Is greed ever good? Is Bono right? Is Wal-Mart evil? Does globalization exploit the poor? Are immigrants taking our jobs? Is capitalism ruining the environment? Charles North and Bob Smietana take on these and other questions in their book Good Intentions: Nine Hot-Button Issues Viewed Through the Lens of Faith. North is an associate professor of economics at Baylor University and Smietana is a correspondent for Religion News Service.
The book opens with stories about the corporate histories of Krispy Kreme Donuts and VeggieTales, highlighting how people with great ideas and good intentions failed to adequately anticipate the economic consequences of their actions. The authors write:
Why aren’t good intentions enough? Because we live in a world of scarcity, a world where we can’t get everything we want for free. (16)
North and Smietana believe all material goods, including food, are Gods provision for all humankind. The goal of Christian economics is to figure out how to get goods into the hands of as many people as possible. That isn’t easy but they see this as a guiding biblical principle that is joined by other principles.
- Everyone deserves a fair shake.
- Everyone works.
- God wants people to prosper – to able to make a living.
- Some people, for a number of reasons, will fall behind and lose the means to make a living.
- God wants those people to be restored so they have access to the means to make a living. (20-21)
With that said, the opening chapter highlights how European employment protection laws, enacted by well intentioned people, have had significant negative consequences for society. I particularly loved this passage:
Good intentions do not assure good results, and they can at times lead to policies with perverse unintended consequences. As in the rest of life, the road to economic hell is often paved with good intentions.
In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis’s imaginary senior devil gives his nephew advice on how to confuse human beings and lead them to making poor choices.
“The Enemy loves platitudes,” Screwtape writes. “Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.” (24)
With that introduction, North and Smietana launch into the questions I listed at the beginning.
One of the themes that pervades the book is the centrality of human capital. Human capital is not only about having the physical wherewithal to function on a daily basis but having the intangible skills, abilities, and spiritual resources that allow a person to be a creative and productive member of society. For many years I’ve believed the nurturance of human capital should be the focal point of societal transformation and the authors do I fine job illustrating the importance of this throughout the book.
This book is a real gem. It gives a balanced and nuanced exploration of some hot-button issues written in non-polemic easily accessible style. I think this book would work very well for a discussion group and there are resources for just such a thing at the Good Intentions website. I highly recommend this book.