How Puritans Became Capitalists

In his book, Heavenly Merchandize, Mark Valeri, professor of church history at Union Presbyterian Seminary, finds that the American economy as we know it emerged from a series of important shifts in the views of Puritan ministers:

IDEAS: You’re saying that the market didn’t rise at the expense of religion, but was enabled by it?

VALERI: You need to have a change in your basic understanding of how or where God works in the world before you can envision different economic behaviors as morally sufferable. These religious changes come first. The market–networks of exchange, converging prices, things being adjudicated in courts–is not put in place in North America until the 1740s,1750s. The religious changes come before that. They’re integral to it.

IDEAS: Your book comes out at an interesting moment for America’s relationship with free-market economics–to a lot of people, it looks like everyone in the financial markets has been behaving in defiance of the broader interests of the society.

VALERI: I asked a hedge fund manager I know if he had said to the traders described in [Michael Lewis’s] ”The Big Short,” ”What you’re doing will result in huge financial calamity, unemployment, people losing their homes–isn’t that socially irresponsible?”, what would they have said? He said, ”Their response would be, ’that doesn’t matter, that’s not my concern. My job is to make as much money as I possibly can.’”

My book shows the people who built the capitalist system did not think like that. The people who built the market economy had a whole cluster of deep collective loyalties and moral convictions.

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