from Eden’s Bridge – Excursus: On Capitalism

(This essay is a close adaptation excerpted from the book Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, © David B. Doty, 2011, available from the author or from Wipf & Stock Publishers. This essay should be read with the thesis of Eden’s Bridge—the marketplace is an institution of God, implicit in the creation narrative of Genesis 1–2 and vital to God’s mission in the world—in full view.)

Market functions have existed on a wide variety of levels from creation forward. Capitalism is a relatively new twist to market economics and human history, evolving through various stages of development over the last five hundred years.(i) But the potential of the marketplace has unleashed an unprecedented era of collective imagination and hope.

Within capitalism, entrepreneurs with access to increasing global wealth have been empowered to think in larger and more efficient ways. The collective faith of risk-taking investors has allowed the development of new technologies and new enterprises that few individuals, even the wealthiest, could have facilitated historically. Pooled capital has helped industries leapfrog from local and regional scales to transnational presence while bringing about dramatic innovations. The advance of medical science is an illuminating and encouraging case validating capitalism.

Corporate management is still prone to corruption at times. Though it may seem prevalent corruption is actually the exception rather than the rule (ii)  and corporations have contributed to an expansion of global wealth unprecedented in human history. The poor in developed countries are now seldom poor by the standards of even fifty years ago, based on household amenities and access to healthcare and education. They remain relatively poor only within the context of their local or national economies. They live with fewer of the difficulties experienced by their parents and grandparents and more than twice the life expectancy. Many of the poor in developing economies have been lifted from abject poverty and middle classes are beginning to emerge. In the last twenty years, China and India have increasingly embraced capital markets, instituting legal and governmental systems with foundations in moral reasoning. (iii) Collaboration and cooperation continue to develop higher efficiencies in market activities, increasing global wealth and its reach further down the economic ladder.

Modern corporations allow for stock ownership through affordable buy-in across a broad range of income groups. Many corporations begin informally among family and friends who pool their funds and talents to make a better life. Small business can be an inexpensive means for a broad range of operators to take greater control of their financial destiny by investing sweat equity. Even the very poor can exercise their entrepreneurial talents starting with very little capital as markets continue to specialize and decentralize, and collaboration increases between operators and resource-oriented NGO’s.

Capitalism is the dominant economic system in the world. But the reality of sin dictates the need for moral direction and constraint. The drive to produce and accumulate wealth makes optimizing profit the primary motivation behind many business decisions. (iv) The church is in a position politically, economically, and philosophically to work with secular, socially-conscious business operators and owners to redirect and ensure capitalism is moving toward supporting just relationships. Despite its shortcomings, capitalism still offers enormous economic and empowering potential, demonstrably more so than any other economic system in history.

In Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem holds untold wealth. The foundations and gates of the city are bedecked with jewels and the city made of gold. In the day that Christ’s Kingdom is fulfilled, precious metals and jewels, the currency of the ancient world and still valued today, will be of no more worth than cinder blocks and pine boards are today.

The call of the church is to encourage a righteous and abundant culture where the individual accumulation of wealth is all but pointless. Capitalism offers the greatest opportunity in our day toward that goal, but only as it is morally restrained and committed to the common good.

i. Novak, Michael. Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. New York: The Free Press, 1996, 80.

ii. It is easy to take a jaded view of corporations given the accounts of corruption and greed in the daily news. But corporations include small businesses in every community, from gas stations and light manufacturing to lawn care companies and restaurants. The majority of business owner/operators are hardworking, honest people simply trying to make a good life for themselves, their families, and their communities. About 80 percent of corporations have less than 10 employees (http://www.census.gov/econ/smallbus.html).

iii. Studying numerous philosophers, political scientists, and economic theorists, like Adam Smith, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson, is necessary to understand the complexities of democratic governance and market economics. Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a good example of the intellectual thought that characterized the democratizing and market developments of the 17th and 18th centuries.

iv. Profit is necessary to ensure financial sustainability. Pursuing profit becomes immoral when it relegates human welfare to a subordinate concern.

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Filed under Excerpts from Eden's Bridge the Book, Faith in the Marketplace

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