By Request: Economics and Christianity
By Art Carden
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.