On March 4, 2014, Forbes.com Op/Ed section published an address delivered by author, philosopher, and theologian Michael Novak at the Catholic University of America on January 14, on the first anniversary of the university’s School of Business and Economics.
Now there’s some controversial words in there, but whatever you think of Novak’s arguments of building businesses as a necessary bulwark against the leviathan of the state, there’s some incredibly important thoughts here, and its an important contribution to the ongoing and growing conversation about the role of Christians developing and utilizing small businesses and entrepreneurship in the fight against global poverty.
For example, Novak writes:
“There is a whole world of economic activity to be built. It is the role of entrepreneurs to bring to these vast possibilities down-to-earth imagination and practical experience in producing success. There are fortunes to be made in the poor regions of the world, whose worth can be used for ever more investment, donations to cultural institutions, and help for many different branches of civil society, including local groups.
Think what a great vocation it would be to place oneself in solidarity with the poor of the world by setting up networks of assistance to small business formations in this or that poor country or region, in order to help lift its peoples from unemployment and its resulting poverty. Such poor persons need small amounts of start-up money, technical and practical support, instruction in many bookkeeping or other business skills, and links to the wider world. What a great work a new generation of young Americans could produce, speeding up the move of the last billion human beings to break free from poverty.”
President of the Institute on Religion & Democracy Mark Tooley weighed in on the blog Juicy Ecumenism saying that:
“Creating new businesses is a Christian moral imperative…. Only business can meaningfully alleviate poverty, fund charity, and sustain liberty. Why aren’t more Christians speaking of business and economic expansion as central to true social justice?”
And Christians are pursuing Christ-driven justice in this manner worldwide (and should more!) – starting bakeries and factories in the slums of India to employ women trapped in the sex trade, exporting goods and training disenfranchised women with solid business skills in East Africa. These are sustainable and holistically transformative solutions.
That said, human brokenness in business must be acknowledged just as much as brokenness of states. As much as, as Tooley and Novak argue, “business must stand as a bulwark against the leviathan of the state,” so a bulwark must also be erected against the leviathan of business and the yet fiercer leviathan of greed within the human heart. Free enterprise, rightly construed and executed in the manner spoken of by the authors, has enormous potential to break chains and lift individuals and community out of poverty, but the pursuit of wealth also has the potential to trample the weak and to be abused. Given the burden of history (particularly when we’re talking about Western economic interests in the developing world), perhaps Christians ought to be talking not only about increasing businesses and entrepreneurship, but also pursuing justice through checks and balances on freedom in supply chains, opting for fair trade (or beyond fair trade) and fair wage options, and redeeming businesses new and old.