Tag Archives: Barry Asmus

Book Review: The Poverty of the Nations

First sentence confession and disclaimer all in one; I chose to order and review this book from Crossway’s Beyond the Page blog reviewers section expecting to disagree with it. I was fairly sure that I would find myself uncomfortable with some of the conclusions of the authors but because I value listening to voices other than my own or those in my camp I resolved to challenge myself with what appeared to be some thoughtful arguments on Christianity and the value of Free Market Capitalism.

How wrong can one man be? I downloaded this book months back and despite being an avid reader I plodded through this book a few pages at a time finding any reason to read anything else but this. If I had not agreed to write this review in exchange for getting a free copy of this book I am confident I would have recycled this book months ago. Honestly I have plenty of stuff on my book shelves I don’t agree with but which pushes my thinking, challenges my assumptions and helps me organise and develop my own thinking better. But this is poorly written, filled with mad tilts at straw men and stingy representations of opposing arguments.  It almost reads like a propaganda document for the free market system rather than a well thought out and reasoned piece of writing by two well-respected professors in their fields.

I grew up in and completed ¾ of my schooling under the apartheid schooling system. As a result I am well versed in this kind of one-sided, parochial presentation of the virtues of a particular system, whilst never allowing the recipients to examine the full range of data for themselves. If you read this book with no prior thought to economics or economic systems (and I am no economist) you can only conclude that anyone who does not support the free market/ capitalistic system is a complete idiot. There is little generosity to the opinions of others; lampooning and presenting the worst or weakest side of opposing systems are common in this book. There is no concern to honestly examine the strengths of for instance democratic socialism or the very obvious weaknesses in the free market system that a growing number of reputable voices are raising. At times it felt like the book was caught in the Cold War or the Middle Ages, arguing against Soviet style communism or feudalism. Which are useful as examples but are hardly the economic questions that the majority of the books audience are wrestling with. Furthermore the almost canonisation of the Industrial Revolution and the economic growth of the Far East without so much as a footnote to the hugely destructive social issues and dehumanization arising from the triumph of greater economic growth left me cold.

Four final thoughts before this descends into the level of a rant…too late you say?

1. The book’s claim to be a Christian book is only borne up at times by an horrific use of out of context verses. A blatant desire to conflate the free market system with biblical economics is deeply disturbing. Even if you do not think the free market/capitalist system does not go against the Bible it is still a rather large leap of justificational logic to imply that it is a biblical system. The “economic system” we see in the Bible is far more nuanced than any one system, and if anything has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized rather than the increased creation of wealth for the already wealthy.

2. On that point just recently, I heard Professor Piet Naude from the University of Stellenbosch Business School suggest that we have to examine the assumption that “all the boats in the harbour” rise with the creation of wealth. The free market he said has been excellent at creating wealth but very weak in distributing it. This is not an usual insight but a widely acknowledged, contemporary challenge to the free market system. Yet Grudem and Asmus all but ignore it and write instead as if the free market is the saviour of the poor. History simply does not bear that up, even in the United States. I cannot believe the authors are unaware of this. Is their commitment to free market capitalism so deeply entrenched that they are able to simply waive this aside as a petty criticism not worth engaging in?

3. The pro-American bias of this book is hugely off-putting. God Bless America we have the worlds best economic system if only the poor Africans would listen to us. They might not have said this, but I heard it loud and clear. If I was reading a hard copy of the book rather than my kindle I would have been sorely curious to have tested the aerodynamics of this patriotic drivel at times.

4. No matter what the merits and advantages of a free market system are, and I am convinced there are many, this book sadly merely demonstrates for me the problem of allowing privileged westerners with unchallenging assumptions to write books. I have greatly benefited from many of Crossways resources but this is not one. It is poorly argued, parochial and almost without merit. The few thought-provoking moments that I did encounter in the book were so overpowered by the negatives that at 400 pages it just was not worth it.

I gave it one star on Amazon simply because there was no category for “makes excellent recycling.”