Toxic Inequality - A Review

In the last decade or so, economic discourse on the left has begun to focus on inequality rather than poverty alleviation. Thomas Shapiro’s recent book, Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future, explores that theme. Analysis like that in Shapiro’s volume relies on catching people at the stage after the Great Recession before they had fully recovered and blaming their lot on insufficiency of government regulation. Books like this do well for their cause to claim a crisis for their advantage.

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There are basic ideas that Shapiro relies upon that are flawed. He speaks of “tax expenditures” when dealing with exemptions, cuts, and other deductions in the tax code. This is indicative of an underlying assumption that the state is the primary owner of all property and has the right to determine who should get to keep it or not. He also simply assumes that inequality is fundamentally immoral, which he makes no effort to defend.

Despite these assumptions, the book does highlight problems that deserve common concern, even if the solutions differ from those that are likely to be successful in the long run. The fundamental problem is not that rich people have too much, but that the poor are significantly disadvantaged by their poverty. The poor are, in many cases, cut off from adequate (there will never be equal) opportunity to flourish merely because of their poverty.

That should raise concerns among people across the political spectrum. Some of the case studies that Shapiro highlights reflect the logical outcomes of choices made by the subjects of the study. There are several instances that his subjects made irrational decisions and reaped the whirlwind during the financial crisis. However, there are many more cases where circumstances beyond the control of the individual or family drove negative outcomes or closed doors.

Shapiro’s book emphasizes the ongoing changes in the job market, which should be a significant concern to us all. Upper and lower skill jobs are increasing in number while middle skill jobs are largely being outsourced or automated. This is creating a narrower window for people to climb the social ladder, as the gap between low and high skill often involves a significant capital investment for a college education. This represents a challenge our factory-style schools need to adapt to, but also one which lower income, lower funding districts will increasing have difficulty overcoming.

The data in this book is sound and points toward the need for meaningful action on the part of society to seek to increase opportunities for success for those on the bottom end of the financial spectrum and their children. Some of the means that Shapiro suggests to solve the dilemma are likely to lead to worse conditions and be financially unsustainable. For example, Shapiro argues for the creation of make-work jobs by the government designed to inspire full employment. He also argues for increasing the already often unsustainable defined benefit pension plans, like those offered by many municipalities. Additionally, increasing the ability for unions to force people to join is a proposed solution. This assumes that unions always use their dues well, represent the interests of their members effectively, and facilitate authentic human flourishing. In short, many of Shapiro’s suggestions are more likely to exacerbate the negative attributes of our present economy, though they are well-intentioned.

Although the solutions are questionable, Shapiro reveals are real societal problems that need to be addressed. These are just the sorts of issues Ben Sasse was attempting to address in his recent book, The Vanishing American Adult. This conversation needs to continue as we work together across political lines to address the significant problem of the dissociative impact of poverty in our society.

The Road to Serfdom - A Review

One sign of a classic book is that the critiques it offers remain valid for years after being penned. F. A. Hayek’s famous book, The Road to Serfdom, demonstrates that quality. As the battle continues to rage between advocates of free market systems and various forms of socialism, Hayek’s diagnosis of the likely end of directed economic systems—namely, tyranny—illustrates why advocates of markets have not simply rolled over and played dead, despite the economic and social realities of economic problems.

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Another sign of a classic book is that it has explanatory power and offers brief summaries that could have been expanded to book length treatises. The Road to Serfdom contains dozens of examples of succinct statement of a deep, complex economic and social problems that arise from attempts to plan the economy.

The book, overall, is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and that contemporary supporters of socialism should be forced to reckon with. A few points, however, arise from the wider tapestry of the work that deserve especial note.

First, contrary to popular representations that attempt to associate free markets to National Socialism, Hayek shows that the fascism promoted by the Nazi’s was an exacerbation of the socialist ideals that had been embedded in German society for several generations rather than a market response. This, of course, violates Godwin’s Law by invoking the Nazis. However, to be fair, the volume was written during World War II. However, the close connection between the totalitarianism of Nazism, much like Italian fascism and Stalinist communism, is a significant point of the entire volume. Attempts to plan the economy centrally lead to tyranny of various degrees.

Second, Hayek is careful to differentiate the welfare state from economic socialism. He actually lauds the work of the British safety net in helping to ensure the basic needs of people are met when they are out of work. At the same time, he cautions against welfare efforts that that undermine the market.

An element that is missing from Hayek is a discussion of why liberty is a worthy end. That is, after all, the great advantage he lauds in the market system. Despite its inequities, the market system enables a greater freedom of choice for people. He argues for individualism, which is not quite the bogeyman contemporary opponents of markets make it out to be, but an effort to value the individual and to assert the rights of the individual even amidst the collective. Because of this lack, this work by Hayek is open to criticism that it can result in atomistic selfishness, but there are answers that are implied by the context. Hayek represents there are limits to human freedom, which should be enshrined in law. He is, therefore, not arguing for a Randian version of anarcho-capitalism. Hayek also recognizes there are externalities (like pollution) that may need to be regulated apart from market influences.

In short, despite the lack of explicit reasoning about certain moral assumptions, the market economy that Hayek lauds in this text is a far cry from the strawman constructed by many of capitalism’s critics. It is also quite a distance from the dangerous individualistic vision of market participation that is offered by some of the free markets popular supporters. There is a moral thickness to Hayek that, while still falling short of biblical adequacy, represents a better foundation than many, both supporters and detractors, assume.

A strength of the text is that Hayek shows that good intentions in economic planning do not make up for the inability of humans to adequately plan. The range of social goods that are valued by different people make it impossible for central planners to prioritized the preferred goods of the population, since there will always be competition between those goods. The priority of goods must, therefore, be imposed rather than derived and will thus lead to the constraint of reasonable and warranted freedoms of many to meet the goods of the empowered few planners.

Here again, the lack of an ethical consensus that can drive the social action of the planners reveals that economic reasoning is second order. That is, moral virtue must precede the economic system. Any economic system is doomed to reveal the moral failings of its constituent members. Hayek’s argument and historical economic evidence reveals that markets have the best internal mechanism for mitigating vices apart from centralized planning. Still, a market driven by an immoral people will merely enlarge their immoralities. There is, perhaps, greater danger in enforcing evil as an intended “good” in collectivist economics that makes the ability in a market system of to refuse to participate in immorality preferable.

Hayek also reveals that today’s arguments that “socialism must be implemented because of impending doom” is nothing new. There is nothing new under the sun. Human nature is consistent in any economic system. Our task is to work toward the best possible system of economics that will encourage human flourishing. There are many who believe, as Hayek does, that free markets tend to do that better than various forms of collectivist economics.

Protestants - A Review

Alec Ryrie’s recent volume, Protestants, is an immense project that attempts to survey the impact of Protestantism over the past five hundred years. Ryrie is, himself, a licensed lay preacher in his Anglican church. He is also a professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University.

Attempting a project this broad in scope is brave. In five hundred years, Protestantism has gone from a local attempt to correct theological errors of Roman Catholicism to a worldwide movement that has strong theological, social, and political emphases. Any project of such expansive scope will be subject to common criticisms that it makes generalizations, skips key points, and does not satisfy the desires of those with a pet theory about a topic. To cover every possible topic in perfect detail would have made this book tedious and impenetrable. Some of those criticisms are valid, however, and I will point to some areas of particular weakness in this review, but the book deserves consideration beyond such simple dismissals.

Summary

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Ryrie attacks his enormous task in three movements. In Part I he deals with the contours of the Reformation Era, beginning with Luther and considering the various reformations that spread through Europe. This was the strongest section of the volume, as Ryrie weaves together the threads of history into a representative tapestry. Part II focuses on what Ryrie calls the Modern Age, which includes Pietism, the sin of human slavery, American Protestantism, the rise of liberalism, the German Nazi crisis, and American religious politics. Clearly in this selection of topics, there is a great deal Ryrie skips. His selections show something of his intentions through the volume. In Part III, Ryrie addresses a handful of examples of Protestantism in various corners of the globe, including South Africa with a focus on Apartheid, Korea and its evolution of a prosperity gospel, Chinese Protestantism, and Pentecostalism. His Epilogue attempts to tell the future, revealing his hopeful anticipation of changes in Protestantism to come.

With such an expansive topic and, possibly, a strong desire to get the volume finished during the year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is little surprising that Ryrie relies much more strongly on secondary and tertiary sources to write his volume. He includes some primary sources, but there are clear cases, as with his depiction of Zwingli’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper, that Ryrie sticks to the mainstream theories, which are obviously inaccurate to those who have read the primary source. Such an approach is understandable, but it severely limits Ryrie’s ability to deal with topics about which he is apparently largely unread.

One such example is in Ryrie’s treatment of Fundamentalism. Though he opens the volume professing to attempt to treat movements fairly, writing, “Condemning ugly beliefs is easy, but it is also worth the effort to understand why people once believed them. If we are lucky, later ages might be as indulgent toward us. We all live in glass houses.” However, he dismisses Fundamentalism as a “mood” and not a doctrinal movement. In other words, Fundamentalism is a psychosis. These are the marks of someone who is critiquing a movement that he despises, has not bothered to research, and thus has not adequately considered. To say there are excesses in negative attitude among Fundamentalism is certainly true, but to dismiss the doctrinal heart of the Fundamentalist dispute with modernism is sloppy.

Analysis and Critique

Significantly absent from Ryrie’s lengthy tome is a chapter focused on the influence of Protestant missions. He engages in occasional discussions of the topic, but the central thrust of the volume is the sociological impact of Protestantism on history rather than on the concern for conversion. In fact, most of the discussions of missions in this volume are negative, describing missionaries in largely imperialistic terms, which is a sometimes-fair, but incomplete depiction. He largely skips the positive impacts that Protestant missionaries have had through their social reforms, and he certainly does not talk about the concern of so many Protestants to preach the gospel that many may not suffer the fires of Hell. Whether it is by design or default, Ryrie’s presents a Protestantism that is entirely devoid of the gospel which compelled Luther to seek reformation of faulty doctrines and inspired many to give their lives for their faith.

The portrait that emerges from Ryrie’s Protestants is one of an ever-adapting religion that lags somewhat behind the cultural winds, but always follows. In fact, his Epilogue is a hopeful prediction that will be exactly the case. However, it should be clear that Ryrie’s portrait is not of the forms of Protestantism that still feel strongly connected to their roots in the Reformation. Rather, Ryrie argues that Protestantism “is not a doctrine or theology. Defining it that way is usually an attempt to exclude people. . .” That approach enables Ryrie to trace out the influence that Protestantism has as it has morphed and migrated throughout the world. If the purpose of the book is to survey how people who have been impacted by movements that were influenced by those who attempted to reshape Christianity half a millennium ago, then it has accomplished its purpose. Such a book would say little about the content of Protestantism and a great deal more about the social influence of an event. However, Ryrie’s purpose seems to be something more than that.

The story that Ryrie is telling has a moral that begins to appear in his recounting of the evolution of liberalism. Ryrie makes his point explicit in the final pages of the book. One central theme is that it is not necessary to take the Bible too seriously to consider oneself a faithful Protestant. (His repeated bashing of inerrantists, whose actual beliefs he never considers, and Fundamentalists reveal this early on.) This leads to the more significant idea that Protestantism is descended from orthodox Christianity, but not significantly moored in that. Ryrie sees the liberalizing trend of culture as the final destination of all Protestant Christians. Thus, he seems to be saying, ethical revisionists should feel free to patronize churches (in both senses of the word) while the amorphous religion comes around to contemporary, culturally compatible doctrines. By ignoring evidence to the contrary, his conclusions are entirely plausible. And, by ignoring the possibility that extensive changes can actually sever a movement from rightful claims to a historical root in the Reformation, Ryrie’s conclusions may indeed salvage an anemic form of Christianity in the eyes of those who long to see it shaped by the waves of culture. Ryrie is telling a story that sounds a great deal like Niebuhr’s category, “Christ of Culture.” If Protestantism is primarily a social movement, the Ryrie’s predictions may be accurate, but those seeking a theological interpretation will likely question his prognostications.

Ryrie’s book is well written. The first part is quite well done, with engaging prose and even-handed interpretation. This is the sort of volume that will likely find its way onto a public library shelf, and which may serve as a launching point for a conversation. It will provide comfort to the culturally comfortable Protestant Christian, and potentially fuel criticism among those who want Christians concerned with historical orthodoxy to evolve faster. As such, this is the sort of volume one should read because of its potential for conversation in the plane or over the water cooler rather than as a normative interpretation of the history of Protestantism.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Unreformed Martin Luther - A Review

There is no time like the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to read up on Martin Luther’s life and legacy. In the midst of the plurality of celebrations and denigrations of Luther, there are dozens of myths, incubated over the past five centuries, that portray the man as much greater or much worse than he actually was. Some of them have even found their way into discussions of Church History through reputable sources.

Andreas Malessa’s book, The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Serious (and Not So Serious) Look at the Man Behind the Myths, is an honest attempt to bust some of the myths that have helped make Luther’s legacy larger than life. Some of them are confirmed while others (some of the most fun ones) must be consigned to the dust heap.

Among the many topics covered in the twenty-five chapters of this volume are Luther’s famous quote about planting an apple tree, even if he knew the end of the world was coming. (Not true.) Or, that Luther was consistently a heavy drinker by his culture’s standards. (Also not true.) Similarly, Malessa takes up the idea that Luther’s best theological thinking came while he was relieving himself. Alas, this, too, must be set aside as a myth that is just true enough to be believable.

The common theme of many of the myths is that they are usually not too far from the truth. Luther did drink beer and sometimes joke about getting drunk. However, in a world where the water was of questionable purity, beer was probably a safer bet. Luther was certainly constipated and wrote to his friends of the miseries caused by a diet with too little fiber, but the idea that his theologizing was tied to his bathroom habits was fomented by his foes to discredit his work.

Malessa also takes on some of the other basic historical misconceptions around Luther. He never wanted to start a new denomination. He did, sadly, fall into putrid anti-Semitism in his later years, though not in quite the way it is sometimes portrayed. He actually wasn’t the first to translate any of the Bible into German. The brief volume does good historical work in setting some of these myths to rights, too.

Christians should be known as people of truth, which makes The Unreformed Martin Luther a welcome addition to the host of volumes on the Reformation. It will certainly not appeal to everyone in every local church, but it has a place in the library of seminaries, Christian schools, and those interested in Church History.

A book like this would make an interesting auxiliary volume in a course focused on the Reformers. It also is an entertaining read for those who enjoy a bit of Church History after a hard day’s work. The chapters are concise, the prose is lucid, and the subject matter is entertaining. Reading this book is a fun way to spend a few hours.

NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Poverty Industry

Perverse incentives woven into the fabric of systems have the tendency to undermine positive outcomes and exacerbate abuses of the most well-intentioned programs. In his 2016 book, The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens, Daniel L. Hatcher, a law professor, exposes the manifold perverse incentives of our various contemporary aid systems.

From the start, it should be clear that Hatcher is not an angry Republican bemoaning money wasted on the bottom end of the social scale. In fact, the book is published by New York University Press, which is not known for being a bastion of conservativism. Also, Hatcher especially highlights as many as Republicans who are abusing the intent of various Federal aid programs, while being much less intrusive and accusatory toward Democrats. Toward the end of the volume, he makes it clear that he is not calling for an end to the Federal programs or a reduction in their expenditures, but rather a deeper look at abuses that prevent the programs from achieving their ends.

There are several examples, but Hatcher spends a great deal of time walking through abuses that are endemic in the child protection systems. In an attempt to recoup funds, these government departments often confiscate property from their wards, seek ways to maximize streams of income from the Federal government, and fail to use the resultant funds for the benefit of the children. It becomes advantageous, given the current arrangement, for agents to terminate parental rights from poorer kids, refuse to place them, and lengthen adoption processes because the lower the income the child’s parents have, the larger the aid income stream the state can harvest.

Similarly, Hatcher highlights Medicaid programs in which states transfer large sums of money to hospitals to garner matching grants from the Federal government. The state “expenditures” are then funneled back into state coffers via bed taxes or ledger transfers. This means that the state actually does not spend the money that the Federal government was intended to match. It also means that the intended recipients of the redistribution—the poor—do not receive the intended benefit.

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Clearly, Hatcher is highlighting abuses, which may be representative, but likely are not normative. Much of the social work done by agents of the state is heartbreaking and hard, so we should not read his book in a condemnatory manner. However, there are fundamental systemic flaws and, more significantly, failures of virtue in the people overseeing the systems.

The vast majority of the abuses Hatcher cites are, in fact, legal. If a hospital is owned by the government, then a ledger transfer is a legitimate means for it to transfer excess funds back to the parent government. However, when such transfers are examples of playing shell games with money, since money is fungible, then it undermines the sense of fair play and incentivizes everyone to misuse the system.

Some of the systemic failures Hatcher highlights can be remedied by law. For example, the practice of the state receiving child support on behalf of its wards and then attempting to collect debts from often poverty-stricken “dead beat dads” can lead to the permanent estrangement of fathers from their children and warrants for the arrest of men and women who simply cannot pay the demanded support. This is, in one sense, the criminalization of poverty, which may lead to parents in arrears on their support payments fleeing from officers and, perhaps, being shot repeatedly in the back. Welfare is an indication of a failure of our economic system, so at some point, the law should simply recognize that much of that money is sunk and stop trying to claw it back from the poor.

The greater problem, however, is an absence of virtue in society. (This is my conclusion, not Hatchers.) When legislators, governors, and administrators do legal, but unintended things to maximize their take from the Federal government it represents a failure of virtue. Economists and politicians can debate the relative merits of various social programs, but people should have the integrity not to attempt to game the system. Or, at least, if they do choose to milk the system for every advantage, they should pass those advantages on to the targeted recipient. Unfortunately, there is a too broad acceptance of the equivalence of legality with morality, which is intellectually sloppy and spiritually damaging.

Hatcher’s book is an important one for understanding some of the reasons the so-called war on poverty has been so ineffective. The problem of poverty is not going away, and it may be that systemic flaws and a lack of virtue are contributing as much as the oft-cited lack of funding.

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good - A Review

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good is the sort of project that offers hope for interdisciplinary dialogue. The premise of the book is to provide a response to the basic question how social sciences can inform theology. For the most part, the essays are helpful in this regard, especially for those who rely on traditional Catholic Social Teachings as a foundation for their theology.

With a few exceptions, the non-theologians’ explanations of their contribution to theology are helpful. The majority of the authors avoided the assumption that theology should conform to the findings of their discipline; instead they argued that their disciplines could inform the application of theology.

For example, Christian theology makes the moral claim that Christians should be engaged in seeking the welfare of the poor. Economics provides evidence for how best that should take place. Or, to state it differently, theology provides the telos for the method of economics. When political science, public policy, sociology, and economics claim to provide both the definition of the common good and the method for attaining to the common good, they transgress into the area of applied theology, or ethics. When discipline failure like that happen, the result is the current elevation of politics, economics, and sexuality to the status of summum bonum for society. That, as we see around us, is a guarantee of the pursuit of anything but a true common good.

After Daniel Finn’s editorial introduction, the volume contains eight essays by experts in a variety of disciplines, all making arguments about how their particular discipline contributes to theological arguments about the common good. Chapter One is political scientist, Matthew Carnes, showing how his discipline contributes to a cross-disciplinary discussion through four emphases within Political Science. In the second chapter, Andrew Yuengert asserts that economics can help theologians understand the role of individual choice in seeking the common good. Mary Jo Bane, a public policy specialist, argues in Chapter Three for the contribution of her discipline in helping theologians understand trade-offs implicit in pursuing the common good. In the fourth chapter, Douglas Porpora argues that sociologists have little to say about the constitution of the common good, but have a great deal of expertise in showing how to measure and evaluate the pursuit of those theologically identified ends.

Charles Wilber, an economist, echoes Porpora in his essay in Chapter Five. He argues that economics can help measure progress toward human flourishing, while acknowledging the failure of most economists to separate economic metrics from a holistic understanding of the common good. The sixth chapter puts bureaucracy in perspective, as Gerardo Sanchis Muños dissects the failure of public service to serve the common good. Theologian David Cloutier critiques contemporary iterations of Catholic social teaching, pointing to less individualistic emphases in earlier stages of the tradition in Chapter Seven. The eighth and final chapter, theologian-economist Mary Hirschfeld reasserts the importance of theology for the social sciences, so that a proper understanding of the common good may develop.

The clear message of this volume is that theology needs social sciences to understand how to accomplish its moral ends, while the social sciences need theology to inform them of the nature of the common good. In the present fragmented state of academia, there is too much isolation in separate ivory towers. That is unhealthy for students and tragic for the development of robust worldviews that have a defined end and cogent methodology.

Somewhat surprisingly, this volume is favorable toward markets, though critical of market economics untethered to a moral foundation. However, the various authors regularly affirm the improved possibilities for flourishing that come from enabling market economics. Given the use of Catholic Social Teaching by some to argue for forms of economic socialism, this is volume that deserves careful attention. It may be that proponents of various forms of socialism are, in fact, conflating a pursuit of the common good with discredited means to achieve it.

Like other volumes that Finn has edited, this collection of essays reflects careful conversation. The essays refer to one another and show signs of having been shaped by the arguments in various chapters. This makes the volume easier to read and more helpful for classroom instruction or dialog than many edited volumes that appear to be a random collection of voices shouting in the wilderness.

If there are two things clearly explained in this volume it is (1) that we need more interdisciplinary dialogue, else theology and social sciences tend toward tyranny, and (2) we need not abandon the methodology of market economics for central planning to better approximate the common good.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Church History: A Review of Some Introductions

During my preparation for teaching a four-week Church History survey I read several single volume books on the topic and am here doing brief reviews to highlight the particular emphasis of each.

Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th edition (2013)

Shelley’s book is one of the classic single volume Church Histories. It has weathered well and sold well. The book is very accessible and reads quickly. It is intended to introduce people in the pew to the topic. I’ve heard of it being used as a High School text for homeschoolers, so that is a plus. Shelley focuses on the history of the Western Church, which is the traditional approach, but which is a place where other volumes may have improved since he wrote this book. Still, this is a solid volume that would be a good place to start on the topic. Shelley passed away in 2010, so it unlikely this volume will be updated for too long in the future with other excellent entries into the field.


Gerald Bray, The Church: A Theological and Historical Account (2016)

Bray is an excellent writer and historian. His single volume introduction the Church History is a bit more theological than Shelley’s, which fits because Bray is a Historical Theologian. His interpretations are fair, though Bray’s Anglican bias comes through on multiple occasion when dealing with the issue of baptism. This is an intermediate volume, but could be helpful for pastors and those with some background in Church History to gain a deeper knowledge. One downside on Bray’s writing is that his chapters and sections tend to be excessively long, which makes interrupted reading somewhat more difficult.


Joseph Early, A History of Christianity (2015)

This is a solid volume from B&H, which present Church History in a very traditional framework, like Shelley. He improves on Shelley in two ways: (1) He retells history from a distinctly baptistic perspective, while still maintaining a reasonable balance in critiquing other traditions; (2) His volume is shorter than Shelley’s, with no apparent downside. In all, Early’s volume is an accessible volume should be useful in churches, secondary schools and introductory college courses.


Ian Shaw, Christianity: The Biography: 2000 Years of Global History (2017)

Shaw’s approach is unique. He lines up the various stages of change in the history of the Church in parallel with stages of human life. The analogy works better earlier in the book, but it is entertaining. A major strength of Shaw’s book is his emphasis on global Christianity rather than just the Western tradition. This means that, in the abbreviated format Shaw uses, there is sometimes less information about Western Church History than I would have liked. However, I think the tradeoff was in the whole worth it. I would recommend this one over other volumes because I think it better represents a broad picture of Christianity.

The Conservative Heart - A Review

The term “conservative” has taken significant hits to its credibility in the last few years as it has become identified with many things that, when examined truthfully, are not either not worth conserving or, in fact, romantic idealizations of something that never really existed. It does not help that in the American two party system “liberalism” has been claimed by Democrats on the left, which naturally leaves the opposite of that to become Republican “conservatism.”

Perhaps with a wink and a nod, we can assume that Republicans still represent something akin to fiscal conservatism (though that is highly in doubt given the most recent budget proposal). However, accepting there is a higher likelihood of fiscal conservatism on the right than the left, that leaves Republicans as the killjoys of the welfare state, more often presenting lectures on the economic infeasibility of radical redistributionism than a vision for the good of the nation. It is in the latter that a true conservatism would reside.

Arthur Brooks seeks to recapture and rehabilitate true conservatism in his book, The Conservative Heart. Among thoughtful conservatives, there is a strong desire to pursue human flourishing broadly. In fact, the vision of truth, beauty, and goodness is at the very center of traditional conservatism.

Many contemporary conservatives have lost their way and become drawn into merely not being socially progress and fiscally irresponsible. However, when your greatest argument is an appeal to the cultural sentiments of the 1950s (which were pretty hellish for people of color in these here United States) and a bunch of charts and figures that reveal the inevitable demise of a culture that is rampantly financially irresponsible, you will rapidly lose your audience.

Brooks is arguing that true conservatives need to work to regain a holistic vision of human flourishing that builds on economic reality, but focuses on a virtuous ideal of mutual flourishing of everyone in society. That is, he is arguing that conservatives reveal their heart for the well-being of all citizens our world, especially those who are at the bottom end of the economic scale.

Like most advocates of market economics, Brooks sees individual pursuit of happiness with enrichment of the common good. He addresses the futility of our current spending on welfare, but, to be clear, he favors a robust safety net. However, he argues the conservative vision for a social safety net should emphasize equipping to get out of poverty. Too often, social assistance has been structured in ways that make it difficult. At the same time, some on the political right have begun to see attacking the down and out as a winning strategy (on the left they insult “guns and religions” of the “deplorables”); this needs to be rejected by true conservatives.

Instead, Brooks argues conservatives ought to work to make work meaningful and readily accessible.  We should discuss our vision for easy access to markets, especially for the poorest of the poor. This includes rolling back unnecessary protectionist laws that are designed to disadvantage need entrants into the market; it is the poor who often lack the resources to get licenses required for jobs they often have the skills to perform. Enabling economic participation is a better path to social justice than pure redistribution: it both assists and ennobles; conservatives have that vision in their past and need to make it happen.

Ultimately, Brooks is arguing that conservatives lack vision and spend too little time communicating the bits of vision they actually have. In some ways, self-styled conservatives need to change their positions to be more consistent with their historic roots. In many other way, the same people need to spend more time working and speaking for positive outcomes rather than heaving rocks across the aisle for the people who have often captured the hearts of the needy, but have a deficient plan to assist them.

Brooks is a winsome communicator who consistently believes the very important ideas that there is a true, good, and beautiful that conservatives should be pursuing. He actually wants to see lives improve and the world made a better place, which is different than the common partisan quest for power. In short, the ideas of this book represent some of the best aspects of conservatism and provide some practical steps for real, principled conservatives to step up and begin to make changes for the better.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

A Recent Book on the Ten Commandments - Review

The Ten Commandments, known among Bible scholars and theologians as the Decalogue (literally, ten words), are a significant focus of the Christian ethical tradition. In popular American culture, they are often seen as the epitome of biblical ethics. Some, misunderstanding the nature of the gospel, will state they are good with God because “they follow the Ten Commandments.” (If you haven’t encountered this, you haven’t shared the gospel in the so-called Bible Belt.) One cannot understand Christian ethics without delving into the text and interpretation of the Decalogue.

As a result of the importance of the Ten Commandments in the Judeo-Christian ethics, the study of the topic continues at a steady pace. David Baker’s recent book, The Decalogue: Living as the People of God, represents one of the more recent entries into the ongoing discussion.

Summary

The structure of The Decalogue is simple and straightforward. Part One has four chapters that survey the background of the Ten Commandments, including their shape, form, origin, and purpose. Part Two has a chapter on each of the first five commandments; this section focuses on loving God properly. Part Three discusses the last five commandments; these chapters emphasize loving neighbor. The fourth part consists of a single chapter that attempts to further develop the idea that the Ten Commandments are applicable to contemporary life.

It should be clear from the outset that this book is a scholarly volume representing a specific approach of the Decalogue. Baker is a good biblical scholar and interacts with key textual resources and commentaries in laying out his argument. He provides some of the background on the textual history of the Ten Commandments, including how different denominations number them and how they divide up the tablets, but it focuses mainly on the text itself and not the traditional ethical interpretations of the Decalogue.

By focusing on the text of the Decalogue, Baker provides a resource that opens up the topic and introduces the Ten Commandments for a contemporary audience. He divides each of his chapters on a commandment into three basic parts: (1) Explaining the Ancient Near Eastern context; (2) Exposition of the commandment in the context of the Bible; (3) Some application of the text.

Analysis and Conclusion

In explaining his structure, Baker notes, “There are a good number of books with valuable insights concerning the relevance of the commandments, but these often lack a firm basis in the study of the text.” (pg. x) His observation is correct and his emphasis on trying to explain the text makes this volume a good addition to ongoing study of the Decalogue.

At the same time, the contemporary ethical application of the Decalogue is often best informed by the historical uses of the text. Baker’s volume lacks this theological history. For example, there is little interaction with the way historic confessions of the Reformation dealt with the Ten Commandments, and very little reference to significant sermons preached by pastor-theologians on the commandments. Baker did not set out to accomplish this is his volume, so this is not a fault, but those considering purchasing it should be aware of the limit of the scope.

Also, the explanation of the purpose of the Decalogue in chapter four is thin in comparison to many texts dealing mainly with the moral theological significance. He summarizes three views on how broadly the commandments were intended to be applied and settles on his preferred interpretation, which is that they apply to all of God’s people. Neglected in this discussion is the nature of the Ten Commandments, which informs their applicability. If, as some argue, the Decalogue reflects the very character of God, then they reflect a moral standard for all people. Baker moves beyond those foundational arguments too quickly, which, again, is largely a result of the scope. However, some of those discussions would have made this volume a more complete treatment of the topic.

Baker accomplishes what he set out to do. He effectively explains the context and text of the Ten Commandments. He also brings these divine directives into our time through contemporary application. His exegesis and synthesis of biblical scholarship on the topic make this a touchstone volume for future Decalogue studies.

This is not a comprehensive treatment, but The Decalogue, will make an excellent addition to a pastor’s library as an aid to sermon preparation. It will also make a strong complimentary volume to a biblical ethics course at the undergraduate or graduate level. Baker has done good work for the Kingdom in researching and writing this book.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. Also, purchasing the book through the above link will direct a small portion of the proceeds to supporting this website.

Just Capitalism - A Review

A lot of public debate about economics deals in caricature, particularly of capitalism. Critics of markets tend to argue that it is fundamentally unjust and based primarily on greed.

Some beneficiaries of capitalism tend to sheepishly agree with the injustice of the system but either shrug their shoulders because they feel they can’t change it or support it anyway because they like the prosperity that comes through the market system.

Brent Waters takes a significantly different approach. He writes,

My principal contention is that globalization is the only credible means at present for alleviating poverty on a global scale. Consequently, a well-ordered global capitalism is compatible with such core convictions as the preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing. To be naively anticapitalism is thereby to effective opt against the poor and diminish human flourishing. Therefore, an ethic of globalization necessarily entails a defense of capitalism.

This is, in fact, why I am pro-markets and anti-socialism. No economic system is perfect because they all involve imperfect, sinful humans. The free market economic system will not prevent all human suffering; however, it has proven to be a better tool to alleviating human suffering than various attempts at socialism.

Summary

Waters argues his thesis in two parts. The first five chapters of the volume outline the necessity of exchange and the place of Christians to argue for market systems. His first chapter summaries some of the historical arguments about wealth and poverty. Chapter Two defines what Waters means by markets and argues for the good in competition and cooperation that are necessary for a market economic system. In the third chapter, the author addresses the topic of creative destruction, the relationship of markets to governance, and an argument that markets represent the best means for improving human flourishing on a broad scale. Chapter Four makes a case for the good of affluence as a pathway to flourishing. The fifth chapter, which closes out the first part of the book, makes the case that affluence is the best means of eradicating poverty on a wide scale.

Part Two of Just Capitalism builds on the general affirmation of free markets, as offered in the first part, but critiques the failures in most current forms of capitalism.  The upshot of the last five chapters is that free markets without virtuous people engaged in exchange are no less evil than socialism. In Chapter Six, Waters argues that exchange is necessary for human flourishing, but it must be oriented toward that end rather than simply focusing on increasing one’s economic status. The seventh chapter shows that for markets to achieve their purpose, they must function within the context of a civil society with the purpose of sharing the goods of creation. Chapter Eight offers some provisional thoughts on possible relationships between a free, civil society that enables exchange with political orderings that prevent abuse. The ninth chapter fleshes out the concepts of freedom and justice, making an implicit case about the differences between positive and negative rights and their relationship with justice. Chapter Ten functions as a conclusion, where Waters draws together the threads of his earlier arguments to further emphasize the good that global capitalism can do to alleviate poverty.

Analysis and Conclusion

Waters is clearly not arguing that every instance of capitalism is good. Neither is he arguing that the present instantiation of global capitalism has no flaws. Many contemporary critics of global capitalism assume that the abuses that arise within existing markets are necessarily a feature and not a bug of the system. On the other hand, some proponents for markets insufficiently critique the sin that is evidenced in current markets and often make a similar assumption that some of the worst aspects of global capitalism are a necessary evil.

This book challenges assumptions on both sides. Economic systems are not inherently unjust or just. However, Waters carefully argues that free markets have a higher probability in resulting in just outcomes due to the self-corrective nature of the market system. At the same time, simply accepting capitalism without working to morally form the members of the market will lead to exclusion of potential market contributors due to social injustices. Waters’ book explains that markets can be good, but we have to work at keeping them moral.

This is the best moral case for the free market economic system that I have seen. There are points where one can disagree with Waters, but he realistically examines the benefits and risks of capitalism, showing that in the balance global capitalism is the best means of alleviating poverty.

Just Capitalism
$31.70
By Brent Waters

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The above link is an affiliate link.