Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Book Review (#15 of 2009)

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark.
Stark sets out to challenge anthropologists like Jared Diamond who contend that Europeans rose to prominence mainly out of geographic factors in their favor. Stark's hypothesis is that Christian thinking-- forward looking thought towards progress and in favor of basic equality and property rights-- led to European development. That while the decline of the Roman Empire is something historians have lamented in centuries past, it was precisely the catalyst that freed up individuals to become entrepreneurs. Stark makes the point that Max Weber's protestant work ethic hypothesis is a myth--capitalism existed long before protestantism.

In short, Stark thinks like an economic historian and shows that it's the incentives that matter. I thought Ferguson's Ascent of Money (my review) did a good job of showing the development of basic finance and economic thought. But Stark goes further back then Ferguson did, and does a much better job. Ferguson's book was a bestseller and got a PBS special. Stark's book won't.

The problem I have with Stark's book is that the links he makes to Christianity being a catalyst for economic development come across rather weakly. Early church fathers frowned on lending and commercial activity. There was a long period where the Catholic church looked more favorably on these activities, and then after the Protestant Reformation the Catholic church reverted back to opposing those activities and preserving its sovereignty. So, the church has played it both ways.

But if you can link Christian thinking to equality-- no king has any more right to your property than you because God shows no favoritism-- then you have the basis for property rights, which is the basis for capitalism.

This book was recommended to me by my dean, and then someone referred me to Horizon Community Church in Cincinnati, where the pastor was preaching a sermon series supposedly inspired by the book. So, it was a must-read. I'm requiring it for the Winterfest course I'm teaching on the history of economic and financial thought.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. Namely because I'd bet that someone has some good arguments to oppose Stark. But the book is an easy read and is quite entertaining and informative. I am humbled by how much I learned from it.

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