, we ignore that we were able to move past such things in the West, so obviously alternatives exist, we just choose not to share those alternatives with poorer nations because it’s cheaper to withhold the truth. It’s easier to keep these nations as types of colonies in which we need not send people, but just labor, and collect the rewards. It’s mercantilism for the 21st century, so why change it when it benefits us so much?

Sweatshops might be better than starvation, but they’re far from the best we can do. There simply is no moral defense – especially from a Christian worldview – for modern-day slavery. There’s no defense to making children work long hours in dangerous conditions (or any humans for that matter) when the benefiting corporations can more than pay for education and better working conditions. Many of these sweatshops operate under the false pretenses of choice, where farmers were taken from their lands (or the lands purchased by major corporations) and forced into the factories. It’s such a dark and nefarious trade that it’s sometimes shocking we still rely upon it; after all, we had it at one point in our history and we eradicated it, but still went on to have a very successful economy. So perhaps it’s better to cut the B.S. about asking, “Well what’s the alternative?”

I do not want to be rude, mostly because Carter and I have many similar acquaintances and hover around the same circles, but his argument is ultimately sickening. Consider that in Pakistan 1 in 5 households “employs” a child. Many children are born into bonded service because their parents took a loan for food; under Carter’s view, it’s better that the family took out a loan and could eat, even if that means the family will face perpetual and lifelong slavery. The Facebook page Humans of New York recently covered Pakistan where horrendous stories were reported by bonded servants (slaves). Men, women, and children face beatings, endless days of work, no breaks, and even rape. But at least they’re fed, right? I mean, what’s the alternative? Under Carter’s argument, any alternative could be dismissed as idealistic and utopian; slavery will always exist, so at least under this type the people are able to eat and they have jobs.

Yes, the ideal can’t be achieved here on earth. Economic injustice – as with all injustices – will always exist. But the sign of a hopeless and lazy generation is when we begin to say, “And because they’ll always be amongst us, we shouldn’t worry about it.” A life where one grows weary and tired in pursuing justice, to see God’s will enacted on earth as it is in heaven, is a life well spent. A life reaching for the ideal, struggling to pull it into our reality is vastly better than a life walking around moaning some nihilistic c’est la vie. For even if we do not reach the ideal, at least we’ll be all the closer.

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