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Money, Greed, and God

The belief that the essence of capitalism is greed is perhaps the biggest myth Jay W. Richards tackles in his new book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem. One reason for confronting this challenge is that many freemarket advocates subscribe to the thought that capitalism produces greed, and for them that’s not necessarily a negative. But for those with a faith perspective, greed and covetousness are, of course, serious moral flaws.

It’s also the kind of myth that less articulate writers would rather not challenge, especially in this troubling economic climate. Richards does, however, have a skill for tightly honed logical arguments, and he not only is able to defend free markets but to tear lethal holes into many of the economic ramblings of the religious left. He even takes on holy of holies like fair trade and Third World debt relief. Richards argues that the free market is moral, something that may come as a surprise to many people of faith. This book provides a crushing blow to those involved in the ministry of class warfare or those who wish to usher in the Kingdom of God through “nanny state” policies.

The book is divided into eight chapters, with each chapter discussing a commonly held economic myth like the “piety myth” or “nirvana myth.” Richards says the piety myth pertains to “focusing on our good intentions rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions.” The nirvana myth characterizes the act of “contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives.” Richards himself states, “The question isn’t whether capitalism measures up to the kingdom of God. The question is whether there’s a better alternative in this life.”

The influence of libertarian economist Henry Hazlitt and Wealth and Poverty author George Gilder are evident through out this book. But the overarching strength of Richards’ work is how he places the free-market message into the context of Christian discussion and debate. Unfortunately before this response, many of the economic arguments by the Christian left weren’t properly countered in popular mediums. Furthermore, the wanton excess of prosperity gospel advocates only fueled or provided ammunition for the religious left’s rebuke of the free market.

Richards also provides an argument of sorts through narrative in his book by contrasting his youthful naïveté with his more mature adult self. He points out examples where he dabbled with Marxist beliefs and what he called “Christian socialism.” The reader is able to follow his progression of thought and study where he eventually comes to believe in the superiority of a free-market system when it comes to economic sufficiency, but also for lifting and keeping people out of poverty.

The chapter on greed and capitalism contain some of the most thoughtful and helpful arguments, particularly when he discusses the value of the entrepreneur in society. He offers some important thoughts on virtuous acts and behavior required of the entrepreneur. These thoughts counter the all too often repeated stereotypes of those who toil in business as greedy misers motivated solely by material accumulation. Richards says of the entrepreneur:

Unlike the self-absorbed, they anticipate the needs of others, even needs that no one else may have imagined. Unlike the impetuous, they make disciplined choices. Unlike the automaton, they freely discover new ways of creating and combining resources to meet the needs of others. This cluster of virtues, not the vice of greed, is the essence of what the Reverend Robert Sirico calls the ‘entrepreneurial vocation.’

The author also does a formidable job at dealing with a number of scriptural texts and providing the reader with a broader context of meaning. One example is the study he does on usury, which includes a lot of helpful exegetical analysis, but also solid background information from church tradition and history.

This book is extremely important when one considers the current debates going on in churches and religious communities today. On many Christian campuses and seminaries the case for the free market is losing ground, or absent altogether. The author grasps and understands the arguments made by those who are hostile to the market and the religious backgrounds they come out of, and this helps his ability to respond. The ability to think through and respond to the ramblings of the religious left is what makes this work valuable. In fact, the religious left will probably ignore this book rather than respond to many of the well thought out and ordered arguments.

It must be said that another important factor in this book, and one that is a must when coming from a Christian perspective, is the moral considerations and arguments made in defense of the market. Richards understands that for capitalism or free markets to succeed and flourish they must have a moral framework and hold a moral value for the believer. Even if one is, however, not a person of faith, it’s hard to argue against a need for a moral component for business and industry given the current economic crisis.

Richards takes on figures like Ayn Rand, who celebrate selfishness over the defense of the other. The moral argument, of course, characterizes the basis of the Acton Institute’s purpose and mission. It’s an argument that given the times and circumstances should provide us with a greater opportunity to reach the larger culture, especially the culture of believers.

The Acton handprint is all over this book because Richards penned the book during his tenure at Acton. One would hope this work will flourish and change the thinking of so many who are in desperate need of economic reasoning and education. Even if one is not inclined to believe or rally around the arguments made by Richards, it offers a nice balance to much of the economic branding offered up by the popular culture and religious left of late.

If nothing else the valuable critical thinking and writing the author offers reminds us there is an alternative to the kind of thinking that causes Jim Wallis of Sojourners to say the “great crisis of American democracy today is the division of wealth.”