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Is There a Vocation to Business?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 07, 2007

All those who think about economics, especially businessmen, wonder at one time or another about the great rules of production and exchange. Which economic systems are capable of producing prosperity? Do such systems operate according to fixed laws or are they culturally conditioned? These questions lead to others: In what sense can or should business contribute to values which go beyond mere material wealth? Do sound business practices benefit or suffer from their exposure to sound morality? Can business contribute to overall cultural health, or is it doomed to generate a materialism and consumerism which must be checked by other forces?

To answer all these questions, John Médaille has written a most interesting book, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace. Médaille, a successful businessman who teaches in the Business Leadership program at the University of Dallas, traces the history and development of economic theory, examines the contribution of the Catholic social encyclicals, explains and critiques the evolution of contemporary capitalism, and provides both the theoretical underpinning and concrete examples for the successful “practice of justice in the modern business world.”

Approaching this book with a fairly good understanding of the social teachings of the Church and almost no understanding of economic theory, I found the text both informative and fascinating. I think the same would be true with the opposite competence or no competence at all in the subjects covered. The author has a great gift for exposing the intersection of economic theory and human values. He demonstrates again and again the unfortunate consequences of theories which depend on the wrong values, or which deny (naively) that they depend on any values at all.

Médaille ultimately demonstrates that some form of distributism (remember Chesterton and Belloc?) is essential for the proper operation of free enterprise in such a way that it actually expands prosperity, rather than progressively constricting it to a smaller and smaller group. In fact, he argues persuasively that an initial widespread distribution of ownership is necessary for capitalism to work at all. He adduces a long history and clear economic analysis to prove that the pursuit of equity in economic affairs leads directly to economic equilibrium, which is critical for human flourishing, and so should be a preeminent goal for any culture.

Students of economics should read this book as a corrective to the false claims of many theories to be scientific, immutable, and value-free. Businessmen should read it for both a better understanding of their calling and the inspiration to make important contributions to the larger culture precisely through their business activity. Professors of economics and business may well wish to make the book required reading. In fact, anyone who wonders about production, exchange and modern economic inequities will find in this book a highly intelligent treatment of how we got where we are, and what the way forward should be.

Even in the United States, the sphere of prosperity is steadily shrinking, the gap between rich and poor is widening, and the purchasing power of most citizens is artificially sustained by borrowing heavily against the future. For these reasons alone, it is none too soon to read The Vocation of Business.

[John Médaille, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace, Continuum, New York, 2007, 359 pp.]

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