Global Capitalism versus Christianity? A Response to David Bentley Hart


Christianity has never seen the pursuit of virtue as incompatible with private possession of wealth.

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In a June 2016 First Things article, "Mammon Ascendant: Why global capitalism is inimical to Christianity," the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart rearticulates a theme he previously addressed in the same publication: that there is a basic incompatibility between what he alternatively calls “late modern capitalism” or “global capitalism” and Christianity.

In his latest iteration, Hart acknowledges that global capitalism has transformed millions of people’s lives for the better, materially speaking. More generally, however, much of Hart’s article is a reiteration of his previous claims: that several factors—ranging from the consumerism that he regards as an integral part of modern capitalism to what he considers to be the contemporary market economy’s dependence on the libertarian view of freedom—make global capitalism irreconcilable with a genuinely Christian culture.

To the extent that Hart repeats his prior arguments, it is unclear that he has seriously reflected upon critiques of his position. I would suggest, however, that several of Hart’s newer arguments are also very contestable. One concerns various claims that he makes about the financial sector, which Hart regards as emblematic of what’s wrong with modern capitalism. A second is his argument that possessing wealth is intrinsically evil and therefore incompatible with Christian faith.

The History of Finance  

Hart’s negative view of financial markets and their role in modern capitalist economies is at least partly derived from his account of contemporary capitalism’s development. He argues, for instance, that modern capitalism emerged following

a shift in economic eminence from the merchant class—purveyors of goods contracted from and produced by independent artisanal labor or subsidiary estates or small local markets—to the capitalist investor who is at once producer and seller of goods, and who is able to generate immense capital at the secondary level of investment speculation: a purely financial market where wealth is generated and enjoyed by those who produce nothing except an incessant circulation of investment and divestment.

As an account of the development of financial markets, this leaves much to be desired. Scholars ranging from Joseph Schumpeter to Raymond de Roover have shown that the world’s first international financial markets emerged in medieval Catholic Europe. They were well in place throughout Europe by the early thirteenth century—a long time before Wall Street and the City of London became financial powerhouses.

In his History of Economic Analysis, Schumpeter demonstrated that “big business, stock and commodity speculation, and ‘high finance’” permeated the medieval world. Private and often large banks in what was called an “international republic of money” used the capital entrusted to them as a basis for furnishing interest-bearing loans to businesses and governments throughout Europe. (Italian and Greek transfer banks operated as far East as Constantinople until 1453.)  Using many of the same tools and ideas deployed by financiers today, banking and finance played a crucial role in liberating Europe from the subsistence economic existence that has been the norm for much of human history.

Capital and Markets that “Murder”

Another problem with Hart’s claims about the financial sector is that his “purely financial market” does not exist. Why? Because the financial sector is inherently concerned with something needed by the “real economy” if it is to grow: capital.

Most people working in the financial world spend much of their time thinking about how to invest real people’s real capital in other real people’s real businesses through the medium of real institutions (such as stock markets and mutual funds) so that their investors can realize a real return on their real investment in other real people’s ideas, hopes, and enterprises. Indeed, financial firms that cease to be focused on such real things usually don’t last very long.

Even more contestable is Hart’s suggestion that the venture capital that, he concedes, built places like Manhattan and provided millions with jobs is somehow responsible for particular evils. Notable among these is what he calls “the carboniferous tectonic collision zones of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky” in which “a once poor but propertied people were reduced to helotry on land they used to own” and “forced into dangerous and badly remunerated labor that destroyed their health, and then kept generation upon generation in servile dependency.” This is an example of how, to use Hart’s words, “the market murders.”

To murder is to intentionally kill an innocent person. Is Hart really suggesting that the workings of “the market”—which is simply an economy in which there is a free creation and exchange of goods and services by individuals and communities in a particular institutional setting—involves the intentional killing of innocent people?

Did people on Wall Street, for instance, directly will the alleged enslavement of people in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky? Who, one might ask, “forced” people into these jobs in West Virginia? Could it be possible that some of these crypto-peasants weren’t so content with their three acres and a cow and actually regarded working in a mine as a better economic option, given their available choices at the time? It’s likely that the vast majority of their descendants live far more comfortable material existences, enjoy longer life-spans, and are better educated than their small-landowning forebears. Some are probably working on Wall Street.

There are, of course, genuine problems in today’s financial sector. Sin is as operative there as it was in the guilds that suffocated innovation, crushed entrepreneurs, limited free movement, and restrained upward economic mobility throughout Europe well into the nineteenth century. Cronyism has made its way into this realm of the economy as it has everywhere else, and the systematic moral problems that played such a role in the Great Recession of 2008 have still not been addressed.

These truths, however, can’t disguise the fact that the modern financial sector plays a vital role in helping individuals and communities manage their economic futures, take reasonable risks, and share in the benefits provided by institutions such as stock markets—benefits that, only forty years ago, were largely limited to those who were already wealthy. Part of the genius of finance is the way it puts to work the whole logic of priced risk through which individuals and companies can look at their assets and liabilities, make reasonable calculations on the basis of genuine probabilities, and thereby increase opportunities for successful risk-taking. What exactly is the moral evil involved here? Where is the detachment from the real economy?

My point is not to suggest that weaknesses in Hart’s treatment of the history and nature of financial markets somehow settle matters. They don’t. But if one is going to critique the financial sector’s workings as one of late modern capitalism’s highly objectionable features, it helps to have a relatively accurate understanding of its history, its actual functions, and its real problems.

Wealth and Intrinsic Evil

A second of Hart’s new charges against global capitalism concerns the fact that it generates, as he says, enormous wealth. But, Hart argues, “the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil” (my emphasis). Thus, it—and, by extension, modern capitalism—is essentially incompatible with Christianity. Those who argue to the contrary have, Hart says, been influenced by particular Calvinist readings of Scripture or “American understandings of the faith.”

To make his case that Scripture denotes the possession of private wealth as intrinsically evil, Hart cites examples such as Christ’s warnings to the rich and the language employed in the Epistle of Saint James about the wealthy. The intrinsic evil of possessing wealth, Hart maintains, has been obscured by generations of Christians displaying a particular genius “in explaining it away, or in pretending that it does not mean what it unquestionably means.”

That’s quite an accusation. Unfortunately for Hart, the Christian scriptural treatment of wealth is far more nuanced than he suggests. In the first place, the Scriptures do not claim that literal possession of great material wealth is intrinsically evil: i.e., a free choice that is always wrong by virtue of its very object, regardless of one’s intentions and given circumstances.

When Christ asks the rich young man (Mt 19:16-21) to give up all his possessions and follow him, it’s not possession of the wealth per se that is problematic—it is the fact that the rich young man can’t give up his attachment to that wealth. That is what keeps him from heeding Christ’s call. It is the person who is inordinately attached to such wealth who runs the risk of eternal separation from God. In someone else’s case, such disordered attachment might be to power, a prestigious position, other people’s opinions, tenure, or, in another age, the privileges associated with being an aristocrat.

Or, consider Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (Lk 6: 20-26). Christ neither accuses the rich of being unjust nor condemns their possession of wealth. Rather, he warns that a preoccupation with wealth restricts their vision and diverts them from listening to and answering Christ’s call to follow his narrow way. Likewise the statements in Saint James’s Epistle about the rich do not concern the fact that they are wealthy. One set of verses accuses them of oppressing the poor, exploiting laborers, and being excessively attached to their wealth (Js 5:1-6), while a second admonishes those among James’s audience who are practicing favoritism toward wealthy members of the church and ignoring the poor (Js 2:1-9).

In addition to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, there is a long tradition of reflection by the church fathers, doctors of the Church, and saints who have written about the possession and use of material wealth, explicating what Revelation tells us about this subject. Christianity is very clear that the goods of the world are for the use of all. Yet Christianity—or at least its orthodox versions—has never seen this as incompatible per se with private possession of wealth or even the existence of significant differences in wealth. Yes, Christians are required to use their surplus wealth (and even, when necessary, their essential wealth) in the service of others. That doesn’t always mean, however, that we must discontinue our ownership of it.

Certainly Christians must give alms and pay just taxes. But one of the ways that the financial sector contributes to the realization of the principle of common use is the way in which it puts millions of people’s surplus capital to work in other people’s businesses and enterprises—all without requiring investors to terminate their ownership of this wealth.

The morality of wealth concerns how we acquire it and whether our use of that wealth conforms to the demands of the Gospel and natural law. Indeed, Aquinas defines magnificence as the virtue of “that which is great in the use of money.” It is not so much, he specifies, about making gifts or charity. Nor, Aquinas adds, does the person who embraces this virtue “intend principally to be lavish towards himself.” Rather, he says, magnificence concerns “some great work which has to be produced” with (1) a view to the good that goes beyond the immediate gain, and (2) which cannot be done “without expenditure or outlay” of great sums of money. All of this presumes private ownership of the wealth to be used, and none of this excludes continued ownership of that wealth.

Moving Beyond Caricatures

In the end, however, most of Hart’s arguments about the compatibility of late modern capitalism with Christianity are handicapped by a regrettably common problem among many Christian intellectuals and clergy: a failure to engage in serious study of all of the habits, values, institutions, history, antecedents of, and alternatives to contemporary capitalism.

Far too often, they simply (1) accept Marxist accounts of capitalism’s emergence, (2) buy into the myth that only the political left really cares about the poor, (3) flirt with romantic notions such as guild socialism or idealized pictures of rural life in the shire, (4) refuse to acknowledge that some important insights are contained in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (most of which, as Schumpeter says, had been identified centuries before by scholastic theologians), or (5) prefer to excoriate “the market” by using the fiery populist rhetoric that’s a sure sign that the speaker hasn’t actually thought seriously about the issue.

In a fallen world, there’s no such thing as the perfect economic system. Global capitalism is not beyond criticism. Nor is there any one economic model that Christians are required, as a matter of faith and reason, to support. That said, discussion of Christianity’s view of, and place in, contemporary capitalist economies needs to move beyond emotivist caricatures if Christians genuinely want to be “salt and light” rather than just another group of ideologues.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. His most recent book is For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance can serve the Common Good (Crossroad, 2016).

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