David Gill’s Review of Redeeming Capitalism by Kenneth Barnes

By David W. Gill, reprinted from The 313.

Ken Barnes is Mockler-Phillips Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in the Boston area. Ken has an impressive record of academic study and achievement in both theology and economics – and an equally impressive track record “in the trenches” of leadership in both the business world and the church world. Barnes’s concern is that contemporary capitalism is deeply flawed but he insists it is fixable, “redeemable.” This project is not just desirable but essential, according to Barnes, because there is no viable alternative economic theory or practice. The fundamental problem, Barnes argues, is that postmodern capitalism lacks a “moral compass.”  Redeeming Capitalism proposes a recovery of the virtues, both the classical “cardinal” virtues of self-control, courage, wisdom, and justice and the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Neither government regulation nor ethical decision-making training is capable of redeeming capitalism. We need virtuous people.

Barnes’s hero is Adam Smith whose Wealth of Nations (1776) – the “Bible” of capitalism—assumed the basis of Smith’s earlier work The Theory of Moral Sentiments which explicated a natural, innate morality “hardwired into our human nature” (p. 32). The pursuit of self-interest highlighted in the Wealth of Nations is (or should be) limited, guided, and contextualized by morality. For example, Adam Smith warned that workers must be paid enough to live on and that exorbitant profits for business owners can undermine the functioning of capitalism and markets. What we have today, though, is “postmodern” capitalism – untethered from traditional moral constraints and concern for others, a capitalism in which people pursue their own individual profit, often driven by a thirst for conspicuous consumption. Deceptive, harmful business practices, vast and growing inequality, and a radical decline in the kind of trust without which markets are paralyzed, bank failures, rising debt – these result from the moral relativism of postmodernity.

Barnes argues for a revival of the seven virtues mentioned earlier, explicitly described and promoted in biblical theology but also “natural” and perceptible by all people because of “common grace.” He provides definitions and applied business illustrations of all seven. For sure, individual moral character and organizational culture must play a major role in any kind of redeemed economics. But wishing for it and making it so are very different things. Why would the amoral winners in our economy, the wealthy, powerful and influential, adopt and promote these values that will certainly reduce their wealth and power in the short term? Fear? Barnes warns about the near collapse of the economy in recent times and its vulnerabilities now. But the wealthy and powerful are again flying high, salting away vast sums of money to protect #1 when the crash comes, and insisting that they are entitled to everything they can grab.  

I am endorsing and recommending Barnes’s book but need to make two comments:  First, it is precisely at the level of mission that moral business (and capitalism) could be leveraged;  nowhere else! Not fear of disaster but love of a great mission can get the job done. The fundamental question is Why do I work?  Why is this organization in business? If it is for greed and profit alone, for me or for our stockholders alone, watch out! But if our mission is to create good and/or beautiful products or services that will help our customers (speaking generically – we need to get specific for the mission to work) – then the question becomes “what kind of individual character and organizational culture will optimize (there are no guarantees!) our likelihood of achieving that mission?  Mission leverages values and virtues, it leverages individual and cultural reform.  

A good mission can leverage good values. A toxic, evil mission leverages vices, not virtues. A good mission must tap into our core humanity, which reflects the character of the God in whose image all of us are created. It has to do with creating, sustaining, and redeeming. Pursuing a good mission leads to fulfilled workers and good companies, and to grateful stakeholders. This is not some idiosyncratic theory: this is not just the Bible but Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, who never taught moral virtues in the absence of teaching about purpose. They taught and thought teleologically:  the Good is “the End at which everything aims,” said Aristotle.  

Countless examples from the individual and organizational trenches bear out this truth. It is mission that drives change. A loser guy finally cleans up his act. Why? Because he falls in love and will do anything to win the object of his desire. A talented but underperforming team begins working together, supporting each other, avoiding partying all night before games. Why? Because they are coached to understand they could be champions if they operated by better values (teamwork instead of personal records etc.). Rules and enforcement by governments and employers can limit economic damage but positive change starts with mission.

Second and finally, the project title “redeeming capitalism” is also a strategic “branding” or communication mistake. The term “capitalism” (like “socialism”) is hopelessly lost and irredeemable (except for its true believers). In our era, we cannot dissociate the term from its predatory practitioners. Sorry for those who love the word but you have to give it up. It is infinitely wiser and more likely of success to promote “free enterprise” – or, even better, “free and fair enterprise.” I don’t know any serious observer or practitioner (of any political orientation) who does not love the ideas of individual freedom, initiative, and responsibility. No one wants a world where people are permanently dependent, or have their hands tied by government regulation. We all want to create jobs and help people be independent. But call it “capitalism” and hackles rise – many of us think of exploitation, unfair wages, trashing the air we breathe and the water we drink. And nobody wants “socialism” (Bernie needs to give up the term!) because it sounds like ham-fisted, inefficient government bureaucrats wasting our money and controlling our time.  What we want is freedom – along with good public roads (not private toll roads run by capitalists), clean water and air, shared police and fire departments, basic health care and education, and protection from enemies foreign and domestic. That is not socialism, it is civilization. My point is that this book needs to succeed and be widely read – but carrying the baggage of the term “capitalism” is a huge liability if we want to expand the team.

The characteristics of a good book are that it addresses an important topic (check!), it is articulately written (check!), it is learned, well-researched, and reliable in its basic message (check!), the author is authentic and passionately committed (check!), and, perhaps most importantly, it invites and stimulates us to dig deeper, enter into debate, conversation, and growth (check!). Thus, in the end, I give Barnes’s Redeeming Capitalism high marks and a “buy” recommendation.

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