In his book The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Karl Polanyi paints a fascinating picture of the history and inherent pitfalls of our capitalist systems. One area that Polanyi stresses is the concept of a self-regulating market. He is quick to point out that “market economy if left to evolve according to its own law would create great and permanent evils.” When I was a kid, I remember learning about this self-regulating theory of supply and demand. It sounded simple and made perfect sense. The problem with this theory is that capitalism, the free-market, and in, fact any economic system, is governed by people. It is impossible to remove human ambition, greed and corruption from any earthly system. Human ambition is actually a necessity in a capitalist system. Human beings are self-seeking and judge the success of socio-economic systems based on how well they fare in that particular system. It is not surprising that “Economic liberalism misread the history of the Industrial Revolution because it insisted on judging social events from the economic viewpoint.” I would argue that social events are generally judged from an economic viewpoint. In our “free” society, personal economic status frequently determines our acceptance or rejection of social policy. The ballet box is more about who will create the best atmosphere for personal gain than about who will do the right thing (unless of course one’s definition of “the right thing” refers only to decisions that result in personal gain).
We have all seen the results of powerful people making decisions for personal benefit. It is nothing new to see a few individuals get even richer while others are devastated by the selfish decisions of others.
Polanyi continually points out the need for regulating the market. He says, “Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.” In America, socialism is usually a bad word. For many people, it represents a socio-economic system in which individual rights are taken away and power is increasingly place in the hands of the state in order to redistribute wealth. The fact is, our American system has incorporated many socialistic policies to help regulate a system that, left on its own, can and does become very destructive. The question that is always at hand is, who is the best person or political body to help regulate the system for others? Any given political body can become just as self-seeking as an individual.
As a nation, we must continue to wrestle with the benefits and detriments of a capitalistic market society and our responsibility to the global community. As a Christian, I believe that we must wrestle with our own personal responsibility regardless of our national policies.
Capitalism has been the source of many evils, as has fascism, socialism, communism, or any other “ism”. Those of us living in capitalist societies driven by the market can also leverage capitalism for the benefit of others. We can make decisions to buy from companies that promote the well being of others. While the Fair Trade movement is not perfect and can sometimes be manipulative, I have personally seen how something as simple as buying fair-trade coffee has benefited individuals and communities. I have also seen how investing in micro-loans for people in developing nations is transforming lives. It really comes down to a personal decision to pay more for a product or invest in a low-return investment, or in other words, personal sacrifice for the sake of others.
We would love to see broken, corrupt, or unfair systems reformed. The problem is, we cannot see systems reformed until we see people reformed. As a Christian community, let’s keep working toward positive social change; As individual Christians, let’s start being that change we want to see.
 Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 136.
 Ibid., 36-37.
 Ibid., 242.