One of the most frequent motifs of Reformed pseudo-theo-economics is that of human depravity, and Hall and Burton are no exception. Chapter 2 of their book is called “The Fall,” and is essentially dedicated to telling us that Calvinism has done the world the service of recognizing that man is fallen and depraved, and therefore we should not expect him to act otherwise. We all know where this is going, right? Capitalism is the best economic system because it assumes fallen men and sinful desires, and seeks to balance such sinful desires against each other rather than pretending they don’t exist, like utopian socialism. This is, predictably enough, Hall and Burton’s argument.
Yet how often have we paused to consider just how singular this ethical move is? Man is sinful, and therefore we as Christians should seek an ethical system that works with man’s sin, rather than against it. Huh. But isn’t it redemption, rather than fallenness, that is the core of Christianity? Plenty of pagans have been able to figure out that the world is a fallen and sinful place; what they haven’t been able to offer is any account of how it might be redeemed. If Christianity’s main ethical contribution is the observation that man is sinful, then we might as well pack our bags and give up. Just to get an idea of how bizarre Hall and Burton’s move is, let’s imagine another sphere of life–sex.
As Christians, we know that man is depraved, and this means that he is characterized by all kinds of distorted sexual desires. Lust, pornography, rape, and infidelity are the norm in human societies after the Fall. We need to think not about some utopian ideal of sexual fidelity, but about how to realistically work with a world of sex-crazed humans. We should expect all these things, and we shouldn’t deny them, but accept them. Sure we should put some limits to preserve order and restrain these fallen impulses a bit–perhaps we should say that as long as you keep all sexual acts consensual (or if pornography, private), so no one gets harmed or taken advantage of, then it’s fine. Realism is better than utopianism.
When put this way, we immediately see the absurdity. But we accept this rhetoric in economics all the time. Here’s what Halll and Burton say:
“Confiscation, violence, theft, and prodigality may occur, but seldom does philanthropy of a scope larger than the family appear in primitive society. That may be a commentary on the fallen nature of man. It may also be a clue for businesses and economies, indicating how they will best function in reality….Due to the fall, an economic golden age in which all humans glorify God with their wealth is not anticipated prior to the establishment of the New Jerusalem. Instead, we expect selfishness, conflict, theft, destruction of property, and strife in economic and business sectors. Rather than living in denial of such realities, we should seek enduring solutions that take them into account. Anyone who begins with the expectation of a utopia will quickly become frustrated by the fallen nature of our universe. Realism in business and profit sectors is a better beginning point than utopianism. Thus, Calvinism explains what and why to expect in the marketplace because it has a realistic understanding of the nature of man. The children of Calvin will be profoundly and inevitably dystopian.”
In every other sphere of life, we recognize that Christian ethics involves first a sober diagnosis of man’s fallen condition, second, a proclamation of hope that it need not be this way, but by virtue of Christ can be otherwise, and third, a demanding call to transcend these sinful desires and have them remade in imitation of Christ. Why is it that only in economics, we abandon this basic structure of Christian ethics, and suggest that there is this whole area of life in which we are to more or less accept our fallen condition as normative, with a few gentlemanly constraints to keep us from descending into hedonism? Perhaps there is a good reason, but if so, I would dearly like to hear what it is.
I should perhaps add as an aside that, as elsewhere in their book, Hall and Burton do not convincingly enlist Calvin in their project. They offer no quotes in which Calvin suggests that, as a result of his doctrine of depravity, we should embrace an economic system that institutionally accepts depravity. Rather, his doctrine of depravity serves as a means for him to diagnose our sinful propensities to geed in the economic sphere, greed that is to be confronted and resisted, not institutionalized.