One of the emerging themes of this Web site is that religion plays a greater role than is widely recognized in people's attitudes toward capitalism. We've touched on this in the reviews of Capitalism and the Jews and The Israel Test and in the post on PIGS Without Jews. (As an aside, my biography of Samuel Adams makes the case that religion played an important role in the American Revolution.)
The last chapter of Hayek's Fatal Conceit is titled "Religion and the Guardians of Tradition" and speaks of a "historical connection between religion and the values that have shaped and furthered our civilisation, such as the family and several property." Russell Roberts, at the end of his Hayekian novel The Price of Everything, includes "A Thought on God, Evolution, and Emergent Order" observing that "A lot of the people I know who are interested in emergent order are either ardent atheists or deeply religious."
That's the context in which I opened up Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality, and an Uncertain World, by Stephen Green, who is both chairman of the large international bank HSBC and an ordained priest of the Church of England. For readers interested in how religion informs views of capitalism, it's an excellent example.
Let it first be said that no matter what you think of Rev. Green's argument, it's a beautifully written and lucid book that ranges widely in history and literature. It's a book not just about financial policy but about living a meaningful, examined life. As a writer, Rev. Green has an eye for the telling factual detail.
On globalization: "I have listened to the work of and Italian composer (Puccini) in a Chinese opera house (in Beijing) designed by a Frenchman (Paul Andreu)."
On panics: In 1873, "The New York Stock exchange closed for ten days, and one in four of the country's more than 350 railroads went bankrupt."
On the predictions of financial "experts," he quotes an April 2007 International Monetary Fund forecast: "It may surprise readers to learn that this World Economic Outlook sees global economic risks as having declined since our last issue in September 2006."
At its core, though, this is a book about what Rev. Green sees as the limits of capitalism and how he hopes to transform it.
Early on, Rev. Green quotes Milton Friedman's view that "There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."
Rev. Green calls that view "dangerously simplistic," and says businesses now "must consider value from the perspective not just of investors, but of customers, employees, suppliers, communities and – increasingly – the environment, too."
Later, he restates the criticism: "The old Friedmanite idea that the sole job of business is to create profits for shareholders has proved insufficient to sustain value and – in the end – a bad deal for shareholders. Sustainable profit and corporate social responsibility are not in conflict; they are interdependent."
If there's no conflict, though, Friedman may be right, and all the sustainability stuff can be looked at as simply a means to the end of creating shareholder value. Rev. Green doesn't really consider that possibility.
Instead, he shares his feelings about free-market capitalism. Those feelings are mixed: "At its best, as we have seen, there is no more powerful engine for development and liberation than the market. At its worst, it is a dangerous moral pollutant that nourishes some very poisonous weeds in us."
At time, Rev. Green is downright hostile. He quotes Paul: "The love of money is the root of all evil." Money, he writes, has become "the modern Mephistopheles," the servant of Lucifer, the Devil.
What is the alternative? "After 2007-2009, the manifest failure of market fundamentalism and the need for a rebalancing of the world's economy will inevitably be the starting point of a new world order," Rev. Green writes. "The underlying question will be whether world leaders can construct a shared vision of a global economic order that preserves the dynamism of market forces while taming their excesses (in both risk-taking and reward)."
Rev. Green expresses hope that what he calls "ethical capitalism" will supplant what he calls "the ideology of market fundamentalism."
This "ethical capitalism" has an ideology of its own, which, while its truth may be self-evident to Rev. Green, is by no means universally shared.
"My interpretive prism is Christian," Rev. Green writes toward the end of the book, again quoting Paul: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
"The ideal, and the hope, stand the test of time," writes Rev. Green. This may well grate on Jewish readers who don't look forward as ardently as Rev. Green apparently does to the elimination of their unique identity. They and others may, as I did, find this particular critic of "market fundamentalism" to display a certain fundamentalism of his own, and one that isn't without its own ample dangers.