The Virtues of Capitalism: Interview with Scott Rae (part one)

May 05, 2010
Posted by Joe Gorra

The morality of capitalism is one of the most pressing moral issues that Christian philosophers and theologians need to address today. Toward that end, we interviewed Scott Rae about his just released book (with co-author Austin Hill), The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets (Northfield Publishing, 2010). Scott is professor of Christian ethics and the chairperson of the philosophy of religion and ethics department at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology. Below is part one of our multi-part interview with Rae.

How did this book come about?

The book came out of a long journey that my writing partner, Austin Hill, had experienced that began with his studies here at Talbot in the Philosophy program—a course he took with me on “Faith and Economics” and an Acton Institute seminar that he attended while a student here. More recently, in his job as a radio host he had been reading about the broadsides that capitalism had been taking as a result of the meltdown of the financial system—particularly an article in a UK newspaper entitled, “G20 Nations Must Make Moral Case for Capitalism.” Shortly after reading that article, he called me and insisted that we needed to write this book—and now!

Are you trying to recover a particular moral, philosophical and economic tradition?

We are advocating the kind of capitalism that we believe was originally intended by Adam Smith and has been more recently very ably articulated by the Catholic theologian Michael Novak. We hold that Smith intended that the market be regulated by both political and moral restraints. Specifically, Smith argued that the pursuit of self-interest was moderated by what he called the “social virtues” of compassion, justice, benevolence, etc. Smith was neither a libertarian nor an ethical egoist—he held that there was a place for government and for morality in providing restraints on self-interest.

In chapter one, the book tries to address the attitude, “I only care about the moral issues,” which, arguably, tends to persist among so-called American “faith-based” groups and individuals, especially evangelicals. Why is there often a disconnect between morality and economics, whether among the so-called “Religious Left” or the “Religious Right”?

There is less of a disconnect among the religious left than the right, in our view. What’s assumed is that the most pressing and clearest moral issues are the ones related to life—abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, etc. Those have been at the top of the agenda for some time, and justifiably so. Economics by contrast, is often viewed as morally neutral—that the market is simply a system that reflects the values of the culture, but doesn’t shape values.

The other reason for the disconnect is that issues of economics are so often overlapping with contentious and divisive political issues—immigration, for example, that we tend to shy away from addressing them.

A further reason for the disconnect is that applying the Bible to matters of economics is hermeneutically tricky because of the major differences in economic life and structure between the ancient world and today. It’s not enough to say that since materialism is a matter of the heart and the heart hasn’t changed, the Bible’s message can be applied easily. Those premises are true, but the conclusion is not—applying the Bible to economic life is very tricky, especially the Old Testament. Many of the laws that gave people a fresh start economically (Jubilee, redemption of land, etc.) would be very difficult to apply today—or at least it’s not clear how to apply such laws today.

What is an economic system and what should it try to accomplish in light of one’s view about what it means to be a human being?

An economic system is the way in which exchanges are structured among individuals and institutions—it has moral implications because it’s about how we order our lives together in community. An economic system should provide adequate opportunity for self-support and a safety net for those who cannot support themselves. The Bible is clear that those incapable of self-support are entitled to a share of the community’s goods.

Chapter two attempts to show how the Bible offers consistencies with “capitalist principles” (20) What are those principles?

The fundamentals of the market system include freedom, initiative, creativity and provision for the poor. We hold that that the entrepreneurial traits necessary for success in economic life are actually important Christian virtues. Further, we hold that the responsible wealth creation of the market system is how an economist would capture the biblical notion of human dominion over creation from Genesis 1.

What do you think are the most compelling biblical evidences for your claim about capitalism, as an economic system, to be the “preferred choice” among its competitors because it “best honors the human person, and is the way in which we can most productively order our lives together” (20).

I’m not sure there’s a chapter and verse for this—but more broadly speaking the biblical principles that uphold human dignity, creativity, and initiative. The Bible upholds the pursuit of self-interest (“look out not only for your own interests, but also for the interests of others,” Phil. 2:4) and even mandates it in places (where Paul cautions the Thessalonians that “if you don’t work you don’t eat,” and that if you don’t take care of your family, you’re worse off than most people. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of self-interest, moderated by concern for others, and nothing wrong with being successful, moderated by generosity. We also hold that the mandate to care for the poor suggests that capitalism, properly functioning, is the best hope for the poor around the world. Since 1970 roughly 1.2 billion people have been elevated out of poverty into the middle-lower middle class. Granted, there’s a long way to go, but it is widely attributed to be the case that most of the intractable poverty is in sub-Sahara Africa, where we would suggest that the market as Adam Smith envisioned has yet to be implemented.

How you hold the authority of the Bible in this book, especially in chapter two, is suggestive of an important methodological consideration relevant to how scripture integrates with other areas of knowledge. The book seems to bank on the fact that scripture is not just a source of one’s religious beliefs, perhaps one’s doctrinal beliefs, but the Bible is actually a source of knowledge about reality. Is that correct? If so, can you possibly elaborate on that point and how it might be relevant to how various publics (religious and non-religious) interact with scripture and economics?

You’re right about our view of the Bible—we see it as a source of knowledge, not just opinions about our beliefs. This is a broader philosophical question of epistemology—we reject the contemporary notion that the only stuff that counts for knowledge is that which we can verify with our senses or by science—that’s the hubris of empiricism that has worked its way into our culture and educational system. We hold that the integration of the bible with economics is a critical task for scholars today, but it must take into account some of the hermeneutical difficulties mentioned above given how different economic life was in the ancient world.

How might scholars working in philosophy, biblical studies and theology, or at any of their intersections, do further integrative work that would contribute thinking about economics and capitalism?

This is a great question—most of the most contentious issues concern not the ends of economics, but the best means to accomplish those ends. The Bible is clear on the ends and most people agree on the ends—it’s the means that constitute the differences. And the means involves a variety of disciplines—economics, political philosophy, social sciences, theology, etc. One example that could really use some work is the issue of immigration—that has all the above disciplines, and then some, that have a bearing on that issue. The Bible has a lot to say about immigration—but applying that takes skill and discernment since the political landscape in biblical times was so different from today.

You can learn more about The Virtues of Capitalism by visiting the book’s Facebook page. You may also be interested in Michael Novak’s 2004 speech, “Wealth and Virtue: The Moral Case for Capitalism.”