I read this book through several times with the intent of providing a fair review on such a thought provoking topic. I don't profess to come to my conclusions without the personal influence of deeply held convictions that may not agree with the convictions of others who have read this book. However, in order to add to the discussion with the hope of generating thoughtful reflection in the minds and hearts of Christian readers, I add my two cents.
To supply a little background, I hold a Theology degree, I am a CPA with a graduate degree in accounting, I have been active in the business world for several decades, have been a born-again, spirit-filled Christian since the early `70s, and consider myself a student of economics, entrepreneurship and business management. My review will reflect that background and borrow from my life's experiences that influence my findings.
It is my opinion that Jay Richards has spent a great deal of time considering his position. He clearly articulates his views and has addressed many of the concerns that Christians might have in attempting to synthesize an economic position that fits with their faith. However, in spite of the satisfaction derived by many of his Amazon book reviewers I believe some important influential arguments have not been thoroughly addressed. The case between communism/central control and capitalism/free markets would seem to be a "no-brainer". When compared with each other the benefits of capitalism certainly shine. My concern is that there is a tendency to stop one's thinking at this point. It may be that God has a system that transcends both communism and capitalism. They may not be the only two choices that Christians have. Certainly, they have played a dominant theme in American economic culture, but are not the only two pure choices actually practiced in the world today. Rather than attempt to argue every point "for" and "against" the current practice of capitalism or how Jay Richards has modified its impact by "Christianizing" it, I would like to generate a couple of propositions for consideration.
"Rather than despising the market order, Christians should see it as God's way of providentially governing the actions of billions of free agents in a fallen world." (p. 214). This is a reference to a statement made by economist Adam Smith during the mid 1700's. Smith declared that the activities of the market appeared to be regulated by an "invisible hand." Jay Richards picks this up as evidence of divine providence. Is Adam Smith being elevated to the status of prophet? To explain away the corruption and unscrupulous events that occur in the market place, the author argues that these bad outcomes of capitalism are due to man's sinful nature. No doubt! To me, a system that prospers tobacco companies, pornography and abortion clinics doesn't sound like it's guided by the "invisible hand" of God. Lipstick on a pig, as the saying goes. But we'll look at the potential alternative in a moment. While on this concept of attributing capitalism to a God ordained system one might consider the warning of Proverbs 16:25, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death." Wouldn't it be safer to stick to Biblical revelation than a conclusion based upon some hunch or man-made logic? Perhaps there is a significant warning given in Colossians 1:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ."
How about the doctrine of "self-interest"? Curiously, this also was part and parcel of Adam Smith's conclusions. This sounds again like logic over revelation. I have heard the Christian argument, using a proof text approach, to establish this as "truth". Jesus' statement, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Mt 7:12, p. 121) has been turned upside down to turn the focus of this text perversely to a teaching of our need for "self love". How did we get to the point of turning this text into a focus on "loving yourself" as opposed to "loving your neighbor"? Is this the kind of theology that can be trusted? In order to make this statement more palatable, the author contrasts it with greed. Point is, however one justifies it, there is little solid grounds for teaching this concept based upon the New Testament. I don't believe there is much to be gained from a point/counter-point discussion on the theological implications of "self-love", however, the Christian should not take up this philosophy lightly. When Christians are tempted to focus on looking out for themselves they are called to "...seek first the kingdom of God...and all these things shall be added to you." (Mt 6:33). And what of, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself...." (Mt16:24). This is not to spiritualize away the active part that the Christian plays in providing for himself, his family, and the church, but rather a cautionary warning against incorporating the philosophies of men with Biblical doctrine. I see a potentially significant danger when one promotes this philosophy as a Christian doctrine. To see how this has played throughout history one doesn't have to spend a lot of time reading the Bible. God has an aversion to the imbalance of power (self-interest on steroids) in our sinful world and the oppression that is inherent with it. Unfortunately, the capitalist system provides an abundance of opportunity for one's self-interest. Job is instructive for the Christian, not primarily for his long-suffering, but rather for his social involvement. Job 29:11-17 has some catchy thoughts that would have special meaning in our world today: "I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them.... I made the widow's heart sing.... I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.... I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth." An economic system that does not address these righteous considerations prominently is, in my opinion, more than suspect.
"As long as we can preserve our economic freedom and the spirit of enterprise, we will not use up all of our resources, nor will we run out of food, water, or energy." (p. 184). This is a strong statement, but I suspect that one could find many equally intelligent and committed Christians who would disagree with the author's conclusion. I'm not declaring who's right or wrong, but I believe a little humility here might go a long way. Jeremiah 17:5 gives a pretty clear directive: "Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness." Some might challenge this as being addressed to non-Christians, but I'm of the persuasion that Christians too can be carried away with a good logical man-made argument. Again, are we relying on revelation or on logic? Christians are not immune to the application of Proverbs 16:25.
Regarding the presentation of some of the charitable efforts to relieve poverty that Jay Richards appears to downplay, perhaps his reliance upon capitalism and free markets has colored his perception of charity. Fair Trade might very well not fit into a system driven by markets (whether they are truly free or not begs another question), but having friends who are intimately involved in a fair trade operation related to their own village in Kenya, they have been able to lift these folk up by helping them to educate their children, develop sources of clean water, and in general provide them with fruit for their labors that overall makes their future better. Does it fit the "free market" theory? Perhaps not, but since when does an economic system trump the Christian's heart to help? This is a kind of enterprise that feeds the stomach today and provides incentives to the workers to be self-sufficient and independent. These folk are not "free loaders" but real faces who do not have the privilege of choosing their vocation or developing fortunes as has been the opportunity provided to many of the privileged in America. I recall an anecdotal illustration related to a flaw in the capitalist model that may at least cause us to stop and think. There are two farmers who are equally diligent and hard working. One becomes comfortable while the other struggles to get by. The difference in the outcomes has little to do with their work ethic. One was privileged with fertile soil while the other was dealt dry and dusty land. What do you think? Does one really believe that the capitalistic model of "self-interest" is equipped to provide any market equity here? Christians are not compelled to play by the rules of free market theory. They should not be charged with a failure to "use their heads" when they, like Job, are committed to sharing God's abundant blessings with all men. In a free market world the tendency is to follow a "race to the bottom" philosophy. Often the results are to pit the "desperate" against the "most desperate" and hire the one who provides the cheapest option (who is most free with this option?). The argument is put forth that the poor are, "better off than they would be." (p. 40) Does this sound like the standard that a gracious God is satisfied with? (One ought to investigate chocolate and the Ivory Coast if you would like additional insight into free trade).
Another item, not necessarily an incorrect assessment, but may flow from an imbalanced emphasis is the issue of private property and ownership. I certainly do not miss the point regarding how this has proved to be beneficial in many ways and has aided in the generation of considerable blessings to the world. However, I don't want to be guilty of overlooking a peculiar imbalance in presentation. Perhaps the author feels that "private property" and its impact on economic outcomes has been underplayed in Christian thought. That, however, does not justify throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Psalm 24:1 recites a doctrine well known by all Christians: "The earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness." It would seem that the church should be giving as much time to this Biblical message as it is in proclaiming a sketchy doctrine of private property rights. Jay writes, "...a good Christian can be, indeed should be, a good capitalist." (p. 8). Capitalism by its nature ignores God's ownership. Again, I believe the Bible gives adequate evidence that the capitalist system as it appears in this world cannot be dressed up to be a Christian economic system. Christians need to come up with a distinct label (versus "capitalism") identifying their version of economic belief. What can we learn from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25? Clearly entrepreneurial skills are rewarded here? (this chapter also has much to say about the kingdom from Christ's perspective - how about "them" sheep and goats?). Keep in mind, these stewards were not entrepreneurs in a capitalistic sense, the return that they got on their investments was never theirs to keep. They traded on the Master's fortunes and He therefore rewarded them. Let's be careful that our cry for "private property" doesn't out-shout the Christian call to be stewards of the property's rightful Owner.
I suppose the greatest disappointment of this book is toward the close where the author offers 10 Points purporting to help relieve the poverty situation. I must confess, after writing so many pages justifying capitalism and free trade I sensed a hurried finalization to make this a "true" Christian work. Personally having been involved in business and entrepreneurial relationships for several decades I find his summary to be substantially lacking. Of course, if the real intent of the book was to promote an ideological position rather than truly help relieve poverty, the summary 10 points are fine. If we could but rely upon some trickle-down effect generated by subscribing to capitalism and free markets perhaps we could solve the abject poverty in the world eventually. For the Christian, I don't imagine that is enough. Laying aside the battle of the liberal left and conservative right it behooves the Christian community to address the real suffering that is happening in our world today. Sure, I believe in self-sufficiency and am personally opposed to a "nanny" state solution. But that doesn't imply that the truly serious and intractable problems of poverty can simply be solved through being a good Christian capitalist.
The world should expect that there will be Christian entrepreneurs who use their God-given ingenuity to provide a better system than capitalism. Maybe this is semantics, but it is my personal belief that any Christian movement committed to resolving the issues of poverty and that declares itself to be "capitalism" only muddies the waters. There is a need for the church to move beyond the examples of the world and model their own economic philosophy after the heart of God and not just the ideological prejudice of man. The danger of relying upon a capitalistic philosophy for the Christian is that there is a natural tendency to absorb both the good and the bad. Perhaps it's time to declare God's kingdom ways and not to be borrowing our road map to prosperity from a corrupt and faulty economic idealism.
We need a new name for our desired economic system and a less hardened attitude toward those who have the unfortunate lack of capital. Many of the poor are not lazy but would benefit from Christian entrepreneurs directing their ingenuity toward finding ways to help them to build a productive life versus leaving the "free market" to somehow rescue them. Micro-loan companies, guided by the Spirit of Christ, that provide start-up capital for disenfranchised members of society is just one idea that could be a better evidence of the "invisible hand" of God. This requires entrepreneurs that are not in the game simply from "self-interest" but are committed to a spiritually guided economy that lifts others through their enterprise. Not just to give others a job, but to work toward giving them a life. Free market systems don't naturally provide such an incentive or motivation, only the Spirit of Christ does. Let's use our ingenuity to deliver the Christian goods promised by our Father that will bring true refreshing to both body and soul. Let's move beyond a capitalistic ideology driven by the spirit of man to a Christian economy driven by the Spirit of God.