DOING VIRTUOUS BUINESS
In Biblical times, the right of private property mattered to people. If it didn’t, the commandment “thou shalt not steal” wouldn’t have made any sense. There were many lively markets in that era, and Jerusalem itself was a critically important marketplace at the crossroads of three continents. There were also plenty of private profits to be made; the Bible itself is full of stories about them, and it was with gifts contributed from these profits that the great and beautiful Temple of Solomon was built. Private property, markets, and profits are all fundamental components of traditional economies, not just of the relatively new and distinctive economy we know as capitalism.
Capitalism, to define it in its essence, is creative, sensible, and intellectual action taken in the service of enterprise. And enterprise is the act of noticing, discovering, and inventing new possibilities before anyone else does. What makes capitalism so dynamic is its source in this powerful, innovating habit of mind, as well as its focus on a host of practical and empowering practices and institutions.
In ancient and medieval times, wealth typically arose from the ownership of great estates, vineyards, and orchards, or from generous rewards for government service. But at the dawn of the capitalist era, the source of wealth began to shift from the ownership of land to possession of creative insights—the clear discovery of new and better products, or of superior processes for producing and distributing them, or of new services never before provided. As capitalism took hold, its fundamental reality became a spiritual reality, one whose vital core is fruitful, generative insights.
When Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, for example, personal computers, mobile telephone, and the Internet were unknown to the world’s consumers, and many of what have become the largest industries in the world did not even exist. Immense fortunes were made from these new discoveries, and Bill Gates became the wealthiest man in the world specifically because of his patents and copyrights, that is, his ownership of ideas.
Even money—filthy mammon, which used to be thought of as such a thoroughly material thing—draws its real value from qualities that belong more to the human spirit than to merely material realities. When people lose confidence in governments and in their currencies, money becomes relatively valueless. Think of Germany during the Weimar period, when people needed wheelbarrows full of nearly worthless currency to buy a loaf of bread. Who would have guessed that political faith and confidence were of more weight than solid, tangible money? Yet throughout history they have often proven to be.
Prior to the introduction of capitalism, popular wisdom as well as the theology held that “the poor ye shall always have with you.” The perennial existence of large majorities of desperately poor people wasn’t viewed as immoral, but rather as a simple fact of life. No one worked diligently to alter that reality; no one thought of it as a tragedy or scandal. Yet the introduction of capitalist economies into is the cause of poverty?”—Which, if correctly answered, could have led only to the discovery of how to create more poverty. Instead, Smith asked a question that had been overlooked by Descartes, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, and every other great thinker before him: “What is the nature and the cause of the wealth of nations?” Smith was the first person in history to conceive of a world from which poverty could be banished, a world of “universal affluence” in which every woman, man, and child would be liberated from the prison of poverty. That was his goal. It was a remarkably altruistic dream, and it is a vision that, from his day to this, has been the universal mission of capitalism as well.
Consider this. A great economic miracle has been underway on the mainland of Asia in the years since 1980. During that time, the giant economies of China and India have rather dramatically turned toward capitalist economic methods and have released the dynamism of individual enterprise, initiative, and creativity among peasants and city dwellers alike. In that process, China and India have raised more than a half billion people out of poverty within the span of only thirty years. Never before have so many people emerged out of hopeless lives in so short a time.
As Jagdish Bhagwati notes in his brilliant book, In Defense of Globalization, the enormous creative potential of global capitalism can best be observed by comparing the trajectories of Africa and Asia over the last quarter century. In 1970, seventy-six percent of the world’s poor were in Asia, while only eleven percent were in Africa. By 1998, however, China and India had lifted so many people out of poverty that those percentages had nearly reversed themselves. Asia now is home to fifteen percent of the world’s poor, while Africa is home to sixty-six percent.
This extraordinary pursuit of justice in two of the world’s most important nations vividly demonstrates that new, job-creating businesses—most of them small businesses—are the key strategic institutions in that morally vital pursuit. Job-creating businesses are the best—and the only—hope of the poor. Businesses small and large are also the best hope of a civil society; they alone generate the private funds that allow voluntary associations to serve the needs of the disenfranchised.
Businesses similarly are also the world’s best hope for democracy. If all that people could glean from democracy was the opportunity to regularly vote for their leaders, but it offered them no chance for improvement of their economic condition, they would find democracy very hard to love. But instead, what people rightly love best about democracy is the economic opportunity and prosperity it can bring them. It is democratic capitalism that they understand is worthy of their devotion, energy, and practice, not merely democracy.
Capitalism demands transparency and honest accounting and reporting. It insists on the rule of law and the strict observance of contracts. It demands hard work, inventiveness, initiative, and a spirit of responsibility and respect. It teaches the patient acceptance of small gains, and proves the value of steady and insistent progress. During the nineteenth century, Great Britain achieved an average of one-and-a-half percent growth of its gross domestic product every year, with the astonishing result that the average income of the ordinary laborer in Britain quadrupled in only a single century. The moral habits of invention, discovery, hard work, persistence, saving, and investment brought about the greatest transformation in the condition of the poor—including advances in hygiene, medicine, longevity, and physical and emotional well-being—in all of recorded history.
Capitalism carries in its wake the potential for immense transformation, a true and permanent change that is moral in nature. Those nations, peoples, and businesses that neglect the moral ecology of their own cultures cannot enjoy the fruits of such transformation, and democratic capitalism must be essentially moral or it falters, declines, and fails. Spiritual enterprise is that capitalism in its most profound and important form. In that sense there is a virtuous way to do business and it makes all the difference to the firms, employees, shareholders and societies where it is most practiced.
This Roundtable will bring together business leaders from to discuss the virtues underlying business and under-girding a more virtuous democratic capitalism. Here are the questions to frame your conversation over the next six sessions.
Is Adam Smith‘s moral theory crucial to his economic argument?
Is the modern world a mistake and should we return to a premodern era?
Does commerce corrupt people and society?
Are there cultural contradictions of capitalism?
Is Novak’s story a personal journey?
What would a moral ecology of capitalism look like?
Are virtues identifiable? Normative/ Across ages?
How do they operate in different historical frameworks?
Are they universal?
Can we ignore virtues altogether?
What are hard and soft virtues?
Is business a noble vocation?
What is leadership?
Is there such a thing as servant leadership?
What is spiritual capital?
Are small businesses easier to manage than large ones? Global ones?
Does religion have a role to play in freedom?
Are the Abrahamic faiths compatible/?
Is there a Christian socialism?
Is Protestantism triumphant?
How does secularity affect economic growth?
Is globalization a good or is a clash of civilizations inevitable?
What is the relationship between spiritual capital and free and responsible individuals?
What funds or forms such freedom?
Does spiritual capital have a future? Conceptually? In the larger culture?
- All readings are from: Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business, Encounter, 2008.
Show the documentary film DOING VIRTUOUS BUSINESS
Session I: Virtue, Business, and Democratic Capitalism
Theodore Malloch. Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. Introduction, Chapter 1-2. Page(s): xv-37. (Book)
Novak, Michael. Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Page(s): 13-48.
Session II: Faith, Hope, and Charity
Theodore Malloch. Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. Chapter 3. Page(s): 38-58. (Book)
Novak, Michael. Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1996. Chapter 6. Page(s): 117-133.
Session III: Hard Virtues: Leadership, Courage, Patience, Perseverance, and Discipline
Theodore Malloch. Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. Chapter 4. Page(s): 59-75. (Book)
Novak, Michael. Universal Hunger for Liberty. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Part 2. Page(s): 51-72.
Session IV: Soft Virtues: Compassion, Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Humility
Theodore Malloch. Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. Chapter 5. Page(s): 76-104. (Book)
Novak, Michael. Universal Hunger for Liberty. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Part 2. Page(s): 72-92.
Session V: Virtue in a Skeptical Age
Theodore Malloch. Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. Chapter 6 and Conclusion. Page(s): 105-134. (Book)
Novak, Michael. Universal Hunger for Liberty. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Part 1. Page(s): 23-50. (Book)
Session VI: Open Forum
Theodore Malloch. Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtuous Business. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. All Chapters. (Book)