Christians are typically known for what they’re opposed to. They’re often behind the curve, reactive. I see an opportunity for the faith community to get ahead of the curve.

We’re a year away from the US Presidential election. Capitalism is a hotly contested issue. Some candidates want to contain it. Others seem intent on killing it. Marc Benioff has a better idea. He says we need a new capitalism.

Benioff is the chairman and co-chief executive officer of Salesforce.com. He believes the current system of capitalism has led to profound inequality. To fix it, we need a new capitalism, where businesses value purpose alongside profit.

Cue CEO skepticism. In a 1970 essay, Milton Friedman wrote about “the short-sightedness” of executives who give speeches about social responsibility. “This may gain them kudos in the short run,” he wrote. “But it helps to strengthen the already too prevalent view that the pursuit of profits is wicked and immoral and must be controlled by external forces.” Friedman warned that once this view is widely believed, the result won’t be control by “social consciences” or “pontificating executives” but by “the iron fist of Government bureaucrats.”

Not necessarily. Friedman is short-sighted. “The farther back you can look,” Winston Churchill wrote, “the farther forward you are likely to see.” In looking back, we see Friedman didn’t understand the origins of capitalism or conscience. We also see an opportunity.

Start with capitalism. The early church touted commerce as the material bond among peoples.[1] She grew primarily by businesspeople traveling commercial routes.[2] Thanks to church theology, commerce developed into “religious capitalism” in the medieval economy.[3] This capitalism flourished “within the safe havens provided by responsive states.”[4]

This was capitalism with a conscience. Adam Smith described it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Free markets flourish when “the best head is joined to the best heart.” Only a virtuous people, people of good conscience, can produce virtuous capitalism.

This book set the stage for Smith’s celebrated second book, An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes Of The Wealth of Nations. He broadened the definition of wealth beyond gold and silver. Smith imagined a world of “universal affluence” (his phrase), a world in which every woman, man, and child will be liberated from the prison of poverty. Smith wasn’t a Christian but drew the book’s title from scripture (c.f., Isa. 60:5; 61:6; 66:11-13). Capitalism with a conscience.

Then the 19th century happened. Karl Marx noted that capitalism’s rewards were spread unequally. It was messy. In 1867, he published Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy. Marx reframed capitalism—a system he hated fiercely—as promoting individual gain. Its aim is the pursuit of profits, not purpose. Social responsibility? Religion? Not part of the equation.

Nor is conscience. In the 1800s, personal conscience, “which stood at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic” and was the principal engine of commerce, “was dismissed.”[5]

Welcome to 2019. Marc Beniof is right. We need a new capitalism, where businesses value purpose alongside profit. This is our opportunity. But in an age when the fastest-growing percentage of the population is spiritual but not religious, I don’t think it’s wise to promote religious capitalism. Why not promote virtuous capitalism? Or right minded capitalism?

Follow me here. Virtuous means right minded, doing the right thing. But there’s a double meaning. Capitalism with a conscience requires right-brain leaders, outsiders helping capitalists be self-aware. Conscience is self-awareness, but it’s also “deceitful above all things” (Jer.17). William Wilberforce warned that we can easily form too high an estimate of our strengths while minimizing our weaknesses. He wrote that the antidote is “the friendly reproofs of a real friend.”

Now listen to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary. “The right hemisphere is more self-aware than the left. The left hemisphere is ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its shortcomings.” The antidote is the right hemisphere, what McGilchrist calls “prophetic.”

This is an opportunity for the faith community to get ahead of the curve. My sense is that, as the neuroscience is more widely understood, highly effective businesses will operate according to it. They will seek to be “ambidextrous organizations,” with right-brain leaders providing the outside view, working with insiders, left-brain leaders. Together, they will see the purpose of business—the purpose of enterprise in general—is to steward resources to meet a need in society. They will want their company to be purpose-full. They will take into account social responsibility, weighing the interaction of the whole company with the wider world.

Even the religious skeptic Charles Murray sees this as an opportunity for the faith community. “The more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated. The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives.”[6]

This is an opportunity for the faith community to get ahead of the curve. Let’s take it.

 

[1] Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, (Free Press, 1996), 46.

[2] Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (HarperOne, 2006)

[3] Randall Collins, Weberian Sociological Theory, (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 58.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005), xiii.

[5] Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Revised edition, 2001), 11

[6] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), 300.

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7 Responses to “Getting Ahead of the Curve”

  1. John Helmberger says:

    “Only a virtuous people, people of good conscience, can produce virtuous capitalism.”

    To your point, the problem is not capitalism; rather, it’s capitalists. Unchecked by the transformative power of the gospel, sin corrupts every system.

  2. marble says:

    Yes, what John Helmberger said.

    As a professor of Business Ethics, I am routinely in conversations with my students about ‘corporate responsibility’ – and my students routinely sneer at Friedman, and thrill to companies like Starbucks and to TOMs ‘buy one/give one’ model, that has been accused of dismantling any hope of a sustainable shoe manufacturing business in the countries the CEO has targeted for his largesse. . . .

    In order to have a business that incorporates the value of a “good” purpose, you must also have a “good” purpose. Apart from God’s purpose, however, there is no such thing.

    That’s the problem. Not the system. We can change the system, and that underlying problem will still ultimately dismantle anything you replace it with. Conversely, I suspect that within a community of faithful followers of Jesus, they could make pretty much any “system” work. [but I haven’t thought about this beyond the thought of writing it here – right now – so I’d be open to being talked back from that ledge. 🙂 ]

  3. Mike Metzger says:

    Marble:

    Allow me to talk you back from a few ledges.

    When you say apart from God’s purpose, there is no such thing as a good purpose, I reply: Maybe. I suppose in the 35,000 foot Grand Scheme of Things you are correct. But Christians can read your comment and assume that, unless you know God, you can’t have a good purpose. I disagree. Everyone is made in God’s image, so anyone could have a good purpose w/o knowing a lick about God. You might want to walk back a bit from that ledge you’re on.

    Second, God created everything good but everything is susceptible to corruption. So, to suspect that believers could corrupt a system is nothing new. But it’s also nothing gained. Better to hope that some believers will recognize a good system and align with it (rather than “make it work” for them). As a friend, I’m talking you back from the ledge of suspicion.

  4. Glenn says:

    Mike, I share your heart for hoping that Christians can be increasingly innovative–ahead of the curve. God is the grand innovator, and we are created in his image. Christians used to be known as innovators (universities, science, law, art, etc.). Innovation–as an expression of bringing glory to God and loving our neighbors–seems to be a marginalized element of our faith in mainstream Christian circles. Thanks for keeping that in focus.

    Regarding the question about capitalism and economic systems, I would recommend a biblical study guide titled “The Economy of God, published by Global Commerce Network. It takes us to the source–the Scriptures–in a thoughtful, compelling manner. If anyone in your circle would like a free copy, just send me a note at glenn@globalcommercenetwork.com and I’ll send it.

  5. Bob Robinson says:

    Mike,
    Thanks for this helpful guidance toward a third way.
    FYI, there’s is increasing research evidence discounting the left brain /right brain concept. So you might want to articulate your views in other ways rather than perpetuating what may be a myth. Google it.
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/right-brainleft-brain-right-2017082512222
    I say this because your argument here is sound but it is undercut by using the concept of left brain / right brain.

  6. Kyle M says:

    Bob, if I may inject about the right/left brain concerning McGilchrist’s view of the brain. He repeatedly refers to the reciprocal manner the the brain’s hemisphere receives, processes, and responds to the outside world. I found his book very insightful after reading it a couple years post my wife’s craniotomy to remove a tumor on her right frontal lobe. I must admit that I’m kinda clueless when it comes to capitalism, but for troubleshooting, problem solving, and marriage very beneficial and highly recommend it. I would also recommend James K. A. Smith’s books, “Desiring the Kingdom” and “Imagining the Kingdom”.

    Thanks again Mike for sharing your thoughts with us.

  7. marble says:

    Thanks for the response, Metz. My suspicion is not so much about believers mucking up a system, as it is a suspicion that it’s not the ‘system’ that’s wrong, but rather the lack of God. That’s also the point I was trying to make in the difficulty of finding a “good” purpose. Apart from God, of course, there is no such thing.

    Thus my point: apart from God, there is no “good” purpose, and no system will change that. Therefore, the presence of believers will ultimately have to also bring about a focus on God to enable both a “good” purpose, but also to have any hope of running any system.

    My suspicion is not of believers, dear friend. It is of an attempt to make things ‘good’ – but still apart from God.

    Hope that clarifies my thinking!

    Best. . . .

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