Posted by: davidwhall | September 30, 2008

The Capitalistic Business Ethic and the Spirit of Calvinism

From a forthcoming work in the Calvin500 series, The Capitalistic Business Ethic and the Spirit of Calvinism by David Hall and Matthew Burton, note the third paragraph.

Values also have consequences in another modern business sector. The burgeoning school of ecological economics, with its ultimate principle to mitigate any perceived sins against the environment, also brings assumptions, values, and consequences to the economic table. Ecological economics, according to one writer, “is built upon three fundamental tenets: (1) nothing is more valuable than the natural environment, both at the local and global level, as it exists today; (2) the dual pressure of population growth and increasing consumption demands are squeezing the planet toward resource exhaustion; and (3) the earth is fragile in unknowable ways.”[1]

Those premises, if implemented in the business world, would incite massive measures that consistently assess additional surcharges to any production. The elevation of the interests of the environment—personified almost to the level of a living being—over less expensive goods and services often hurts those with the lowest income. Accordingly, one of the implications of such unadorned environmental ethics is that greening can become more important than the poor, if push comes to shove. Ideas have consequences, and the present authors join with John Calvin in seeking to call attention to that from the outset and throughout.
Yet another illustration may be found in the reflexive resorting to government bailouts for many crises. As we are finishing this book, there is much pressure in the USA to have the government bail out several large mortgage lenders. On the surface, the argument is made that to fail to do so will spawn even more economic problems. Thus, the assumptions that support that policy are that: (1) the central government’s charter includes bailing out private entities, whose collapse might lead to further economic deterioration; (2) all slumps are catastrophic; (3) users who have over borrowed, or lenders who have over extended, must not bear all consequences; and (4) further taxation to fund such bailouts may be assumed by the government without prior approval. Certainly, folks with interest in this issue may claim an unparalleled state of events to justify government intervention, but reasoned analysts might also measure the magnitude of any perceived crisis differently if a longer stretch of history is considered as a basis of comparison. This kind of interventionism shares “the mistaken belief that governmental intervention in economic matters can successfully achieve desired results while still falling short of the total controls that characterize a socialist system.”[2] Economic programs, thus, are not as value-free as some imagine, and frequently many modern proposals are more reminiscent of Marx’s manifesto than of proposals that are based on sounder economic theory like allowing the free market to correct itself by eliminating those who unjustly over extended themselves which makes opportunity for new businesses to efficiently operate.

One’s view of man and society also crops up in certain economic applications. Following the pioneering theory of Nobel economist Mohammed Yunus, for the past 20 years many wonderful advances have been funded by privately-held microfinance groups. One that has had success has found that not only is private capital needed and appreciated in developing countries, but also that such loans must be given with several types of accountability in order to function best. Customarily microcredit organizations will loan small amounts of capital as seed money for a productive business to those who do not have adequate resources. Such loans are then to be repaid after profitability and recycled again in the local economy. Those loans are then issued again to others, and the original recipients have learned much about responsibility and entrepreneurship. To fail to require repayment would be to instill economic expectations that are wrong.

Moreover, after several decades of this lending, another key component of responsibility has been developed as some lenders now treat a group of borrowers as a family or a community. Lenders have found that if 8 or 10 small loan recipients in developing contexts are bonded together as a unit, a discernible social pressure develops to decrease loan default rates. If one may default on a loan, in other words, from a distant nameless corporation or with relative impunity, that is one thing. However, if 8 or 10 recipients are treated as an incorporated unit, and the prospect becomes defaulting against one’s near neighbor also, more incentive is placed on the recipients. Here, the existence of a group or family makes the enterprise stronger. Such philosophical concepts or values make a difference.[3]

Capitalism, thus, presupposes certain conditions that will make it work. Its invisible glue is of a different sort than the imperceptible glue of statism, environmentalism, and other macro economic systems. Capitalism will often provide more explanatory power and more ability for productivity. If those are underlying values, then one should not be surprised if capitalism is viewed as more of a success than a failure. While Calvin himself did not write a formal economic treatise, we suggest that the worldview encased in his writings and interpretations has more lasting value than many short-lived economic fads. A five-century test of his ideas against other business or economic systems is worthwhile.

We are cautious to avoid making a stealth endorsement of all types and expressions of capitalism, for we are aware of its various shortcomings. Accordingly, we remain cautious about abuses of materialism within many capitalistic contexts. Calvin himself knew and condemned such temptations or excesses in his own sixteenth-century environment; so there is nothing new under the sun in issuing a similar caveat. The temptations of individuals to abuse the fringes of any paradigm or specifically for individuals to engage in wanton hedonism within the capitalistic construct is present (and was present for Calvin) on the micro level. Still, socialism does not make a man more righteous or capable of resisting temptation. Nor does communism, libertarianism, or environmentalism make a man less of a sinner. Human sinfulness is a micro issue that persists throughout all systems and all of history. If the sinfulness of man is an inescapable axiom, then all economic or business systems can be aptly referred to as iron cages with the only difference being which cages confine us or which idols are being worshipped. Capitalism abused is rooted in the idols of materialism or greed. Socialism abused is fueled by the idol of self-righteousness or communolatry. Honest assessments of presuppositions must also equitably address idolatry where it occurs.

The Bible, of course, does not teach a complete, formal economic system. However, the Bible speaks on and alludes to certain economic realities and policies. It also provides a moral framework within which business may be profitable, humane, and charitable. That is why this work will appeal to many biblical passages—so did Calvin. We will seek to highlight those themes for the reader in the pages below. One challenge will be to see which business system fits best with biblical teaching, a goal that Calvin could accept and one that would lead to much commentary from his pen and counsel for his associates. Whether one likes Calvinism or not, modern business culture was transformed while he was fueling new ideas at a hinge of history. A proper understanding of his contributions is needed.

[1] Victor Claar and Robin Klay, Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2007), 100. While some ecological economists would dispute these presuppositions, systems that do adopt these presuppositions are founded on unattainable platforms.
[2] James Gills and Ronald Nash, A Biblical Economics Manifesto (Lake Mary, Florida: Creation House, 2002), 31.
[3] I am grateful to Mr. Guillaume Taylor of UBS in Geneva, who also serves on the board of ECLOF, for his information on this advance in accountability that certainly fits with the views of human nature of the earlier Genevan we wish to commemorate by this book.

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