Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Cultural Capital Is Necessary for Economic Flourishing

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Western activists and foreign aid experts often pretend as though material redistribution is enough to elevate the world’s poor. All we must do is give people the “tools” to do their work, they’ll say, and developing nations will take it from there.

What these “tools” consist of is a bit more blurry. The more serious development experts and economists recognize the need for immediate relief, but point to deeper factors and obstacles that prevent or accelerate the path to long-term prosperity and flourishing — “intangible assets and hidden liabilities,” as Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz have put it.

One such overlooked asset is cultural capital and the ripple effect it yields on a society’s underlying attitudes and overarching philosophy of life. In an excerpt from the PovertyCure series, Michael Miller and Michael Fairbanks explain why it matters.

As Fairbanks explains:

The most important type of capital is cultural capital, and by cultural capital I don’t mean just food and music and fashion and language. These are very valuable things, but I mean, how does a group of people attach meaning in their lives? Are they tolerant of people unlike themselves? Are they optimistic about the future? Do they believe in competition?

It’s trustful relationships…loving new ideas, loving the idea of serving the client very, very well. This cultural capital tells you if the country has the conditions to be prosperous in the future.

For those living in countries with higher levels of such capital, it can be easy to take it for granted, assuming society rolls along simply on the momentum of self-seeking investment and blind consumerism.

If society grasps the proper meaning of work — “as service to others and thus to God” — cultural and economic transformation is a natural byproduct.

Having a healthy understanding of God’s design for work is important for our individual lives, but here we see its importance for flourishing across society. Here we see it’s importance for an enduring economic order that is both just and prosperous.

“If a market is going to be sustainable in the long run, we need something very different from unconnected self-seeking individuals,” Miller concludes. “We need people who think of others, and who are rooted in their families and communities. We need a moral culture and a measure of trust that extends beyond family and clan.”

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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