Catching Up

Michael Metzger

U2’s Bono says he’s learning “a humbling thing” – the importance of capitalism. He’s actually playing catch up. The same goes for Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey, Bill Gates, and Michael Porter. They’re all catching up to Christianity’s take on capitalism.

This past fall Bono was in Dublin recording U2’s next album. He took some time off to speak to the F.ounders tech conference, making a surprising confession. In his campaign to fight poverty and disease in Africa, Bono admits it’s been “a humbling thing” to learn the importance of capitalism.1 He started out “as a righteous anger activist with all the clichés,” including the one about capitalism equaling corruption.

Bono is actually playing catch up. The Christian tradition is the cradle of capitalism. In Genesis 1, God works six days and rests the seventh. Human beings are made in the image of God, working six days and resting on the seventh. Sabbath is for celebrating our work. It wasn’t a fast but a feast. This requires surplus capital, created in six days so that the seventh day is fun. This cycle gave birth to capitalism.

From this cradle, the Bible adds conscience. The first couple began the first workweek endowed with an innate capacity to know the moral law as well as the faculty perceiving how well their knowledge is connected to their actions. This is called conscience. “It is the gift of God that represents the Law as written in their hearts,” writes Herant Katchadourian in Guilt: The Bite of Conscience.2 Adam and Eve were to work conscientiously as capitalists. It’s fair to say the Judeo-Christian tradition has historically promoted the virtues of conscientious capitalism.

In his book The Victory of Reason, Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the West grew rich because it invented capitalism. That’s not quite correct. It’s closer to the mark to say the Catholic Church of the Middles Ages advanced conscientious capitalism. Stark is right in reversing earlier prejudices about Catholicism and the so-called Dark Ages. As late as 1983, the esteemed historian Daniel Boorstin wrote a chapter on the Middle Ages entitled “The Prison of Christian Dogma.” He was wrong. Medieval Scholastics made significant discoveries in economics and technology. Five hundred years before Adam Smith, St. Albertus Magnus explained the price mechanism as what “goods are worth according to the estimate of the market at the time of sale.”

Catholic monasteries emerged as conscientious capitalist enterprises, serving not only as manufacturing and trading centers, but also as investment houses. Stark argues that people with a distinctly Christian sense of the sacred developed important technologies, including the compass, the clock, the round-bottom boat, wagons with brakes and front axles, water wheels, and eyeglasses. Bono, a follower of Christ, seems unfamiliar with this Catholic tradition. He might benefit from reading Adolf Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests: Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumphs, which makes many of the same points that Stark makes.

Stark and Hirschman cast doubt on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argued that capitalism partially grew out of the Protestant (and specifically Calvinist) religious tradition and was a reaction to Catholic doctrine. Not true. These works also undercut the idea that corporations exist solely to maximize financial return. Introduced in the 1930s, this idea was given status of Holy Grail in the 1970s when economist Milton Friedman wrote that the sole responsibility of capitalism is to increase shareholder profit. That’s why most people view capitalism as corrupt.

The good news is a number of corporate leaders are playing catch up. In his 2008 Davos speech, Bill Gates called for a new system of “creative capitalism.” Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor, pitched “shared-value capitalism” to the 2011 Davos crowd. He argued that business leaders are too focused on short-term financial gains and ought to pay more attention to the well-being of customers, the depletion of natural resources, and the concerns of the communities in which they produce and sell.

This year, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, a marketing professor at Bentley College, have written Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. They argue that the mathematical framework of free-market economics – developed by neoclassical economists in the 20th century – fundamentally mischaracterizes the true nature of capitalism. That’s true. However, Mackey’s idea of “conscious” is drawn from his Buddhist faith, meaning “awareness.” That’s not bad – just insufficient. Being aware of surroundings is only one aspect of self-awareness, what scripture defines as a clear conscience. A more complete understanding calls for conscientiousness capitalism.

Creative, conscious, and shared-value capitalism are steps in the right direction. If the faith community saw them as catching up to what scripture has long said, it might get a foot in the door and a place at the table at, say, Whole Foods. If that happened, the church would once again be taken seriously – as it was in the Middles Ages.

1 Parmy Olson, “Bono’s ‘Humbling’ Realizations About Aid, Capitalism And Nerds,” Forbes, October 22, 2012.
2 Herant Katchadourian, Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 143.


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One Comment

  1. Good Article Mike. I had read a newspaper article about Whole Food’s Mackey and thought of you. Of course, you’d already read his book and incorporated his ideas into an article!!

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