Public Square

Can Christians Restore Virtue to Capitalism?

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In a recent hearing, U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan questioned Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s remarkable success by asking him, “Only in America, would you agree with that?” When Zuckerberg didn’t wholeheartedly agree, the senator responded, “You’re supposed to answer ‘yes’ to this question.” The audience laughed.

Zuckerberg’s response should not surprise us. He is part of a generation that has little loyalty or affection for our current free-market system. While millennials would certainly not deny the system provides many benefits, they are quick to point out its downsides and question if there is a better way.

In their defense, millennials have grown up seeing constant examples of the perceived failings of this economic system. Countless corruption scandals, the 2008 financial crisis, increasing income inequality, and a system that they have been taught is driven solely by greed have them questioning capitalism’s sustainability.

Yet, this outlook stands in stark contrast to the way capitalism is perceived by the Silent Generation (born between 1925 and 1945) and baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).

Why the Generation Gap on Capitalism?

Businessman, philanthropist, and one of the founders of Home Depot, Ken Langone at 82 has recently written an autobiography entitled I Love Capitalism! An American Story that speaks to the incredible opportunity that a free-market enterprise system afforded him. He writes:

This book is my love song to capitalism. Capitalism works! And I’m living proof—it works for everybody. Absolutely anybody is entitled to dream big, and absolutely everybody should dream big. I did. Show me where the silver spoon was in my mouth. I’ve got to argue profoundly and passionately: I’m the American Dream.

The different attitudes about free-market enterprise may be the most recent example of a generation gap today. So, where is the disconnect? Is what we have today not our grandfather’s capitalism?

The answer to that question would be “yes,” according to Ken Barnes who, in his new book Redeeming Capitalism, suggests that capitalism has changed over the last 250 years and not for the better.

His book does not insist on unfettered capitalism as many free-market supporters do, nor does he want to scrap capitalism for an “alternative economic utopia.” Instead, Barnes proposes “that capitalism, once rooted in a particular religious ethic, long since lost to the moral relativism of the modern era, need not be replaced, but needs instead to be redeemed.”

Barnes suggests that capitalism has gone through three phases. The free-market system that Adam Smith wrote about in the second half of the eighteenth century, Barnes calls traditional capitalism. The capitalism that Max Weber writes about in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Barnes calls modern capitalism. Moreover, he argues that what we have today is postmodern capitalism, which lacks an important element that had been present in the first two versions. He writes:

Pursuit of an economic system reflective of wisdom and virtue is not only desirable it is essential. When capitalism emerged from the primordial ooze of feudalism and mercantilism, it was rooted in a religiously inspired ethic. As it has evolved over time, however, it has drifted further and further from that ethic morphing into the postmodern capitalism I have described previously as “devoid of a moral compass and resistant if not impervious to ethical constraint.”

Barnes’s argument has some merit. In far too many businesses today, the ends seem to justify the means. If the ends are to make as much money as you can and your company is devoid of a moral compass, the means can be almost anything you can get away with.

To curtail what seems like the Wild Wild West, many are calling for transparency in business and government, which they hope will address the lack of virtue, particularly honesty and integrity. The thought is: “I do not believe you will do the right thing unless I am watching.” Unfortunately, transparency won’t address the underlying problem of integrity.

What Role Can Christians Play in Redeeming Capitalism?

As Christians, we must take some of the responsibility for corruption in business and government. We reasoned that work was secular and something God did not care about, so we worked just like everyone else around us. Over the last century, we have not been the examples of integrity in the workplace we were supposed to be.

So, how can we work at redeeming this economic system that holds so much promise? Three suggestions:

1. Remind yourself that your work is important to God.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing what you do at work is secular. Remember the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23).

2. Understand the powerful potential influence you are to those around you.

As one author writes, “You teach values by living them. Don’t say—do. People absorb eloquent action.”

3. Invest time and energy in establishing trust with others.

No matter what your job, you can do two simple things that will give you more influence in your work regardless of your position. You can start to build trust and reliability through your day-to-day interactions with your co-workers. Both are established over time—trust through consistent honesty and reliability through a commitment to consistency.

More than thirty years ago, the late Michael Novak pronounced this verdict on capitalism in his classic book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism:

Democratic capitalism is neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin. Yet all other known systems of political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny—perhaps our last, best hope—lies in this much despised system.

Let this motivate us to work toward a vision for virtuous capitalism restored.

Editor’s note: Read more reflections on capitalism from Michael Novak in his booklet, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: Thirty Years Later.

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