Michael H. Smith     

          BOOK REVIEW

July 2000
Religion and Capitalism, Allies, Not Enemies
By Edmund A. Opitz, 1914 - (c)
copyright 1970
Publisher:  Arlington House, New Rochelle, NY

Opitz, long a fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, has a
different, more "pure" understanding of capitalism than the view of most of the mainstream social commentators the twentieth century. To Opitz capitalism is merely the freedom to use the private person's own money to invest in order to make more money with it. This form of economic freedom  is the keystone of economic freedom and progress.

Yet this deceptively simple concept escapes many critics who see broader "social" dimensions to capitalism and who mistrust unorganized private action, preferring instead at least some centralized controls over private decisions.  People, left to themselves, are simply unable to stand on their own two feet and act as free agents in their own best interest, or will have a disordered kind of freedom to exploit others and even themselves.

A government that only prevents violence and enforces free and open contracts between its citizens is far too limited in preventing unfairness. But, he argues, a government that goes beyond this "minimalist" limit and imposes controls and redistribution upon its citizens will turn them into subjects even as it becomes repressive- and will destroy political liberty in the process.

Rather than being a threat to human dignity, the free market depending as it does on capitalism, is the only system consistent with a transcendent religion. In order to make his case Opitz draws upon sources from even the socialist minded critics of free markets like R. H. Tawney along with the Austrian economists such as Von Mises and Hayek. He delves into philosophy and theology together with sociology and politics to make his case.  

This book is therefore about much more than the "merely instrumental" means to meeting human needs amongst scarce resources more efficiently.  It is a book about human beings as personal, transcendent, and dependent upon God and His religion on earth. It is a book of man's earthly governments and society as well. Implicit throughout the book is the organic nature of human life. Each part of life is dependent upon the other. Do violence to one sector, the family, the government, the church, the economy, and the others suffer.  This is most of all a book of philosophy and religion.
All elements of human life depend upon the same foundation, a belief in a "third order" of being beyond "nature" and "society" - the transcendent, spiritual order based in God and His Laws. Without this concept and dependent only on a materialist or positivist world view all coherent order breaks down. Under materialism even the concept of the human mind becomes an absurdity.  In positivism, the belief that all laws are man-made without reference to any transcendent Power, all human rights are illusory. It is thus a book about the broader constitution of a free state of a free peoples. On a practical level only such a state, grounded in a transcendent order, can withstand the demands of a transient and power mad ruling class or a needy and demanding public.
Only a free peoples can exercise religious freedom and then only if they are both politically and economically free. In implicit anticipation of Michael Novak's three spheres of order, the moral/cultural, the political, and the economic - Opitz shows how none can stand on its own. Further, he shows how economic slavery is the destruction of both political freedom and religious charity. When goods are taken by force from some to be used, not for the common good but for the use of a privileged few violence is done to all three spheres.  People are no longer under the objective law as "no respecter of persons" but governed by political status.  Power, in practical terms, can be expressed only in politics. Economics is pushed aside, diminished and replaced by political advantage.  Opitz denounces this as tyranny.  Further, the forced "charity" performed on us by government shrivels up the genuine charitable impulse.
In part II Opitz discusses the alternatives to capitalism and freedom, the City of God v. the City of Man, majority rule, equality, despotism by consent, and war and peace. The appendices give us an exposition to God and political freedom and some axioms on economics which bear some study -- even memorization.
Footnotes are few and do not detract from the text. A very useful
bibliography follows, along with an index of subjects and names.
Having read so many other books on economics I am handicapped in saying this would be a good first book for the uninitiated. But his writing is so clear and ideas presented so simply that it may be a good first textbook on American politics, religious and philosophical influence, and economics.
At 322 pages and for only $9.95 (Plus $3.00 shipping) from the Foundation for Economic Education (go to www.fee.org/bookstore ) it is a steal!  You should buy several copies and give them to your socialist and "third way" friends. At second thought, don't waste you energy. This is a book for the thoughtful, not those prone to emotive economics. It is  an easy to understand but packed full of ideas book-- best read a paragraph at a time, then reread, going back a page or so if necessary for context.

If you read it from the public library, as I did the first time, you will have to hide your magic markers for the temptation to underline and highlight several times per page will be almost overwhelming. For the same reason, do not lend it out. You may not see it again!

Michael H. Smith

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