Just Capitalism, Brent Waters. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
Summary: A theological defense of capitalism and particularly economic globalization as the best means, through exchange, of providing an preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing, albeit shaped by different goals for exchange, and the promotion of human community.
It is not uncommon in theological discussions of capitalism to be intensely critical of capitalist economics as exploitative of the poor, the environment, and perpetuating and intensifying economic inequities in the world. Brent Waters has witnessed this trend, and without denying excesses, mounts a defense of capitalism theologically as promoting economic exchanges that foster economic growth for the poor, and thus their flourishing as human beings. Far from considering globalization a negative force, he defends it. In his Preface, he writes:
“Why I am defending globalization, then, is based primarily on two arguments. First, the world is part of God’s good creation and as such is the source of abundant material goods that may be enjoyed by humans as God’s creatures. These goods, however, are not at hand but are latent and must be developed. Humans must develop the potential not only to meet their most basic needs and wants but also to more fully enjoy and share the goods of creation as part of their calling to exercise God’s mandate of limited dominion and stewardship. At present, global marketbased exchange offers the best means for both developing and distributing these material goods.
“Second, at present, globalization offers the most realistic and promising way of exercising a preferential option for the poor. The liberalization of trade and capital investment over the past two decades has helped lift around a billion people out of dire poverty and has created a fledgling global middle class. With increased globalization these trends cannot only be sustained but also enlarged and strengthened. In short, the best way to help the poor, to love them, in part, as neighbors, is to enable them to participate more fully in new and expanding global markets.”
This quote is a précis of the argument the author makes in the first half of the book for exchange being foundational to economic growth and human flourishing, and that the creative destruction and market state conditions fostered by globalization actually serve to advance overall economic growth, and indeed provide ways for the Holy Spirit to work in the world in new ways as new economic relationships are established.
The second half of the book addresses some of the critiques of capitalism. For one thing, exchange alone cannot make us happy, but is crucial at some level to provide the conditions wherein humans can consider the sources of happiness. Human exchange best occurs not in depersonalized, detached situations but in exchange that recognizes our relatedness as human beings. This influences the role we give to political orders within the fabric of civil society. Most significantly, the political order should provide and protect the freedoms of exchange, expression, and conscience fundamental to our human dignity.
There was much here that I could affirm. I think for example of the ways that relief efforts often undermine local economies when purchasing services from local concerns could strengthen the economy in many instances. Exchange, not just redistribution of resources fosters development. So many aid programs have been depersonalizing and ignored the fundamental importance of productive work as an expression of human dignity and as a means of obtaining a living.
There were two areas where I found myself taking issue with the author. One was in the final chapter on stewardship, where he makes a case for putting environmental concerns in abeyance so that economic development can continue to occur among the developing nations. I question the bifurcation of economic and environmental concerns, particularly because the changes already occurring most dramatically affect the poorest peoples of the world disproportionately. Here, I would commend Pope Francis’s Laudato Si because it unites under an ethic of care, our concern for both the poor and the creation, rather than choosing one or the other. It is significant that Waters, in making his case downplays the evidence of climate change and plays up the threat of economic reverses with efforts to address climate change.
What troubles me is why these two must be set at odds with each other. Waters may have a point in not burdening the poorest countries with addressing climate change. But I would have liked to see him further pursue the responsibility of wealthy countries to use their greater affluence to shift to cleaner forms of energy and more efficient patterns of consumption. This could foster “greener technologies” by bearing the upfront costs so that all humanity may eventually utilize these more cheaply. This would seem to be the kind of koinonia that he advocates on a global scale.
I also saw little here of a discussion of capital accumulation that Thomas Piketty argues in Capital has increased the wealth and poverty disparities in the world. This disparity results from accumulation of wealth not from exchange of goods and services but non-labor income sources like stocks, bonds, real estate, and the like. Beyond acknowledging the importance of capital investment, he does not discuss the problem of disparities threatening the development of a middle class which he contends to be important.
Still, I value the contribution Waters makes to the discussion of a theology of economics. Many discussions I see either simply commend an “opting out” of creating local economies while the world goes its merry way, or schemes that argue for aid and redistribution in ways that undercut healthy mechanisms of exchange. Also, his argument for globalization as providing a preferential option for the poor challenges the protectionist tendencies of the affluent countries, whose “poor” are better off than much of the world. Free trade rather than aid may be a better option, despite the displacements it may cause for some, painful as these are.
I hope Waters will continue to work on this theology of economics. His dissent from the prevailing consensus is important and needs to be developed more than this moderate length work permits.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
6 thoughts on “Review: Just Capitalism”
There’s also the issue of economic globalization undermining local economies.
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Dear Bob, can you say a little bit more on the prominent critiques of capitalism from a Christian theological point of view? Also it’d be interesting to hear from Christian economists (as opposed to theologians/ethicists) on this question but I do not know who those people are or what reading you’d recommend?
Vlad, that will take a bit of work. My recent review of Being Consumed is one example. Writers from Ron Sider to Shane Claiborne tend to be critical. Economists–that’s where I would have to do some digging. When I get a chance I will write more.
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The 2nd sentence in the 1st paragraph quoted above from the “Preface” has a misspelled word. “First, the world is part of God’s good creation and as such is the source of abundant material gods that may be enjoyed by humans as God’s creatures.” I believe that “material gods” probably should be “material goods.”
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Thanks for noticing. Corrected.