How to achieve a more compassionate capitalism: look back to medieval Cambridge
Legal advances created a lively property market; cutting-edge technologies improved water management and bridge-building; commodity trade expanded; and towns grew dramatically, both in number and size. Its focus was on local infrastructure and local wellbeing. City churches were financed by local people to meet the needs of local people. Their legacy remains with us today: the most valuable real estate in a modern city is often occupied by medieval churches and hospitals. Using recently discovered documents and novel statistical techniques, we have analysed the histories of over one thousand properties in medieval Cambridge over this period. Using evidence from the so-called ‘Second Domesday’ – the Hundred Rolls of 1279 – we show how wealth accumulated by successful businesses was recycled back into the community through support for local churches and hospitals and for itinerant preachers based in the town. Town government was devolved by the king and queen to the mayor and bailiffs, and they encouraged the development of guilds, which promoted cooperation. The business centre of Cambridge shifted south as the town expanded. ‘New wealth’ replaced ‘old wealth’ as a local commercial class replaced Norman aristocrats. Local pride and religious devotion – expressed through high levels of charitable giving – helped spread the economic benefits throughout the town community. This self-sustaining system was broken in the 1340s by the Black Death, the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the punitive levels of taxation imposed on towns thereafter. When prosperity returned in the Tudor period, a more ruthless form of capitalism took root, and it is this ruthless form of capitalism whose legacy remains with us today.
Whenever Jan Stravers came home from the mission field, she brought crafts made by the Philipino women she worked with to sell to the churches she visited. The crafts were from family businesses that the Christian Reformed Church missionary and her husband had helped to start, and her supporting churches were among their main clients. “When we would go on home service and speak to churches, I would bring baskets and wall hangings and knit things that the ladies made,” she says. “I did really well at selling because I told them I know the people who made this-and it’s keeping their families alive.” In the 10 years that the Straverses worked as missionaries in the Philippines, they saw how small businesses can provide food, education, clothing, and a hope for the future to the poor in developing countries. After retiring from the mission field 10 years ago, Jan Stravers jumped at the chance to run International Arts and Gifts, a South Holland, Illinois, store selling handmade products made by artisans in the developing world. Slowly, the idea has been catching on among Christians that fair trade is a unique way of supporting missions and providing jobs to the world’s poor. Fair trade is a rapidly growing industry where companies like the Mennonite-run Ten Thousand Villages work directly with artisans in the developing world, offering better prices for handmade arts, crafts, and clothing. To be certified by the Fair Trade Federation, workers must earn enough to support their families, pay for education, and food. Fair-trade products must also be environmentally friendly and created under safe conditions, and the Western stores must commit to building long-term relationships with the workers.
Could Capitalism Actually Breed Compassion?
We benefit from the compassion of capitalism and we must help others achieve the same blessings. Google defines compassion as “Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. We must be able to have sympathy for and identify with the sufferings of others in order to solve problems and serve others. Sympathy and concern for others form the bedrock of free-market exchange. Entrepreneurs play a vital role in identifying the misfortunes of others, putting themselves in others’ shoes, to really experience what they are going through. In a free society, men like Henry Turkel can take their natural sympathies toward others and aid them in their misfortune. Through his profession, he had many occasions to understand the needs of infants and others who are incapacitated and cannot feed themselves. If not for Dr. Turkel’s sympathy, understanding of suffering, and the incentives to do something about it, my Bailey Grace may not be where she is today. This type of innovation, Turkel’s invention, is encouraged when one lives in a capitalist system, which can breed compassion even among the greedy and selfish. It does encourage ordinary people to unleash their God-given creativity to identify the sufferings of others and eliminate them.