Monday 6 May 2024

In Memoriam: Bob Goudzwaard, Friend of ICS

by Mark Vander Vennen

On April 20, 2024, Bob Goudzwaard, Christian economist, politician and academic scholar, died peacefully, surrounded by the love and care of his children and grandchildren. He had recently celebrated his 90th birthday. At ICS, we mourn his loss but give thanks to God for the gift of Bob—for this cherished friend whose scholarship has been so formative for ICS.

Goudzwaard was passionate about justice, sustainability, the needs of the poor, and care for people and the creation. He moved seamlessly from brilliant Scriptural exegesis to the structural roots of Western culture to complex economic arguments. He was a paragon of hope and a dear friend to many. 

Two early influences significantly shaped Goudzwaard’s future direction. He studied economics under Jan Tinbergen, the first Nobel prize-winner in economics. He also took lectures from J.P.A. Mekkes, one of the founders of reformational philosophy. From Mekkes, he learned to think “the other way around.” Rather than formulate principles and apply them to reality, Mekkes taught him to look first at reality, and then to dig deeper to find the ideological and spiritual impulses that lie structurally underneath. This approach is evident in all of the ground-breaking analyses of Western social and economic theory and practice that Goudzwaard undertook—analyses that were and continue to be far ahead of his time. 

Goudzwaard became the primary articulator of “the economy of enough.” To give a sense of how isolated this pioneering work left him, consider that in 1971, discussions took place with the Free University of Amsterdam about a professorship there. In an interview in 2023, Goudzwaard noted that the dean of the Economics Department told him that “there was opposition to me coming as a professor in the economics faculty, not for political reasons, but for academic reasons—I would confuse the students.” This was because of his insistence to link ethics to economics, and to question the drive to pursue economic growth at all costs. As a result, he was hired as an economist in the Social Faculty. “My books were not available in the Economics Faculty library.” Nevertheless, “50 years after the visit from the dean, the ideas and concepts that I defended are now broadly taken up and taught at the Free University.”   

Goudzwaard’s magisterial work, Capitalism and Progress, was published in 1976. Some of its content was developed in lectures that he delivered at ICS. In it he critiques equally capitalism and socialism as children of the Enlightenment pursuit of human progress expressed as limitless expansion in material prosperity. Each is a materialist framework. Each displays a fixation on the production side of the economy focused on government involvement in the means of production—“freedom from” for capitalism, “control over” for Marxism. By contrast, the economy of enough looks to the consumption side of the economy, to reign in the insatiable pursuit of harmful desires. Goudzwaard was not “anti-market”; instead, in an already wealthy society, he opposed a market-driven economy. He advocated a care-driven economy which uses markets, a slackening of material expansion to create growth in care for people and the environment. 

In 1977 Goudzwaard was the lead author of the election platform of the newly formed Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) political party, entitled, in a biblical reference, “Not By Bread Alone.” The CDA then became the lead partner in several successive governments. Goudzwaard was offered two cabinet positions but declined both, in part because prime minister Van Agt said he had “little affinity” for the party’s official platform.

In the early 1980s Goudzwaard, in a highly public decision, resigned from the CDA, because it approved a request from the United States government to install first-strike medium-range nuclear weapons of mass destruction on Dutch soil, aimed at the Soviet Union. Goudzwaard could not square this escalation of the Cold War nuclear arms race with his deeply held gospel convictions. He was shunned by many whom he had considered friends and colleagues; he paid a high personal price for standing by his convictions. With his integration of peace and economy (which he learned in part from Tinbergen), he continues to stand alone.

Goudzwaard was heavily involved in the ecumenical movement. He chaired large ecumenical development organizations in Holland and in Brussels. In 2004 he chaired a consultation between the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Council of Churches. Thanks in part to some churches in the UK, in 2009 his proposal to permit poor countries a modest amount of money creation to pay off debts made it to a G7 meeting but was rejected: instead the rich countries used that method to prop up their own economies. He took a lead in labour developments in The Netherlands and was heavily involved in anti-apartheid activities during the apartheid era in South Africa. His work on climate change provides a crucial dimension missing almost altogether in the current debate.

Bob was also a dear friend of ICS. He accepted an appointment as Senior Member at ICS in 1971, but had to decline because the Canadian health system could not pay for the special needs of his handicapped son, Theo. Nevertheless, as an ICS “Fellow,” he lectured often at ICS, over many years. He also served as a friend, advisor and “peacemaker” during some of the early tumultuous years at ICS. And in 2014 ICS honoured him by bestowing upon him an Honourary Doctorate degree.

All of the major newspapers in Holland carried articles profiling Goudzwaard on the occasion of his death. Capitalism and Progress is now being re-published in both Dutch and English. A new Bob Goudzwaard Foundation has been established to promote a sustainable and just economy supported by Goudzwaard’s ideas. And a biography of Goudzwaard, currently being written under the direction of the Free University, will be published in 2026.

I will conclude with Goudzwaard’s own words. In 1999 Bob gave the plenary address at an ICS family conference, delivered in the midst of the international Jubilee 2000 campaign, supported by Bono and many others, to reduce and forgive insupportable debt held by impoverished countries. In light of more recent debates about development aid, Goudzwaard’s words are, in my hearing, utterly contemporary:

Let me tell you a story. At the end of the conference in Lesotho—the ecumenical conference that dealt with the awful consequences of the ongoing debt burdens in Africa—I asked my black brothers and sisters if they could give me a message, even a one-line message, to bring back to the people and churches of the North. I will never forget their answer. They said that, poor though they were, they would never ask for more money. They used only one word. They said, “Speak about our dignity. We ask you and them to respect our dignity.”

What does such an answer mean? What are its implications? I have thought a lot about that. One of the main implications is that we should be willing to share with them access to resources, especially access to the sources of international money creation. But there is more. The reason that we do not share such access is not simply a question of a lack of good will. In fact, the reason may relate entirely to our own need for conversion, for repentance, for asking forgiveness from our debtors.

For what is dignity? Dignity implies that you do not treat the other as an object, not even as an object of your good will or your feelings of generosity. It was not until that meeting in Lesotho that I realized the degree to which that is the prevalent attitude of the North to the South. We want to be accepted and even admired by them for our desire to do good. But we become hostile as soon as they speak to us about our own evildoings, about our ways of bringing impoverishment upon them. The way in which we view poor nations and poor people is coloured much more by our own search for self-affirmation than by a desire to affirm others in their dignity.

The reality of sin therefore exists on our side—and the pain of knowing that we have sinned. And that cries out for Atonement, that undeniable part of Jubilee: Please forgive us our debts, our trespasses of not recognizing the dignity of other persons and peoples, especially if they are poor, as we have already forgiven their debts and have stopped our acts of contributing to their impoverishment. And please Lord, show us new ways of justice and compassion by which to seek to affirm others more than ourselves.” 

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Mark Vander Vennen worked with Bob Goudzwaard—closely—for 42 years, serving as his primary English-language translator, editor, and occasional co-author. He is co-author, with Goudzwaard, of Hope in Troubled Times (Foreword by Desmond Tutu) and former Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network.