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Book Review: Money, Greed and God – How Capitalism Is the Solution, Not the Problem

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Dr. Jay W. Richards has hit a home run with his latest book Money, Greed and God – How Capitalism Is the Solution, Not the Problem, which addresses these and other questions.  I have been reading books like Jay’s for years and this one really is different both in style and content.

There are many good books out there on the faith, just as there are many good works out there with good commentary on the relationship between faith and the market. However, when these folks begin to explain the market transactions embedded in the Capitalist system, the wheels soon fall off. Money and Incomes and GDP are all used interchangeably and my inner economist loses faith in the rest of the content.

Similarly, there are many excellent treatises on economics and ethics. But again, most of these do not hit pay dirt in my view. The Judeo-Christian ethic is by far the most influential ethic out there in the public square, and yet most of the academic work on ethics spends very little time on this major faith tradition.
Finally, economics proper is an enigma. As the first chapter in any introductory textbook makes clear, economics is a social science. It is therefore concerned with the positive description of the world around us, and not with the way the world “ought” to be. Economists are not supposed to be doing ethics.

So what about the Capitalism debate? Most economists stay clear of this debate because academic journal production is the goal inside the profession. Commentary related to what might be considered ideological commitments is shunned. So debate on one of the most important social institutions we have is severely limited.

Jay Richards does not have an economics degree but this may be his comparative advantage. He is very well acquainted with the professional terminology and the logic of markets. He gets capitalism. And most importantly he has situated this most important social institution within the most influential moral and ethical tradition of the West. He is not a proof tester. He gets the overarching themes in the biblical narrative and he weaves this tradition right into his project on Capitalism. And he does it very well.

He summarizes his project as a series of responses to myths that have built up around the Capitalism debate. He has captured the moment. We live on the supposedly upward recovery period of the worst recession since the Great Depression. President Obama is not what most would call a Capitalist. Is Capitalism the problem? Did the rich cause the downturn? Or is Capitalism the Answer? Did government intervention help to cause the downturn? There is no better time to study the content of capitalism and the moral commitments that follow.

Richards summarizes the eight myths in his book as follows:

  • The nirvana myth (contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives)
  • The piety myth (focusing on our good intentions rather than the unintended consequences of our actions)
  • The zero-sum game myth (believing that trade requires a winner and a loser)
  • The materialist myth (believing that wealth isn’t created, it’s simply transferred)
  • The greed myth (believing that the essence of capitalism is greed)
  • The usury myth (believing that charging interest on money is always exploitative)
  • The artsy myth (confusing aesthetic judgments with economic arguments)
  • The freeze frame myth (believing that things always stay the same—for example, assuming that population trends will continue indefinitely or treating a current “natural resource” as if it will always be needed)

He also links the eight myths to eight corresponding questions:

  • Can’t we build a just society?
  • What does God require of us as Christians?
  • Doesn’t capitalism foster unfair competition?
  • If I become rich, won’t someone else become poor?
  • Isn’t capitalism based on greed?
  • Has Christianity ever really embraced capitalism?
  • Doesn’t capitalism lead to an ugly consumerist culture?
  • Do we take more than our fair share?
  • Isn’t our modern lifestyle causing us to use up all the natural resources?

Those on the Left will likely disagree with some of his answers.  Those on the right will be heartened and emboldened. The book is the perfect tool for stimulating debate on campus and in society.

As an economics professor, I spend about every day at lunch arguing with my more left leaning colleagues about one of these eight myths. Just the other day, I asked a colleague if there is any way to make a poor person rich other than by being pro-business. Is there a way to make money without making money? In business? The colleague did not like this formulation as it makes the choice way too clear. I did note that one could receive a check and remain at the poverty level, but that to live life well and to flourish; the poor need help getting into business. So I again asked my friend if they would become more pro-business if it could really help the poor. They thought it was a trick question. It did not fit into the current dominant intellectual world view.

Jay Richards knows that the myths above are the road blocks that keep individuals and our society from achieving all that it can. He lays the arguments out fairly and his writing style is engaging. He gets you hooked in no time. The theological arguments are mainstream and so is the economics, an unusual combination!

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