Arnold Kling  

What I'm Reading

Fun With Ralph Nader... Ignoring: There Is Such...

The New Holy Wars, by Robert H. Nelson. He seeks to interpret various economic and environmental ideologies in religious terms. Some excerpts follow.

[Update: fascinating stuff in the comments section. Let me highlight a couple of links: Peter Taylor and TWV.]

p. 296:

In the broadest view, one might say that, intellectually and theologically speaking, much of American history has reflected a struggle between the pessimistic Puritan view of fallen, sinful man and the optimistic Enlightenment view of rational, utilitarian man. If the great majority of American economists have fallen on the Enlightenment and progressive side of this divide, Knight was one of the rare exceptions.

In general, his chapter on Frank Knight is among the most interesting in the book.

p. 305-306:

The basic premise of progressivism was that there must be a central coordinating intelligence for all of American society, and that it would fall to the federal government to fulfill this role.

p. 323:

Murray Rothbard was the Karl Marx of the American libertarian movement...Both heirs to the Jewish prophetic tradition, they delivered their messages in economic rather than biblical language. Rothbard, like Marx, wrote and spoke as though he was Moses handing down the Ten Commandments, seldom if ever showing a trace of doubt in his own pronouncements.

In general, I felt that I lacked a firm enough grounding in religious doctrine to be able to determine how well Nelson's assessment of the religious character of economic and environmental doctrines represents a fair treatment. My main takeaway is that one should beware of any participant in the policy debate who claims that his opponent is ultimately talking religion but he is not.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Greg Ransom writes:

Sounds like a good book.

Overall assessment? Worth a read?

Daniel Klein writes:

Great post.

I am reading Alan S. Kahan's new book: Mind Vs. Money: The War between Intellectuals and Capitalism (Transaction Publishers, 2010). The Amazon page is here:

Kahan plays up big-time how intellectuals assume the role of clerics. Likewise, of aristocrats.

One of my reservations about the book is that Kahan seems to level those two associations as unequivocal condemnations.

I think that in some respects it is natural and proper for intellectuals to assume a role like that of clerics and of aristocrats.

Les writes:

The following quote that you supplied reads:

"Murray Rothbard was the Karl Marx of the American libertarian movement...Both heirs to the Jewish prophetic tradition, they delivered their messages in economic rather than biblical language. Rothbard, like Marx, wrote and spoke as though he was Moses handing down the Ten Commandments, seldom if ever showing a trace of doubt in his own pronouncements."

This purports to be about pedigree (which seems utterly irrelevant) rather than substance (which seems utterly relevant).

It would be more than enough for me to throw out the book as worthless trash.

Peter A. Taylor writes:

Prof. Klein, I think I would be more interested in Kahan's book than in Nelson's. What do you think of it?

My thinking about "intellectuals" and "clerics" has been heavily influenced by Robert Frank's book, _Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status_. My take on the problem is called "The Market for Sanctimony, or why we need Yet Another Space Alien Cult."

Les Cargill writes:

Here's a +1 for Peter A. Taylor's "Midrash...". I
really think this should be made into a dead tree book, but I am no specialist in the field. Felt a lot like a great survey level work. I don't know enough to say why it
could not be a PhD dissertation then turned into a book. Not to be too fanboi-ish about it, I *am* a fan. The references alone are very worthwhile - I am about 1% caught up on following them, Peter, and thank you again.

If economics is the child of the Scottish Enlightenment, then that too points to a singular religious heritage - Presbyterianism. Highly rational, and invested of a system of governance which has become the model for much of the world, it casts a long shadow as an Enlightenment based system of faith (which curiously preceded the Enlightenment).

Prior to the 1960s, there was a much more willing acceptance of the dualism between faith and reason. People of my parents' generation, especially scientists, took the view espoused by Freeman Dyson - that it's not irrational to have faith. I (weakly) "blame the hippies" for this, but not in any rigorous way.
I suspect that more evangelical flavors are simply better entertainment product...

Daniel Klein writes:

Following up, I'd say, first, that what Kahan is addressing is a mother of a topic, and as a serious foray it is a must for anyone interested in the great narrative of western civilization.

But the book is a polemic -- Kahan even calls the book that -- so a lot of sweeping interpretations.

It is extremely learned, and I have learned a lot from it. It has provoked all kinds of questions and thoughts.

There are a number of things about the way it is done that I'm not happy with. But I am supposed to write a review, and should quit now ....

twv writes:

Robert H. Nelson has been beating this horse for some time. I reviewed an earlier essay into this territory:

agnostic writes:

The excerpts focus on the supply side. What does he have to say about the demand for ideas / policies on economics and environmentalism, a la Myth of the Rational Voter?

Peter A. Taylor writes:

Les Cargill: Thank you!

Daniel Klein: Thank you. I look forward to seeing your review. I see also that you and Russ Roberts have a series of podcasts on _The Theory of Moral Sentiments_. I have just started the book, and look forward to the podcasts.

Gian writes:

pessimistic Puritan view of fallen, sinful man

Why is this Puritan and not Catholic (or Christian).
Is there anything specifically Puritan about it?

Isegoria writes:

To view man as sinful and fallen is not specifically Puritan, but one can make the case that our academic clerisy descends from a Harvard-trained Puritan clergy.

But that misses the point that Harvard was taken over by Unitarians in the early 1800s, leading it to become somewhat secular and extremely progressive. After a couple hundred years of secularization and progress, what have you got? The modern academy.

GMW Wemyss writes:

In response to Gian and Isegoria, I may perhaps be permitted to note - what I think Nelson, from these excerpts, mayn't have stressed sufficiently - that, whilst all Christian orthodoxy posits the doctrine of original sin, the Puritan faction in the C of E (and outside it), following the Continental reformers, regarded man as thereby utterly corrupt and depraved, and incapable even of seeking Grace. In Professor Caplan's terms of Szaszian economics, the extreme Protestant view was that innate sinfulness was a constraint, not an extreme preference.

Now, many of the American Founders, and certainly many of the Federalists, and very much those Federalists who made union possible by bringing the southern states into the constitution, were at the least culturally Anglican. The Anglican position, as expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, articles IX and X, is that man is 'very far gone from original righteousness, and ... of his own nature inclined to evil', and 'cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God' (purportedly the RC view): sinfulness is under that view an extreme preference, not a constraint.

The consequences for the proper role of government (specially including government-as-market-regulator-and-participant) are obvious: to those whose views are inflected by Puritanism, government must act, for the subject cannot; for the American Founders, the subject - or, rather, citizen - enjoys autonomy, wilful though he may be (whence Mr Madison's 'if men were angels'), and may contract with his fellow citizens and the government they establish, so long as a constitution of checks and balances acts to prevent sinful contrariety. So far as American economic policy reflects the polity established by the Founders, well, one can make the free-market argument without my prompting, can one not.

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