Religion and the rise of capitalism

Benjamin M. Friedman

Book - 2021

"Where do our ideas about economics and economic policy come from? Critics of contemporary economics complain that belief in free markets, among economists and many ordinary citizens too, is a form of religion. It turns out that there is something to the idea: not in the way the critics mean, but in a deeper, more historically grounded sense. Contrary to the conventional historical view of economics as entirely a secular product of the Enlightenment, religion exerted a powerful influence fr...om the outset. Benjamin M. Friedman demonstrates that the foundational transition in thinking about what we now call economics, beginning in the eighteenth century, was decisively shaped by the hotly contended lines of religious thought within the English-speaking Protestant world. Beliefs about God-given human character, about our destiny after this life, and about the purpose of our existence, were all under challenge in the world in which Adam Smith and his contemporaries lived. Those debates explain the puzzling behavior so many of our fellow citizens whose views about economic policies, and whose voting behavior too, seems sharply at odds with what would be to their own economic benefit. Understanding the origins of the relationship between religious thinking and economic thinking, together with its ongoing consequences, provides insights into our current economic policy debates and ways to shape more functional policies for all citizens"--

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Subjects
Published
New York : Alfred A. Knopf [2021]
Edition
First edition
Language
English
Physical Description
xv, 534 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 475-508) and index.
ISBN
9780593317983
059331798X
Main Author
Benjamin M. Friedman (author)
Review by Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* In The Wealth of Nations, most readers see a decidedly secular worldview. Friedman frankly acknowledges that the author of that epoch-making work, Adam Smith, evinced no religious devotion. However, through careful scrutiny of the capitalist economic theory Smith constructed—with the help of his friend David Hume—Friedman exposes the profound influence of the religious thinking pervading the eighteenth-century Scottish intellectual environment in which Smith and Hume worked. More specifically, Friedman illuminates the effects on both thinkers of the displacement of dour Calvinism by a newly optimistic Protestantism affirming the benefits of individuals freely making choices while pursuing their own self-interest. That displacement, readers come to see, made possible Hume's understanding of economic progress and Smith's faith in "the invisible hand" of the unconstrained economic agent. In the next century, on the other side of the Atlantic, Hume's and Smith's economic precepts received a warm reception from devout Protestants whose theology helped to enshrine them as justification for America's laissez-faire capitalism. As he limns the subsequent evolution of American economic life, especially during the Great Depression and the Cold War, Friedman traces the shifting but perduring influence of religion in America on the capitalism that Hume and Smith helped launch. A bracing challenge to narrowly secular assessments of economic theory. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

Harvard political economist Friedman (Day of Reckoning) delivers an ambitious intellectual history of Christian influence on the development of economic thought, from the Enlightenment to the present day. Focusing particularly on the theological ideas that influenced Adam Smith—whose work is considered the foundation of modern economics—Friedman argues that Smith's understanding of economics was "shaped by what were then new and vigorously contended lines of religious thought within the English-speaking Protestant world." As a result, Friedman writes, Enlightenment-era Protestant understandings of human nature still inform ideas about economic theory. Friedman digs deeply into the theological debates about human nature, free will, and depravity, and the possibility of human progress that shaped Adam Smith's belief that "the key driver in this progression, from each stage to the next, was scarcity." Friedman then surveys Christians' influence on American economic policies from the colonial period to the present, explaining that "public awareness of... economic improvement and the expanded opportunity that came with it further reinforced the tendency toward non-predestinarian thinking within American Protestantism" and allowed Americans to believe in an "economic destiny." Unfortunately, Friedman skims the surface of such topics as slavery and the New Deal in the book's final third, and fails to paint a clear picture of how U.S. economic policies have been shaped by Protestant beliefs. This dense work will be of most interest to scholars of political economy. (Jan.) Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

"Where do our ideas about economics and economic policy come from? Critics of contemporary economics complain that belief in free markets, among economists and many ordinary citizens too, is a form of religion. It turns out that there is something to theidea: not in the way the critics mean, but in a deeper, more historically grounded sense. Contrary to the conventional historical view of economics as entirely a secular product of the Enlightenment, religion exerted a powerful influence from the outset.Benjamin M. Friedman demonstrates that the foundational transition in thinking about what we now call economics, beginning in the eighteenth century, was decisively shaped by the hotly contended lines of religious thought within the English-speaking Protestant world. Beliefs about God-given human character, about our destiny after this life, and about the purpose of our existence, were all under challenge in the world in which Adam Smith and his contemporaries lived. Those debates explain the puzzling behavior so many of our fellow citizens whose views about economic policies, and whose voting behavior too, seems sharply at odds with what would be to their own economic benefit. Understanding the origins of the relationship between religious thinking and economic thinking, together with its ongoing consequences, provides insights into our current economic policy debates and ways to shape more functional policies for all citizens"--

Review by Publisher Summary 2

A leading expert on economic policy presents a major reassessment of the foundations of modern economic thinking to identify the historical religious influences behind today’s fiercely defended beliefs about the free market.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

From one of the nation's preeminent experts on economic policy, a major reassessment of the foundations of modern economic thinking that explores the profound influence of an until-now unrecognized force—religion."Friedman has given us an original and brilliant new perspective on the terrifying divisions of our own times. No book could be more important.” —George A. Akerlof, Nobel Laureate in Economics Critics of contemporary economics complain that belief in free markets—among economists as well as many ordinary citizens—is a form of religion. And, it turns out, that in a deeper, more historically grounded sense there is something to that idea. Contrary to the conventional historical view of economics as an entirely secular product of the Enlightenment, Benjamin M. Friedman demonstrates that religion exerted a powerful influence from the outset. Friedman makes clear how the foundational transition in thinking about what we now call economics, beginning in the eighteenth century, was decisively shaped by the hotly contended lines of religious thought within the English-speaking Protestant world. Beliefs about God-given human character, about the after-life, and about the purpose of our existence, were all under scrutiny in the world in which Adam Smith and his contemporaries lived. Friedman explores how those debates go far in explaining the puzzling behavior of so many of our fellow citizens whose views about economic policies—and whose voting behavior—seems sharply at odds with what would be to their own economic benefit. Illuminating the origins of the relationship between religious thinking and economic thinking, together with its ongoing consequences, Friedman provides invaluable insights into our current economic policy debates and demonstrates ways to shape more functional policies for all citizens.