A High Price for Abundant Living:
The Story of Capitalism

by Henry Rempel, Herald Press, 2003, 307 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

Having taught economics for three decades, it is obvious that Henry Rempel knows what he is talking about as he helps readers understand how the present capitalistic system works. He begins his work by discussing how the system “should” work in an ideal situation – consumers drive the system, competition eliminates inefficient producers, and one’s share of the output is tied to what one contributes. However he notes that Adam Smith’s ideals have only worked in a few countries for short periods of time. In most other cases the center-piece of capitalism – human selfishness – has in fact distorted the ideal to the point where the concept of “enough” has vanished and abundance is worshiped.

Rempel is up front with the fact that his critique of capitalism as it now functions is rooted in a faith perspective. Accordingly he suggests seven sacred values that should form a backdrop to our deliberations. 1. Human dignity. 2. Living together with others. 3. Work as a form of creative participation. 4. Sharing responsibility for ongoing creation. 5. Honoring the sabbath – the concept of enough. 6. Building community with fairness. 7. Making peace possible.

Throughout the rest of the book he describes how the present form of capitalism we live with works to undermine all seven of these values. It renames people as consumers. It deliberately seeks to create needs through advertising and control of the media. Increasingly producers shape both supply and demand, leaving consumers out of its operative equation. The “invisible hand” guiding commerce that Adam Smith envisioned has become the “visible hand” of corporations. This is the case because owners of capital collude to exploit both employees and consumers, the link between ownership and management is broken, and corporations “require” growth to make profits for shareholders.

Rempel argues that the status quo is not sustainable. It alienates workers who are detached from the finished product. It has produced an escalating environmental crisis. It is continuing to widen the gap between the rich and the poor around the world. It fosters non-productive uses of wealth such as hoarding and tax evasion. The globalism it fuels challenges the ability of nations to govern themselves. It has created a massive debt crisis that the poor of the world are asked to pay for. And in most cases the global economic institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund refuse to accept any responsibility for their collusion with multi-national corporations to create this crisis.

Rempel’s conclusion is that

The capitalistic system is like a massive 18 wheel truck barreling through history. It has an excessively powerful motor driven by the sum of all human selfishness. It has no brakes. The steering mechanism is faulty.

Yet the author remains optimistic and makes the case for acquiring a new driver of this run-away truck.

Historically churches have served to model alternatives that are both possible and socially desirable. For example, churches were a driving force that eventually gave rise to the establishment of hospitals, universities and the welfare system. They could also be the driving force to encourage their members to experiment with new institutions that build community, enhance human dignity, and develop new approaches to sustaining the environment.

This is a “must read” book for anyone trying to understand how our present economic system works and how people of faith can be the impetus for positive change.