The theology of popular economics

by on August 29, 2007 at 6:59 am in Religion | Permalink

Once I pick up a popular economics book, I ask myself: what is this book’s implicit theology?  (How would you in this regard classify FreakonomicsUndercover Economist?  Steve Landsburg?)

That is one of the best first questions to ask about any non-fiction book. 

I view Discover Your Inner Economist as largely Thomist and more Catholic than anything else.

It is suggested that people are capable of simply doing the right thing, although we should not necessarily expect them to do the right thing.

It is suggested that a unified perspective of faith and reason, applied in voluntarist fashion, can indeed give people better and more complete lives.

It is suggested that not everything can be bought and sold, yet markets have a very important role in human life.

The chapters on food, or the seven deadly sins, are too obvious to require explanation.

The book is highly cosmopolitan, and it is suggested that acts of will and understanding can open up the sacraments to us.  The possibility of those sacraments lies right before our very eyes, and they are literally available for free.  Except the relevant sacraments are those of culture, and not of the Roman Church.

I am not a Catholic or for that matter a believer, but as I tried to solve various problems in the exposition, the argument fell naturally into religious ideas.  Religion has so much power over the human mind, in part, because its basic teachings about life are largely true.  Furthermore classical liberalism is far more of an intellectual offshoot of Christianity than most non-Christians are keen to admit.  (Muslims and Chinese often see this more clearly.)

So when I realized that Inner Economist had this strongly Thomist philosophic flavor, I was greatly comforted.

In this post the Episcopalians ponder their Inner Economists.

I hope to write more soon on political philosophy in Discover Your Inner Economist.

1 Jeff August 29, 2007 at 9:26 am

Please do. Write more, that is. Religion is amazing and crazy stuff. Both so utterly ridiculous it can be dismissed out of hand and so undeniably true I wish I had a much better brain and a lot more time to study it.

2 Jay August 29, 2007 at 10:39 am

You are most probably right about the roots of liberalism.

But one thing I have noticed after staying for some time in the west is that many in the west think rationality itself is western. That these proprietary ‘western civilizational values’ should be exported everywhere.

It is understandable that the general public has got such an opinion as now the western societies have the highest per capita incomes in the world.
But that was not the case 3 centuries ago, 8 centuries ago.
But it seems even some of the intelligentsia thinks it all began with the Greeks, which is pretty stupid.

I would suggest Amartya Sen’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’ if you have read it.

Cheers,
Jay

3 Patrick Molloy August 29, 2007 at 12:26 pm

Here’s a short summary of the medieval or scholastic (rather than strictly Thomist) contribution to the foundation of liberalism:

http://www.mirrorofjustice.com/mirrorofjustice/2007/08/the-medieval-fo.html

4 caveat bettor August 29, 2007 at 4:55 pm

Brian: to drastically oversimplify, aren’t the progressives social libertarians (but fiscal facists), while the conservatives are fiscal libertarians (but social facists)? Personally, I’m more confounded by anarcho-christians.

5 Harald Korneliussen August 29, 2007 at 5:48 pm

Why aren’t more Christians libertarians, Brian asks. Indeed, suspicion of earthly power-holders can be a part of Christianity (although it seems to me Paul for one was rather indifferent to them), but apart from the idea that all are corruptible, and therefore concentration of power are bad, there is also the idea that nothing is truly ours. It’s all on loan from God. We are caretakers, wardens, or investement fund managers if you will, but not owners. Everything we claim for ourselves will be eaten away by moths and rust, like we ourselves will turn back to dust.

Fundamental rights to property are alien to this way of thinking, and indeed they are my main objection to modern libertarian-liberalism. I claim a lot of things as mine, but I will not be so arrogant as to claim that any of it is unconditionally mine, or mine through some fundamental right, or that I in any deep sense deserve them. Libertarians, from the most unreasonable “randroid” to Bryan Caplan with his just desserts, very often do. To me property can never be more than a convenient (and negotiable) arrangement between me and my fellow men.

Aside, I’ve come across economic papers on voting in the middle ages, and it’s quite interesting that the catholic church, though hierarchical, encountered situations where they had to make collective decisions in awareness of human weakness, and it seems they developed solutions which beat french rationalists and modern social choice theorists by a couple of hundred years.

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