Counting the Cost - A Review

Capitalism is often used as a curse word in contemporary political discourse. For others, it is used as a description of ultimate, unadulterated good. The term, coined by opponents of a free market, has so many definitions that it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly what those that use the term mean by it. For some that dislike free market economics, capitalism is responsible for everything that is wrong with the world. For some that prefer a free market, capitalism is the sum of all the world’s goodness.

In reality, of course, the answer is somewhere in the middle. However, it is often hard to get people on either side to listen to legitimate critiques of capitalism and responses to those critiques. A recent volume published by The Institute for Faith, Work and Economics provides a reasoned and reasonable critique of capitalism, that in the end commends continued support for free market economics. This is an important book precisely because it takes the critiques of opponents to free market economics seriously and addresses them from a distinctly Christian perspective.

Summary and Analysis

Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism consists of twelve chapter-length essays that rebut common objections to capitalism. The book opens with one of the final essays penned by Michael Novak, which considers the impact and validity of his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in the three decades after it was published. Novak’s epilogue from perhaps his most significant work calls for a continual reforming and humanization of our economic system, with a significant emphasis on pursuing the common good in a free society in the economic, political, and social orders. He notes that the apparent moral slide (especially in a lack of compassion for one another) must be corrected or our free system will not survive.

In Chapter Two, Jonathan Pennington outlines a vision for human flourishing built on Scripture. This is a necessary beginning point for Christians, since such a vision should shape the goals and means of any ethical economic systems. Critically, Pennington highlights the reality that flourishing is distinct from being wealthy. The goal of Christians as they engage in capitalist society is not merely to build wealth, but to encourage holistic well-being.

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Chapter Three takes on the fairly common argument that capitalism, ipso facto, is contrary to Christianity. Here Art Lindsley explains why Scripture does not, as some claim, actually extol the necessity or benefits of socialism. However, the reader will aptly note, capitalism has enabled some significant abuses, which some argue makes the system itself immoral. The fourth chapter, therefore, takes up the question of whether capitalism is antithetical to Christian morality because it is based on greed. New Testament scholar David Kotter argues that greed is a real danger in capitalistic systems, but that the system is not dependent upon greed, as some critics argue. While there is a need for moral reform by market actors, the system should not be discarded simply because it has been misrepresented or, as every system is due to human sin, abused.

Chapter Five asks whether capitalism as a system is fundamentally exploitative. This is based on the sometimes states assumption by some critics of free markets that profit is inherently sinful and that anything less than ideal conditions is unquestionably abusive. Joseph Connors argues that while exploitation is certainly possible and does occur, that such abuses are not a function of the system itself. Building on that theme, Anne Bradley asks whether income inequality is evidence of exploitation in her essay in Chapter Six. Bradley argues, in short, that income inequality is not necessarily a result of abuse, though it can be and often is when the concentrated power of capital is used to game the political system. She is critical of legitimate abuses due to misuses of power, but carefully explains why absolute income and wealth equality is neither a viable nor desirable goal as some claim.

Joy Buchanan and Vernon Smith take up the question of who benefits in capitalist systems in Chapter Seven. Critics of free market economics argue that the rich are the ones who benefit from capitalism, since economics is a zero-sum game. The authors carefully show, however, that free trade is not a zero-sum encounter and that both trade partners actually benefit. Their central argument on this point is good, though there are points within the chapter they deviate from their point and offer insufficiently supported arguments that will tend to raise questions for critics that read this volume. Chapter Eight addresses the same question from another angle. Doug Bandow provides evidence that the poor are actually the greatest benefits of free markets. At the same time, he notes that free markets are not sufficient for human flourishing and honestly contends with some of the abuses that have arisen within modern, Western versions of capitalism.

In Chapter Nine, Edd Noell considers the common criticism that capitalism relies upon and inevitably fosters consumerism. This chapter concludes that consumerism is bad and that it is prevalent in society, but though its public display is a result of economic prosperity due to capitalism, it has its roots in human sin that precedes the invention of modern capitalism. Consumerism is a problem to be addressed, but not one that is truly the fault of a free market. The tenth chapter, by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, considers whether global corporations export poor countries. Their answer is that they certainly do at times, but these are cases where unjust negotiations and unfair trade barriers hamper legitimate free trade. The conclusion again is that there are abuses within capitalism, which are the result of human sin, but they are not caused by the fact of free trade itself.

The eleventh chapter evaluates whether capitalism and environmental stewardship are incompatible. Cal Beisner begins by explaining that socialism has an even more devastating record on environmental stewardship than capitalism. This runs the risk of committing a tu quoque, but that is not Beisner’s intention. However, Beisner’s point is simply to note that, once again, the problem is not the economic system, but the actions of the sinful humans within it. Helpfully, Beisner recognizes the need to internalize externalities—that is, to hold companies accountable for pollution and other general costs. The core defense in this essay is helpful—human sin will lead to abuse of creation in any system. In his argument for dealing with externalities, however, Beisner offers a replacement of the regulatory role of the state with a mainly judicial one; that is, that offended parties would be able to sue as a result of environmental damages. This part of his argument is less convincing than others, as it does not seem to take into account the significant power disparity between many corporations and the people who are most effected by pollution. That is to say, his idea may be good in theory, but the practice at this time might not be possible. The overall thrust of the essay, however, is well argued and on point.

The final chapter of the volume serves as a defense against claims that capitalism has created a cultural wasteland. In this essay, Jonathan Witt acknowledges some of the social problems that have arisen along side capitalism. As with other cases, Witt concludes that they are not rooted in capitalism, but are sometimes exacerbated or made more visible because of the wealth that comes from the general prosperity of capitalist societies. This essay is a strong one, though it covers a great deal of ground. Witt helpfully wrestles with the question of distributism and so-called crunchy conservativism. He does this with integrity that illuminates the alternatives honestly.

Conclusion

None of these essays entirely refute arguments against free market economics, but they do point the way toward reasonable defenses of capitalism that are grounded in Christian thinking. Determined opponents to economic freedom will continue to raise objections and demand additional proofs beyond what these authors provide. However, the essays in Counting the Cost do provide a realistic, critical defense of capitalism as it should be, recognizing that the system is in need of reform and work to ensure that some of the egregious abuses of power (such as those stemming from cronyism) are corrected. This set of essays is an excellent place to direct people that have concerns about capitalism, but also recognize the looming problems with competing economic visions.

This volume helps fill a hole in discussions of theological economics by actually addressing criticisms rather than ignoring them or ridiculing those that raise them. This is the sort of volume that would be helpful for many proponents of free markets to better consider honest objections. It would also be useful in the classroom to introduce college students to a balanced representation of a theologically informed discussion of capitalism.

Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism
$26.31
By Art Lindsley PhD, Anne R. Bradley PhD

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from IFWE as a conference participant. I am also a Senior Research Fellow for IFWE, but I am posting what I believe to be an honest and fair review of the volume. I have only passing acquaintance with any of the authors.

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.

This Book Changes Nothing

I came to this book as an environmental ethicist, hoping to read an engaging book that would bring me into an important discussion from a different angle. I wanted a thoughtful critique that wrestled with the economic and social issues of the day. What I found was a book that will sell a lot of copies because it is being well-publicized and tells a segment of the population what they already believe and want to have reinforced. Such an approach will continue to reduce the opportunities for bi-partisanship, a fact she notes at one point in her diatribe, because it demonstrates exactly the shallow engagement and failure to dialogue that characterizes so much contemporary debate. In the end, this book is not about seeking truth and convincing people of its value, it’s about making money by speaking the words people want to hear. Ironically, given its success on the New York Times Bestseller list, This Changes Everything will be a capitalistic success.

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