Category: Business and Society

Jordan Ballor’s recent post on “Christian Reason and the Spirit of Capitalism” hit onto something big.

In today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist David Brooks weighs in with a piece entitled “The Holy Capitalists”. (Once again, the Times has blocked access to non-subscribers. If you aren’t a subscriber, buy today’s Times just to read this column – it’s worth it.)

Brooks calls the debate over the foundations of success the most important in the social sciences today and praises Rodney Stark’s book “The Victory of Reason” for its unconventional take on Western progress.

“Religion didn’t stifle economic and scientific ideas – it nurtured them. [...] Catholic theology had taught [European scientists and economists] that God had created the universe according to universal laws that reason could discover.”

He concludes, “Ideas and culture drive civilizations. The Catholic Church nutured one of the most impressive economic takeoffs in human history. Today, as Catholicism spreads in Africa and China, it’s important to understand the beliefs that encourage people to work hard and grow rich.”

Some of these themes can be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent World Day of Peace Message (albeit in less provocative language). And they are also of great interest to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, headed by Prof. Mary Ann Glendon.

Maybe this discussion will be joined on the letters page of the “newpaper of record”. And maybe the Times will even allow non-subscribers to take part.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, December 14, 2005

In a new Acton Commentary, Anthony Bradley examines a new report from the Fraser Institute that measures economic freedom in Arab countries, an important indicator for cultures that are in many places still struggling to lift their people out of poverty. In discussing the report, Bradley says, “As history demonstrates, individuals or families having freedom to determine their own economic destiny liberates them from government dependence and long-term dependence on charity.”

Read the full commentary here.

A newly published letter by Narnia creator C.S. Lewis shows his distaste for Disney “vulgarity” and his fear of seeing fictional animal characters transformed into cartoonish buffoons. Jordan Ballor, in a new Acton commentary, explores how Lewis might have felt about the new Disney film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Ballor looks at Lewis’ dislike of animatronic, or costumed people acting the parts of animals, as well as his feelings towards Walt Disney’s “vulgarity.” Dispensing with Lewis’ objections to animatronics as an argument based on obsolete technology, Ballor focuses most of his thoughts on the larger picture of a gravely depraved movie industry, and how Christians should discern, practice restraint, and strive to infiltrate the industry to use it to create family friendly and edifying films.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 14, 2005


In an not-so-subtle take-off of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice franchise, ExperiencePoint has come up with a fun interactive game to challenge your event-planning and management skills. The background:

Inspired by his favorite reality programs, Santa Claus invited eight elves to the North Pole for the purpose of selecting one as his new protégé. Through a series of rigorous holiday competitions, Santa has whittled down the group to the final two candidates – congratulations, you’re one of them! Now you must manage a rag-tag team of previous cast-offs in one final competition. Succeed, and you will have earned the coveted position of “Santa’s Little Helper”.

Check the game out, it’s called Santa’s Little Helper. Fun times.

I became Santa’s Little Helper on the first try!

HT: LifeHacker

Roger Cohen’s column in today’s International Herald Tribune slams the French economic system by telling the story of Rachid Ech Chetouani, a young French Muslim.

(Unfortunately, the column is behind the New York Times Select firewall and available only to subscribers. Isn’t it ironic that the Times can write such moving pieces about social exclusion while practicing it at the very same time?)

Chetouani has been to China and North America, so he has some alternative economic systems for comparison purposes.

Speaking of China: “It’s seething, it never stops, it’s full of pitiless people emerging from hard times,” he said. “There are no cafés! They don’t have time for that. Everyone’s out to make it.”

“The difference in North America is that it’s competence that counts,” he said. “Nobody’s interested in where you came from as long as you can bring them money. Here [in France], the system is based more on knowing the right people.”

France’s problems apply to the European social model as a whole, with its high level of taxes and regulations to ensure high levels of supposedly more humane social protection. But where does that leave young people like Chetouani who are intelligent and willing to work hard, yet somehow trapped outside the system?

He remarks with not a little bitterness, “I’m for a society of winners. France doesn’t like winners. When you make it, you hide it. One question nobody seems able to answer is: If the French economic model is so great, how come nobody copies it?”

A very good question in search of an answer throughout large parts of Europe.

Blog author: kjayabalan
posted by on Monday, December 12, 2005

New Perspectives Quarterly has a great interview with Milton Friedman, who at 93 years of age still exhibits more economic clarity than whole academic faculties and episcopal justice and peace commissions.

Milton Friedman,
Senior Research Fellow,
Hoover Institution

Some of Friedman’s gems:

- On how European economies can get back on track: “They all ought to imitate Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; free markets in short.”

- On the European social model as a third way between capitalism and socialism: “I don’t think there is a third way. But it is true that a competitive market is not the whole of society. A great deal depends on the qualities of the population and the nation in how they organize the non-market aspects of society.”

- On the Chinese market-Leninist approach: “Political freedom will ultimately break out of its shackles. Tiananmen Square was only the first episode. It is headed for a series of Tiananmen Squares. It cannot continue to develop privately and at the same time maintain their authoritarian character politically. They are headed for a clash. Sooner or later, one or the other will give. If they don’t free up the political side, their economic growth will come to an end — while they are still at a very low level.”

- On the prospects of freedom in the 21st century: “The world as a whole has more or less embraced freedom. Socialism, in the traditional sense, meant government ownership and operation of the means of production. Outside of North Korea and a couple of other spots, no one in the world today would define socialism that way. That will never come back. The fall of the Berlin Wall did more for the progress of freedom than all of the books written by myself or Hayek or others. [...] This free-market base will likely expand from there by example to others not so free. Everyone, everywhere, now understands that the road to success for underdeveloped countries is freer markets and globalization.”

Read the whole thing.

(HT: Political Theory Daily Review)

Here’s a far-ranging essay that has a central thesis which is quite possibly fatally flawed but still touches on some very important points: “A series of developments, in which reason won the day, gave unique shape to Western culture and institutions. And the most important of those victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth.”

In “How Christianity (and Capitalism) Led to Science,” Baylor University Professor Rodney Stark examines the role that Christianity, especially rational Christianity, played in the flowering of Western civilization. Stark points out the flaw in Max Weber’s thesis that capitalism was founded on the Protestant work ethic (“the rise of capitalism in Europe preceded the Reformation by centuries”).

Stated elsewhere, Stark’s modified thesis is this: “But, if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason.” This “faith in reason” was most importantly manifest in Christianity, which, according to Stark, held a consistent dominant view from the church fathers, through the Middle Ages, and up through the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Quotes from Augustine and Tertullian are used to shore up his claim that “from early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase understanding of Scripture and revelation.”

Stark does debunk many pervasive myths in addition to the Weber thesis, such as that the supremacy of the West was based on the secularization and “overcoming” of religious barriers to progress. “Nonsense,” he writes. “The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.” Stark also exposes “the incredible fiction that, from the fall of Rome until about the 15th century, Europe was submerged in the Dark Ages — centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery — from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously, rescued; first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment.”

Still, Stark’s depiction of the role of reason in the great history of Christian theology is rather markedly simplistic. There are a great many strands of different approaches to the relationship between faith and reason, and not all of them can be disposed of simply by juxtaposing “mystery” and “reason.” Augustine’s view of reason seems particularly distorted by Stark.

Stark makes no distinction between the rational Christianity of the Enlightenment, for example, and the view of reason in Christianity in the dominant Augustinian traditions in the Middle Ages and Reformation. One key aspect that is overlooked is the Christian regard not just for reason in general, but with the reason of regenerate Christians, as opposed to the fallen reason exercised by the unregenerate.

It may well be, in fact, that “the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason,” but from this it does not follow that there is a unanimous Christian approach to reason throughout church history, or that the modern scientific age was not ushered in by an increasing emphasis on reason and rationality as external norms for Christian theology (something quite foreign to most premodern approaches to theology).

All in all, Stark’s piece is a valuable one, but should be approached with some critical caution. He is at his strongest when debunking myths about the rise of capitalism and doing good economic history and analysis: “Tyranny makes a few people richer; capitalism can make everyone richer.” He does a good job of tracing interest in science and technology to a general Christian regard for human reason. He stumbles, however, in his depiction of reason in relation to the enterprise of Christian theology. Stark’s contention that a univocal “faith in reason” existed throughout the last 2,000 years of Christian theology falls flat.

Update: A discussion of this piece is developing over at Mere Comments.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 9, 2005

You probably have heard of Pascal’s Wager, but have you heard of Kant’s Bet? Immanuel Kant, the 18th century moral philosopher, famous for his discussion of the categorical imperative, has an interesting section bearing on economics in his Canon of Pure Reason (which comes at the conclusion of his Critique of Pure Reason).

In the section discussion epistemology, entitled, “Opining, Knowing, and Believing,” Kant explores the difference between subjective conviction that something is true and objective certainty. The personal basis for such a judgment depends in part on the strength of the subjective belief. Talking specifically about pragmatic beliefs, which adhere to some activity and particular action, Kant writes:

The usual touchstone, whether that which someone asserts is merely his persuasion — or at least his subjective conviction, that is, his firm belief — is betting. It often happens that someone propounds his views with such positive and uncompromising assurance that he seems to have entirely set aside all thought of possible error. A bet disconcerts him. Sometimes it turns out that he has a conviction which can be estimated at a value of one ducat, but not of ten. For he is very willing to venture one ducat, but when it is a question of ten he becomes aware, as he had not previously been, that it may very well be that he is in error. If, in a given case, we represent ourselves as staking the happiness of our whole life, the triumphant tone of our judgment is greatly abated; we become extremely diffident, and discover for the first time that our belief does not reach so far. Thus pragmatic belief always exists in some specific degree, which, according to differences in the interests at stake, may be large or may be small.

In such a way, we can arrive a subjective value of actual beliefs, while at the same time exposing the truth that full subjective conviction cannot be immediately translated into objective certainty. Thus we have Kant’s Bet, not something Kant invented of course, but merely passes along to us as part of the philosophical tradition.

In the twentieth century, Italian statistician Bruno de Finetti came up with a rather more refined and complex version of something like Kant’s Bet, designed as “a method to gauge someone’s confidence in the chances of a given event occurring by measuring it against a lottery with a known probability” (See The De Finetti Game via the evangelical outpost). All this really is a philosophical way of getting at the old cliché, “Put your money where your mouth is.”

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, December 7, 2005

The new Paramount movie Aeon Flux starring Charlize Theron paints a picture of a post-apocalyptic future for humankind. But the “perfect society” will remain a myth this side of the eschaton, says Jordan Ballor. The fulfillment of merely human potential cannot approach the “fullness of hope that comes with the recognition of God and an afterlife,” he writes.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Says Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff:

Hollywood’s cartoon-like caricatures of evil multinational corporations may some day seize mainstream consciousness, leading to political upheavals that shatter today’s social contract. That won’t be good for profits, or for the poor.

For more on Tinseltown’s demonization of multinational corporations, see “The Manchurian Mistake.”