Money, Greed, and God by Jay W. Richards (Review)

money-greed-god-richardsMoney, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is The Solution And Not The Problem by Jay W. Richards is a Christian defense of capitalism and the general Austrian/free-market worldview. It is partially a response to some of the more “liberal” Christian voices of recent years that have criticized American affluence and called for social justice, shunning materialism and globalization, and helping the poor (sometimes through government programs funded sometimes by taxing the rich).

Richards does not deny that Christians should care about the poor, but points out that to alleviate poverty we must not merely at good intentions but at what works, and he argues that what works is improving economic and political systems and promote property rights, the rule of law, and free trade. He corrects many widespread myths, like the idea that wealth is a zero-sum game.

I tend to agree with Richards economically. I like the idea that man can create wealth because he is made in the image of God the Creator, which enables and maybe even compels him to invent and innovate and improve the world around him. I like the idea that man (and his initiative) is the ultimate “natural resource” that we will never run out of. I like his defense of banking and differentiation between hoarding and investing.

However, while Richards dutifully corrects many Christians who present far too dismal a view of capitalism, like many other ideological free-marketers I think he may present too rosy a view. It may be true that capitalism doesn’t necessarily include the greed and deception and materialism that is often associated with it, but it is also true that those things seem to come with capitalism wherever it arrives. I agree that those vices would be even worse under socialism, but that’s almost a straw man, since many anti-capitalists don’t want to revert to pure socialism but merely control capitalism’s “excesses” with smart limits and regulations; there are plenty of arguments for and against that, but Richards mostly maintains a bird’s eye pure capitalism/socialism dichotomy, and we don’t really get a sense for where he falls on the practical real-world continuum (like, say, what about government investment in transportation infrastructure or other potential public goods as a way to help the poor?).

Additionally, while I believe Richards offers useful correction and critique of the effectiveness of alleviating poverty through government programs, I’m not sure I’m convinced of the fundamental assumption shared by both he and his opponents that God’s commands to help the poor actually involves alleviating their poverty (and we just have to figure out the best way to do that). Surely Jesus could have helped far more people escape poverty if he had helped overthrow the Roman Empire like the Jews thought he would to establish either (in the view of folks like Richards, or perhaps me) a capitalistic utopia or (in the view of folks like Jim Wallis) a tax-the-rich-to-feed-the-poor progressive utopia. But even when Jesus told the rich man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor, did he actually seem to care about the poor “escaping poverty,” or was he more concerned about the spiritual state of both the poor and the rich? This is a paradigm that goes beyond books like this one, and it’s something that requires more research, thought, and prayer. But this book is a good stop on the way to developing that paradigm, and it responds to and references many other books that I’m looking forward to reading as well.