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The Entrepreneurial Vocation

One may say, without fear of contradiction, that prejudice against minorities is unpopular in modern society. And with good reason: the idea that people are judged merely by the group that they happen to belong to, without any regard for their person or individual qualities, is properly odious to anyone with moral sensibilities.

Yet despite this laudable attitude prevalent throughout the popular culture, there remains one minority group upon which an unofficial open-season has been declared: the entrepreneur. One sees evidence of this prejudice everywhere about us. Consider the books (say of Dickens or Sinclair Lewis), television programs (like Dallas or Dynasty), films (China Syndrome, Wall Street, or even some versions of “A Christmas Carol”), cartoons strips (like Doonesberry) and even sermons that you’ve heard in which the business person is depicted. Think about the character that is being projected. Does one positive image emerge?

Even when opinion makers (especially moral leaders) are not occupied with denouncing the “rapacious appetite” and “obscene and conspicuous consumption” of these capitalists, the best one comes to expect of them is that they might tolerate business merely as a necessary evil which is in need of a broad and complicated network of controls in order to force it to serve human needs. And this is, all too often, the attitude of even capitalism’s friends!

This bias against capitalism is prevalent among religious leaders. When I criticized the anti-free market sentiments of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in an article in The Wall Street Journal, I pointed to this bias as the primary reason that the nation was suffering from heart-rending poverty. A very curious thing began to happen the next day. I began to receive phone calls from people all throughout the U.S. with a similar profile. After some perfunctory remarks about Nicaragua, I found that most of these callers really weren’t interested in talking about Latin America at all. Each was a relatively successful business person; each had deep moral and religious convictions; and each of them was utterly astounded that a Catholic priest would explicitly defend the free market as a morally preferable system. These people represented a variety of Christian traditions and told me that they each felt disenfranchised and alienated from their churches.

Why is it that the very best business people get to hear from religious leaders so often is, “Well, the way to redeem yourself is to give us your money?” Why does there appear to be such ignorance on the part of clergy and religious leaders about the realities of the market and how it operates, and its moral basis?

One very obvious reason is the sheer lack of any course, in virtually all the seminaries I am acquainted with, in economics, which, unfortunately, has not deterred religious leaders from pronouncing on economic matters. Let me be clear that I am not advocating that religion adopt a bottom line mentality with regard to its mission. There are some matters which simply do not fit within an economic calculus and which cannot be evaluated in terms of “dollars and cents.” What I am saying, however, is that before religious leaders choose to pronounce on economic matters, they do well to become informed.

In addition to this intellectual gap, there is a practical gap between religious leaders and business people in their understanding of market operations because these two groups tend to proceed from two very different sets of assumptions.

People who work in the church operate from a distributivist economic model. By this I mean that on Sunday morning a collection basket is passed. On Monday the bills are paid, acts of charity are attended to, etc. If Sunday collections come up short on a regular basis, making it difficult to pay the bills, most preachers begin to turn up the screws a notch or two and lay on another layer of guilt. Thus, in the minds of many clergy, the economic world they see is a pie that is in need of being divided. They view the world of money as static, so in order for one to obtain a larger piece of that pie, it will be necessary for someone else to get a somewhat smaller piece.

The business person operates from a very different model. The entrepreneur talks of making money, not collecting it. In other words, for the business person, who must consider the needs, wants and desires of the consumer, the way to get money is to offer something of value. The world of money for these people is dynamic.

Another factor that plays into the hostility one frequently encounters regarding capitalism in religious circles comes from a noble, if mistaken, source. Many religious leaders spend a great deal of their lives confronting the wretchedness of poverty in close proximity. Anyone who has traveled in Third World countries knows the cry of the human heart that yells “Stop!” when confronted with such human misery. Unnecessary poverty angers us, and we want to put an end to it. This sentiment is an exactly proper moral sentiment.

The problem results when this sentiment is combined with the economic ignorance I described previously. When this happens the cry against poverty is easily converted into a rage against wealth, which, while understandable, is ill-informed and even deadly. It fails to see that the amelioration of poverty can only be achieved by the production of wealth. It seeks to kill the goose that will lay the golden egg: indeed, it will kill the goose that will hatch other golden-egg-laying geese!

The first pages of the Hebrew Scriptures contain the dramatic account of God making the heavens and the earth, the ocean and the dry land, the stars of the heavens, all of the creeping things of the earth and finally the apex of his creation: man and woman. God’s reaction after each act of creation is repeated over six times on the first page of Scripture: “God saw that it was good.”

This view of the created order, specifically the goodness of the material world that God made, has not been accepted without controversy, even within the Christian tradition. When we look back into the first centuries of Christianity we see that a movement developed which regarded that material world as fundamentally evil, created by a demi-god. This movement was known as Gnosticism, and the Gnostic impulse has surfaced and re-surfaced under many guises throughout Christian history.

In a real sense, it is the fundamental goodness of this material dimension of human existence that is at the root of the conflict over the morality of capitalism, the free market and what I call the entrepreneurial vocation.

An entrepreneur is a kind of impresario, one who organizes numerous factors, and brings things into connection so as to produce. This creative aspect of the entrepreneur is akin to God’s creative activity as we read it in the book of Genesis. In this sense, I would argue, the entrepreneur participates in that call to productivity that God gives to the whole human race. It is a distinct call, this entrepreneurial vocation, like that of being a parent. But if it is not quite as sublime as, say, motherhood, the keenness of insight required of the entrepreneur remains sacred.

In order to carry out this creative enterprise, the entrepreneur must have access to the material factors of production; he must be permitted to acquire and trade property.

Property is the foundation and context of the rational relationship between man and nature. By the relationship of the human person to nature, we leave the imprint of our individuality upon nature by means of the time, effort, and ability we extend which in turn produces wealth and property.

Wealth and property do not exist in a state of nature, where Hobbes said, “life is brutish, mean, nasty and short; red in claw and tooth.” They come into existence only when people place value on things. This is seen in that black, sticky, smelly, unpleasant substance that was mostly an annoyance until a way was found to process and refine it in such a way that petroleum was produced.

When seen in this light, property rights are really an expression and a safeguard to personal rights. The defense of the right to property, then, ought not be seen as the defense of detached material objects in themselves, but of the dignity, liberty and very nature of the human person who, to allude to John Locke, has “mixed his labor with nature to produce property.”

The right to property, then, is an extension and exercise of human rights. Perhaps the greatest economist of this century, Ludwig von Mises, drew the connection between economic and personal liberty very clearly when he said, “Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option.”

The total dynamism of the life of faith of necessity encompasses the material order–including the world of business and finance–by virtue of the Creation and, for Christianity, where the Divine breaks into human history.

The vocation of the business person, the vocation of those who have the talent to produce wealth, to use their abilities to build the kingdom of God, is the application of this dynamism.

God is no stranger to the world he made. The task of the lay person, the special challenge of the entrepreneur, is to allow grace to “build upon nature,” as Aquinas tells us. We are called to bring our fullest potential to all that God has gifted us with. The great philosopher Etienne Gilson said it much better than I ever could:

“If one wants to practice science for God’s sake, the first condition is to practice it for its own sake, or as if for its own sake, because that it is the only way to learn it…It is the same with an art: one must have it before one can put it to God’s service. We are told that faith built the medieval cathedrals: no doubt, but faith would not have built anything had there been no architects and craftsmen, If it be true that the west front of Notre Dame is a raising of the soul to God, that does not prevent its being a geometrical composition as well: to build a front that will be an act of charity, one must first understand geometry.

We…who acclaim the high worth of nature because it is God’s work, should show our respect for it by taking as our first rule of action that piety is never a substitute for technique; for technique is that without which the most fervent piety is powerless to make use of nature for God’s sake. Nothing and nobody obliges a Christian to occupy himself with science, art or philosophy, for there is no lack of other ways of serving God; but if he has chosen this way of serving him, the end he puts before himself obliges him to excel; the very intention that guides him compels him to be a good scholar, a good philosopher, a good artist: it is the only way he can become a good servant.“

What does this call mean to those in the vocation of enterprise? It will mean that they must strive to be more fully what they are, to display more fully the virtue of inventiveness; to act more boldly with the virtue of creativity; to continue to be other-regarding as they anticipate market demands, as they develop in themselves and school others in the virtue of thrift; not to merely share their wealth with those in need, but to tutor others, by example and mentorship, how to become independent and to produce wealth themselves.

The entrepreneurial vocation will require that they continue to be watchful practitioners in the art of discovery, for by it they will create employment opportunities for those who would otherwise go without. In a reflection on the faith dimensions of the American economy, the American Catholic Committee (a group of leading lay people) penned these lines: “By themselves brilliant ideas do not serve humankind; to be brought into service to man, they must be transformed through complex processes of design and production. The talent to perform this transformation is as rare and as humanly precious as talent in any other field.”

If the entrepreneur will be faithful to this sacred call, then He shall say to you, on that Great Day when all wrongs will be made right, what He said to those servants in Matthew’s Gospel: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown yourself faithful in small ways...come and join your master’s happiness” (chapter 25).