Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Knopf. Jan. 2021. 544p. ISBN 9780593317983. $35. ECON
Capitalism is well entrenched in the American ethos, explains Friedman (William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy, Harvard Univ.) in his latest work. Here, Friedman uncovers what exactly contributes to many Americans’ beliefs in the primacy and efficacy of a free market economy. While the author notes that the concept of religious views informing economic beliefs has been explored before, he interprets matters in a new light. Beginning with the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, he traces the shift in thinking away from predestination, where human agency is futile, toward a belief in human potential, where self-improvement is possible and desirable. Friedman maintains that, regardless of people’s current religious views, their economic notions are the product of the religious debates of the Enlightenment era, which still undergird modern economic thought. He concludes by stating that many Americans who would benefit least from a free market economic system, free from government intervention, are among its greatest adherents.
VERDICT Friedman has made an important contribution to the literature on the intertwining of Western economic thought with religious beliefs. His detailed tracing of the philosophical and theological roots of free market economics is well researched, well written, and well worth reading.
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