‘Can the Evil Inclination be ‘very good’?” asked the sages of the Midrash on Genesis, some time around 300 B.C.E. “That would be extraordinary!” Their conclusion is extraordinary indeed: Yes, man’s natural desire for material wealth and vainglory are “very good,” for “were it not for the Evil Inclination no man would build a house, nor take a wife, nor beget children, nor engage in business.”
Thus, does a remarkable rabbinic discourse on the nature of humanity, wealth creation, and progress anticipate Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman’s new book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism by nearly two millennia. Friedman’s richly detailed work of intellectual history traces modern economic thought to its religious roots, focusing on the belief that laissez-faire economic policy benefits all society by allowing individuals freely to pursue wealth. In doing so, he reexamines the question taken up by the rabbis of the Midrash, centuries of Christian theologians, and, most famously, Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations: Is it proper for man to act in his own self-interest?
The rabbis answered this question affirmatively, with a nod to markers of social progress: It is good to build, to marry, to procreate, to trade. These are the activities of the life-affirming society, filling the earth and conquering it according to God’s command, and they are “very good.” In the 18th century, Smith and many of his fellow moral philosophers agreed, though their analysis was more empirical and utilitarian. Self-interested actors free to build and barter will provide goods and services that others need. When this pattern is repeated on a national scale, all participants become more prosperous. Prosperity, as Smith’s friend David Hume pointed out, is liberating, spurring a virtuous cycle of “industry, knowledge, and humanity” that is “favourable to liberty and has a natural tendency to preserve, if not produce a free government.” Self-interest, an ignoble impulse in all people, paradoxically does more for all humanity than any one virtue could.
Whether this conclusion is correct depends on what outcomes we consider good. Perhaps it is more important for an individual to be virtuous than to contribute to national prosperity. Or perhaps the kind of social progress that comes from material prosperity is not a worthwhile goal. It might not be true progress at all. God may well want us to be poor, ascetic subsistence farmers, foundering upon the land, cursed on account of our Original Sin.
Analyzing persistent theological debates on these points is Friedman’s strongest suit. He is most compelling in his assessment of a particular notion of “progress,” usefully reminding his readers that there needs to be some higher purpose to our creation of yet more wealth and ever-taller skyscrapers. Christian Millennialists (those seeking the End of Days) emerging from the Anglo-Protestant tradition defied Calvinist doctrines about predestination and man’s innate depravity, arguing that human progress was possible and indeed good. They connected economic flourishing to the opportunity and religious obligation to try to build heaven on earth. Later, Social Gospel reformers in Gilded Age America thought that prosperity provided an impetus for government to take a more active role in ensuring that all God’s children could enjoy a baseline level of subsistence.
In all these cases, theologically minded social critics looked to prosperity’s proper ends to determine whether they justified the self-interested behavior that ignites the engine of economic flourishing. Today, when roughly two-thirds of Americans say they have a positive view of capitalism, we might ask ourselves: What ends justify our continued insistence on relying on the invisible hand to achieve desirable forms of progress?
Friedman claims to be interested in this question, but he tends to treat modern capitalists as essentially superstitious adherents of an unconscious, unexamined theology. He purports to provide some insight by examining a related question that has long confounded elite welfare-statists: Why do so many Americans resist restraints on capitalism despite potentially benefiting from a more interventionist state?
Could it be that they have seen with their own eyes the magnificent improvement in quality of life among the billions of people in places that have adapted free-market policies? Better yet, might Americans—even working-class Americans—understand that an economically free society that prizes property rights and minimal state intervention best protects freedoms of speech, association, and worship?
According to Friedman, the answer is no. It is “the influence of religious ideas on economic thinking” that accounts for Americans’ persistence adherence to the gospel of Adam Smith. In particular, Americans (but especially evangelical Protestants) have unwittingly adopted a particular view of human nature that belonged to one side in an ongoing theological debate. Turning on its head Max Weber’s contention that Americans have unwittingly carried on the Calvinist belief that hard work is a sign of one’s auspicious predestination, Friedman argues that it is precisely the anti-Calvinist belief in the freedom to earn a spot in Heaven—anti-predestinarianism, for short—that buoys our up-by-the-bootstraps mythology.
In trying to prove his thesis, Friedman examines a huge corpus of philosophers with a deft combination of depth and accessibility. His arguments, however, rarely seem complete. Some relationships between ideas or thinkers are suggested but never quite explicated. He largely leaves his reader wondering what particular religious idea it is that remains at the heart of modern justifications for capitalism.
The bulk of his study revolves around proving that Smith and his ilk had incorporated religious thinking into their assumptions about human nature and what would happen if men were generally left to pursue their own self-interest. Friedman admits that inquiries into the “intellectual soil” that cultivated great minds such as Smith and Hume are fraught with speculation about who really influenced whom, and how we might identify the prime mover “shaping the creative air” that the progenitors of free-market economics breathed. Yet despite his disclaimers, it is hard to shake the feeling that his thesis amounts to a series of post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments, based on little but chronological succession and thematic overlap. The evidence is circumstantial at best.
Could it be a mere coincidence, then, that Adam Smith’s vision of economics is based on theological beliefs that predominated in the late 18th century? No. But neither is it compelling to claim that Smith’s arguments for specialization, self-interest in business, and generally laissez-faire policies are profoundly theological because they incorporate anti-predestinarian assumptions. Nor is Smith’s vision of human nature most important for understanding capitalism’s durability in the present day. Free-marketism is no more theological than welfare-statism and owes its continued purchase to religious thinking no more than does any alternative to capitalism.
Friedman’s premise, the unstated assumption that gives his findings their supposed punch, is that it is somehow surprising that theology and economics should have ever been so intertwined. Modern economists think of themselves as detached scientists uninfluenced by other fields of study. Surely any religious influence lurking in Adam Smith’s foundational texts would represent the unwitting creep of another field altogether—the supposedly unserious field of theology—into what should be the unadulterated realm of pragmatic political economy.
Having found traces of anti-predestinarian theology in Smith’s work, Friedman proceeds as if Smith’s defense of capitalism should now appear more provincial, something like a by-product of an unlikely religious milieu that stuck around by historical accident. Economics that grew from theology, after all, ought to remain no more relevant in the 21st century than debates over angels on the head of a pin. Economic theories that just so happen to reflect local religious convictions are by their nature, on this premise, deeply theological. They should therefore be highly contestable to the modern, secular, scientific mind. If this is so, then American free-market mythology has been exposed as an article of faith masquerading as a reasonable political view.
BUT ECONOMIC arguments are always bound up in religious arguments, as the rabbis of the Midrash knew well, because how we conduct our human affairs always depends on how we view humanity and human nature—a question that theology and religion have always sought to illuminate. By no means is such reflection limited to the free-market right. When activists today demand “economic justice” or redistribution, they are making a claim about what economic arrangements provide a standard of living due to individuals by their nature. A rosy view of human nature, moreover, leads some to believe that abolishing capitalism and the police will only increase cooperation and comity.
No biological study, try though it might, can tell us whether the inclination of the human heart is evil from its youth, or whether man is created free to choose between virtue and vice. Only theology can do that. Yet all normative theories of economics, one way or another, are predicated on assumptions about what people might do in response to stimuli, a calculation impossible to make without accounting for their nature. These are things that cannot be known for sure; they can only be believed.
Smith’s view of human nature—man is self-interested yet endowed with moral sentiments that allow him to sympathize with others—formed the basis of his political economy. His support for laissez-faire policy stemmed from his conviction that individuals can and will “sympathize” with others, to consider their needs and desires, in order to serve them. A nation of individuals pursuing self-interest by serving others would ensue, if only we would let them.
His view was certainly more optimistic than the Calvinists who had insisted man was innately depraved. Yet it was not so optimistic to imagine, as utopian thinkers do, that man’s nature is perfectible. Is it a religious view? In a certain sense it is—as is any assessment of those attributes common to all mankind.
But is it merely a product of its time, deeply imbued with theological undertones? Or could it have arisen at some later time and place without much consideration for debates between predestinarians and anti-predestinarians, and still have caught on as it did? It seems likely that it could have. Smith’s view of human nature is mild and hearkens back to the tension between man’s goodness and man’s selfishness on display from the first verses of the Bible. There is little reason to view it as a mere relic of a particular religious milieu that would not have advocates among even secular 21st-century Westerners.
In his haste to explain the endurance of capitalist superstition, Friedman thus overlooks the problem posed by Smith’s continued resonance: Maybe free-market ideology endures because the system it encourages—one of “capitalist acts between consenting adults,” as Robert Nozick put it, where free people may pursue happiness as they see fit—is precisely what centuries of immigrants came to America for. Or maybe market economies endure because they achieve the most progress we can hope to gain in a fallen world, by producing historically unimaginable living standards for the average worker.
Unfortunately, one suspects that the reason Friedman is motivated to conclude that modern capitalists are superstitious is that he simply does not hold their position in high regard. Friedman has some trouble with the “sympathy” he lauds Smith for encouraging, and this manifests in strange characterizations of the free-market right. Smith himself “was never the rigid opponent of all regulation that many political conservatives today hold him out to be,” Friedman writes, with nary a citation or an example. Which political conservatives are themselves opponents of all regulation, much less proffer The Wealth of Nations as their reason why? Sprinkling these caricatures across his intellectual history diminishes Friedman’s standing as an impartial teacher.
Though he spends dozens of pages on early Enlightenment theologians and natural philosophers who tilled the cultural soil for Smith and Hume, Friedman appears altogether incurious about modern conservative philosophy and its internecine debates about free-market capitalism. In an entire chapter on the American right’s marrying of libertarian economics to conservative politics, he neglects to mention the political philosopher Frank Meyer, who literally wrote the book on their compatibility. He makes only passing reference to a leading conservative critic of libertarian economics, Russell Kirk, sandwiching him between the “patron saint of American anti-Semitism” and the founder of the John Birch Society. There is nothing about Irving Kristol, who famously gave two cheers for capitalism and ingeniously explored the fraying relationship between personal virtue and the accumulation of wealth.
But worst of all is the lack of self-awareness endemic to this genre of secular critiques of “religious” belief. Friedman distances himself and his enlightened readers from those too benighted to see, much less admit, the influence that Christian theology still impresses upon them. He goes so far as to refer to their set of beliefs as “religious presumptions,” as if his own beliefs do not stem from moral principles about what human beings are and what human societies ought to be. This is hubris disguised as philosophical pragmatism: disclaiming ideology, eschewing allegiance to first principles, and insisting that one follows only the evidence toward those things that “work.”
Well, work toward what end? And why that end and not infinite others? These are profound questions that Friedman wants others to answer. But he fails to acknowledge that any alternative theory of economics needs to answer them, too. If his goal is, as he says, “clearly understanding the substance and origins of the worldview that underlies our fellow citizens’ participation” in democratic politics and debates over economics, Friedman and his sympathetic readers would do well to start with their own articles of faith.
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