The question of why so many Jews have been so good at making money is a touchy one. For hundreds of years, it has been fraught with suspicion, denial, resentment, guilt, self-hatred and violence. No wonder Jews and gentiles alike are so uncomfortable confronting Jewish capitalistic competence. Still, in his slim essay collection “Capitalism and the Jews,” Jerry Z. Muller presents a provocative and accessible survey of how Jewish culture and historical accident ripened Jews for commercial success and why that success has earned them so much misfortune.
As Europe’s official moneylenders, Jews became both necessary and despised. The exorbitant interest rates they charged — sometimes as high as 60 percent — only fed the fury. But considering the economic climate, such rates probably made good business sense: capital was scarce, and lenders frequently risked having their debtors’ obligations canceled or their own assets arbitrarily seized by the crown.
This early, semi-exclusive exposure to finance, coupled with a culture that valued literacy, abstract thinking, trade and specialization (the Babylonian Talmud amazingly presaged Adam Smith’s paradigmatic pin factory), gave Jews the human capital necessary to succeed in modern capitalism. It also helped that Judaism, unlike many strains of Christianity, did not consider poverty particularly ennobling.
Most of Muller’s strongest arguments are in his first essay, which draws on everyone from Voltaire to Osama bin Laden to illustrate how the world came to conflate the negative stereotypes of Jews with those of capitalism’s excesses. The book’s remaining three essays deal somewhat unevenly with the fallout of the Jews’ economic success, and in particular the resentment it inspired among history’s economic also-rans. Muller explores, for example, how Jews improbably became associated with both abhorred poles of political economy: hypercapitalism and Communism.
This seems like a lot of heavily trodden ground. None of what appears in this review is a revelation. But I’m curious to see how Muller deals with this touchy subject—and why his publisher thought this was a book worth printing now.