No Middle Ground? The Epistemology of Economic Ethics

A free market exchange always benefits both parties, and so thanks to markets, the world is getting richer and richer, income inequality is going down and down as the market extends its reach, our quality of life today is quantum leaps beyond the desperation and squalor that characterized the lives of our ancestors a mere two centuries ago, we have a more enlightened, free, and virtuous culture, the environment and the poor are actually better cared for than ever before, and the only obstacles to this are protectionist governments and reactionary moralists.  

Right?

Or is it rather:

Our western capitalism is built upon exploitation and manipulation, and so poverty is a grave and growing problem as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; Western civilization is rapidly deteriorating as communities are destroyed and people alienated from themselves, one another, and the earth, public and private virtue are being undermined; the poor and the environment are trodden upon and ignored, and the only way we can redress this is by making use of the protections of government and by remoralizing the marketplace.  

Why is it that the discussion of economics and ethics seems so thoroughly dominated by two such drastically incommensurable paradigms, both of which seem to feel so secure in their assumptions that most of the above statements are generally asserted, rather than proved, and the contrary assumptions are never even engaged with?  

Presumably, if half the intellectuals are convinced that income equality is widening, and half are convinced that it is shrinking, there must be some way of adjudicating the matter?  Or at the very least each half ought to take the time to address the contrary claims, instead of merely pretending they don’t exist, right?  The first paradigm is often said to be that of the economists, and the latter that of the theologians, but I’ve read enough of both to know that there are some of each in either camp.  The first paradigm more often makes its point by appeals to statistics, the second by appeals to experience, but again, either appeal can be found in either camp.  For myself, I find both appeals often persuasive, often shockingly naive.  I know enough to say that the facts are clearly not all on one side, but I don’t know enough to confidently adjudicate on most of the disputed points.  When both sides are so radically at odds, so radically prone to careless assertion, and so determined, it seems, not to carefully engage with the claims and assumptions of the other side, then how is someone on the sidelines, unable to sufficiently sift every piece of relevant data for himself, to believe and act? 

 

More and more, I find myself forced to face this question–most recently yesterday afternoon.  Having chosen to dedicate my few days of Christmas break to some focused reading, both of old books long sitting around unfinished, and of new books received on Christmas, I found myself, in my typical ADD fashion, alternating between the first chapters of Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution and the final chapters of the collection of essays Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life.  The tension, needless to say, was dramatic–between Claiborne’s passionate commitment to abandon our comfortable conusmerism and embrace a life with and for the poor, and the utopian endorsement of market economics in Deidre McCloskey’s essay “Avarice, Prudence, and the Bourgeois Virtues.”   

Not that McCloskey’s essay was all bad.  Curiously, she had started off with promising balance and some intriguing ideas–suggesting, for instance, that Adam Smith’s famous line about the butcher and the baker was not an endorsement of minding only our own self-interest in economic transactions, but rather a recommendation that we act out of concern for the other party’s interests in our transactions–it is such other-regard that makes us human.  She went on to sketch a variety of ways in which market economics depends upon a whole nexus of virtues besides self-interest–trust, charity, etc.–and that the notion of homo economicus is simply a false portrait of human nature and modern society.  In other words, we need more virtues than merely prudence in our account of economic life.  Up to this point, her arguments were directed against typical economists (to whose number she belonged).  

But then she turned in the second half of her essay to address “the theologians,” who, she said, needed to hear the message that prudence was in fact a virtue.  What followed was a strikingly naive and carelessly assertive rendition of the arguments of the first paradigm, stated above.  She admitted at the end that it would take a long book, or indeed a library, to prove the assertions she had just made, but there was no time for that here.  This is a rather juvenile argumentative style– “Oh yeah?  Nuh-uh!”–“Actually, the complete opposite of what you think is true.  I don’t have time to tell you why now, but trust me, I’ve got the proof, and you’re dead wrong.”  After some initial gestures at bridging the chasm between the two paradigms at the outset of her essay, she suddenly started blasting away at the bridges and then stood there, triumphantly waving her bazooka on her own side of the huge chasm.  

 

This one-sidedness and non-engagement was particularly depressing, as the volume in which McCloskey’s essay appeared, edited by Charles Mathewes and William Schweiker, promised to offer just the sort of engagement between the paradigms that was so desperately needed.  However, although the book did feature a range of different perspectives on issues of economics and ethics (though, sadly, none as radical and passionate as Shane Claiborne’s), it did not bring them into any meaningful conversation or debate with one another; no one took the time to justify their position over against contrary ones that were stated in the other essays.  The second-to-last essay, Arjo Klamer on “The Moral Economy of Ownership,” finally drew attention to this lack of dialogue and proposed a route for reconciling the “economists’” and the “theologians’” paradigms.  

Klamer’s approach was similar to that of Ruskin and Polanyi (the two social economists who blew apart my paradigms last fall), arguing that while markets did undoubtedly create economic goods, such goods were only good insofar as they served valuable social and cultural ends–more money in itself is useless.  We must measure a wider range of phenomenon to determine what increases well-being in a society, enabling us to recognize that a large increase in wealth that comes at the cost of destroying community may in fact constitute a net loss of value.  Economic prosperity is a genuine good that must be weighed in the balance against other important goods.  A similar approach, put into very practical and concrete terms, is taken by Philip Blond in Red Tory, and I do think this represents the best way of attacking the economic-ethical issues that currently face us.  Of course, I have doubts as to whether economists like McCloskey will consider this genuine middle ground or just more theological drivel.  

 

And much of the problem still remains: when both paradigms make incommensurable empirical claims– “capitalistic markets generate freedom” vs. “capitalistic markets are based on exploitation”; “inequality is decreasing” vs. “inequality is increasing”–how is one to adjudicate?  The issues involved are too important to merely sit on the sidelines and take no action either way.  Nor is it possible to approach the question with a pure blank slate, objective and predisposed toward neither argument.  And so, amidst the clamour of conflicting economic claims, I have found it necessary to establish a starting-point of theological assumptions to prejudice the inquiry.  This is not to say that theological assumptions must prejudge the inquiry, deciding the economic facts in advance–“Money is the root of all evil, therefore capitalism must be wicked, exploitative, destructive, and all the rest”–we must always be ready to candidly assess the economic and social facts with a willingness to revise our theological assumptions (or at least our applications of them) if they simply do not fit.  But we should not accept the economists’ insistence that we leave all value judgments at the door and attempt to adjudicate the goods and bads of capitalism by an objective assessment of all the facts and statistics (a task quite impossible, in any case).  Some prejudice must govern the inquiry, and so I am happy for it to be a theological prejudice.  

And so then I must ask myself, “What prejudice do the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church suggest that I have to wealth and economic exchange?”  Over the past couple years, I have tried in vain to understand how the divine right capitalists (to coin a useful shorthand)–folks like David Hall, Rodney Stark, Jay Richards, John Schneider, and Doug Wilson–are able to draw a prejudice from Scripture and church tradition that blithely affirms the accumulation of wealth and the proliferation of exchange and that looks asquint at poverty.  There seems little way to ignore the overwhelming testimony of Scripture and church tradition that looks with suspicion on wealth, discerns the capacity for injustice and exploitation inherent in economic exchange, and that sides, more often than not, with the poor and their cry for justice.  Of course, notice here that I said “suspicion,” not “hostility.”  Whenever the divine right capitalists see a sentence like that, they assume that an anti-wealth gospel is being preached, but that’s just sloppy logic.  Most of these same Christians would be happy with the statement that Scripture teaches us to have a healthy suspicion of human sexuality, and to discern the capacity for immorality and lust that is inherent in sexual activity, and we would not thereby accuse them of being anti-sex and anti-marriage.  So it is in economics.  Our faith must teach us, it seems to me, to approach the economic sphere with a predisposition to side with the poor and be suspicious of the wealthy and powerful, and to look for the possibility of injustice in the operations of the market, but to be of course quite open to the possibility of a godly use of wealth, a godless life in poverty, and innocent and beneficial operations of the market.  

And so it is that when confronted with the two paradigms laid out at the beginning, I must treat the first with more suspicion than the second.  Both may be the tools of an ideological agenda, distorting the facts for selfish ends, but my theological framework must lead me to more readily suspect the former, as the wealthy and the powerful’s attempts to justify themselves and silence the cries of the poor and oppressed.  The second paradigm finds powerful echoes in the concerns of the Law, the prophets, and Jesus, whereas the former rings a discordant note when sounded alongside Scripture.  

 

Of course, this can only be a starting point.  We are subsequently called (or at least those of us who have rashly embraced the vocation of Christian ethicists) to sift the statistics and testimonies, to test the assumptions and arguments, to reexamine the theology and our attempts to apply it, in order to accurately diagnose the goods and evils of our economies and prescribe the appropriate remedies.  But even as we engage in this arduous task, we must resist the notion that we are dealing with objective scientific descriptions; rather, we are entering a battlefield filled with warring principalities and powers and the violent clashes of competing human desires.  On such a battlefield, Jesus will always be a surer guide than Marx or von Mises, and we must be unapologetic for this conviction.

7 thoughts on “No Middle Ground? The Epistemology of Economic Ethics

  1. Donny

    "And so it is that when confronted with the two paradigms laid out at the beginning, I must treat the first with more suspicion than the second."I tend to see both of them making legitimate, scriptural points, just talking past each other, so I'm a bit skeptical about this bias you're outlining. Can you elaborate some?

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Donny,Thanks for interacting on these recent posts. We seem to run into this problem a lot. You want to occupy a completely non-committal middle ground, to stand there like Tevye forever weighing "On the one hand; on the other hand…" whereas I want to find some ground that has some critical weight, some leverage if you will. Perhaps that's an over-generalization (after all, you seem to think I'm too middle-ground on homosexuality), but it seems like that. I don't know that I have anything terribly fresh to say in addition to what I said in the post, but let me try to make the two main points again, and see if a restatement helps at all:1) I don't know that a bias-free position is possible. We live in the midst of all this. We are absolutely embedded in consumerism, corporatism, statism; we live in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the globe (or you do, and I currently live in its sidekick) surrounded every day by the power and propaganda of the market, and in a government schizophrenically committed to protecting and invigorating that market, and protecting us from it. It would take a truly exceptional mind (which perhaps yours is) to gain the critical distance necessary to dispassionately evaluate the operation of the global market, its pros and cons, its successes and failures, its villains and heroes, etc.2) I don't know that a bias-free position, even if it were possible, is desirable. Because I'm not sure that that's what Scripture gives us. Of course, there is the passage about not showing partiality to either rich or poor in a lawsuit, and so of course I do not deny that in concrete cases of dispute, we try to give both sides an equally poor hearing. However, Scripture in general, and Jesus in particular, is much more skeptical of the excuses of the rich than of the poor, much quicker to side with the poor than the rich, harder on the vices of the rich than of the poor. If you don't agree with this characterization, I can point you back to some earlier posts I've made, or I could attempt to undertake a complete empirical gathering together of every Biblical passage of relevance, but that seems a bit silly. So it seems to me that a Scriptural bias would be more suspicious of the self-justifications of the market, operating as they generally do as excuses offered by the rich, than of the critiques of the market, operating as they generally do as pleas on behalf of the poor. There is a good reason for such a tilt, in any case–it isn't really one-sided, because the voice of the rich and the resources of the rich are greater than that of the poor anyway. So if we listen more to the voice of the poor than to the voice of the rich, we're probably still going to hear both equally. This is not, of course, to say that I think that the second paradigm, the "anti-capitalist" is pure and simple a "voice for the poor." There are many people trumpeting this chorus with their own vindictive or self-aggrandizing ends, and even when they really are trying to speak on behalf of the poor, that does not mean that they are successfully representing their interests. That's why I don't argue for anything like a full suspension of judgment toward the second paradigm, only an initially favorable prejudice.Hope that helps.

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  3. Donny

    Actually, in this case, it's not about being non-committal. It's more about rejecting both positions, since I was speaking specifically to the italicizes comments you had at the beginning of your post.

    A free market exchange always benefits both parties, and so thanks to markets, the world is getting richer and richer, income inequality is going down and down as the market extends its reach, our quality of life today is quantum leaps beyond the desperation and squalor that characterized the lives of our ancestors a mere two centuries ago, we have a more enlightened, free, and virtuous culture, the environment and the poor are actually better cared for than ever before, and the only obstacles to this are protectionist governments and reactionary moralists. Right?Or is it rather:Our western capitalism is built upon exploitation and manipulation, and so poverty is a grave and growing problem as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; Western civilization is rapidly deteriorating as communities are destroyed and people alienated from themselves, one another, and the earth, public and private virtue are being undermined; the poor and the environment are trodden upon and ignored, and the only way we can redress this is by making use of the protections of government and by remoralizing the marketplace.

    When I read these comments, I see two things. First, they both have something good to say and something bad to say. Second, there are huge semantic/perspective gaps between them.First, they both say things that echo scripture. The capitalist paragraph generally speaks of freedom from tyranny as a blessing to society in general. If the people generally are free of oppressors, and they are left to live quietly and well, yes, both the well-off and the poor will benefit. The problem is that it's couched in very strange language about being "enlightened" and progressing beyond the "squalor" of the 19th century. I'm not sure what that means, but it smacks of a very naive, simplistic view of progress, one that doesn't even mention religion or righteousness, the real cause of blessing and progress.But the second does the same thing. Sure, there are good criticisms, scriptural criticisms, but that's about it. A vague reference to the government swooping in to save us is hardly helpful, and it's certainly not scriptural. And this is what I mean by talking past each other. The conservative stances typically affirm good (and fairly obvious, in my opinion) things about free markets and freedom from tyranny. But because of the way they tend toward idolizing the market or removing the important of righteousness and religion to a free, blessed society, they don't offer a comprehensive look. Because of that, they have to ignore or deny the criticisms leveled at them from the left.The left, though they offer great criticisms, doesn't have a solution, as I see in the second paragraph. Sure, they can point out corruption in big business, but what solution do they have? Since they're really coming from the same perspective (all that vague, snobbish talk of human progress), they're stuck with the same dilemmas.That's why I objected to siding scripture with one of those two paragraphs. I don't think it's a matter of leaning toward the wealthy/conservative side on the one hand or the poor/liberal side on the other hand. After all, scripture itself is able to affirm the blessings of wealth and freedom, yet it also levels some of the strongest condemnations of corrupt upper classes you'll find anywhere. Again, instead of leaning left or right, that perspective seems to sidestep the inherent difficulties in both perspectives and offers a more full way of looking at things.This isn't anything new; it's really what you're trying to do. I just don't think it's helpful to approach the "bias" issue in terms of the left and right. When you say scripture gives you a bias against the rich, that doesn't mean it gives you a bias in favor of the left in the way it's expressed in that paragraph. That just seems to complicate things too much.Oh, and about the semantics and talking past each other. Both sides will refer to things like "capitalism," but they mean completely things by them. "Capitalism" to the right is free market. To the left, it's unfair oppression. That makes communication practically impossible.

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Donny,I don't disagree with anything you say here, I think. To be sure, neither of those two perspectives represents a Scriptural perspective, and both are missing important elements of the picture. My point was not to argue for a bias in favor of the worldview of the left or the worldview of the right, but something more modest, I think. That is, when contradictory empirical claims are advanced (e.g., "income inequality is decreasing, thanks to capitalism" or "income inequality is increasing, thanks to capitalism") we need some means to help us start sorting out which one to believe, for those of us who don't have the time or expertise to sift through mountains of empirical data (though, if we're going to discuss the subject much, we should at least try to make at that). In such cases, Scripture and the history of Christian teaching gives me reason to be suspect when a wealthy society seeks to justify its wealth by claiming that it is making everyone better off. The Old Testament economic laws show a recognition that unfettered markets tend to lead to greater inequality. Thus, I have good reason to be more suspicious of the first set of empirical claims than the second, although this does not at all commit me to trusting in the whole worldview of the second set of claims. Does that help at all?

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  5. Donny

    Yeah, that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.Interesting historical tidbit: during the industrial revolution, when people debated over child labor laws, businessmen defended their practice by claiming they were blessing poorer families with jobs, so they could put food on the table.

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