Please allow me to introduce you to one of this year’s best books: Kenneth Barnes’ Redeeming Capitalism. It was published by Eerdmans this year; it is critically acclaimed as a thoughtful and probing evaluation of capitalism through the lens of Christian theology and ethics.
In the words of Oxford University professor Paul S. Fiddes:
This remarkable and timely book by Kenneth Barnes is essential reading for all those who are disturbed by a moral vacuum at the heart of business, or who want to know how the Christian faith can speak into our present financial crisis.
Similarly, Princeton Professor David W. Miller writes:
Many who live in glass houses built by the fruits of capitalism are the first to throw stones at it. Yet few understand the underlying economics and theology. Barnes is one of the few theologically trained scholars and clergy to also bring firsthand insights, knowledge, and experience from an extended career in the corporate world and global market place. A theologically informed constructive critique of global capitalism, Redeeming Capitalism is a must-read.
Given Redeeming Capitalism’s acclaim and its analysis and evaluation of some of the most critical issues of our day, I asked Dr. Barnes to answer a few questions about the book. Here is our conversation:
Bruce Ashford: The political Left says that capitalism is deeply flawed and only serves the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor. The political Right says that capitalism, while not perfect, is the best economic system for the creation of wealth and wealth creation ultimately benefits everyone. Can they both be right?
Kenneth Barnes: Yes, they can both be “partially” right, and logically therefore, partially wrong. Allow me to explain. When the political Right espouses the wealth creation potential of capitalism, they are correct. Capitalism has done more to alleviate poverty and improve the quality of people’s lives, than every other economic system, combined. In the last twenty years alone over one billion people have been lifted out of poverty worldwide, and by every possible measure of material well-being, from longevity and infant mortality, to education and access to life-enhancing technologies, capitalism has created wealth on a scale that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors. That said, when they say that capitalism isn’t “perfect” they are underestimating the scale of capitalism’s flaws, not to mention the potential impact of those flaws. Chief of among them are capitalism’s lack of an inherent moral compass, the result of which is a system that often does favor the rich over the poor, as the political Left suggests, and even exacerbates the gap between rich and poor, by systematically concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands. So both sides are partially right and partially wrong, but the gravest error rests with the political Left who believe that capitalism itself is the problem, when in fact the underlying problem is cultural, not economic.
Bruce Ashford: What do you mean by that last statement: “the underlying problem is cultural, not economic”?
Kenneth Barnes: As I say in my book, “Redeeming Capitalism”, capitalism is a subject, not an object. It possesses no hypostasis of its own, it has no will, it is driven by no central agency. Capitalism is simply the word we use to describe the phenomenon of lightly regulated, highly monetized free markets. Because it doesn’t have a moral compass of its own, it will naturally reflect the morality of the cultures in which it operates. In the case of the West (including, America) that largely means post-Christian relativism. Naturally, that’s quite different from the Judeo-Christian environment that spawned capitalism in the 18th Century and the so-called “Protestant ethic” of the 19th and early 20th Centuries that drove the economic engine of capitalist economies to dizzying heights. In the absence of religious hegemony or even ethical consensus, we have drifted into the uncharted waters of radical secularism and ethical egoism, distorting the very nature of capitalism in the process.
Bruce Ashford: Is that what you mean by the term “post-modern capitalism” in your book?
Kenneth Barnes: Exactly! In the book, I trace the evolution of various economic systems and explore the underlying moral principles that drove each economic epoch. I go back to biblical times all the way to the present and what becomes strikingly obvious is the need for a strong ethical code, which is sadly lacking today. Instead of an economic system that creates wealth for the common good, we have a mutant form of capitalism that is devoid of a moral compass and resistant, if not impervious the ethical constraint. That’s what caused the Global Financial Crisis and that’s what the political Left rails against. Unfortunately, they’re barking up the wrong tree. Instead of attacking capitalism, they should be repenting of their own contribution to our current ethical malaise.
Bruce Ashford: How can we appeal to the consciences of people who aren’t believers; who don’t subscribe to our ethical codes?
Kenneth Barnes: That’s a great question, and the answer is common grace. We may live in a fallen world, but the image of God is still indelibly etched on the hearts and minds of every human being and there are tools at our disposal that are universal in their application. They include such things as wisdom and the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice and temperance. They even include the so-called “theological” virtues of faith, hope and love; something that I unpack in great detail in the book.
Bruce Ashford: And what can Christians do to help redeem capitalism?
Kenneth Barnes: The first thing we can do is admit that there is a problem at the heart of our economic system that requires redemption. There is a temptation among some believers to simply write-off capitalism as a “worldly” pursuit, unworthy of our consideration. There are also those who view capitalism and postmodernism as brute facts over which we have no control, which of course, is untrue. As Abraham Kuyper famously stated: “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence, over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”. By definition that includes the realm of economics, so we MUST seek its redemption, if we are going to be faithful to our calling as ambassadors of Christ in a fallen world. The second thing we can do is accept the fact that redemption is a process, not an event. There are simply no quick fixes to the complex problems that confront us, but we must start the redemption process, otherwise those who seek a utopian alternative to capitalism will gain ground in the public square, as they are at present. As I often tell my students, if we don’t do what is necessary to redeem capitalism, we are going to hate what replaces it.
Bruce Ashford: Anything else?
Kenneth Barnes: Yes, in the book I devote two chapters to ways in which we can redeem capitalism, both from the “bottom-up” and the “top-down”. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good framework from which to start. As I say at the very end of the book, “Redeeming Capitalism” is a “can do” book more than a “how to” book. It’s not the manifesto of a movement, but instead it’s the credo of a community that believes we can create an economic system with all of the wealth generating potential of the system we have, but with the common good benefits of the system we desire. I believe that to be absolutely true and I believe it to be absolutely necessary.
In Redeeming Capitalism, we are given the opportunity to read one of the world’s few scholars who have expertise in the fields of theology, business, and economics. In the book, he interacts with a broad range of thinkers including not only Marx, Mill, Smith, and Picketty, but also Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther. I highly recommend it for readers who are interested in the intersection of Christianity, politics, and economics. (To order the book, click here.)