Sharks, Stools, and Secularism

  What would it take to prevent another Enron? Experts in business ethics gathered at Rice University last week to work on an answer. Rice professor Duane Windsor suggested that what's needed is "more fear of a loss of reputation." Well, the schools will be asking these questions for years: How could the auditors be so negligent? What new regulations are needed? What would be the effect of an environment of fear? But in my view, the most crucial question is one secular observers and business school seminars may be unwilling to ask: Has value-free post-modernity -- the fruit of modern secularism -- undermined the moral foundation essential for democratic capitalism? As theologian Michael Novak argues, western liberal democracy is like a three-legged stool. One leg, political freedom; the second, economic freedom; the third, moral responsibility. Weaken any leg -- the stool topples. Enron's collapse exposes a decayed third leg -- moral responsibility. Now mind you, Enron's leaders were the best and the brightest, pillars of the community. Enron's chairman, Kenneth Lay, boasted he hired only graduates of the top business schools. What Enron's collapse exposes is the glaring failure of these business schools. Ethics, you see, historically rests on absolute truth, which our top schools have systematically assaulted for four decades. And business school graduates leave the schools, as I discovered when I lectured at Harvard Business School ten years ago, without a clue about ethics. But the Enron debacle does offer a good chance for Christians to contend for the Biblical worldview in the economic marketplace. The Scriptures endorse concepts like private property, contract rights, and the discharge of debts -- all essential to free markets. The Bible also demands justice, warning of God's judgment against oppressors who withhold wages or take advantage of the needy. The Scriptural system, in short, balances the acquisition of wealth with a demand for both justice and compassion. It requires people to subordinate self-interest to moral demands. Through the centuries, Christians have fought to bring these moral demands to bear in the marketplace. For example, in nineteenth century England following rapid industrialization, conditions in the coal mines and factories were deplorable. Children as young as seven were forced to work twelve hours a day. The great Christian statesman, Lord Shaftesbury, who famously argued, "What is morally wrong cannot be politically right," led a crusade against these conditions. He exposed what poet William Blake called "the dark Satanic mills." Hammonds, the economic historian, would later write, "[Shaftesbury] did more than any other single man in English history to check the raw power of the new industrial system." The lesson of history, which our neighbors need to understand, is that capitalism is healthy only when subject to moral restraints derived ultimately from religious truth. It is these moral restraints that have been dangerously loosened, as Enron reveals. The resulting chaos can only lead to bureaucratic regulations and the loss of freedom -- unless, that is, we rebuild the third leg of Michael Novak's stool. This will require an heroic effort -- but it's one Christians are uniquely equipped to undertake.   For further reading: Kristen Hays, "Watkins says warning too late, virtually ignored," Associated Press, 1 April 2002. Os Guiness, Steering Through Chaos: Vice and Virtue in an Age of Moral Confusion (Navpress, 2000). Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, rev. (Madison Books, 2000). Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter Books, 2002).


Chuck Colson


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