Popes normally stick to their bailiwick, faith and worship. But Pope Francis’s criticisms of capitalism came early and often, escalating since the beginning of the covid pandemic. The pontiff describes free market thinking as “magic theories.”
“The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom,” Francis wrote in his encyclical late last year. “It is imperative to have a proactive economic policy directed at ‘promoting an economy that favours productive diversity and business creativity’ and makes it possible for jobs to be created, and not cut.”
Roger McKinney doesn’t see eye to eye with the pope. In his book God Is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx, McKinney “shows how Biblical economic principles answer the most vexing problems the world faces today, such as poverty, inequality and pollution.”
While Pope Francis stumps for socialism, McKinney points out that the system Francis fancies has given us millions of deaths from the likes of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Castro’s Cuba.
McKinney’s intellectual journey started with the so-called father of capitalism, Adam Smith, and Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. However, Smith didn’t address where capitalism came from, and McKinney discovered the work of the theologians at the University of Salamanca, Spain. He learned what Chinese intellectuals knew three centuries before: “God is a capitalist.”
As he gives away in the subtitle, McKinney couches the book in a good versus evil, capitalism versus Marxism framework. That debate, in McKinney’s view, started with Moses in 1500 BC, writing, “Moses was one of the world’s most vigorous proponents of free markets while pharaoh was an early Marxist.”
The author describes himself as a conservative evangelical when it comes to theology and as a proponent of the Austrian school on economic issues. He leans heavily on Hayek, Mises, and other Austrians to support the capitalist argument. McKinney used the Austrian business cycle theory to great effect in his 2014 book on stock market investing, Financial Bull Riding.
An interesting inclusion is Hemult Schoeck and his book Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. Mckinney writes, “Schoeck argued that Christianity catalyzed economic development and capitalism by finding a way to suppress envy without eliminating it.”
In McKinney’s meatiest chapter, entitled “Christian Capitalism,” the author returns to the School of Salamanca to remind us that it was theologians who provided the initial insights into economics. The aforementioned Adam Smith taught moral philosophy, not economics.
McKinney says in the chapter that Murray Rothbard, “Mr. Libertarian,” based his political views on sound economics, and had he stopped there, “he would have carved a place for himself in history and found good company with his teacher, Ludwig von Mises, and another great student of Mises’, Hayek. But Rothbard was an atheist and that emboldened him to join forces for a while with another atheist, Ayn Rand, who promoted a variation on the theme of libertarianism. Rothbard thought it necessary to construct an atheist system of morality and considered himself capable of creating one.”
A few lines later, McKinney writes, “Obviously, Christians should never take their morals from atheists.” From conversations with Murray, I remember him as more of an agnostic than atheist. My memory is supported by Murray’s friend David Gordon, who told Jeff Deist, “Well, I think he was an atheist, not out of hostility to religion. It was more that he didn’t find the arguments for the existence of God very convincing. Now toward the end of his life, I think he just said something like, ‘If there is a God, it would be a being that we really can’t know anything about or would be completely different to anything we would understand.’”
Gordon continued, “But I don’t think that—say, like the Randians would say, if you’re not an atheist, you’re really irrational. He would not take that view. He was very tolerant, whatever people thought. That was just his understanding. One of his great friends was the Jesuit libertarian Father James Sadowsky and certainly Sadowsky, being a Jesuit, it never affected their friendship and I think that the existence of God or atheism wasn’t really a central issue for Rothbard.”
It’s hard to imagine that McKinney doesn’t believe Murray Rothbard is in the same company as Mises and Hayek. History says otherwise. Besides this misstep, McKinney has written a fascinating book which asks and answers an intriguing question.