Blog author: rnothstine
by on Friday, May 15, 2009

richards-book1The belief that the essence of capitalism is greed is perhaps the biggest myth Jay W. Richards tackles in his new book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem. One reason for confronting this challenge is that many free market advocates subscribe to the thought that capitalism produces greed, and for them that’s not necessarily a negative. But for those with a faith perspective, greed and covetousness are of course serious moral flaws.

It’s also the kind of myth that less articulate writers would rather not challenge, especially in this troubling economic climate. Richards does however have a skill for tightly honed logical arguments, and he not only is able to defend free markets but tear lethal holes into many of the economic ramblings of the religious left. He even takes on holy of holies like fair trade and Third World debt relief. Richards argues that the free market is moral, something that may come as a surprise to many people of faith. This book provides a crushing blow to those involved in the ministry of class warfare or those who wish to usher in the Kingdom of God through “nanny state” policies.

The book divides into eight chapters, with each chapter discussing a common held economic myth like the “piety myth” or “nirvana myth.” Richards says the piety myth pertains to “focusing on our good intentions rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions.” The nirvana myth characterizes the act of “contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives.” Richards himself states, “The question isn’t whether capitalism measures up to the kingdom of God. The question is whether there’s a better alternative in this life.”

The influence of libertarian economist Henry Hazlitt and Wealth and Poverty author George Gilder are evident through out this book. But the overarching strength of Richards work is how he places the free market message into the context of Christian discussions and debate. Unfortunately before this response, many of the economic arguments by the Christian left weren’t properly countered in popular mediums. Furthermore, the wanton excess of prosperity gospel advocates only fueled or provided ammunition for the religious left’s rebuke of the free market.

Richards also provides an argument of sorts through narrative in his book by contrasting his youthful naïveté with his more mature adult self. He points out examples where he dabbled with Marxist beliefs and what he called “Christian socialism.” The reader is able to follow his progression of thought and study where he eventually comes to believe in the superiority of a free market system when it comes to economic sufficiency, but also for lifting and keeping people out of poverty.

The chapter on greed and capitalism contain some of the most thoughtful and helpful arguments particularly when he discusses the value of the entrepreneur in society. He offers some important thoughts on virtuous acts and behavior required of the entrepreneur. These thoughts counter the all too often repeated stereotypes of those who toil in business as greedy misers motivated solely by material accumulation. Richards says of the entrepreneur:

Unlike the self-absorbed, they anticipate the needs of others, even needs that no one else may have imagined. Unlike the impetuous, they make disciplined choices. Unlike the automaton, they freely discover new ways of creating and combining resources to meet the needs of others. This cluster of virtues, not the vice of greed, is the essence of what the Reverend Robert Sirico calls the ‘entrepreneurial vocation.’

The author also does a formidable job at dealing with a number of scriptural texts and providing the reader with a broader context of meaning. One example is the study he does on usury, which includes a lot of helpful exegetical analysis, but also solid background information from Church tradition and history.

This book is extremely important when one considers the current debates going on in churches and religious communities today. On many Christian campuses and seminaries the case for the free market is losing ground, or absent altogether. The author grasps and understands the arguments made by those who are hostile to the market and the religious backgrounds they come out of, and this helps his ability to respond. I wish this text had been available when I was in seminary. I have heard all of the myths and teachings Richards is so skilled at countering. The ability to think through and respond to the ramblings of the religious left is what makes this work valuable. In fact, the religious left will probably ignore this book rather than respond to many of the well thought out and ordered arguments.

It must be said that another important factor in this book, and one that is a must when coming from a Christian perspective, are the moral considerations and arguments made in defense of the market. Richards understands that for capitalism or free markets to succeed and flourish they must have a moral framework and hold a moral value for the believer. Even if one is however not a person of faith, it’s hard to argue against a need for a moral component for business and industry given the current economic crisis.

Richards takes on figures like Ayn Rand, who celebrate selfishness over the defense of the other. The moral argument of course characterizes the basis of the Acton Institute’s purpose and mission. It’s an argument that given the times and circumstances should provide us with a greater opportunity to reach the larger culture, especially the culture of believers.

The Acton hand print is all over this book of course because Richards penned the book during his tenure at Acton. One would hope this work will flourish and change the thinking of so many who are in desperate need of economic reasoning and education. Even if one is not inclined to believe or rally around the arguments made by Richards it offers a nice balance to much of the economic branding offered up by the popular culture and religious left of late.

If nothing else the valuable critical thinking and writing the author offers reminds us there is an alternative to the kind of thinking that causes Jim Wallis of Sojourners to say the “great crisis of American democracy today is the division of wealth.”


  • http://criticismas.wordpress.com/ Mark

    Thanks for the review, I look forward to reading. I am preparing to lead a 4-week discussion at my church re: capitalism and socialism, as I saw many in my church advancing the idea that some sort of Christian-socialism was the cure to all the evils of the free market.

    This quote is a perfect definition of what I think these believers are not seeing: “focusing on our good intentions rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions.”

  • Roger McKinney

    It’s a myth that capitalism is based on greed. The truth is that socialism is based on envy/covetousness. Christianity kept envy under control, but socialism made it respectable.

  • http://www.riddlesolved.blogspot.com Dixon Cannon

    Greed is always an interesting topic for discussion. Greed is a relative term; who amongst us is qualified to define greed? Is Bill Gates greedy or just a very good businessman? Is Hugh Hefner greedy just because of his magazine content despite what he give to charity? Is the televangelist who uses donated funds to air condition his dog’s house greedy even though he preaches the gospel? You see what a slippery, slimey Helter Skelter the discussion becomes? To the individual that lives in a cardboard box, YOU may be the greedy pig that thinks he has to have a house, a car, and a television set!

    Ayn Rand wrote of “the virture of selfishness” with a stick in your eye approach. What she describes is a ‘Rational Self-Interest’ that is inherent in the human spirit. The ‘Rational Self Interest’ is the impetis for businessmen and entrepreneurs to succeed. In doing so they serve others and employ others and add value to the economy – that goes for pornographers as well as brain surgeons! To believe that others actually act with a full consciousness of complete service to others without any benefit to themselves is Rand’s description of altruism. Even Mother Theresa had her motives and enjoyed the attention she brought to her chosen cause – she was in fact, ‘rationally self-interested’ in saving the poorest of the poor.

    Hey, by the way – who is more “greedy”?.. Bernie Madoff or the investors who wanted him to make money for them no matter the methods, never questioning his morality, his virtue or how the money was made?

  • Tracy

    Ray once again excellent review. I also enjoyed reading responses above. I like the point “capitalism or free markets to succeed and flourish they must have a moral framework and hold a moral value for the believer. Even if one is however not a person of faith, it’s hard to argue against a need for a moral component for business and industry given the current economic crisis”. I recently read that Christian Chinese Business men/women have in China has increasing been excepted with Chinese government due to their honest moral value by not cheating the consumers with their products. As we seen in the past on product recalls for products shipped to the US from China that has caused public health issues such as rat poison found in pet food or tainted baby formula, the Chinese government has realized the need for a moral components to suceed internationally for business of trading goods and services.

  • Neal Lang

    “Greed is always an interesting topic for discussion. Greed is a relative term; who amongst us is qualified to define greed? Is Bill Gates greedy or just a very good businessman? Is Hugh Hefner greedy just because of his magazine content despite what he give to charity? Is the televangelist who uses donated funds to air condition his dog’s house greedy even though he preaches the gospel? You see what a slippery, slimey Helter Skelter the discussion becomes? To the individual that lives in a cardboard box, YOU may be the greedy pig that thinks he has to have a house, a car, and a television set!”

    How about these definitions?

    “Greed in psychology is a desire to obtain some material good or social position. In economic terms, it is the genesis of economic activity. In theology Greed is the excessive or rapacious desire and pursuit of money, wealth, power. It is generally considered a vice, and is one of the seven deadly sins in Catholicism.” From Wikipedia

    And this:

    “Avarice (from Latin avarus, “greedy”; “to crave”) is the inordinate love for riches. Its special malice, broadly speaking, lies in that it makes the getting and keeping of money, possessions, and the like, a purpose in itself to live for. It does not see that these things are valuable only as instruments for the conduct of a rational and harmonious life, due regard being paid of course to the special social condition in which one is placed. It is called a capital vice because it has as its object that for the gaining or holding of which many other sins are committed. It is more to be dreaded in that it often cloaks itself as a virtue, or insinuates itself under the pretext of making a decent provision for the future. In so far as avarice is an incentive to injustice in acquiring and retaining of wealth, it is frequently a grievous sin. In itself, however, and in so far as it implies simply an excessive desire of, or pleasure in, riches, it is commonly not a mortal sin.” From the Catholic Encyclopedia

    Apparently the “sin” is not in the accumulating, but in the “how” and “why” of the accumulation!

  • Matt

    Finally a review that doesn’t make me feel guilty for my fortunate financial state. I’m glad there are other true Americans out there that see it my way. As a wealthy businessman, I started with little growing up in a middle class family in Florida. Vigorous work ethic and dedication led me to the position I’m in today. Owning many properties in the Cleveland area has exposed me to the unfortunate outcome of our current economic state. I have evicted 12 families from their homes just this year. It’s sad. Here are honest, sometimes hard working families with little. Everytime this happens I recant the same thought, “You know everyone has the oppurtunity to work hard in this country to make something of yourself just as I did, so why did you put yourself in that position?” Why must one person’s laziness be twisted into another hard working individual’s so called “greed?” This is socialist rhetoric at work. As a proud libertarian I have the right to care about myself without the guilt. It’s okay to be lookout for me and only me. If we give in to socialism, then we are giving up my own fortune (flush it down the toilet), we are giving up my guns (from my cold, dead hand!), and giving up my right to quality health care. You want health care? Pay for it like everyone else! Sorry if you are really sick, but you need to work hard and pay for it! Being healthy isn’t a human right…it’s a choice! Besides that means less jobs for the hard working, honest citizens of our insurance industry. Are you kidding? Eliminate more jobs so we can save lives? If people die because they have little to no health care coverage, tough. But NOOOO, that’s greed isn’t it. Listen there isn’t a rich and poor in this country, there’s the hard working, and the lazy. If you make less than 250k a year (thanks Obama) then you are just not working hard enough, then you want to complain? Capitalism ruls! I got to go. I’m going to buy some nice cigars and head to the golf course with some of my buddies. They’re “rich” too.

  • Luis Velez

    ummm… one of Jesus’ social stories actually tells us that The Eternal Creator of Heavens and Earth gave “To the individual that lives in a cardboard box” the celestial comfort in Abraham’s bosum that the prosperous and wealthy enjoyed in this terrestial life. Anyway, having browse this blog and read the review and comments, I shall try to get Mr. Richards’ book and read it…

  • Vicky Chiew

    I’m just starting to really *wrestle* about all these issues – poverty, globalization/capitalism, greed, social justice, charity, economic/racial/gender equality etc. And I’m glad for Dr. Richards’ book, as it’s good to have/understand another perspective on these very complex issues.

    However, I think it’s important to keep in mind, with everything we read or hear, the position and background of the speaker/author. As a South-east Asian born ethnic Chinese Canadian bisexual woman, who is basically part of the “diaspora” of the “Chinese diaspora” (i.e. immigrant descendants of immigrants), and whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived most of their lives in poverty and with basic subsistence (food, water, shelter), and now who is considered part of the privileged middle-class with no debt and an undergrad degree (and pursing another degree), I have a different experience of the world than the average white, straight, upper middle-class American man. I’ve lived as a visible minority in both the country I was born in and the country I grew up in. I’m thankful for the privileges of being a Canadian and Westerner now, but I can not forget my Chinese heritage written in poverty, nor deny my precarious position as a coloured, bisexual Christian woman (though educated) – a position that puts me in the margins more than I realize. Dr. Richards and co., on the other hand, are very privileged, because they are men for one, and white for another, and straight. They are accepted and even revered, and don’t have to face the inequalities of race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economy.

    So, when one of them writes a book such as this, I need to remember that he is speaking and writing from a position of great privilege, and as a member of a dominant culture within not only American society but a dominant culture among the world cultures, and thus he has a different view of the world from the vast majority of the world population, who are living on the opposite end of the spectrum. And thus, I must read and listen critically, with this understanding in mind.

  • rob bush

    “The question isn’t whether capitalism measures up to the kingdom of God. The question is whether there is a better alternative in this life.”
    No, no, no, no … The question always should be whether my choices measure up to the kingdom of God.. Striving and working for the kingdom is unrealistic, unlikely, unexpected, and the longest of long shots. Thanks be to God that we worship the God of the long shot … just look at the miracle of grace.
    Capitalism may indeed be the only realistic solution in this age. Sounds like a good enough reason to reject it in God’s name.

  • marc

    Rob:

    You’re close, but I think you’re missing a fundamental point: you are correct to note that the question should always be whether your choices measure up to the kingdom of God. But the most important words in that sentence are YOUR CHOICES. God does not explicitly endorse capitalism, nor does he explicitly endorse any other specific economic system. But He is concerned about how you make your choices within whatever system he has placed you in.

    Richards is arguing that free markets are indeed the best economic option available to allow for human flourishing and for lifting the poor out of poverty. It’s a worthy argument for Christians to consider, so don’t dismiss it on the basis of misinterpreting one phrase.

  • http://tell-usa.org Bob Struble

    As a counterpoise to the view that corporations are part of the solution rather than a primary part of the problem, see
    “Corporations, Courts and Culture War,” in Catholic Exchange, March 1, 2010.
    http://catholicexchange.com/2010/03/13/127978/

  • http://tell-usa.org Bob Struble

    Sorry, that’s Catholic Exchange, March 13, 2010.
    http://catholicexchange.com/2010/03/13/127978/