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CHAPTER 6: Christian Theological Perspectives on the Economy * - Paul Heyne, “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion 
“Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion, edited and with an Introduction by Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Christian Theological Perspectives on the Economy*
The most interesting fact about Christian theological perspectives on economic systems is how many conflicting ones there are.1
I do not know why this fact disturbs so few of those theologians who continue to draft or endorse new church pronouncements on the economy. If they believe that truth is most likely to emerge from contention among many conflicting viewpoints, they ought to be concerned that so little dialogue actually occurs among those who come to flatly contradictory conclusions about the implications of the Christian faith for the ordering of economic life. Perhaps they think that the task of theological ethics is to raise consciousness, and that the mere process of producing a church pronouncement justifies itself by generating concern. The trouble with such a rationale is that it undermines its own objective by implying that theological pronouncements are not serious intellectual statements.
It is hard to account for the apparent equanimity with which so many contradictory positions, all claiming to express the Christian vision, are met by those who claim to take the Christian faith seriously. It is easier, I think, to explain how this Tower of Babel arose and why it flourishes. The confusion of tongues reflects a profound uncertainty in our culture about the status and meaning of ethical judgments.
Ethical Judgments and Moral Visions
When we put forward ethical judgments regarding the economy, most of us believe that we are making statements about the world to which our judgments apply: about the actions of the people who participate in it and the situations of those who are affected by it. We do not believe that we are merely saying something about our own inner feelings in the guise of a statement about the external world. We may agree, in the spirit of tolerance and humility, that we are only offering “our own opinion” when we claim, for example, that “current levels of unemployment are morally unacceptable”; but we mean by this that we could be wrong, not that we are merely reporting how we feel when we contemplate a 7 or a 10 percent unemployment rate.
What exactly is it, however, about which we might be wrong? Suppose we wanted to test the statement just quoted, from the second draft of the Roman Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, that “current levels of unemployment are morally unacceptable.”2 How could we do it? To what would one have to point, what arguments would one have to muster, to persuade the bishops that they are in fact quite wrong, and that current levels of unemployment are in reality altogether acceptable from a moral point of view? I do not believe that the bishops or any of the other commissions and task forces that have recently presented statements of the Christian perspective on economic life could give a satisfactory answer to that question. By this I mean that they could not give an answer that would satisfy themselves, one that they would be willing to articulate and defend.
The pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops contains a long chapter on “The Christian Vision of Economic Life.” It is in fact a hodgepodge of citations from the Bible, papal encyclicals, and other church documents, mixed with ringing assertions about dignity and justice that could only be questioned by someone who wanted to know exactly what they mean, sprinkled periodically with claims that I cannot believe the bishops intend to be taken seriously, all held together by little but a continuously earnest tone.3 The tedious length of the chapter serves to conceal these failings from all but the most patient and persistent reader. I am sure that most of those who actually tried to read the letter skimmed quickly through the rhetoric of Chapter II in order to reach Chapter III, where they could find out what the bishops actually wanted done about unemployment, poverty, farm prices, and international economic relations.4
The bishops set themselves an impossible task when they decided to construct a “moral vision” that could be used to make ethical judgments about the economy. Their vision had to be Christian, of course, and more specifically Roman Catholic, or the bishops would have had no warrant for issuing their letter. But they also wanted to enter into “a dialogue with those in a pluralistic society who, while not sharing our religious vision or heritage, voice a common concern for human dignity and human freedom.”5 Their “Christian vision” consequently had to express “universal moral principles.”6
No such vision can be constructed, least of all in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The idea of a single Christian vision on the economic order is troublesome enough. Will it be Thomist, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist, or Anglican? Which of H. Richard Niebuhr’s models for relating Christ and culture will it choose? When these questions are settled, the really serious difficulties begin. Will the universal moral principles be those of John Rawls, Robert Nozick, or Alan Gewirth? Or will they be the principles of those who say there are no universal principles, either because moral principles reflect social relationships grounded in modes of production, or because moral principles are given by each community’s history, or because moral principles are in the last analysis mere statements of personal preference?
The serious question is not whether a committee of theologians can articulate a Christian vision of economic life that is also capable of commanding the assent of all those who profess to value human freedom and dignity. They obviously cannot.7 The question is rather why so many Christians persist in believing that this can be done.
Yearning for Christendom
It is probably because they believe that it ought to be done. The Christian faith makes claims about a God who created heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible. It says that this God intervened in human history in the person of one Jesus of Nazareth. It asserts that this Jesus is now Lord and that all things are eventually to become subject to him. Does it not follow inevitably that there exist moral principles that are peculiarly Christian and yet sufficiently universal that they can be used to order social structures in contemporary societies? And if they exist, is it not the obligation of faithful Christians to discover them, articulate them, and secure their acceptance?
An affirmative answer will be automatic only for someone who assumes that Christus dominus implies Christendom, so that the Lordship of Christ entails the legislation of New Testament principles—suitably modified, of course, so that they can be accepted by “those in a pluralistic society who, while not sharing our religious vision or heritage, voice a common concern for human dignity and human freedom.” In an age when professed Christians were numerous, this fallacious identification of Christianity with Christendom produced political oppression. In our age it produces vacuous political pronouncements.8
The pronouncements of church commissions and moral theologians on the economic order are not merely useless; they probably do actual harm. They encourage posturing and oversimplification and thereby tend to polarize political discourse. Who is going to listen attentively and accept instruction from a group that begins by positing its own moral superiority?9 Such claims may be essential to Christendom, but they coexist uneasily with Christianity.
Most of the religious or theological statements on economic life produced these days, especially those published by so-called “mainline” church organizations, reveal a fundamental hostility toward or at least deep suspicion of “capitalist” institutions and policies. I want to argue in this section that the hostility and suspicion are even more radical than the authors of these statements realize. They are actually rejecting the economy.
We use the term “the economy” in everyday conversation with little doubt that we know what we mean and that we’re going to be understood correctly. But economists who have thought carefully about the subject matter of their discipline, about just what it is that economists do, are aware that “the economy” is an extraordinarily elusive concept. Alfred Marshall’s famous definition of economics, in the introductory chapter of his Principles of Economics, reveals the problem.
Economies: Material Goods or Monetary Transactions?
Marshall says that economics “examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of well being.”10 In reality economics ignores the vast majority of individual and social actions that affect “the material requisites of well being,” treating them as outside its concern. Moreover, neither “material requisites” nor “well being” turns out to have an essential connection to what economists study. How did we come to accept the odd notion that “the economy” produces the material requisites of well being? Anyone today who maintains that “the economy” has some special relation to “material goods” is almost certainly identifying “material goods” with whatever “the economy” produces. The Oxford English Dictionary illustrates the confusion when it defines “economic man” as “a convenient abstraction used by some economists for one who manages his private income and expenditure strictly and consistently in accordance with his own material interests” (emphasis added).11 This is simply wrong: Homo economicus has no particular attachment to material goods.
The identification of “economic” with “material” might have made some sense in a society where daily work was predominantly directed toward the provision of food, clothing, and shelter; but it makes no sense in contemporary societies like the United States. What Marx and Engels called “the production and reproduction of life,” or what we call “making a living,” probably has more to do today with desires for entertainment and social status than with materially grounded or physiological desires.12 The question remains therefore: What do we really have in mind when we talk about “the economy”?
We move much closer to capturing what actually seems to be meant by “the economy” when we focus on the description of economics that Marshall put forward in the second chapter of his Principles. There he informs us that economics concerns itself chiefly with those activities that are directed by the desire for money, where the force of people’s motives can be approximately measured by the amount of money they will be willing to give up to obtain a satisfaction, or the sum they will insist upon as a condition for supplying a service.13 This is much more accurate. There is obviously a close connection between the use of money and what we ordinarily think of as “the economy.” “The economy” appears to be the set of social interactions in which transactions are typically carried out through the use of money. Social behavior becomes “economic activity,” part of “the economy,” when money becomes the dominant medium of social exchange.
The Emergence of Economies
The idea of “the economy” as a distinguishable sector of society is a remarkably recent notion. It is part discovery, part invention, but in either case a concept that was generally unknown prior to the nineteenth century.14 I can find no evidence in his writings that Adam Smith, for example, recognized an economy or economic order or economic system within the societies whose workings he described. Smith discerned regularities within the flux of social interactions, regularities that could to some extent be systematized and used to predict the consequences of particular policies or to explain the evolution of certain institutions. He also saw that these regularities would lead, under appropriate conditions, to the continuous expansion of a nation’s wealth, the “necessaries and conveniences” available to its population. But he never discerned an “economy,” a distinct sector or segment of society on which one might have a special moral or religious perspective.15
What eventually gave rise to the concept of “the economy” was the eighteenth-century discovery that order can emerge from the interplay of human purposes without the benefit of any controlling design or consensus. This was first discovered in a sphere where it could be most readily observed and understood: the interactions of merchants and others who exchanged with the aid of money. The social “mechanism” by means of which these activities were coordinated became, in the nineteenth century, the subject matter of a special “science,” the science of political economy, which enunciated the “laws” regulating “the economy.” “The economy” then came to mean that sphere which these “laws” controlled.
I suggest that when we speak of “the economy,” we mean that abstraction from the total social system in which the self-interested activities of individuals are coordinated through the continuous comparison of quantified value magnitudes attached to the products of these activities. Stated more simply, “the economy” is the concept (!) of a social system tied together by the processes of supply and demand, with money prices usually providing the common denominator for evaluations by the transactors—the suppliers and demanders. In “the economy,” everything of interest has a money price.
Two points should be noted. When “everything has a (money) price,” everything becomes a substitute for anything else; and this makes coordination of activities much easier than it would otherwise be. But by making everything a substitute for anything else, the system also abstracts from the personal characteristics of participating individuals, except insofar as those personal characteristics affect the monetary value of their products.
Moral Criticism of “the Economy”
Some of the common moral criticisms that have been directed against the operation of such a social system reflect misunderstanding. There is nothing inherently selfish about such a system. Self-interested actions are not necessarily selfish actions. People are simply pursuing their own projects. And a system that coordinates the initially incompatible projects of diverse individuals should be applauded, not condemned as selfish.16 It is also a mistake to speak of the processes of supply and demand that bring about this coordination as “unbridled” or “unrestrained,” for they never are. Self-interested actions within “the economy” are regulated by the prevailing laws and the accepted morality of the society, as well as by the alternatives that other actors offer.
There is, however, one important moral criticism that can legitimately be raised against “the economy”: its de-personalization of social relations. As Thomas Carlyle complained and as Marx and Engels indignantly reminded readers of The Communist Manifesto, the system established the “cash nexus” as the controlling relation between people.17 To the extent that this is a vice, “the economy” is a vicious social system; for de-personalized transactions are the essential characteristic of “the economy.” Economic criteria, which is to say, the criteria appropriate to the functioning of “the economy,” are abandoned whenever decision makers substitute “personalized” criteria for monetary advantage.
I am not making any kind of recommendation here, but only pointing something out. It is silly to say, as some have done, that business decision makers ought to pay attention exclusively to monetary magnitudes or the anticipated return on investment. Such an attitude would be impossible even if it were desirable. Remember that “the economy” is an abstraction and that it exists wherever and to the extent that exchanged goods are valued predominantly for the sake of their contribution to the magnitude of monetary values. To argue that people should be treated “as individuals, not as commodities,” amounts to arguing that particular transactions ought to be withdrawn from “the economy.” Conversely, to argue that profitability should be the criterion for managerial decisions in business corporations, rather than some alternative conception of “social responsibility,” is to argue that social transactions in a particular area ought to be governed by the principles of “the economy.” Such arguments must be settled by inquiry and good judgment.
I have said nothing up to this point about capitalism versus socialism. The silence is significant. Because I do not call myself a socialist, I am reluctant to foist any definition upon those who do. But it seems to me that the fundamental arguments on behalf of socialism are always arguments for limiting the scope of “the economy.” Marx described capitalism as a system based on “commodity relations,” and looked forward to its displacement by some other kind of system. The only alternative I can imagine is a society based on personal relations. That isn’t what Marx had in mind, of course, since that describes the kind of society displaced by capitalism in the progressive movement of history. But history has yet to reveal any third option.18 We seem to be stuck with the choice between interacting on the basis of personal criteria and interacting on the basis of impersonal criteria, and our only choice is how to mix these two modes of social cooperation.
What Are We After?
Moral theologians are strongly disposed to condemn commodity relations as morally inferior to personal relations. They should notice, when they do so, that demonetizing social relationships is not sufficient to re-personalize them; demonetization may only succeed in making social transactions less effectively cooperative and more productive of frustration and resentment.
When money prices, rather than concern for each other as persons, coordinate social transactions, social cooperation becomes possible on a far more extensive scale. Those who would like to force all social transactions into the personal mode do not realize how much of what they now take for granted would become wholly impossible in the world of their ideals. Some might argue that it would be a better world today if “the economy” had not developed to the extent that it has over the past two centuries, so that people by and large still produced food, clothing, and shelter to satisfy their own wants and the wants of those whom they know personally. I think that such a judgment reflects either ignorance or arrogance and most likely some combination of both. In any event, we cannot abolish the past two centuries or the human populations and social achievements that these centuries have brought forth, and I do not believe that any of the moral critics of “the economy” genuinely want such an outcome. They are probably assuming that we can somehow render “the economy” morally acceptable without destroying it or giving up anything of human importance that it has created for us. I would hope that this is so. But I am certain that it cannot be done along the lines suggested by so many contemporary moral and religious critics of “the economy.”19
I do not know all that Christian love requires. But if it should require that we cooperate, through an extensive division of labor, in producing for one another food, clothing, shelter, medical care, prayer books, kneeling cushions, and other such material goods—then love requires that we interact extensively with one another on the basis of impersonal, monetary criteria. If we were all god-like, both in knowledge and impartial benevolence, we could do directly and personally for one another all that love requires. It is irresponsible, however, to argue on behalf of a moral vision that denies our humanity by insisting that we be gods. Until we have transcended the human condition, we had better learn to cherish “the economy” and to nurture the conditions that are prerequisites for its successful functioning.
Economists have not been very successful in countering the moral high-mindedness that leads so many contemporary religious leaders to repudiate essential features of the economic order. A large part of the reason is that the theologians and church officials who take the lead in articulating allegedly Christian visions of economic life do not trust economists. They think economists suffer from an ideological bias that makes them ultimately unreliable.
Positive-Normative: The Fateful Distinction
A distressingly large number of economists contribute substantially to this suspicion and mistrust through their endorsement and deployment of the positive-normative distinction. They have repeatedly insisted, in situations where theologians were listening, that economics offers a body of morally neutral social knowledge to which theologians must defer because it is science. It is ironic that economists accompany this claim to possess a body of authoritative knowledge with professions of great modesty. “We know nothing,” they say, “about values and norms. These are for others to determine. We are merely humble artisans, experts on nothing except the facts.”
It is hard to imagine a more effective procedure for alienating theologians—or anyone else of sense. As economists know perfectly well, “facts” have a prestige in our society that “values” do not possess; and the claim to be a “mere” custodian of the facts is the economist’s own form of moral superiority or arrogant humility. In reality, as everyone else realizes, economists have not created a body of knowledge that is independent of all political or ethical values. Our “facts” are not “data”; they are “made,” not “given.”20 So-called factual or scientific judgments are formulated on the basis of particular preconceptions and addressed to others who appropriate them on the basis of their own preconceptions.21 Economic theory is a set of special spectacles through which economists filter experience in order to manufacture facts. If economists cannot see that they are wearing such spectacles, or cannot recognize any of the ways in which political and ethical values have ground the lenses, they had better at least recognize that many others have noticed. Moral theologians have definitely noticed.22
The positive-normative distinction took deep root in the economics profession because economists have been frustrated, almost from the birth of their discipline, by the frequency with which their views are repudiated as mere political prejudice. Economists seem to have thought that they could secure acceptance for their presentation of the facts if they surrendered all claims to be able to deduce policy proposals from those facts.23 The strategy did not work, for reasons which are not hard to appreciate. Economists obviously did and do have policy preferences, and no one who wanted to oppose those preferences was going to begin by conceding the economists’ version of the relevant facts.
This untenable and rhetorically ineffective distinction acquired new vitality from certain developments in twentieth-century philosophy. G. E. Moore’s doctrine of the “naturalistic fallacy,” the misinterpretation of Hume that yielded the dogma of the is-ought disjunction, and the various projects for achieving a definitive methodology of science all helped give new life to a distinction that many economists badly wanted to make. When these philosophical movements disintegrated under more careful criticism, economists conveniently failed to notice. As Sidney Alexander succinctly put the matter, “the economist’s calendar of philosophy lies open to the year 1936”;24 and it tells them all that they need to know in order to feel comfortable and confident about inserting the positive-normative distinction into the first chapter of their textbooks and the opening or closing paragraphs of their articles.25
One unfortunate consequence of this, as I have suggested, is that it has aggravated the mistrust of moral theologians and similarly disposed critics of economics. By claiming that their analysis is independent of all ethical or political judgments, economists have succeeded only in convincing opponents that they are naive, philistine, and possibly even dishonest. That hardly helps when economists take it upon themselves to persuade theologians that their moral critique of market relations is confused and untenable.
The Fear of Value Judgments
While economists’ claims of dominion over the realm of fact have generally not been accepted outside their own circle, their claim to know nothing at all about values has been accepted much too readily. The strange notion that economic analysis has nothing to say about the justice or equity of any economic system is in part, I suspect, the illogical corollary of the view that it speaks authoritatively about efficiency.26 But it also reflects something of the deep confusion that I mentioned earlier about the meaning of ethical judgments.
Economists cannot admit that they might be able to say something about the justice of the phenomena they study because they can’t imagine what the subject matter of such a statement might be. Although most economists, like almost everyone else, regularly use moral language to approve or condemn, they are reluctant to do so in their professional work. Professional work should be confined to scientific judgments, judgments that can be defended or attacked as true or false because they make statements about reality, statements that others can compare with reality to refute or confirm. What is the reality, however, to which ethical judgments refer?
I suggested earlier that the authors of theological pronouncements on economic life, who cannot avoid the necessity of making moral judgments, construct vague, convoluted, and incoherent patchworks of slogan and quotation to conceal from themselves and others that they do not know (literally) what they are talking about. Economists, facing no imperative to make moral judgments, stay out of that swamp. An unfortunate result is that they surrender the area to those who know far less about it.
A major part of the fear that keeps economists from discussing the morality of economic phenomena stems from the conviction, which they seem to share with most moral theologians, that a valid ethical judgment has to be deduced from “universal moral principles.” But that isn’t so, as we discover if we pay attention to our actual practices when engaged in serious moral discussion. When I am discussing reforms in the law of tort liability over coffee with a friend or colleague, I use the language of morality without embarrassment. “It is unfair,” I say, “to impose punitive damages on a producer who could not reasonably have been expected to know the adverse consequences that followed the use of his product.” I do not worry whether the concept of fairness that I am implicitly using can be derived from some universally accepted moral principle. I am concerned only that my concept of fairness be accepted by the person to whom I am speaking. If it is, I proceed to show how and why particular practices offend against that concept. If I discover it is not accepted, I try to find out why it isn’t, and I probe for some similar or perhaps deeper concept of fairness that will be accepted by the person with whom I’m speaking, while still managing to express my own ordered judgments about fundamental fairness.27
What is the source of this disabling lust for universal moral principles? Why are economists so unwilling to make a public judgment until they have attained a god-like perspective? Is there a connection between their timidity in this area and their naive arrogance about “positive” economics? Do they suppose that their “positive science” does flow from “universal principles”? Is this all part of the pattern which includes the profession’s extraordinary devotion to formal theory and rigorous argument, even where it precludes any possibility of a contribution to public discourse?
The second section of this paper ended with a criticism of those moral theologians who despise market transactions because they want human beings to display a god-like omniscience and impartiality. This section concludes with a criticism of economists who, by a quite different route, have come to a remarkably similar conclusion: that human beings have no real authority to speak until they have transcended the human condition.
I want to return in this last section to the question of a Christian perspective on the economy. I shall assume the argument of section II and omit the quotation marks. The economy will be understood here as the whole set of impersonal, price-coordinated transactions in which the members of a society engage.
The New Testament Perspective
Any perspective held by a Christian could properly be called a Christian perspective. I am now searching, however, for a stronger sense of the term. If this strong sense is to mean more than any perspective at all that has been maintained and argued for by a substantial number of persons calling themselves Christians, then I think we must let the New Testament record be normative. A Christian perspective on the economy, in this strong sense, would be the perspective revealed in the New Testament writings.
It follows at once that there is no Christian perspective on the economy for the same reason that there is no Christian perspective on organ transplants. The issue simply was not contemplated in the first century of the Common Era, because the economy had not yet been discovered. What we do find in the New Testament is an extraordinary disregard for almost everything in which economists are interested.
Consider the account of the church in Jerusalem immediately after Pentecost, where the nature of the first Christian community is vividly sketched in a few brief sentences:
They met constantly to hear the apostles teach, and to share the common life, to break bread, and to pray. A sense of awe was everywhere, and many marvels and signs were brought about through the apostles. All whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common: they would sell their property and possessions and make a general distribution as the need of each required. With one mind they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and, breaking bread in private houses, shared their meals with unaffected joy, as they praised God and enjoyed the favour of the whole people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those whom he was saving.28
The perspective described in these passages is one of joyful spontaneity. It is the opposite of the calculating, consequence-oriented perspective that we associate with Homo economicus. Not only do these people hold all their possessions in common, with no regard for the distinction between mine and thine; they also refuse to be concerned for the future. They liquidate their assets so that they can readily provide for anyone in need.
The reaction of the Jerusalem church to the Pentecost event appears to have been a courageous and faithful response to the proclamation of Jesus as recorded in the synoptic gospels: Take no thought for tomorrow; give to everyone who asks; do not pass judgment. Those who correctly hear what Jesus is proclaiming will be reckless of consequences in their social dealings. The underlying theme is the need to trust in God rather than possessions. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the coming kingdom, because wealth tempts its owners to place their confidence and trust in their own possessions and thus to cling to what they have rather than share it with others. Those who are anxious about food and clothing do not understand what is required for life.
This is surely not advice for the operation of any economy. It would be odd, then, if this attitude of recklessness toward personal possessions were accompanied by a concern for the reform of social systems. No such concern can in fact be found in the New Testament. All three synoptic gospels record the question directed to Jesus about the payment of taxes and his response: Hand over to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God.29 The Greek word apodote, translated render in the King James Version, conveys a sense of putting something away by surrendering control.
The Apostle Paul restates Jesus’ radical teaching of love toward one’s enemies in the 12th chapter of his letter to the Romans. Never repay evil with evil or seek revenge, he urges his readers. In the last verse of the chapter he writes: “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.” Chapter 13 then opens with the exhortation: “Let each person subordinate himself to the officers of the government.” Because government officials are God’s agents, the faithful should hand over (apodote) what is owed to such officials: obedience, respect, and taxes. Beyond this the only obligation that the faithful ought to owe is the obligation to love one another.
We encounter the same message in the other classical New Testament source for a doctrine of government, the First Letter of Peter: “Subordinate yourselves to every human institution for the sake of the Lord.” The emperor and his deputies are specifically mentioned. And Christians who happen to be house slaves are commanded to be obedient and respectful to their masters, even when those masters are perverse or unfair.30 Subordination of self to the ruling authorities is enjoined also in Titus 3:1. The Greek word in Romans, I Peter, and Titus is upotasso, which means to place oneself under, not merely to obey. The attitude of the Christian toward social institutions is to be one of dutiful acceptance and wholehearted service.
Christianity and the Ethos of Liberalism
It is quite true, of course, that the Roman empire was not a democracy and that the early Christians were in no position to influence the political institutions of their day. But it does not follow that the New Testament would have spoken in a wholly different manner had it been addressed to the members of a democratic society. To suppose that Peter and Paul would have sounded like Thomas Jefferson in an appropriate historical context is to make the very debatable assumption that the New Testament ethos is compatible with the democratic ethos. The New Testament ethos is no doubt compatible with a variety of governance mechanisms often associated with democracy, such as majority rule. But it is another question whether a successful democracy could ever have developed in a society most of whose members were committed to the ethics of the New Testament.
Those who profess allegiance today to both Christianity and democracy are eager to believe in their compatibility; but the historical record is not very supportive. Many centuries passed before democratic political institutions established themselves in any Christian nation, and then only after the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment had undermined the unity and authority of “Christian” culture. I suspect that the historical roots of democracy are to be found less in the teachings of the New Testament than in actual opposition to certain church doctrines and associated political practices. It may well be that the church doctrines against which “liberal” political thought was rebelling had distorted and even reversed the “political” teachings of the New Testament. But even if this is granted, we are a long way from establishing the fundamental compatibility of New Testament ethics and the liberal ethos that has undergirded durable democratic political institutions where they have arisen in the Western World.31
If the ethos of the New Testament is indifferent toward democracy, it is positively unfriendly, I think, toward the values, attitudes, and characteristic practices of “capitalism.” Is that sufficient to condemn capitalism for any one committed to the message of the New Testament? I don’t think so. I believe that “capitalism” is simply a pejorative synonym for “economy,” and that capitalism consequently cannot be rejected without simultaneously repudiating the basis of contemporary life. Christians who want to reject capitalism ought to know what else they are rejecting at the same time: the coordination of complex cooperative activities in the only way they can be coordinated. The cost would not be just the loss of some luxuries; it would be famine, disease, and a new dark age as the communities of science, literature, and art disintegrated right along with the institutions that provide our “necessaries and conveniences.”
State and Community
“Every state,” Aristotle says at the beginning of his Politics, “is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good.” That statement appeals strongly to moral theologians in our time, who tend to believe that the state should control or at least set bounds for the economy, that community ought to take precedence over the individual, and that a nation should be united in the pursuit of common goods. But the modern state is no polis; it cannot be a community (koinonia) of the kind that Aristotle contemplated; and the only goods that it can pursue justly and effectively will necessarily be highly general and abstract.
I am persuaded that the modern state does very well indeed if it simply manages to become a community of law, and to pursue the vision of impartiality before the law for each of its members. If it can do this at all adequately, many other communities will develop and thrive within it. If the modern state, urged on perhaps by religious visions, attempts to be a polis, it will not succeed. But it will both undermine and crush many of its citizens’ projects in the attempt.
One such project for which I am concerned is the radical koinonia of Christianity. That koinonia does not seem to prosper in ages of Christendom. I don’t find anything surprising about that, or about persistent efforts to re-create Christendom in the name of Christianity. Until I am shown otherwise, however, I will continue to maintain that these efforts reflect both a misunderstanding of the New Testament and an ignorance of economics.
[* ] Reprinted from This World 20 (Winter 1988): 26-39, by permission of the publisher and Mrs. Juliana Heyne.
[1. ] A single illustration may be more effective than an attempt at documentation. Between January 1983 and October 1985, four vastly different visions of the economic order were published, all by committees of eminent Roman Catholics in North America: The Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis (Ottawa, January 5, 1983); Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, Toward the Future (New York, 1984); U.S. Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, First Draft: Pastoral Letter (Washington, D.C., 1984); and from the same committee, Second Draft: Pastoral Letter (Washington, D.C., 1985). The differences between the two drafts of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral are quite striking. Between the ethical reflections of the Canadian bishops and those of the U.S. lay committee that drafted Toward the Future, so great a gulf is fixed that none can pass.
[2. ]Second Draft: Pastoral Letter, para. 142.
[3. ] This description is harsh; but I think it is accurate. The text overwhelms the reader with citations from authorities—three Biblical references, for example, to buttress the claim that God is the creator of heaven and earth (para. 37), and no fewer than six books, cited in their entirety, without specific page references, to support the contention that “[i]n Luke Jesus lives as a poor man, and like the prophets takes the side of the poor, and warns of the dangers of wealth” (para. 56). Statements with no clear meaning abound, such as: “Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons” (para. 81). A good example of an assertion the bishops surely cannot intend seriously is that not only individuals but also the nation should make an “option for the poor,” so that “justice for all” requires “privileged claims” for some, namely, “those who are marginalized” (para. 89).
[4. ] I have discussed the pastoral letters on the economy with many people since the appearance of the first draft. Some strongly favored the pastoral, some were staunchly opposed. But I have spoken with only one person who admits to having read any of the drafts all the way through.
[5. ]Second Draft: Pastoral Letter, para. 34.
[6. ]Ibid., para. 133.
[7. ] For a carefully reasoned criticism of attempts to construct a Christian ethics that is grounded in universal moral principles, see Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, 1983), pp. 1-2, 12-13, 17-18, 22-23. Hauerwas has written what he himself called a “broadside attack” on the methodology of all such documents: “Work as Co-Creation: A Remarkably Bad Idea,” This World (Fall 1982), pp. 89-102.
[8. ] A large part of the problem is that the political pronouncements of ecclesiastical groups usually have to be written by committees, and committees inevitably blur the issues they discuss. Any useful attempt to integrate religious conviction and economic understanding will be written by an individual, not a commission. But even such an excellent and still useful study as Denys Munby’s Christianity and Economic Problems (London, 1956) moves on a very high level of abstraction when it tries to articulate theological-ethical foundations. Munby wants to set out “certain principles which . . . would probably be accepted by most Christians” that are “the true principles of human nature in society, which form the basis of a Christian approach to social problems.” Op. cit., p. 33. But the principles he explicates, dealing with “Man and the Material World,” “Man and Nature,” “Man and Property,” “Human Societies,” and “The State,” yield no clear implications. They are vague, sensible, and not peculiarly Christian. In a revealing last paragraph to the chapter on “Christian Ethics and Human Society,” Munby writes: “The social principles are general, their application is unsure, they provide no certain guide to a changing world. But they are not entirely useless. And if we can sum them up in any way, it is in the phrase, ‘People matter’. . . and matter . . . because God made them and saved them.” Op. cit., p. 39. But “People matter” is a mere slogan that no one will deny and that leaves every disputed issue as open as it was before; and the reason given for why they matter makes the assertion religious, but adds nothing to its implications for understanding or ordering economic life.
[9. ] How could this be avoided, even by people determined to avoid it, when the group has no basis for asking to be heard except an alleged superiority of moral insight? And those who draft such documents don’t always make an effort to avoid it. The second paragraph of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter says: “We approach this task as pastors and teachers of the gospel. . . . The ministry of the Church has given it firsthand knowledge of the hopes and struggles of many groups and classes of people, both in this country and throughout the world.” There is much more with this tone.
[10. ] Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, ninth (variorum) edition (New York, 1961), p. 1.
[11. ] A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, vol. I (Oxford, 1972), p. 905.
[12. ] Donald Snygg, “The Psychological Basis of Human Values,” in A. Dudley Ward, ed., Goals of Economic Life (New York, 1953), pp. 335-64. This is one of fifteen essays in the first volume of the series on ethics and economic life produced by a study committee established after World War II by the Federal Council of Churches. I cite the essay here because it perceptively undercuts a great deal of casual commentary on “economic man,” and also to remind readers that valuable thinking about religion, ethics, and economics was done long prior to the current surge of church pronouncements.
[13. ] Marshall, op. cit., pp. 14-15.
[14. ] Among the major discoverers were Bernard Mandeville, Richard Cantillon, A. R. J. Turgot, and a number of participants in the Scottish Enlightenment, including David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and, of course Adam Smith.
[15. ] I have found no clear instance prior to 1803 of a writer’s using the term “political economy” to refer to the science which contemporary economics continues and with whose founding Adam Smith is identified. In the writings of Smith and every other eighteenth-century English or French writer with whom I am familiar, “political economy” means what its etymology suggests: the art or science of managing the political household. The term shifts its meaning suddenly and decisively at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the discovery that an oikonomia did not necessarily require an oikonomos, and might even function more effectively without one. The one place in The Wealth of Nations where Smith may be using the term “political economy” in its nineteenth-century sense is in his discussion of the Physiocrats, where he refers to it as a “very important science.” But elsewhere in the same discussion he also uses the term in a way that clearly makes it refer to the art or science of governing the state. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis, 1981). Compare the uses of the term on pp. 678 and 679, which may convey the later sense, with his reference on p. 675 to “a political economy . . . both partial and oppressive,” which is clearly the eighteenth-century sense.
[16. ] I have discussed the misunderstandings that arise between economists and theologians around this issue, with special reference to Adam Smith’s views, in Paul Heyne, Economic Scientists and Skeptical Theologians, Occasional Report No. 1, Economic Education for Clergy, Inc. (Washington, D.C., 1985), pp. 3-6.
[17. ] Carlyle complained that cash payment had become the sole nexus of man to man in Chartism (Boston, 1840), pp. 58, 61. Marx and Engels refer to “the cash nexus” in the first section of The Communist Manifesto (1848).
[18. ] Denys Munby quotes the “cash nexus” passage from The Communist Manifesto and then comments: “Christians have usually cheered the Marxists at this point. But might we not turn this upside down and assert that it is precisely the glory of modern society to free men from the crushing burden of these so-called ‘idyllic relations,’ and to limit the impositions of men on each other to ‘callous cash payment’?” Denys Munby, The Idea of a Secular Society and Its Significance for Christians (London, 1963), pp. 23-24.
[19. ] F. A. Hayek constructed the arguments of the second volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty in large part as a response to just such religiously-based objections to “the discipline of abstract rules.” F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty. vol. II: The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago, 1976), pp. xi-xii, 135-36.
[20. ] I use the etymology for dramatic effect, not to prove a point. I have no idea whether the history of the English words would support my argument.
[21. ] Donald McCloskey has done much in the last few years to make this approach more acceptable, or at least more familiar, in the economics profession. McCloskey, “The Rhetoric of Economics,” Journal of Economic Literature (June 1983), pp. 481-517. The argument is more fully presented in the author’s book with the same title (Madison, Wisc., 1985). For some evidence on the degree of its acceptance, see the review of two recent books of readings on the methodology of economics by Arjo Klamer in Economics and Philosophy (October 1985), pp. 342-49. These arguments are in part a recovery of important work done in the 1940s and 1950s by Michael Polanyi and incorporated in his Personal Knowledge (Chicago, 1958).
[22. ] J. Philip Wogaman, The Great Economic Debate: An Ethical Analysis (Philadelphia, 1977). In this book, widely used in the United States, I am told, in seminary courses on economics and ethics, Wogaman exposes what he sees as the ideological foundations of the major schools of economic analysis. It isn’t particularly relevant that his outsider’s understanding of economics leads him to set up straw men. The point is that he has helped convince moral theologians who deal with economists that economists have a hidden ethical-political agenda.
[23. ] The basic history is recounted with his usual scholarly care by T. W. Hutchison in “Positive” Economics and Policy Objectives (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), pp. 13-50.
[24. ] Sidney S. Alexander, “Human Values and Economists’ Values,” in Sidney Hook, ed., Human Values and Economic Policy (New York, 1967), p. 102.
[25. ] Any economists who want to invoke the is-ought dichotomy to support their use of the positive-normative distinction should at least read Stuart Hampshire, “Fallacies in Moral Philosophy,” Mind (October 1949), pp. 466-82, and Alasdair MacIntyre, “Hume on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought,’ ” The Philosophical Review (1959), pp. 451-68.
[26. ] That it does not in fact speak authoritatively about efficiency has been demonstrated many times in recent years by legal scholars seeking to contain the imperialistic advances of economics into law. One of the best demonstrations is by an economist: Mario J. Rizzo, “The Mirage of Efficiency,” Hostra Law Review (Spring 1980), pp. 641-58. The basic criticism is that efficiency is a ratio of valuations and that valuations presuppose rights to value and hence an existing set of property rights.
[27. ] Economists seem usually to assume that an ethical judgment about economic phenomena can only be a judgment about states of affairs. It rarely occurs to them that most of our moral judgments, when we are engaged in serious moral discussions, refer to processes. When economists use their analytical tools and skills to elaborate the processes through which particular situations emerge or that evolve out of particular situations, they regularly generate material that lends itself quite readily to evaluation by reference to the accepted moral criteria of those to whom the economists are speaking. See Paul Heyne, “Between Sterility and Dogmatism: The Morality of the Market and the Task of the Economics Teacher,” Journal of Private Enterprise (Fall 1986), pp. 14-19.
[28. ] Acts 2:42-47. The translation is that of the New English Bible.
[29. ] Matthew 19:23-26; Mark 10:23-27; Luke 18:24-27.
[30. ] Compare I Peter 2:11-3:17 with Romans 12:1-13:10.
[31. ] Frank Knight is one thinker who has argued strenuously for the essential incompatibility of the Christian and the liberal-democratic ethos. His most complete statement of the case is in Frank H. Knight and Thornton Merriam, The Economic Order and Religion (Westport, Connecticut, 1979; original publication in 1945). Richard John Neuhaus offers a very different sort of argument in Christianity and Democracy (Washington, D.C., 1981). For another position by a Christian that contrasts sharply with Neuhaus, see John Howard Yoder, “The Christian Case for Democracy,” in Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame, 1984), pp. 151-71.