Book Review: ‘Redeeming Capitalism’ by Kenneth J. Barnes

Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed the most significant movement out of poverty in human history. If this trend continues, we will see extreme poverty almost completely eradicated in the 21st century, according to a 2008 report from the World Bank. This historic economic movement was not the result of government programs, the United Nations’ national debt forgiveness, or even Christian charity. It was brought about by the spread of economic freedom and capitalism.

Economic freedom is important because it affects nearly every aspect of an individual’s life. Living in a society with high levels of economic freedom leads to higher incomes, less poverty, less unemploymentlonger life expectancies, lower infant mortality, higher literacycleaner environments, and a host of other benefits. More economic freedom equals improved well-being and a better quality of life. Economic freedom, then, is one measure of what the Bible calls “flourishing.”

Yet, today, free-market economics has come under fire. Social activist Michael Moore’s critique of capitalism is embraced by many:

Capitalism is an organized system to guarantee that greed becomes the primary force of our economic system and allows the few at the top to get very wealthy and has the rest of us riding around thinking we can be that way, too—if we just work hard enough, sell enough Tupperware and Amway products, we can get a pink Cadillac.

Almost everywhere we turn, we can see examples of greed and abuse, which has many asking, “Are the evils of capitalism worth the benefits?”

A Loss of Morals

Enter Kenneth J. Barnes, who dives headlong into this contentious debate in his new book, Redeeming Capitalism. He does not insist on unfettered capitalism, as many free-market supporters do; nor does he want to scrap capitalism for an “alternative economic utopia.” Instead, Barnes proposes “that capitalism, once rooted in a particular religious ethic, long since lost to the moral relativism of the modern era, need not be replaced, but needs instead to be redeemed.”

Barnes comes to this topic from an unusual but helpful perspective. Along with over 20 years’ experience in the business world, he holds numerous advanced degrees in theology and was recently appointed director of the Mockler Center for Faith & Ethics in the Workplace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. While he doesn’t wish to dismiss the positive contributions capitalism has made to Western civilization, he agrees that we cannot ignore the evils and abuses that commonly plague the current system. He asks the reader to imagine a different type of capitalism, a “virtuous capitalism,” that he defines like this:

[A]n economic system with all of the wealth-generating possibilities of the capitalism we have, with the social benefits of the capitalism we desire; a system that consciously embraces and enthusiastically employs common grace for the common good.

To demonstrate that it is not capitalism itself but its practitioners who are at fault, Barnes uses the first third of the book to explain the historical uncoupling of capitalism and morals. Our system, he writes, “has evolved over the centuries from the traditional capitalism observed by Adam Smith in the eighteenth century to the modern capitalism seen by Max Weber in the early twentieth century, to our current postmodern form of capitalism.” Having broken free of previous moral constraints, this postmodern capitalism, says Barnes, has led to serious corruption and abuse.

Wading through an extended history lesson supplies important background to support Barnes’s central argument, which begins in the second third of the book. Here he examines how the theology of Augustine, Aquinas, and John Calvin has contributed to the development of economic virtue. Barnes argues that, when taken together, the biblical theology of these church fathers gives us a “motif that is remarkably universal in its application,” thus providing a useful framework for redeeming our current economic system.

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Source: Christianity Today