"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Book Review: Wealth and Justice

If you visit an “Occupy” protest, you might read signs that say “Capitalism Breeds Materialism” or “Jesus is not for Corporate Greed.” Anti-capitalist slogans suggest free markets are inherently evil, unbiblical and foster a culture of covetousness and exploitation. After all, how can we agree with an economist like Adam Smith who claims free markets operate on rational self-interest? Isn’t that code for selfishness?

In Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism AEI president Arthur Brooks and Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, address the most fundamental moral questions of the market economy. Capitalism not only fits into a biblical framework, but it depends upon and reinforces Christian values.

Wealth and Justice book cover

Brooks and Wehner frame their argument around a biblical understanding of human nature, that men are neither angels nor demons.  The founding fathers believed:

“…that human nature was mixed, a combination of virtue and vice, nobility and occupation. People were swayed by both reason and passion, capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power.”

They explain how capitalism can act as a civilizing agent and better our moral condition using Adam Smith’s theory of rational self-interest. When functioning properly, free markets penalize bribery, corruption and fraud while encouraging benevolence, peaceful trading and global cooperation.

Next, Brooks and Wehner shift their discussion to the rise and fall of communism and explain why capitalism triumphs over communism. They argue income inequality is not inherently unjust and egalitarian ideals

“…assume that financial relationships define human relationships, that what matters most is out financial standing relative to each other. And of course Christianity, and most other faiths, utterly reject such an outlook.”

Rather than quality of outcome, equality of opportunity is the best anecdote to envy.

Brooks and Wehner maintain a humble tone and do not claim to make the preposterous argument that God is a capitalist and they admit capitalism has its flaws.

“Capitalism, for all its benefits and for all the good it has done, is not flawless. Under certain conditions it can become exploitive and self-destructive. In recent years we have seen this corruption take many forms, [Worldcom, Enron, Bernard Madoff…] however, these are not cases of free markets corroding moral character. They are cases of poor moral character corroding free markets. The answer is not less capitalism. It is better capitalists.” 

Capitalism is dead without morality. It relies on strong non-political institutions including the family, church and schools to complement it. Freedom is only a prerequisite to a truly virtuous society. Without virtue, capitalism self-implodes.

Wealth and Justice engages readers in a carefully discerned discussion on the morality of capitalism that is both refreshing and sensible. Brooks and Wehner warn readers that viewing capitalism as “savior” is falling into the same trap of the Marxists. Though it brings many benefits and comforts, capitalism cannot bring true meaning to our lives. But it is only under a truly free society that human beings have the option to pursue their own meaning in life.