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.  


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.

The Land is Mine

Some of you may recall, from around a year ago, that I posted from time to time on the relationship between law and ethics in the Pentateuchal social justice laws–were these laws moral rules of charity or genuine civil legislation of justice, and what did this tell us about the relationship between charity and justice more generally?  To answer the question took six months of labor on a paper of many thousand words, with which I was still never quite satisfied, so I was quite bowled over, with a kind of exasperated delight, when I found Eric Nelson summarily deal with (resolve?) the whole question in one elegant paragraph in chapter 2 of The Hebrew Republic:

“The vision [of property rights] in question is epitomized by a striking semantic fact about the Hebrew language, well-known to Biblical scholars, but worth repeating in this context.  Those of us whose languages use terms derived from Greek and Latin are used to marking a key lexical distinction between ‘justice’ (dike/iustitia) and ‘charity’ (charis/charitas).  What distinguishes them is the element of personal discretion.  If I give you a $5 bill to which you have a legal claim, this is an instance of justice, not charity; if, however, I give you a $5 to which you have no legal claim, this is an instance of charity, not justice.  Hebrew recognizes no such dichotomy.  The same Hebrew word (tzedek/tzedakah) refers both to the fulfillment of what we would regard as conventional legal obligations and to the performance of what we would regard as charitable acts.  The reason is straightforward.  In the Biblical worldview, God is regarded as the owner of all things and is therefore empowered to impose whatever conditions he wishes on the use of his property by human beings.  Many of these conditions involve, for example, care for the poor and indigent, but precisely because these are legal obligations imposed by a rightful owner on his tenants, they are no more discretionary than, say, the payment of debts.  The Hebrew Bible develops this into a theory of property according to which there is only one owner.  As God says to Moses in chapter 25 of Leviticus, ‘the land is mine’ (Lev. 25:23).”

Yeah, I guess that’s pretty much what I was trying to say.  Brilliant.  

Chrysostom on “The Lazy Poor”

We are accustomed to hearing among conservatives 2 Thess. 3:10 cited as essentially the only Biblical passage relevant to economics: “If a man does not work, let him not eat.”  This is the problem with welfare or even with too much voluntary charity, we are told.  Most people are poor because they are lazy, and we mustn’t reinforce this laziness.  There is nothing new under the sun, and so it turns out that this claim is not the result of the great discoveries of capitalism, but is an age-old excuse, which the Church Fathers had to deal with 1600 years ago.  In a paper on property rights, John Medaille of the Distributist Review quotes this passage from Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews:

“For why does he not work (you say)? And why is he to be maintained in idleness? But (tell me) is it by working that thou hast what thou hast, didst thou not receive it as an inheritance from thy fathers? And even if thou dost work, is this a reason why thou shouldest reproach another? Hearest thou not what Paul saith? For after saying, “He that worketh not, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. iii. 10), he says, “But ye be not weary in well doing.” (2 Thess. Iii. 13.)…Are all poor through idleness? Is no one so from shipwreck? None from lawsuits? None from being robbed? None from dangers? None from illness? None from any other difficulties?”