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St. Bernardino of Siena

From 1380
 to 1444

St. Bernardino of Siena, the “Apostle of Italy,” was a missionary, reformer, and scholastic economist. He was born of the noble family of Albizeschi in the Tuscan town of Massa Marittima. After taking care of the sick during a great plague in Siena in 1400, he entered the Franciscan order. He became a well-known and popular preacher, traveling throughout Italy on foot. He was offered bishoprics three times during his ministry, which he refused because he would have had to give up what he felt was his primary calling, that of a missionary.

Bernardino was the great systematizer of Scholastic economics after Aquinas, and the first theologian since Jean Peierre de Jean Olivi to write an entire work devoted to economics. This book, titled On Contracts and Usury, dealt with the justification of private property, the ethics of trade, the determination of value and price, and the usury question.

His greatest contribution to economics was the fullest discussion and defense of the entrepreneur written at the time. He pointed out that trade, like all other occupations, could be practiced either lawfully or unlawfully; all callings provide occasions for sin. Furthermore, merchants provide many useful services: transporting commodities from surplus to scarce regions; preserving and storing goods to be available when consumers want them; and, as craftsmen and industrial entrepreneurs, transforming raw materials into finished products.

Bernardino further observed that the entrepreneur is endowed by God with a certain and special combination of gifts that enable him to carry out these useful tasks. He identified a rare combination of four entrepreneurial gifts: efficiency, responsibility, hard work, and risk-taking. Very few people are capable of all these virtues. For this reason, Bernardino argued that the entrepreneur properly earns the profits which keep him in business and compensate him for his hardships. These are a legitimate return to the entrepreneur for his labor, expenses, and the risks that he undertakes.

Sources: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith by Murray N. Rothbard (Edward Elgar, 1995), Christians for Freedom by Alejandro A. Chafuen (Ignatius, 1986), and The Lives of the Saints by S. Baring-Gould (John Grant, 1914).