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Spring 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 1 · pp. 132–34 

Book Review

Bulls, Bears and Golden Calves: Applying Christian Ethics in Economics

John E. Stapleford. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002. 208 pages.

Reviewed by Joyce Gleason

John E. Stapleford, Professor of Economic Development at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, rightly states that ethics and economics are the ground-level topics of this book. The author also makes the valid point that both economics and ethics developed as branches of philosophy. He further observes that over the years, barriers between the two disciplines have developed with most economists avoiding any explicit mention of the ethical implications of the economic theories and concepts addressed in popular economic texts. Stapleford seeks to address this gap.

He assumes that economics and ethics are necessarily interconnected and that ethical principles influence the behavior of both consumers and producers, not to mention the design of public policies. This book is written “from the perspective of Christian ethics—Christian standards of behavior as found in Scripture.” The book is arranged in five sections: first, the framework of Christian ethics relevant to economics; second, Christian reflection on basic assumptions of market economics; and application of the Christian ethical framework to macroeconomic, microeconomic, and international economic issues in the final three sections. Stapleford recognizes that adding ethical considerations to the {133} already complex conceptual framework of market economics will add to the student’s workload, but asserts that it is a challenge that we are obligated to undertake.

At the outset of Chapter 1, the author states that God conducts a theocracy, not a democracy—there is moral truth, not a survey of public opinion to determine the nature of things. Here the author seems to misinterpret the meaning of democracy which is based not just on public opinion but on majority rule tempered by minority rights and the rule of law.

Stapleford recognizes that God gave humans free will and quotes biblical passages in Romans and Genesis to support this contention. But he also quotes passages which imply that scarcity does not exist if the will of God is followed. If true, this would negate the need to study and develop economic systems. Despite the quote, the author’s point here seems to be to remind us that we cannot ignore religion in the pursuit of material wealth. Other references are made to Bible passages on work, Christian responsibility toward poverty, the existence of private property, and economic justice. This chapter sets the tone and ends with the caveat that basic economics texts are valid in the technical sense and that Christian ethics establishes clear objectives and boundaries, yet policy choices require additional hard reasoning. It is hard to know what the author means by the last statement.

On Adam Smith’s belief in the power of self-interest, the author misconstrues the emphasis of most market economics texts. Few, if any, state as he does that “unconstrained pursuit of self-interest will promote the general welfare of society” (31). Rather, most texts agree with the author’s “true view of Adam Smith” which recognizes conditions needed for self-interest to promote society’s welfare. Still Stapleford’s critique is a legitimate reminder that we must heed these conditions. His example of commercial blood markets in the U.S. ignores the substantial voluntary blood banks that exist through the Red Cross which rely on values common to Christianity and other religions for donated blood.

Textbook emphasis on efficiency as a primary economic goal is one of Stapleford’s legitimate concerns. He reminds us that Christian ethics would take a more balanced view of society’s economic goals. However, there need not be a dichotomy between Christianity and capitalism as is implied at the end of Chapter 3 (55-56). Stapleford gives contradictory biblical views of private property, quoting passages that justify its existence and later (63) quoting Psalm 24:1 to assert that everything belongs to God. Stapleford reconciles the dichotomy by suggesting that property rights exist only in the intermediate term. This is one example {134} of the difficulty of interpreting market economics from a Christian perspective.

Stapleford also attacks an emphasis on growth which ignores Christian values. Recent books have also raised this concern, but the ethical considerations involved need not be limited to Christian principles. Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz raises similar concerns about globalization and the International Money Fund’s blind enforcement of free market policies without regard to humanitarian and cultural stability in nations which need assistance. Ethical considerations must not be ignored but should not necessarily be limited to a Christian perspective. Other religions often have even stronger proscriptions against usury and wealth inequality as well as strong beliefs in traditional and family values.

Being very familiar with the McConnell and Brue Economics principles textbook and acquainted with other popular texts, I would say that Stapleford raises legitimate issues about the texts’ insistence on separating “positive” from “normative” economics. When laissez faire economics is portrayed as being the ideal, we are automatically making normative judgments. Most texts do not blindly subscribe to free market economics, but it is legitimate to suggest that they should pay more attention to the ethical foundations of these theories and more often remind students of the different cultural and/or religious views that may complicate blind acceptance of these theories.

Within the Christian community there are many interpretations of biblical passages and not merely univocal moral truths. Further, we need to remember that other religious traditions also bring ethical foundations to the interpretation of economic theory. For those wishing a Christian perspective, Stapleford’s book provides a starting point, but a selective one. It could be a valuable supplement for course discussion accompanying a basic principles text. Instructors could also supplement their texts with other sources that raise ethical concerns about free market economics. The goal should be to enhance the student’s critical thinking skills and to consider the ethical implications of textbook economics. Economic education should avoid the possibility of slavish devotion to a single ideology, such as Marxism at one extreme or unfettered free markets at the other.

Joyce Gleason
Visiting Prof. of Economics
National University of Kiev, Mohyla Academy

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