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.
What does an esoteric concept like Calvinist soteriology have to do with the rise of modern economics? Does laissez-faire have its roots in the arcane Quinquarticular Controversy? Can one find the origins of the welfare state in postmillennialist eschatology? Questions like these, according to the Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman, are essential to understanding his discipline today ... once theological questions are rendered into secular language, their relevance, and thus the importance of Friedman’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, becomes clear ... if someone had told me that a former chairman of the Harvard economics department would write a major work on Calvinism and its influence, you would have had to consider me a skeptic. Nonetheless Benjamin M. Friedman has, and the result is an awakening all its own.
Friedman has made an important contribution to the literature on the intertwining of Western economic thought with religious beliefs. His detailed tracing of the philosophical and theological roots of free market economics is well researched, well written, and well worth reading.
The book’s title is misleading—Mr. Friedman’s narrative is about the evolution of economic thought, not capitalism. He alternates between theological debates and developments in economic thought. On economics he is compelling, on theology disappointingly tendentious. Mr. Friedman unselfconsciously presents as fact a host of skeptical—and highly debatable—claims about Christianity and biblical texts. More important, he relies on a caricatured version of Calvinism, especially the New Testament-based doctrine that God predestines some to be saved, to set up his central claim: The weakening of traditional Calvinism, he contends, spurred a more optimistic conception of human potential, which helped to inspire key innovations in economic thought ... contains genuine contributions—the historical context of Adam Smith’s work and the Social Gospel origins of the American Economic Association are two. But the continuing and unconvincing emphasis on predestination gives the appearance of a unifying theme to a book that, alas, doesn’t have one.