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Benjamin Friedman — Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” — John Maynard Keynes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936

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.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (book cover)

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 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 18th century, was decisively shaped by the hotly contended lines of religious thought within the English-speaking Protestant world. Beliefs about God-given human character, human agency, 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.

Benjamin Friedman is the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy, and formerly chairman of the Department of Economics, at Harvard University, where he has now taught for nearly half a century. Mr. Friedman’s two previous general interest books are Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy Under Reagan and After, and The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. He has also written extensively on issues of economic policy, for both economists and economic policymakers, and he is a frequent contributor to national publications, especially The New York Review of Books. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shermer and Friedman discuss:

  • how the worldview of scientists shapes how they see the world, including economic scientists,
  • how the Newtonian mechanical worldview trickled down to social theory about how economies operate through forces,
  • which religious ideas most influenced the thinking of 18th century Enlightenment thinkers,
  • why Adam Smith was not, as many contemporary thinkers believe, a proponent of unregulated free markets,
  • the religious idea of free will and personal responsibility shaped economic theory,
  • Prosperity Gospel (God wants us to be rich) vs. Social Gospel (God wants us to help the poor),
  • post WWII theological conservatives linked arms with free-market conservatives because of the threat of godless Communism,
  • When did Jesus became a conservative (the post WWII bundling of religion and economics)?: the influence of J. Howard Pew (Pew Research); Dwight Moody (Moody Bible Institute); Charles Fuller (Fuller Theological Seminary); Byman Stewart (Bible Institute of Los Angeles); George Pepperdine (dedicated to teaching “under conservative, fundamental Christian supervision”) and the founding of Pepperdine University (Dr. Shermer’s alma mater); William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, The Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell,
  • why Americans who might benefit from an expanded welfare state now routinely vote against it,
  • why evangelicals voted for Trump in record numbers,
  • the economic bailout of 2020 and 2021 (the debt held by the public as a share of GDP is the highest (at 102%) since WWII, and never this high in peacetime.
  • Trekonomics/Post-Scarcity capitalism: what happens when poverty is eliminated? and
  • income inequality, UBI, and the future of work in an A.I. dominated world.

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This episode was released on March 6, 2021.

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