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 Grass is Always Greener

It’s very easy for Christians today, appalled at the rampant economic injustice and violence that is being perpetrated, and appalled above all at the indifference of most Christians to it, to get themselves worked up into a rage of righteous indignation.  How could we get into such a mess?  How could Christians let such horrible things happen?  There must be some profound heresy at work here, or some deep structural sin; it’s all the fault of capitalist ideology, perhaps.  I speak, of course, of myself as much as of anyone.  And of course, I don’t want to retract one word of it–we are surrounded by appalling injustice, appalling injustice that Christians should be addressing rather than abetting, and it is important that we analyze the underlying causes, historical and ideological, and repent of them.  Nevertheless, it is helpful to keep a bit of historical perspective, perspective that might lead us to give up in despair because we are such a wicked people, but which may have the more salutary effect of helping us see hope and even progress amidst our current wickedness. 

Some of our current problems have been recurrent features of every age, and so there is no need for apocalyptic gloom at the singular depravity of our age; rather, a call to ordinary (though still radical) repentance, sanctification, and waiting upon the Lord.  Some of our past injustices, including some very profound ones indeed, we have since overcome, so much so that it now seems self-evident to us that they are unacceptable, just as self-evident as it seemed to our ancestors that they were perfectly acceptable.  This spiritual progress can give us great encouragement when faced by our current besetting sins, because we can recognize that they are not insurmountable–Christ is sanctifying history, and will sanctify it.

I’ve had all this brought home to me in a bit of “light reading” I’ve been doing lately: The House of Rothschild, by Niall Ferguson–an exhaustive history of the family-run banking behemoth that dominated European finance–indeed, world finance–for nearly a century.  Ferguson is a maddeningly amoral historian, seeming to admire anyone who contributes to the cause of progress, and caring very little for the means by which they did it (see my review of his book Empire for more on this).  He clearly admires the Rothschilds a great deal, as financial geniuses, and is untroubled by the fact that most of their activities would’ve made Goldman Sachs look like Saint Francis.  Indeed, it is somewhat amusing–he at times goes to considerable lengths to exonerate them from various fictitious accusations against them that were popularized in their time, but in the course of doing so, manages to unearth a seedy underbelly of bribery, manipulation, and trickery that was simply the norm for their activities.  These folks thought nothing of bribing public officials to gain lucrative financial contracts, and then turning around and using their position of strength in the market to make huge additional under-the-table profits off the participating governments.  They thought nothing of using their inside political information to outmaneuver all their competitors and establish an unbeatable monopoly position, or of encouraging misinformation to create panics or buying frenzies in the market off of which they could profit.  War profiteering was their specialty, and they sometimes helped encourage the continuation of wars to ensure a continuation of profits.  In other words, all the charges that books like Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man or The Shock Doctrine level against modern multinationals, these guys were guilty of thrice over.  These guys were the quintessential disaster capitalists, economic hit men, Wall Street fat cats. 

Of course, I wouldn’t quite take this as a parable of “there’s nothing new under the sun” because the Rothschilds were, in many ways, a novelty, the first of these financial mighty men to walk the earth.  They were the originals of the decadent species that has now proliferated around the earth.  But, we can learn from them that things now are perhaps not quite so bad as they seem.  At worst, corruption now is comparable to the corruption that characterized European courts in the 19th century.  At best, we have actually improved a bit.  Like I said, these guys make Goldman Sachs look like Saint Francis, and although you can be sure that the seediest of Goldman’s dealings are buried deep beyond the reach of any Congressional Investigation, I think it would be fair that N.M. Rothschild and Sons would never be able to do now, with the laws and accountability structures we have now (deeply flawed as they are) what they could do then. 

There is a second lesson also from the story of the Rothschilds.  As I said above, there are two ways in which we may take encouragement from the past–there are injustices we see around us now that we can discern as age-old enemies, and there are injustices from the past that we have now overcome.  What I just mentioned was an example of the first, but I was struck by an example of the second when reading about the Rothschilds.  

It is, of course, silly to have to mention it, absurd that it should even have been striking to me; after all, it is cliched by now to say it: Christians were terrible to Jews.  But I don’t know how many of us really want to own up to the fact.  We’re so tired of liberals using the Holocaust as a weapon against Christianity that we barricade ourselves against the charges altogether, we sweep all that injustice under the rug.  The Holocaust, we say, was an aberration–it can’t be chalked up to the legacy of Christianity, but to a bunch of mad Darwinian Germans.  Very well, but the longer legacy remains.

The Rothschilds, unsurprisingly, were Jews, and grew up in the Frankfurt Jewish ghetto.  Ferguson’s point is not to dwell on this background, but bits of it couldn’t help emerging from the narrative, and it was shocking to confront the fact of just how discriminated against and repressed the Jews in 17th and 18th-century Germany were.  And of course, the reason Ferguson doesn’t dwell on it was because there was nothing unusual about the Frankfurt situation–this was simply how Jews had to live in most Christian countries–cramped into tiny houses, with their movements restricted, mocked by passersby, without citizenship rights.  And what’s striking about all this from my perspective is that this was not happening in modernity like the Holocaust–when we can chalk it all up to loss of faith, but in a deeply pious age in Lutheran Germany.  There were godly Christian ministers preaching faith and love from their pulpits, even while endorsing (or at the very least turning a blind eye to) the cruel repression of the Jews, and this went on for centuries.  

By comparison, the astonishing ability of modern Christians to blind themselves to the oppression they are supporting in the Third World no longer appears so astonishing.  After all, most of our victims are out of sight, out of mind, but the harsh treatment of the Jews was going on in every city in Christendom, right outside the churches.  So perhaps when we are tempted to extol the virtues of our medieval and Reformation past, and lament our modern apostasy, we should remember that there are a few moral advances to be thankful for the in the modern age.