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Faithful Economics: The Moral Worlds of a Neutral Science

James W. Henderson and John Pisciotta, eds
Published by Baylor University Press in 2006

There is a long tradition in the West that Intellectuals are (happily) ignorant of the “Dismal Science.” Christians, in addition, feel that they are called to avoid wealth, to repair the effects of its accumulation on the lower strata of the population and to help the successful ones to use “economics” with distant care. And, while Christians have begun to realize that marital sex will bring them closer to Christ (Ephesians 5.21–23), they have maintained their principled hostility to economics, especially in the new era of world pollution. I hope that this book review will convince Christian scholars that we economists need their help to ground modern economic theory firmly in the Christian understanding of human nature (anthropology).

The publication of Faithful Economics, a very readable booklet, provides a timely opportunity to help Christian Intellectuals familiarize themselves with this crucial social science. The booklet presents papers delivered at the plenary sessions of the Conference on Christianity and Economics held at Baylor University in November 2002. More theoretical papers presented at the seminars of the Conference were published in the Fall 2003 issues of Faith and Economics and of Markets and Morality. Members of the Association for Social Economics (who generally challenge the mainstream neo-classical economics) were present as well.1 Thus the Baylor meeting assembled practically all Christian economists from the U.S. and abroad for the first time in history. That it took decades to get Christian economists together to discuss the center of their thinking underlines how much their faith has become estranged from their professional world and its paradigm. That it took three years to publish the maintexts of the Conference is also quite revealing.

Excellent introductory and concluding chapters summarize the plenary presentations, which dealt with two topics: What should economists do in their academic environment and in the process of shaping public policies? What are the philosophical and theological foundations of economics?

The central concern of the Conference was the position and function of the Christian scholar in a hostile or indifferent environment. The keynote address was given by George M. Marsden, whose “outrageous idea of Christian Scholarship” can be summarized as “speakup!”2

Christian economists face more difficult surroundings than other Christian scholars, as they must make their minority voice heard in a totally non-Christian environment controlled by the dominant ideology that economics (contrary to other social sciences) is a neutral science, no different from dentistry, as Keynes once quipped. Interestingly, the organizers of the conference distantiated themselves openly from any discussion of the scientific value of this mainstream economics, (a neutral science, at best open to moral worlds, as the subtitle of the book has it). I suppose they did not want to distract the conference from enticing Christians to cry in the wilderness.

This message was underlined brilliantly by Judith Dean (“The Christian Economist as a Mainstream Scholar”) who emphasized that Christian economists must be deeply involved in economics and contribute to it, as brilliantly as possible, if they want to be actually heard by their peers. Dean used the example of the research physician: the economist needs to know his science in order to cure the diseases that his Christian background pushes him to select. Thus, Christians as economists must develop this neutral science, but as Christians, they will select their areas of research and action as well as their interpretation of the results of their scientific research. Christian scholars must not only speak up; they must also make themselves heard by speaking the language of their colleagues.

Up to this point, the outsider may well agree that these are bitterly needed points but may wonder nevertheless why intellectuals should get involved in professional arguments about improving the techniques and ethics of “dental surgeons,” to use Keynes’ quip. Is economics really a neutral science? Michael Novak, the famous conservative-classical-liberal from the American Enterprise Institute, was asked to discuss the philosophy of economics, but as Henderson recognized in the introduction, he did not delve into the basic economic paradigm, instead discussing primarily its socio-political dimensions, emphasizing the usefulness of classical liberalism (individualism and innovativeness) as the foundation of truly efficient and progressive societies and economies. He did not, however, discuss the limitations of the market system, – its excessive individualism, which the social policies of the Christian churches have sought to correct, and its tendency to concentrate economic power, which requires vigorous anti-trust policies – because this would have weakened his lifetime defense of capitalism against authoritarian regimes and against religious people berating economic endeavors. Here we touch on one nettle of the problem: how can Christians advocate both a dynamic market system (the core innovation of modernity and of the ensuing human progress) and delve into its very fundamental deficiencies?

It was Rebecca Blank, speaking as a policy-oriented economist, who pointed out the links between the Christian view of man (or anthropology) and the true efficiency of economic agents (“Market Behavior and Christian Behavior”). She noted that the basic assumption of mainstream economics was that humans are solipsistic pursuers of narrowly-defined “happiness” and that the diffusion of this view transforms mainstream economics into an instrument of the continuous degeneration of the market system, which in turn is continuously in need of more inputs of Christian behavior to develop further3.

Unfortunately David Gushee, the theologian, distracted from this issue. While emphasizing that Christ came to free us from a sick attachment to possession – selfishness, greed, hoarding and lack of generosity, which all lead to injustice – he failed to even note that rejecting this egomania leads Christians also to invest themselves in the production system. Emphasizing the need to “reject possessions beyond the basic sufficiency provided by God ”and to “wait for abundance and justice in a ‘coming great reversal,’” he amply justified Novak’s fear that religious people still oppose economics and preach quasi-ascetic happiness, confused with ecological balance, in stagnant societies.

I feel we must delve a bit further into this central issue: Gushee as a theologian should have noted that Christian must not merely abide by ethical rules but even more engage in the transformation, the salvation, of this world. Gushee, discussing “The Economic Ethics of Jesus,” noted explicitly that Jesus did not reject personal property, but he did not seem to realize that the use of this personal property is the very instrument of one’s investment in the responsibility for the development of the world, responsibility which economists call rational maximization of one’s labor and capital. Gushee also failed to link ‘trusting in the Lord’ with the capacity to go forward and entrepreneur innovations, rather than to sit back and wait in submission to pagan destiny. Thus Gushee separated his “ethics of economics” from the more fundamental, more theological, Christian economic responsibility for this world with regard to the mission to develop both self-control in our personal maximization of the means of “enjoyment” entrusted to us by the Father and confidence in the co-exchangers with whom we undertake this task by opening ourselves to these “others” in spite of the risks involved in “loving our neighbors rather than remaining (ethically) self-centered”. (In economic jargon we exchange to maximize by overcoming our innate, sinful solipsism).

Thus it is quite significant of the “spirit” of the book and the conference that Gushee’s (the only theologian’s) chapter was entitled “Ethics of Economics” rather than the “Christian Theology of Economics”. (As we will note below, the term ‘theology of economics’ was used in a completely different context.) This retreat into ethics is logical since economics is considered to be a neutral science, no different from physics. Therefore the theologian Gushee can only propose an ethic and not an anthropological view founded in faith. The truly foundational view of economics was reserved by the organizers of the Conference to another “world,” as we shall see below.

Thus the booklet failed to address squarely the Christian foundations – philosophy and theology – of economics. This was so, first, because most Christian economists (subject to the dominant ideology of a neutral science) fail to realize, as Pisciotta noted in the concluding chapter, that homo sapiens provide ultimately a more scientific basis to economics than the technical fiction of homo economicus, and second, because others (Novak) feel the need to defend the entrepreneuring market system against the sit and wait “religious” ideal of submission to “divine” destiny. Most tellingly, however, there was no awareness of the fact that increasingly, “neutral” historians see the origin of the market system in Christianity’s break with the Pagan Antiquity system of sufficiency and stagnation, a break based on the fundamental Christian belief that the sons and the daughters of the Father are entrusted with maximally developing Creation through loving exchanges, which is the ultimate basis of economics and of the market system4

This brings us to Robert Nelson’s very exciting chapter, ambiguously entitled “Theology of Economics,” as it does not discuss the “Christian theology” of economics but sees economic theory as the “theological” foundation of “Modern Religion.”5 Nelson shows how economics has become the dominant ideology of our times and the economists the academic brains of this dominant “religion.” Nelson’s chapter alone would make it worthwhile to read the booklet. His work is indeed a useful addition to the vast field of “ideology critique,” which usually limits itself to the analysis of political and cultural philosophies but rarely ventures into the core of the underlying dominant thinking of the West: neoclassical economics. J. W. Henderson has summarized the core belief of Modernity magnificently in the introductory chapter to the book: “Economics implies that society can expect sin to diminish with rising living . . . standards.”6 This point is extolled naively by Harvard Professor Benjamin Friedman’s recent 600-page book.7

As the reader of this review will have noticed, I agree fully with the title Faithful Economics but not with the subtitle Moral Worlds in a Neutral Science. I am convinced that it was, and still is, Christian faith that develops the means to achieve the objective of creation in replacing the sinful and mediocre solipsistic rationalism (which rules the world and is “theologized” by contemporary neoclassic to use Nelson’s terminology) by the dynamism of Christian entrepreneurship, thus achieving the fundamental objective of economic science: to minimize the effects of human condition (scarcity) by exchanging our contributions with each other. That this cannot be done without Christian love is the ultimate message that Christian economists have to bring to “mainstream” economics – a message that ill fits the concentration on modeling technical behavior, which is the key to a successful academic career. This explains the rise of the ideology, which has limited economics to its techniques by preventing research into its foundations by the “nature of the economic agents,” who all agree are the motor of economics.

I hope very much that Christian scholars, economists and intellectuals will congregate again to discuss the foundations of economics. Now that they know that they must speakup, and how they can make themselves be heard by their peers, they must investigate more precisely what it is they have to say as Christians.

Footnotes

  1. Faith and Economics, ssmith@Gordon.edu or Noell@westmont.edu; Markets and Morality,www.marketsandmorality.com or sgrabill@acton.org; Review of Social Economy, the Journal of the ASE,email@edmis.com or John.Marangos@colostate.edu
  2. 0George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press,1997).
  3. Rebecca Blank and William Gurn developed this approach in Is the Market Moral? A dialogue on Religion,Economics and Justice (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution and Georgetown University, 2004
  4. The older theses of Harold J. Berman, stated in Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western LegalTradition (1983) have been made more generally available by Rodney Stark’s work, of which the latest isThe History of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2006).
  5. Robert H. Nelson, Economics as Religion, from Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (State College, PA: Pennsyl-vania State University Press, 2001).
  6. James W. Henderson, “Introduction: The Christian Perspective and Economic Scholarship.”
  7. Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (New York: Knopf, 2005), 592. BenjaminFriedman is totally unaware of Nelson’s work and more generally of the discussion by historians of thedeep Christian origins of Modernity.

Francis Woehrling

Francis Woehrling, Monetary Directorate, European Commission,Brussels