Calvin and Commerce Redux

You may recall that a month and a half back, I was busily blogging my way through David Hall and Matthew Burton’s book Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies, as preparation for a short review I was writing for the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology.  That review will be published in the Autumn edition of the SBET within the next couple weeks (the much longer and more interesting VanDrunen review, alas, will not, having been postponed to the Spring 2011 issue out of space considerations).  If you were following any of my posts on Hall and Burton, you may have noticed that I stopped only a couple of chapters in, and never posted a full review.  This was, to be frank, simply because it became clear that the book wasn’t worth the time.  Hall and Burton did not have really have any coherent arguments, nor any coherence in the way they said them out, and so it became impossible to justify expending the time to patiently analyze and deconstruct the text.

As I put it in the opening to my original draft of the SBET review (omitted in subsequent revisions, but worth stating here):

“In any work of writing, the author’s goal is to bring about a meeting of the minds between himself and his readers, to bridge the chasm between alien consciousnesses, that he might impart information and generate insight in his readers.  This task is never an easy one, and successful execution has at least three prerequisites: a facility in the use of the medium–language; a distinct and readily grasped shape for the content; and a clear conviction underlying the content, that will excite sympathy in the reader.  Unfortunately this volume raises serious obstacles for itself at each of these points.  At many points, neither the language nor the organization are sufficiently lucid to grant the reader insight into just what the authors are seeking to convey, and the driving purpose and assumptions behind this work are never clearly stated.”

However, since many of the arguments they made constitute staples of “baptized capitalism,” I do hope to return to discuss some of the points they made, two in particular, that I will simply flag briefly now (since promising here that I’m going to post something, although far from a guarantee that I’ll actually do so, does help me prioritize it a bit more.)

The first is the notion of what I’ll call reactive, rather than proactive charity, something I find myself coming back to over and over in my theo-economic ruminations (see here particularly).  Basically, the reactive charity paradigm looks something like this: pursue your own legitimate self-interest, build up your wealth and financial stability, seek in every way to prosper, and then, once you’ve done all this, share the benefits of your aggressive acquisition.  This is, after all, how most of the great philanthropists of the past couple centuries have worked.  They’ve been ruthlessly efficient and amoral when it comes to running the business that is the source of their wealth, but then, once they’ve reached the highest echelons of society, they become renowned philanthropists, giving enormous sums to various charities and setting up various endowments named after themselves–Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bill Gates, etc.  But of course by the time they do all this giving their wealth is so massive that it’s small change for them, the interest and not the principal.  I was struck by this in my recent reading of the history of the Rothschilds, in which Niall Ferguson seemed to think that this philanthropy served as a rebuttal of accusations regarding the Rothschilds’ vicious business practices.  

The logic of those who would endorse this approach to charity is impeccable.  As Hall and Burton put it,

“In the late 1990s a Christian baseball pitcher was conflicted about the size of his contract, because of its overwhelming value.  He privately discussed the guilt he felt with a leading Calvinist minister, who admonished the pitcher that had he failed to get the highest value for his work, he was potentially guilty of sin.  The justification for the minister’s counsel was that all men are given talents and abilities and are called to pursue them so that they can make as much as possible (within the law), so that they can in turn save and give frequently.  With regard to biblical economics, anything that impedes or reduces the three key activities of earning, saving, and giving is an inefficiency.” 

If you don’t make the most money you can possibly make, then you won’t be able to give as much later.  

Logical or not, this makes makes me mighty uneasy.  For one thing (perhaps not so much in the case of the baseball pitcher, but certainly in other cases, like that of the Rothschilds), this attitude can serve to justify an amoral or even downright immoral approach to earning and saving.  It doesn’t matter how many people you trample to get to the top, so long as you distribute 10% of your winnings to them once you’re on top (Hall and Burton, as Christians, add the qualifier “within the law,” but I’m still uneasy).  But of course, if the winners weren’t so heedless about trampling people on their way up, then perhaps there wouldn’t be as many losers in need of their charity later on.  Simply from an economic point of view, I wonder whether a society might be much more effective if it were proactively charitable–that is, making sure the fruits of prosperity were more evenly shared at the front end–rather than reactively charitable–letting a few people reap most of the rewards and far outstrip everyone else, and only then share.  

I also have an ethical concern.  The kind of reactive charity that gives 10% of its income–or even 100% of its income–from a securely-established position of ample savings and large income is never genuinely vulnerable.   They are like the Pharisees who stand by and give generously “out of their abundance” while the widow, in faith, puts in the only two mites that she has.  I am not sure that this is what Christ calls us to.  The generosity to which Christ calls believers is one in which we give self-sacrificially, making ourselves vulnerable and putting our faith in God, not our savings.  How all this works with the genuine call to the virtue of prudence, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s something I want to pursue further.


Wow, that was a bit more than “briefly flagging”–this second point shall be much shorter.  Hall and Burton, like many Reformed, like to appeal to the notion of “Providence” as a guide for economic affairs.  We recognize that, in God’s providence, all are not supposed to be equally rich or equally poor–God has allowed some to suffer poverty and others to make enormous profits.  While we should be charitable to those in need, we should not think that inequality is inherently a bad thing, that we should work to overturn.  Rather, we should encourage everyone to embrace and rejoice in the providence God has called him to, and by and large accept the distribution of wealth that we see as a manifestation of God’s providence.  For now I will merely point out that on this line of argument, one could ratify all wars as just wars because they happened in the providence of God.  Indeed, perhaps this is all I need to say, since the argument is so self-evidently vacuous, but I hope to return to the theme at some point to see how Hall and Burton try to use it.

The Tyranny of Efficiency

(following from “Embracing the Fall”)

My second big concern about Chapter 2 of Calvin and Commerce is that, to the extent that Hall and Burton want to confront and ameliorate the effects of man’s depravity in economics, their solution is one of law, rather than grace.  One of the first sections in the chapter is entitled “If We Recognize Depravity, We Will Not Tolerate Non-productivity.”  This language is harsh and a bit frightful.  For Hall and Burton, productivity and efficiency are the highest values, and the slothful nature of man must thus be greeted with no mercy.  The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity is meant to bring us all to humility, not pride, recognizing that we too are totally depraved.  This thus serves as a basis for a gracious and compassionate response to the sinner (in imitation of Christ), not a stark refusal to tolerate him. 

But there is no note of grace in Hall and Burton: “Workers who fail to enhance and to produce should not be rewarded; their job performance is not acceptable.  Workers who do enhance and produce should be rewarded; that in turn will lead to more productivity.”   Indeed, this is to put it more gently than what they go on to recommend–anyone who fails to produce must be severely penalized, so he will learn his lesson and produce more.  They call this “accountability in the marketplace,” but this accountability flows only one way–that is to say, employers must hold workers accountable, but workers are to be stripped of any means to hold employers accountable.  An accountable marketplace is one with

“the unrestrained/unrestricted movement of wages, rewards, and employment choices (on the employee’s side), and consequently the unrestricted ability to hire and fire (on the employer’s side).  The key word here is ‘unrestricted,’ meaning ‘free of distortion.’  A distortion of the second pillar of accountability is found in institutions and organizations–whether unions, trade guilds, cartels, or other collective bodies–that inhibit the free flow of employment.”  

Notice that they are not even sheepish about the qualifier “on the employer’s side”–for whatever reason, structures of accountability on the employee’s side are simply not important.  They complain that in most states and countries, “employers cannot fire at will, and most are required to show cause, even when firing untenured, nonunionized employees.”  What a horrible world, in which an employer would actually have to offer some reason for his actions before he stripped his employees of their livelihoods!  It’s almost as if Hall and Burton want to play right into Marx’s hands, by advocating a completely despotic capital class.  But if they want to do this, why must they drag poor Calvin into it?  What did he do to deserve such company? 

Of course, this reaction against legal constraints on capital masks a theological move that substitutes law for grace.  The remedy to depravity is a salvation by works, or, quite literally, by work.  The problem with the world in Hall and Burton’s model is that people do not work enough, and the solution is to make people work hard and reward them if they do, but punish them if they don’t.  Efficiency and productivity are thus idolized in their system, leaving us with their slightly chilling statement “We will not tolerate non-productivity.”  This leads to a kind of economic euthanasia (and indeed logically suggests full-blown euthanasia).  Unproductive members of society are not to be tolerated and are to be removed to make way for younger, more productive members.  Consider this statement, about why the tenure system at universities should be abolished (a system about which our authors are very worked up in these pages):

“The process of rewarding an educator who achieves a certain status greatly diminishes the employer’s ability to fire or release that worker.  As a result, the university becomes increasingly inefficient and may reach the point where it lacks the budgetary means to hire new–possibly more gifted–educators.  Furthermore, these experienced professors require higher salaries for jobs that could often be performed at a lower cost by younger, but equally talented, employees.” 

So much for honoring the  hoary head.  Seriously, I would’ve thought that, as Christians, we would value and cherish the very few sectors of society in which respect for the wisdom of elders still held out against the grist-mill of rational economic calculation.  But Hall and Burton will not have it–they seem to wish to subject every remaining arena of society to the dominion of the market.  If they have their wish (and modern society has come pretty close to giving it to them), they will be hard-pressed to offer any meaningful opposition to the proliferation of abortion, euthanasia, pornography, slavery, and everything else which subordinates the value of human persons to the value of money.  

Embracing the Fall

One of the most frequent motifs of Reformed pseudo-theo-economics is that of human depravity, and Hall and Burton are no exception.  Chapter 2 of their book is called “The Fall,” and is essentially dedicated to telling us that Calvinism has done the world the service of recognizing that man is fallen and depraved, and therefore we should not expect him to act otherwise.  We all know where this is going, right?  Capitalism is the best economic system because it assumes fallen men and sinful desires, and seeks to balance such sinful desires against each other rather than pretending they don’t exist, like utopian socialism.  This is, predictably enough, Hall and Burton’s argument.  

Yet how often have we paused to consider just how singular this ethical move is?  Man is sinful, and therefore we as Christians should seek an ethical system that works with man’s sin, rather than against it.  Huh.  But isn’t it redemption, rather than fallenness, that is the core of Christianity?  Plenty of pagans have been able to figure out that the world is a fallen and sinful place; what they haven’t been able to offer is any account of how it might be redeemed.  If Christianity’s main ethical contribution is the observation that man is sinful, then we might as well pack our bags and give up.  Just to get an idea of how bizarre Hall and Burton’s move is, let’s imagine another sphere of life–sex.

As Christians, we know that man is depraved, and this means that he is characterized by all kinds of distorted sexual desires.  Lust, pornography, rape, and infidelity are the norm in human societies after the Fall.  We need to think not about some utopian ideal of sexual fidelity, but about how to realistically work with a world of sex-crazed humans.  We should expect all these things, and we shouldn’t deny them, but accept them.  Sure we should put some limits to preserve order and restrain these fallen impulses a bit–perhaps we should say that as long as you keep all sexual acts consensual (or if pornography, private), so no one gets harmed or taken advantage of, then it’s fine.  Realism is better than utopianism.  

When put this way, we immediately see the absurdity.  But we accept this rhetoric in economics all the time.  Here’s what Halll and Burton say: 

“Confiscation, violence, theft, and prodigality may occur, but seldom does philanthropy of a scope larger than the family appear in primitive society.  That may be a commentary on the fallen nature of man.  It may also be a clue for businesses and economies, indicating how they will best function in reality….Due to the fall, an economic golden age in which all humans glorify God with their wealth is not anticipated prior to the establishment of the New Jerusalem.  Instead, we expect selfishness, conflict, theft, destruction of property, and strife in economic and business sectors.  Rather than living in denial of such realities, we should seek enduring solutions that take them into account.  Anyone who begins with the expectation of a utopia will quickly become frustrated by the fallen nature of our universe.  Realism in business and profit sectors is a better beginning point than utopianism.  Thus, Calvinism explains what and why to expect in the marketplace because it has a realistic understanding of the nature of man.  The children of Calvin will be profoundly and inevitably dystopian.” 

In every other sphere of life, we recognize that Christian ethics involves first a sober diagnosis of man’s fallen condition, second, a proclamation of hope that it need not be this way, but by virtue of Christ can be otherwise, and third, a demanding call to transcend these sinful desires and have them remade in imitation of Christ.  Why is it that only in economics, we abandon this basic structure of Christian ethics, and suggest that there is this whole area of life in which we are to more or less accept our fallen condition as normative, with a few gentlemanly constraints to keep us from descending into hedonism?  Perhaps there is a good reason, but if so, I would dearly like to hear what it is.    

I should perhaps add as an aside that, as elsewhere in their book, Hall and Burton do not convincingly enlist Calvin in their project.  They offer no quotes in which Calvin suggests that, as a result of his doctrine of depravity, we should embrace an economic system that institutionally accepts depravity.  Rather, his doctrine of depravity serves as a means for him to diagnose our sinful propensities to geed in the economic sphere, greed that is to be confronted and resisted, not institutionalized.  

And God said, “Let There Be Private Property”

In Chapter 1 of Calvin and Commerce, we begin with the doctrine of Creation, and Hall and Burton’s use of the doctrine reflects the common conservative presupposition that private property is a direct institution of creation.  This, I say, is a presupposition–it is never a conclusion they argue for, and I for one have no idea how one might argue for such a proposition.  But it has dramatic consequences.  It means, for instance, that the fundamental problem of economics–the relationship between private and common property–is never addressed, nor the issue of the just distribution of wealth.  For Hall and Burton, the great debate in economics is over whether wealth is to be viewed positively or negatively, and they see modern society as falling into the error of viewing wealth negatively, as something “inherently evil.”  

I must confess that this seems a very bizarre diagnosis for our materialistic, money-obsessed culture, but that’s what Hall and Burton think.  Of course, the problem is that their invisible opponents have nothing against wealth per se, but against unjustly distributed private wealth.  Our authors, however, take no note, throughout the 50 pages of this chapter, of such subtle distinctions as the existence of wealth vs. the distribution of it, and go on stubbornly repeating that since “wealth is part of creation,” it is basically good, not evil.   What might this statement mean?

Right at the beginning of the chapter, we have the statement, “Money is–and every will be–a creation….Like the creation itself, it has a place and is useful.”  Now this is a bit confusing, because money is clearly not part of the original creation, any more than toilet paper is, or perhaps more analogously, any more than the internet is.  Money is a human invention, devised using wthe material things God created, and the conceptual capacities with which he endowed man.  It is a human creation, a social creation, not part of the simple physical creation per se.  Now, this seems like an important distinction.  However, our authors never clearly make it.  For instance, at the end of the chapter, they return and say, “wealth is a part of creation,” but then in the next paragraph, “money is a fundamentally good human invention.”  (Note that this does not reflect a careful distinction between “wealth” on the one hand and “money” on another; these are used interchangeably in these paragraphs and elsewhere.)  On page 10, wealth is discussed as a very direct creation of God: “If wealth is a creation, then there is no reason that it may not be fruitful and multiply.  Yet, just as ‘the sun is still a servant, and the moon a handmaid,’ so again wealth as a creation is designed to serve or assist, never to be worshiped as or confused with the creation.”  Let’s try to untangle this web they have woven for us.   

Although humans imitate divine creativity (as Hall and Burton discuss at certain points in this chapter) we must of course distinguish between the products of divine creation and the products of human creation.  The former are not only “not inherently evil,” but are (before the Fall at least) unreservedly good.  The latter, however, may be good, may be evil, or may be neither per se.  Pornography is a human creation that is evil.  Apple pie is a human creation that is good.  What is money?  Well, it is a treacherous tool that humans have devised in order to better pursue the good of creation, but which often seduces them into evil and the distortion of creation.  It must be viewed, in short, with rather more suspicion and less resounding affirmation than a direct product of divine creation, like an apple (regarding which a certain caution is still valuable).  

Let’s leave “money” and talk about the broader term “wealth.”  In what sense might “wealth” be “part of creation”?  Well, in the sense of “the abundance of the world,” “the bounty of the earth,” or something like that, “wealth” was clearly directly created by God.  However, we very rarely use “wealth” in this sense; rather, in normal usage, it is only meaningful as a comparative term–to say that one person has wealth is to say that another person does not, or that he has less.  Now, this could not be true if wealth were the general bounty of creation.  No, “wealth” in our ordinary usage refers to private wealth, to private property, to the claim a person has staked over a certain portion of the bounty of creation.  And in this sense, wealth is clearly a human invention, not part of the initial divine creation–God didn’t divide Eden up into plots.  (Hall and Burton might disagree, however.   On page 18, they use the disturbing metaphor of creation as one big corporation, in which we all have shares, and for which God is like the board of directors, free to distribute the excess profits however he wants.) 

Of course, saying that it is a human invention doesn’t make it bad, but it makes it different.  It means that private wealth is subject to the other limitations on human inventions–it is only good insofar as it serves the good of creation as a whole, it is of limited use, tinged with the weakness and propensity to temptation of all things human, and prone to idolatry.  In other words, our attitude to it should be one of careful ambivalence, not resounding affirmation.  To transfer the properties belonging to something created directly by God to something devised by man is a rather careless and foolish theological error, but so far as I can tell, this error is made in discussions of creation and private property all the time.  Somehow we got it into our heads that private property was inscribed in the original creation, and by now, indeed, conservatives have managed to raise it to a level of sanctity even above that of all the rest of creation, since we are now told that people have a right to do whatever they want with their property, even if it’s injurious to the earth.

So, if it is correct that wealth in general is created, but private wealth is not, what might this chapter have looked like?  We might have begun with the affirmation that the material world is good, and God has given it for all to enjoy and invited us to enrich it still further.  We might then have asked how the bounty of creation is best maximized and how we can best  ensure that its benefits are as widely shared as possible.  We might have heard about what a distortion it is of God’s original design for creation if a few people seize all its wealth and use it for their own advantage.  All this might have led us to the qualified affirmation of some kind of free-enterprise system, though not necessarily “capitalism” per se.  

Instead, what do we get?  On page 43, a section entitled “Wealth is not morally evil” begins.  Wealth is not morally evil because it is part of creation, we are told, but puzzlingly, in this section, private accumulations of wealth are what is being discussed.  Indeed, because such accumulations of wealth are actually good, what is evil is actually any barrier to the free flow or accumulation of wealth.  This concern, it turns out, is not just your typical anti-big-government stance, because their particular critique in this section is aimed at the bad attitudes of society today toward wealth.  We live in an anti-wealth society, we are told, and this, Wayne Grudem says (they quote him extensively in this section), is a work of Satan, who is trying thus to overthrow God’s good creation.  

Is this a joke?  No, I’m afraid it’s not.  We then get a wide-ranging, bizarre, and very difficult to follow history of negative modern attitudes toward wealth, and then this remarkable paragraph:

“In the 1960s Christian socialists and theologians turned up the volume in their denouncements of the evils of abundance and wealth.  Citing Acts 2 out of its canonical context, they called for a simpler lifestyle, a feature often commended by collectivist theorists.  Even faced with the myriad benefits that capitalism brings to society–enhanced employment and liberty to mention only two–they still felt trapped in Weber’s ‘iron cage.’…The great twentieth-century social experiment needed villains who ostensibly threatened its ideals of free love, peace, social liberties, and unrestricted expression.  Fueled by a century of suspicion and attacks and gaslit by the new liberation theology, the 1960s and 1970s cemented the concept of the immorality of wealth, making it part of the mainstream cultural consciousness.” 

He then turns, believe it or not, to a defense of big oil, pointing out that the profit margins of ExxonMobil aren’t bad at all compared to many other S&P 500 companies.  Then it gets even better:  “Furthermore, ExxonMobil uses its wealth to reinvest in activity throughout the world, employing hundreds of thousands of individuals.  For example, twenty-two thousand employees are employed by Exxon in Chad.  Is not that national economic system bolstered by Exxon’s presence?  What is the ultimate value to thousands of homes in Chad because of the trickle-down effect of Exxon’s profits?”  Now, we could pause here to cross-examine these rather fantastic claims about the “enhanced employment” capitalism brings (though this is, of course, one economic good that capitalism indisputably does not bring) or of the wonderful blessings that ExxonMobil has shed upon Chad, but let’s stick to the big picture. 

The big picture is that, in a chapter devoted to economics in light of the doctrine of creation, the main point was to lead us to a defense of ExxonMobil as an embodiment of a Christian embrace of creation and its wealth, and a suggestion that those who oppose it are motivated by Satan.



Calvin and Commerce

I am currently working on another review for the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology,  this one on a book that is part of the “Calvin 500 Series” called Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies.  One of the authors, David Hall, is a theologian/pastor, and the other, Matthew Burton, is an economist.  Unfortunately, like many such theologico-economic collaborations, this one fails to live up to its promise.  Indeed, I must confess that it fails quite dreadfully.  The book is hampered by an almost unreadably poor writing style and organization, an inability to decide on exactly what it’s trying to argue, and what seems to be a blind ideological commitment to extreme free-market capitalism.  

I will not elaborate on the first of these problems, though no doubt you will pick up on some of it when I include quotations.  It is worth pausing for a moment to examine the second. 

At first glance, it looks like this book is about the old Weber thesis–the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism.  However, although the authors allude to Weber fairly frequently, it is not clear what they think of his thesis.  Most often the allusions are critical, though it is rarely clear why, but sometimes they are not.  It seems as if Hall and Burton basically want to adopt Weber’s thesis inasmuch as it paints Calvinism in a good light (it led to capitalism and progress) and reject it wherever it paints Calvinism in a bad light (such as Weber’s observation that with the rise of capitalism from Calvinism, the child must inevitably devour the mother).  However, they do not seem sufficiently conversant with any of the voluminous secondary literature on this question, or even with Weber himself, to make a clear statement one way or another.  In short, the book seems to simply assume as a starting premise, rather than ever argue for, the idea that Calvinism helped foster capitalism.  The rest of the book then seems to be an attempt to present a dual panegyric in favor of Calvin and capitalism, seeking to add to the lustre of each by letting it bask in the glow of the other.  Indeed, the back of the book suggests that their task is not historical at all, but is to “ardently defend capitalism as consistent with Biblical teaching and sensible as well.”  That is perhaps the best summary of the book, and it turns out that Calvin figures only very peripherally in the argument; indeed, when he is quoted, his quotes often seem to bear no relation to or even to contradict the ensuing arguments.

Now what are these arguments?  This shall be my chief concern in upcoming posts about this book.  I will not burden this blog with a long drawn-out deconstruction and dismemberment of the book, as I did with VanDrunen.  If you are interested in reading that longer review, it will be posted in installments at over the next couple weeks.  But here I shall confine myself to observing some of the more notable, disturbing, and all too common theological leaps that they try to make from Scripture to free-market capitalism.

In the remainder of this post, I want to look briefly at a revealing passage in their Introduction, where they explain the relationship between theology and economics as they see it:

“For philosophical minds the logical hierarchy would radiate as follows: from religious beliefs flow theology; from theology flows political thought; political thought then flows to institutional thought; institutional thought flows to cultural thought; cultural thought flows to macroeconomic views; macroeconomic views flow to microeconomic views; and microeconomic views lead to personal economic decisions and actions.”  

Now, whatever “philosophical minds” might think, this sort of hierarchy is not the way the world works and certainly not the way the Bible speaks.  Our thinking begins not at the most abstract level of a stratified theoretical system, but at the practical level of ethical decisions and actions.  When the Bible talks about economics, it never does so at in some ethereal theoretic level well above macroeconomics, but does so in terms of very practical, down-to-earth principles, laws, and exhortations about how to act toward your poor brother, how to administer your wealth, how to share it, when to give it away, how you may justly earn it, etc. 

Biblically, the hierarchy is in fact just the opposite of what Hall and Burton have sketched.  The Bible tells us what we as individuals and communities are to do with our wealth; we must start living this out and applying this vision of economic life, and then from this we can start to construct microeconomic views, macroeconomic views, and all the rest–economics from the ground up.  If Hall and Burton really think that all the Bible has to tell us about economics is at this far-removed theoretical level, then no wonder that in this book, the theology becomes so watered-down and disappears altogether by the time it reaches the level of practice.  Yet this, I am afraid, is standard in this genre of “Reformed economics”–we hear all kinds of vague expostulation about creation and original sin as the pillars of a Christian economics, and next to nothing about the nitty-gritty of Biblical economic practice, nothing about Deuteronomy 15 or Jesus eating with the poor. 

This maddening super-abstraction consistently dogs the theological side of this book, and we only get specificity when it comes to pro-business, anti-‘socialist’ policy recommendations.  In some later posts, I will look at some of the principles and recommendations that appear in their first chapter, “Creation.”