Acton Institute Powerblog

David Brat on Christianity and Capitalism

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bratI had a chance to talk with Michelle Boorstein yesterday about David Brat and a bit of his work that I’ve been able to become familiar with over the past few days. She included some of my comments in this piece for the Washington Post, “David Brat’s victory is part of broader rise of religion in economics.”

I stressed that Brat’s research program, which in many ways emphasizes the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, has at least two basic features. First, he’s focused on increasing theological awareness of economic realities: “I never saw a supply and demand curve in seminary. I should have.” This kind of increased economic sensibility would help the church to be a positive factor for social cultural change: “The church needs to regain its voice and offer up a coherent social vision of justice and rationality.”

But on the other hand, Brat has a message for economists as well. He challenges the mainstream assumption of economics as merely a positive, value-free science that can provide objective answers to questions without the trappings of morality or religion. A comment on Boorstein’s piece illustrates this important aspect of Brat’s work:

Dave helped me understand the essentiality of the links between capitalism (voluntary exchange that serves both parties’ interests) and theology (man’s obligation to serve God through work and use gain to carry out Jesus’ admonition to help the poor). At first, I thought he was joking. Surely one did not have to embrace a theological perspective to be a good capitalist. But he was not joking. I now have a much more nuanced and mature understanding of the “moral foundations of capitalism” than I did before I met Dave.

Brat’s faculty page includes portraits of John Calvin, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and John Maynard Keynes. Obviously there’s a lot to David Brat and I look forward to becoming more familiar with him and his work.

Amid all of the bad reportage out there on Brat, and there is so much that it is hard to keep up, here are a few other pieces that I have found to be helpful:

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • “He challenges the mainstream assumption of economics as merely a positive, value-free science”

    Most economists I’ve read have never spoken of economics as a “positive, value-free science”. Most economists write of economics as a hybrid of hard science (data) and social sciences (sociology, psychology, etc.). I applaud Acton and Brat and all others who inject a spiritual component into the economics conversation, though I fail to see how Brat’s infatuation with Ayn Rand (an outspoken atheist) supports his religious component in any way. Rand was all about herself, but Jesus was all about loving other people unconditionally, as God loves us.

    Free-markets and limited government are the key to opening the widest range of opportunity to all people of all socioeconomic classes. Our problem in America is not a lack of market freedoms, our problem is an imbalanced tax and fiscal policy which is (ironically) poisoning the freedoms of our markets. Our middle class no longer saves money. Our middle class is at their highest debt ratio in history and have been reduced to buying trinkets at Wal Mart. A free-market will only survive when the entire socioeconomic spectrum is healthy and thriving.Overt wealth and income growth inequality historically leads to plutocracy and fascism. America seems to be on that track.

    • Good post, but I think in the last paragraph you have cause and effect backwards. Increasing plutocracy and fascism destroy the economy and increase inequality. Increasing regulations create the plutocracy/fascism by giving control to cartels of corporations. Fed inflationary policies steal from the poor and middle class for the benefit of the rich.

      • Emerging studies (Princeton, Northwestern, etc.) are showing what we’ve intuited all along — that our elected officials are mostly working (writing fiscal policy) for the highest bidders, and ignoring the will of their lower- and middle-class constituents, Heck, when you’ve been promised a $2M/year lobbying position after leaving office, it’s hard to resist. FDR had a very simple definition of fascism. He said “whenever the government is controlled by private economic power, that’s fascism.”

        Ralph Nader’s interview this week on is a brilliant conversation on how partisan politics misses the elephant in the room, which is corporatism, and how national media (both leftist and rightist) perpetuates rabid partisanship while largely avoiding any discussion about liberty-eroding corporatism. Eisenhower warned us of this 60 years ago, and today it is upon us. This should come as no surprise as 90% of national media is controlled by the same interests now controlling Congress..

        In the conversation on wealth and income growth inequality, many fail to differentiate between “free-markets” and “fiscal policy.” Free markets have not caused the growing inequality between our top wealthiest class and our middle-lower classes. The problem, best I can tell, has been caused by non-proportionate confiscation (poorly engineered tax code). A bottom-heavy tax code is likely the #1 reason we’ve seen our top-class (aka 1%) wealth rise from 20% in 1976 to nearly 40% today, without a fair and proportionate rise in lower-middle class wealth and income growth.

        Simplistically, there is a healthy ratio of 1% to 99% wealth in any free-market. That ratio is, in large part, and over time, engineered by tax code and fiscal policy. This optimal ratio maximizes productivity and GDP while concurrently maintaining strong ALL-class wealth and income growth. Progressively raising taxes too high on the rich depletes the stores of 1%-class wealth required for new business investment, job creation, market liquidity, etc.. But, as we’re seeing, lowering 1%-class taxes too severely causes a nation’s wealth, over time, to flow disproportionately into the very top.

        Historically, the ideal 1% to 99% wealth ratio is somewhere around 15-30% (depending on whose analysis you read). When the 1% class goes beyond 25-30% ownership of a nation, historically unhealthy social effects begin to manifest. When the ratio goes beyond 35-40%, we enter into a severe wealth imbalance typified by periods that triggered catastrophic events, such as the Great Depression (45%). Since the 1980s, wealth has been flowing out of the 99% and into the 1% at the 10-year moving average rate of 0.5% per year. At this rate, by 2025, America’s top wealthiest will own roughly 43% of America — a ratio we’ve not seen since 1929.

        In my opinion, we have a fiscal AND political emergency.

  • Jeffersonian

    Congrats! you’ve done a great job forwarding the rightful storyline the Brat campaign and its coalition supporters have been forwarding to the media. Everyone should pay heed and learn something, particularly Christians and those heathen economists.

    Jesus was a devoted free-market capitalist and successful capitalist himself, anyone can see from the Gospels. If he did say one could not serve both God and money, he clearly meant it only in an apocalyptic sense. If he did throw money-changers out of the temple, it was only to make room for the future Christian-right/free-market/political triumvirate so powerfully potent and effective today.

    After all, it’s our Ayn Rand style worshipful self-interest, aggressive consumerism and deification of our most reverend Free Market–even as a replacement for wise human government–that are burning up God’s planet and its once abundant, flourishing forests, oceans and diverse species. This is a wonderful tool for hastening the end times.

    Indeed, anyone can see where this will end, and hallelujah–by then we Christian-market-worshipers will be raptured into bliss, without having had to take up any cross or sacrifice ourselves in the slightest for the larger common good on earth–so it’s a win-win, a great futures investment.

    Brat himself doesn’t believe in the common good (he rightly abhors the word “common”), so why should we other followers of our successful capitalist Jesus? If Jesus uplifted and valued the common man over the wealthy, money loving Pharisees, it was simply to convert the common masses into the proper worship of empire and Ayn Rand style morality.

    • You demonstrate a lot of confusion in your post. You seem to equate commerce with capitalism. It’s not. Capitalism is a system for organizing commerce. Commerce has always existed. Capitalism is only about 300 years old.

      Rand is not libertarianism. She was definitely an immoral atheist, but many Godly Christians are libertarians. Rand was just a freak show.

      Yes, Jesus was a capitalist because Jesus wrote the Torah, which is the most libertarian document ever written if interpreted correctly using the principles of hermeneutics.

      Environmental disasters are a property issue. Private property protects the environment because no one will destroy or let others destroy their property. Almost all environmental disasters happen on state controlled property.

      The history of the West and India and China over the past generation show that free markets serve the common good far better than any amount of socialism or charity.

  • Mainstream econ claims to be value free, but as with most things mainstream they’re lying. The heart of mainstream econ are the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models. Those DSGE models assume the economy is in equilibrium most of the time. They need that assumption in order for the math to work. The equilibrium assumption demands the perfect competition model in which all products are homogeneous and all producers/consumers are price takers. No entrepreneurs exist in perfect competition equilibrium so all innovations happens by magic.

    With those assumptions, any market form that is not perfect competition is evil because it reduces output and raises prices. Mainstream econ uses the perfect competition model to find market “failures” everywhere that the real world doesn’t match up with their hypothetical perfect market. Government must intervene and correct market failures. The end result is that the state must control most of the economy to try to eliminate all of the “imperfections.” That’s why almost all mainstream economists are statists and closet socialists. There is nothing value free about mainstream econ.

    Austrian econ is famous for facing reality squarely and not trying to build a utopia based on hypothetical equilibrium and non-existing perfect competition. But it’s also value free in that it allows people to choose their own ultimate ends and it merely tells you which means are appropriate for achieving those ends.

  • From what I have heard in the media, his views on immigration are disappointing.