October 23, 2003

Christianity and the Free Market

FORBES MAGAZINE'S ON-LINE VERSION recently presented an extensive if largely standard collection of archived articles on what that institution termed “Christian Capitalism.” It was not a remarkable set of articles – for the most part, they covered subjects that had already been covered in extremis, and they did so with a very wide brush.

In a way, that was a surprise, given that Forbes has always come off as a delightfully old-fashioned publication vis-à-vis religious matters. This is a publication that still prints a verse of Scripture in each edition. This is a publication which rewards its readers for their Scriptural contributions with a set of “Thoughts on the Business of Life.” This is a publication whose editorial mantra has long been “with all thy getting, get understanding.”

That’s not to say Forbes did not touch on faith matters at all in this collection from the back numbers, and we were pleased to see that they included an old but downright fabulous essay from Reynolds Price on the subject. But we suppose that we have such high expectations for the magazine that we thought they would touch more on what we consider a subject of key importance – the relevance and necessity of religious morality as it pertains to business.

Perhaps this was a reflection of how business has too often been conducted throughout the ages – portrayed best in Van Reymerswaele’s old painting, “The Moneychanger and His Wife.” Or perhaps it was a reflection of our modern era, in which religion is too often just a thing for holy days of obligation, and a secondary matter until Death knocks upon one’s door. But whatever the underlying causes, we were still disappointed. For we wish they would have touched on subjects that we thought compelling, or that would make for some great stories. Such as how folks at the highest levels of business grapple with the question of what most old hands in business would deem excessive executive compensation, and whether they take any steps in their personal life to deal with that.

Instead, we got the usual articles: many about the business of religion, and most seemingly written with what one might call a slight note of disapproval.

For instance, there was a large story on the business operations of the evangelical megachurches. The article was all well and good, but it has been done. (The real story there is how the megachurches have affected the operations of older houses of worship, and that angle was not pursued). There was an old story about the Archdiocese of Boston’s extensive real-estate holdings, which too had been done. There was a story about an evangelical book-publishing house which found its big best-seller was no longer selling as well, and stories that seemed included solely for hype reasons. (Specifically, we refer to the articles on Christian video-game manufacturers and movie producers and music labels, which we have never considered all that noteworthy, because the product largely hasn’t crossed over into the mainstream). And, of course, there was the inevitable Wal-Mart angle. Glory!

But the business of religion ain’t the story anymore. The story is the religion of business.

For religious morality – the two ideas go hand-in-hand – is key to the free enterprise system as we know it. It is the internal compass that has guided men for millenia – that merchants should use untampered weights and measures, that tavern-owners ought not water the drinks, and that modern businessmen play by the rules. It is also an external force which helps keep men in line. Earthly law may warrant physical or judicial trials for those who fail to live up to the bargains they make or the standards of fair play, but it is spiritual law which warrants a far harsher punishment for such offenders. One might hesitate to screw his partners out of their hard-earned if he thought the punishment was not merely three years at a minimum-security prison, but an eternity spent crushed under his own folly.*

Yet one senses these old-time standards have gone out the window.

We realize, of course, that men were no more virtuous in the past than they are today, and that there have always been cheats and swindlers and liars among us (two words: Paperwork Crisis). Still, we think the difference between the businessmen of today and the businessmen of the Fifties and early Sixties is that folks today are a bit more brazen about things. They’re not as inclined to think, when they are caught and all is lost, that they did anything wrong. They’re more prone to the viciousness which free enterprise can encourage in a person lacking morals. And they’ve become more consumed with wealth than with their own honor.

The trouble with all this is not merely that such acts are unseemly and gauche, or that they corrupt both the person who commits them and those whom he harms. It is that such criminal and/or anti-social dealings damage the fabric that we have woven, and make it less likely that our great system of free enterprise will continue as it has been doing.

For what those folks, who are often on the highest levels of our society, apparently fail to realize is that those a bit farther down on the totem pole are starting to get a bit upset. They are not happy that their investments went up in smoke. They are not happy chief executives are paid two hundred times what their assembly-line workers earn in a year. They are not happy at thinking themselves cut out of the gravy train. Now, we do not think things will come to a head ten or twenty or even fifty years hence, but we have a sneaking suspicion that if these trends in society continue, that things will eventually boil over for our grandchildren.

This is not to say that honest wealth is a bad thing; that would be silly. Wealth is clearly a good thing in life – as evidenced by the fact readers are sitting at their computer desks reading this and not baking bricks in Peshawar for a buck a day. And hard work and drive and ambition and cleverness are also wonderful things. We just wish that the bad effects which wealth can sometimes create – materialism and indolence and acedia and all the rest – would not be as prevalent as they are in today’s society. For if these latter sins are cut out, men would not only treat each other better, they would ensure that the system that allowed them to do so well will continue on unabated into the future.

So to make sure we keep things as good as we’ve got them, we would hope that our men of commerce would voluntarily give an eye towards the greater things in life – that they make an extra-special effort to act honestly and charitably and decently. But since we know all of them are doing so at present, we would also ask that they keep an eye on their friends and colleages. Just in case.

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* See the Inferno, Canto VII.

ALSO: This has been a hell of a week here for us, so we will return to regular blogging after a few days break. We will be back perhaps as early as Saturday, but probably not until Monday. See you then!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at October 23, 2003 12:57 AM | TrackBack