Bono on Capitalism with a Conscience
Like any powerful force—sex, religion, food—business must be bounded by morality and virtue—capitalism with a conscience.
In June, U2 frontman Bono made ripples across evangelical America with an interview with Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly. In the interview, Bono affirmed his Christian faith, reciting a stream of biblical quotes along with his own commentary and applications to daily life. At one point, he clearly stated, “I believe that Jesus was the Son of God.”
And still, the internet lit up with a debate about just what kind of Christian Bono is. Google “Is Bono a Christian?” and you’ll wade right into the debate. I’ve been convinced for years, based on U2’s lyrics as well as Bono’s actions to love his neighbor at a global level, of his genuine faith.
His public affirmation of the Christian faith positively impacts our culture. Another of his views—on the welcome role of capitalism as a solution to global ills—is lesser-known but will have a greater impact on youth culture than this Focus on the Family interview.
Bono has been lauded for years by justice-minded people for using his and U2’s platform to advance worthy causes. If you’ve ever been to a U2 concert, you’ve seen pitches for human rights, foreign aid, health emergencies, transfer of wealth, and an end to war. On the other hand, Bono has been criticized by economic conservatives who have perceived him, more or less, as a socialist proponent of wealth redistribution. A case in point is Marian Tupy, who writes at the Cato Institute blog, “For years, Bono has been something of a pain, banging on about the need for billions of dollars in Western foreign aid….”
The world has taken notice that Bono has adjusted his economic tune. In a November 2012 speech at Georgetown University, Bono said, “Aid is just a stopgap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.” One month earlier, Bono had shared at a tech conference in Ireland that he was humbled to realize the importance of capitalism and entrepreneurship in philanthropy.
These recent declarations, however, have been brewing for a few years. A 2010 New York Times op-ed by Bono notes how “lefty campaigners” and business elites are learning to collaborate: “The energy of these opposing groups is coming together [because both] see poor governance as the biggest obstacle they face.”
Bono’s affirmation—that business takes more people out of poverty than aid—should be a rallying cry for a new generation.
If you desire to help as many people out of poverty as possible, consider the evidence that entrepreneurship and capitalism are the routes for the greatest impact. Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz at the Brookings Institution noted in a 2011 paper that economic growth in countries with large poor populations (China, India, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Vietnam) helped cut the number of poor people in the world by nearly half a billion.
Microfinance, while empowering individuals and capturing the imagination of many emerging justice activists, has little impact on large global numbers. Michael Strong at the Carnegie Council says that leading economists assess microfinance’s contribution to economic growth as “not much.” Strong also notes that “one of the great ironies of global approaches to poverty alleviation is the ambivalent role toward capitalism among many of those—including NGOs—who seek to alleviate poverty.”
I know where the ambivalence comes from. We who consider ourselves justice advocates do not subscribe to a single bottom line, the financial bottom line. We desire a multiple bottom line, one that acknowledges people, purpose, and planet alongside profit as vital components to the “life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:19).
Two examples of this multiple bottom line are Dignity Coconut in the Philippines and Broetje Orchards in Washington. Dignity Coconut operates a coconut processing plant in Cagmanaba Barangay that produces virgin coconut oil and coconut shell powder for global markets. Their quadruple bottom line emphasizes shared profit, community transformation, spiritual formation, and environmental stewardship. At Broetje Orchards, one of the largest privately-owned apple farms in America, more than a thousand employees benefit from a quadruple bottom line of people, planet, profit, and purpose. A number of the employees participate as de facto program officers in the company’s philanthropic decision-making.
“Job creators and innovators are the key, and aid is just a bridge,” says Bono. I agree. From my years leading an inner-city ministry in California, I know the difference between relief and development. Relief is a man taking home bread from the food pantry, so his family eats that night. Development is that man earning a paycheck at a sustainable job—a job sustained by sales of products and services that people want, not by a grant that runs out after a period of time.
Like any powerful force—sex, religion, food—business must be bounded by morality and virtue—capitalism with a conscience. Any force outside the moral strictures of Scripture will go astray. That’s why approaches such as the multiple bottom line, approaches that foster accountability, should be embraced by young people worldwide who seek to end poverty.
I think Bono would agree.
This article appeared originally in PRISM Magazine in 2013.