Art Carden  

By Request: Economics and Christianity

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Commenter dullgeek offers the following request, which I'll quote in its entirety:

CS Lewis wrote the following in The Screwtape Letters:

"Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology..."

This was Screwtape informing Wormwood on how to keep his "client" from Christianity. And it's always stuck with me.

Meanwhile you are (I believe) both a Christian and an economist. As a fellow Christian, who happens to be fascinated by economics, do you have any idea what Lewis was getting at there? Why would economics be a subject more likely to lead one away from Christianity than towards it? I've always just assumed that Lewis poorly understood economics. For me, economics is about the seen and the unseen (Bastiat), or the hidden side of everything (Dubner & Levitt).

So I guess my topic request is less about Lewis' unexpected dismisal of economics and more about how economics and Christianity intersect for you. How informative can the study of economics be for Christianity? Is your understanding of economics informed by your Christianity? Do those two things intersect seemlessly or with intellectual patchwork?

I'm a huge fan of Lewis, and I think here he's saying that as economics and sociology deal more with the material and mundane conditions of day-to-day life, they are less likely to bring people in contact with the transcendent, with "realities [we] can't touch and see." Chesterton was right that we perish for lack of wonder rather than lack of wonders. Markets and social order are so much a part of day-to-day life that we really don't step back and think about just how awesome and interesting they are. I suspect that many people still believe (with Lenin, though they might be repulsed at the idea) that running an economic system isn't much more than a matter of bookkeeping and arithmetic.

I'll offer here another idea, though I'm not sure this is what Lewis meant. Economics (particularly during Lewis's lifetime) and sociology have a tendency to flatter the (fatal) conceit of Adam Smith's "Man of System." It offers us the illusion of superiority and control. I've thought a lot recently about Milton Friedman's claim that "(u)nderlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself." We're here, in other words, to be ruled (having watched Guardians of the Galaxy on Wednesday and The Avengers Thursday night for the first time, this is a really interesting thing to be considering). It doesn't have to be pernicious: witness, for example, the economists' implicit assumption in much of our work that we are disinterested technocrats advising benevolent autocrats. It's a perspective that doesn't take James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock seriously, and as William Easterly has argued in his books and papers on development and aid, it is a perspective that has had disastrous consequences for the least of these among us.

Is economics informative for the study of Christianity, and vice versa? Yes and yes. First, well-intentioned but thoughtlessly-implemented charitable endeavors are among modernity's tragedies. My colleague Jeremy Thornton directs our Social Entrepreneurship program and has written a lot of papers about the economics of the nonprofit sector, and his work gives me hope that in coming years we will start to see much more economically-literate charity.

Is Christianity useful for the study of economics? Again, I think the answer is "yes." I agree with Mises and others that economics as such is not an ethical discipline in that it cannot tell us what values to have, but it is a discipline that is constantly mixed with ethical issues. As economics is about the logic of action and the institutions of exchange, we would do well to consider the ethical assumptions embedded in those institutions of exchange. There are implicit assumptions about property rights embedded in exchange; specifically, the right of one potential trading partner to refuse an offer. I think this raises very important questions about why we should countenance others' refusal in the first place.

This raises a final question I've been considering for some time, too. Consider the rhetoric of public policy and ask how often you hear someone ask "should we allow people to [use drugs/sell sex/whatever]?" I wonder where we get the right to do the allowing, or where we get the presumption that something must be allowed by a human authority in order to be legitimate or acceptable.

I plan to say much more about this over my career. At this point, I have far more questions than I have answers. That, I suspect, is as it should be.

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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:

I've always felt this quote of Lewis's clearly expressed a libertarian, or at least anti-Big Government sentiment:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Not that I think there isn't some reason for tension between religious belief and economics or libertarianism. It's not irreconcilable but it's there.

As for the quote in particular, it's worth remembering that Screwtape's advice doesn't ultimately work. Being a demon, Screwtape certainly thinks he knows how to lead people to damnation, and part of the point of the Screwtape letters is that Screwtape has some clue what he's talking about (and thus, he is meant to make it clear to us exactly what evil is) but if he were completely right, Wormwood would have succeeded in damning the Patient.

As a last aside, some recommendations for readers unfamiliar with the Screwtape Letters: Letter XXVII is a critique of Historicism, which may be of great interest. The later, "sequel" essay Screwtape Proposes A Toast, is a critique, although not of public education per se, of certain problems with it we know to be endemic. It's also probably one of the most political of Lewis's works.

JKB writes:

I ran across this observation in an article in a late 19th century Scribner's magazine that opened my eyes to the socialist nature of Christianity. Also, that the argument isn't between socialism and something else but rather how much socialism we shall have and retain our freedoms, especially to choose.

Christianity, as a late writer has pointed out in words well chosen,* is the only system of socialism which commends it self as having a rational basis, and its founder the most practical teacher of it that the world has ever seen. " The aim of all socialism is the securing of equality in the social condition of mankind, and if equality is to be secured at all it will be secured only by changing the hearts of men, and never by setting to work, in the first instance, upon the conditions." But the present impulse of socialism is not Christian, but rather one willing to put an end to Christianity. And it is a system of machinery, like the kingdom of a tyrant, not of souls, like that of Christ. Now the Christian system did not rest on force at all. It was communistic, but not socialistic, as the word is properly used; for its very essence was the freedom of the individual will.

* Socialism and Legislation, Westminster Review, January, 1886.

The article itself, a bit anachronistic in some arguments for today, such as opposition to the easy divorce laws in 1880s US, does come to a conclusion that I can't refute, nor do I see hope of salvaging all of the three interlinked institutions and therefore fear all may fall.

Therefore, without prejudice against any one proposed reform, it is impossible not to end, if not with the deduction, at least with the suggestion - that (for some reason which we will not now attempt to fathom) the three institutions - of private property, of marriage, and of personal liberty from State control - are so inseparably bound together that neither one may fall without the other two.

And here is an informative quote from the Socialism and Legislation article referenced above:

Liberty is, and always has been, the cry of the capable, the clever, the brave, of the men who were destined to be prosperous. Equality is the demand of the ignorant, the incapable, the foolish, and the cowardly. Those who cannot deal with the conditions of the times so as to raise themselves above their fellows, desire, and naturally desire, to have the conditions of the time shaped and modified to their incapacities. p30-31
Nathan W writes:

My main concern about the confluence of economics and Christianity flows from interpretations of John Locke that may very well have led him to retract some of his main works had he known what ideological ends his worked would be appropriated for. Namely, that if someone else is making less productive use of something than you think you can, or you think should be made of this resource/asset at the present moment, then there is a divine responsibility, say, to colonize Africa and take all the land from the indigenous peoples of the Americas (but not, say, teaching them about those alternative ways of working the land, etc).

This connection is readily acknowledged among historians familiar with his works and the role of his philosophical works both as a matter of history and as a matter of the development of political philosophy, and is reputed to have been a key contributor influencing the political and social thought which underlies the American constitution.

As a result, instructors of his famous book may do well to introduce his "Letters on Toleration" which argue that it is inherently wrong to try to force someone else to accept your vision of what leads to heaven and hell, because this may precisely lead to hell for that second person according to their ethical system. For example, Protestants who believed that reciting your praises one way could lead to heaven and another to hell, whereas the opposing theological perspective preached (to say the least) an strictly opposed alternative vision. The context was a period of revolution and religious war where English kings sought to free themselves from the religious authority of the Vatican.

When you look to the key directives of Christianity, there is ample room for analysis where economists can demonstrate that various forms of charity and public sector activity can effectively free people by enabling them to pursue and achieve diverse opportunities by accessing things like credit (not usurous, of course), education, social networks (and here a good number of Christians would do well to ask themselves how relatively willing they are to recommend an equally qualified Christian and non-Christian), etc. Unless you focus on the story of the talents and then berate the heck out of anyone who ever failed to make a mint with an opportunity, or the claim that "God helps those who help themselves", then most right wing policy is essentially strongly in contradiction with key teachings from the stories and lessons of Jesus, and focuses quite heavily on the sorts of puritanship that characterized the Pharisees from whom Jesus sought spiritual freedom.

Economics provides analytical tools which can plaster up the above arguments to high heaven with regard to the general abuse of economic analytical tools by modern-day Pharisees.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

I cant think of anything Art says here that I disagree with, yet for some reason I'm not fully comfortable with it.

Partly that's because I'm not a Christian, but also it's because he could have replaced the word "Christianity" with almost anything -- "Judaism," "Stoicism," "secular humanism," -- and the whole passage would still be true.

I would say that economics is informative for ethics and vice versa, and that Christianity is also informative for ethics and vice versa, but not that economics is directly informative for Christianity and vice versa.

A question for Art: is there any clear relationship between economics and Christianity that is not mediated through their relationship with ethics per se? What about the historical Jesus and economics? The Holy Trinity and economics? Textual criticism of Christian texts, and economics? Institutional Christianity and economics?

(I recall reading a paper last year about the Vatican's process for selecting a new Pope. The author used extremely difficult to find data on the "votes" for some papal candidates, in one "election," to show that the process looks an awful lot like what you see in a multi-party parliamentary election, I.e. you can see "strategic behavior" in the way the votes changed between rounds of voting. It was notable for critics of the Catholic church because it suggested a "non-divine," or at least significantly "human," papal selection process, not exactly the same kind of divine inspiration that some Catholics might expect. That is an example of political science, not economics, saying something interesting and important about the way the Catholic Church might be operating, though the author used similar methods as an economist would. I'm asking about connections to economics like that -- the specifically Christian, or in this case Catholic, kind, not the generically ethical kind.)

Pajser writes:

Jesus's second command "love your neighbors like you love yourself" is not compatible with capitalism.

And where we get the right to do allowing? It is property right, i.e. landlord's right to make rules on its land.

dullgeek writes:

Thank you. I look forward to continuing to what else you have to say.

Tom writes:


Thanks for this post. As a fellow Christian economist I appreciated what you had to say. I also really enjoyed your last two posts on big box retailers, and for my money they are your best posts on EconLog.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

where we get the presumption that something must be allowed by a human authority in order to be legitimate or acceptable.

The fatal weakness of economics--lack of understanding of the political nature of man
whereby mankind is organized into particular, self-ruling morally authoritative units that we call nations.

Phil writes:
Consider the rhetoric of public policy and ask how often you hear someone ask "should we allow people to [use drugs/sell sex/whatever]?" I wonder where we get the right to do the allowing, or where we get the presumption that something must be allowed by a human authority in order to be legitimate or acceptable.

The right to do the allowing stems from the fact the behaviors are currently disallowed. For example, the policy issue regarding drugs is often one of choosing between restricted use, decriminalization, or legalization. All of which would allow to varying degrees behaviors that are currently disallowed. Rather than ask whether government is empowered to allow -- clearly it is because it assumed the power to disallow and the citizens accepted that as legitimate -- the better question is whether the disallowing was appropriate in the first place.

Tom West writes:

is there any clear relationship between economics and Christianity that is not mediated through their relationship with ethics per se?

Ooh. Great question. I'm sorry to see Art leave without addressing it. I'm really curious as to the answer.

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