God or Mammon?

Review: Harvey Cox, 'The Market as God'

'Expulsion of the Money-Changers From the Temple' by Giotto

While reading Money, the novel by his son Martin, Kingsley Amis suddenly reached a point where he could no longer continue. When Martin wrote himself into the novel—via a character named Martin Amis—Kingsley threw the book across the room. "He wasn't having any of that," Martin recounted in an interview. "No buggering around with the reader."

I had a similar urge about halfway through Harvey Cox's The Market as God. In a discussion comparing Adam Smith to Christian saints, Cox asks whether the free market has performed any miracles. He notes that postwar Germany had an economic miracle of sorts, but only in the capitalist West. Some people, he writes, "attributed the miracle to the faithful application of free market principles, and liked to contrast West Germany's recovery with the very different experience of the command economy of East Germany." Cox continues:

But skeptics immediately retorted that such pious embellishment was misplaced. There were other reasons . . . why West Germany had recovered so quickly. First, there was the Marshall Plan, a massive infusion of funds into Europe to allow for the purchase of equipment. There was also the onset of the Cold War in which the United States enlisted West Germany as an ally and stationed thousands of troops there. East Germany . . . did not have any such sources of revenue.

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This passage is breathtaking in its ignorance of history and denial of human agency. America offered Marshall Plan aid to the Soviets and their client states, but they rejected it. Speaking of the "onset of the Cold War" as if it were some impersonal force absolves the Soviets of responsibility for initiating it. And the American troops stationed in West Germany were placed there to protect our ally from the equally large complement of Soviet troops barracked in the East.

Similar lapses occur throughout The Market as God. This is a shame, because Cox is an engaging and accessible writer. But he better expressed the thesis of The Market as God in the 1999 Atlantic article of which the book is an extension.

Cox, a renowned professor of divinity at Harvard, argues that belief in free markets has become an "ersatz religion." The faith has a "grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things go wrong, and how to put them right." It has its own evangelists (respected economists and business leaders), heretics (gold bugs and socialists), and liturgical calendar (marked by Fed meetings and corporate earnings reports). And it has permeated our broader culture through our language and the way we view our relationships with others. Adherents of the market religion seek to commodify every aspect of our lives—to make the sacred profane and the sublime quotidian.

The way to stop this dangerous process, Cox argues, is to demystify the market and show that it is just another human creation, not a supernatural force. We can then "return [to] an era when philosophers, theologians, and moralists worked with" economists to "apply their collective wisdom to the most urgent issues of our era."

This all sounds intriguing. But Cox’s effort goes off the rails almost immediately after the introduction. By necessity, The Market as God has to include discussion of the market. Cox, however, seems to know very little about it. His ignorance is a constant throughout the book, and takes many forms.

Frequently, Cox will include only one viewpoint on a given topic. So, Thomas Piketty's arguments on the perils of income inequality are accepted largely without question, as are Murray Rothbard's (!) claims that Adam Smith was a fraud and plagiarist. In other cases, Cox raises doubts about issues that are actually quite clear. In a discussion on finance, he wonders if General Electric's decision to spin off part of its finance unit was caused by rising industrial profits; actually, GE chose to do so to avoid regulation under the Dodd-Frank Act. And occasionally, Cox is simply wrong. Corporations, which used to be authorized by enabling laws passed by state legislatures, did not become easier to charter because they conned the government into reducing regulation. The American people demanded that state legislatures get out of the chartering business to prevent wealthy interests (i.e., existing businesses) from using their power to stifle competition.

That's just a sample—similar omissions and mistakes occur throughout The Market as God. Their prevalence poisons Cox's relationship with the reader. If the economic bits are wrong, it's reasonable to wonder if the parts that aren’t about the market are also incomplete or inaccurate.

Likewise, Cox's discussion of the market economy's development in medieval Europe leaves out its interaction with philosophy and politics. His analysis rightly begins with the Church, as trade and basic finance grew up at gathering points—cathedrals and pilgrimage routes—selected by prelates. But the market's ascendance was linked not just with the Church. It also was connected with the emergence of modern philosophy and political liberalism.

These three forces—and the individuals they empowered—undermined the Church's intellectual authority and dramatically reshaped the social and political order of every Western nation. In the process, economic output expanded dramatically, raising millions of Europeans (and eventually Americans) from poverty and allowing them to pursue new activities and professions. This classical liberalism remains the basis of many Western societies today.

Cox never really tells this story, nor does he fully acknowledge the great material benefits the market economy provides. Perhaps that is because he isn't entirely happy at how classical liberalism has transformed the West. The Market as God has a number of admiring lines about medieval society. Unlike us, with our belief in individuality, medieval Westerners were "shaped by a universal faith" and saw themselves as integral parts of a corporate whole. Cox suggests that market liberalism, with its grubby focus on material goods and individual fulfillment, shattered this neat philosophic unity.

This is a familiar refrain—Marx and Nietzsche, in their own ways, said much the same. It also happens to be nonsense. Medieval life may have been nice and spiritually whole for the tiny caste of noblemen and priests who had time to think about such things. But it is presumptuous to assume the vast majority of medieval people had good feelings about a society that kept them impoverished and denied them meaningful political rights.

Cox's issues with market liberalism are heightened by the fact that he believes its methods and mores are close to achieving supremacy. Pope Francis, who Cox quotes extensively, is presented as a lonely dissenter in a world filled with free-market triumphalists. Here, The Market as God sounds like Francis Fukuyama circa 1992.

But it is 2016. Far from being triumphant, free marketeers and the liberalism they represent are under attack from forces far more powerful than Pope Francis. Nationalist movements—which explicitly resist market forces—are gaining support in America, Britain, France, and Germany. And the West is currently engaged in an ideological struggle with Islamism, which takes a very dim view of both a free economy and a free political space.

These anti-market movements receive almost no attention in The Market as God. The end result is bizarre—in a book meant to debunk the market’s supposedly supernatural qualities, Cox seems to have bought into the myth of its omnipotence.

The Market as God's failings, however, don't discredit the observations Cox makes at its beginning. The commercialization of ever more aspects of daily life and the growing influence of economics in unrelated disciplines are real, and deserve to be criticized. But The Market as God doesn't provide the brief for doing so.