Archive for March, 2011

Scarcity vs. Nonscarcity: Why Do Christians Struggle with Economics?

Half empty plate, scarcity, nonscarcity, economicsIn a recent post at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Jeffrey Tucker tries to explain why modern religious people have such a hard time grappling with economics. (“Why Religious People Struggle with Economics”)

Indeed, although the discipline was originally systemized by Catholics in the 15th and 16th centuries (as Tucker duly notes), today’s Christians — whether Protestant or Catholic, progressive or conservative — often fail miserably in their attempts to comment on the subject. This, after all, is why I started this blog in the first place.

For Tucker, the roots of the problem go much deeper than a lack of mere knowledge:

It’s not just that the writers, as thoughtful as they might otherwise be on all matters of faith and morals, do not know anything about economic theory. The problem is even more foundational: the widespread tendency is to deny the validity of the science itself. It is treated as some kind of pseudoscience invented to thwart the achievement of social justice or the realization of the perfectly moral utopia of faith. They therefore dismiss the entire discipline as forgettable and maybe even evil. It’s almost as if the entire subject is outside their field of intellectual vision.

The issue, then, is recognizing the difference between the realms of scarcity and nonscarcity, a topic that I have discussed on several occasions (here, here, and here):

If one exists, lives, and thinks primarily in the realm of the nonscarce good, the problems associated with scarcity — the realm that concerns economics — will always be elusive. To be sure, it might seem strange to think of things such as grace, ideas, prayers, and images as goods, but this term merely describes something that is desired by people. (There are also things we might describe as nongoods, which are things that no one wants.) So it is not really a point of controversy to use this term. What really requires explanation is Read the rest of this entry »

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Joyful Innovators: Liberty and Dignity in the Christian Lens

welder, welding, fabricating, steel, creativity, ingenuityIn my most recent post at Common Sense Concept, I take a look at Bill Easterly’s recent interview with economist Deirdre McCloskey, author of the new book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.

McCloskey seeks to topple our conventional views of what leads to economic growth, arguing that much of it comes down to maintaining proper attitudes about liberty and dignity.

Her thesis, as explained in the interview, is as follows:

Modern economic growth — that stunning increase from $3 a day in 1800 worldwide to now upwards of $130 a day in the richest countries, and anyway $30 as a worldwide average — can’t be accounted for in the usual and materialist ways. It wasn’t trade, investment, exploitation, imperialism, education, legal changes, genes, science. It was innovation, such as cheap steel and the modern university, supported by an entirely new attitude towards the middle class, emerging from Holland around 1600. (It has parallels in classical music and mathematics and politics, in all of which the Europeans burst out, 1600-1800.)

As usual, I turn McCloskey’s theory toward Christianity, and more specifically, evangelicalism, examining how evangelicals tend to view such elements (nowadays) and whether those views are attributable to some recent sociological trend or the belief system itself.

Here’s an excerpt:

To use the evangelical sphere as an example, there seems to be an increasingly common sociological disdain for innovation and markets, which seems to imply that the “tenets” of evangelicalism conflict with Read the rest of this entry »

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The Magic of Industrialization: Washing Machines, Productivity, and the Gospel

Hans Rosling recently gave a TED talk on the immense productivity that has come with industrialization (HT). To demonstrate such benefits, Rosling centers his discussion around the washing machine, a tool most Westerners simply take for granted.

Watch the video here:

Although Rosling puts significant emphasis on the silliness and hypocrisy that permeates the green movement, he concludes his talk by pointing back to the productivity factor. When products assume tasks for us — particularly labor- and time-intensive tasks — we are free to pursue other endeavors.

In the case of Rosling’s mother, the washing machine gave her time to go to the library, teach herself English, and inspire a love for scholarship in her son. Such stories should prompt all of us to think critically about Read the rest of this entry »

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The Harmony of Individual Interests: Discovering the Common Good

puzzle, community, individual, common goodThis week at Ethika Politika, I examine two distinct approaches to the common good, one of which thinks it can be dictated, and another of which thinks it must be discovered.

Using Michael Tomasky’s now-famous essay as a starting point, I examine the fundamental errors in assuming that the common good can be achieved by enacting pushy policies from the top down.

Here’s an excerpt:

…In Tomasky’s view, the common good is not something we should participate in or collaborate toward; rather, it is a god we should be “demanded” to serve. It is not a goal to pursue, a mystery to unravel, or a fight to win, but a preexisting plan to be enacted – a candyland of utopian perfectionism, ready and waiting to be implemented in full. No longer must we waste our time “cultivating conditions” for a moral society, for such an achievement only requires that a legion of properly informed elites step up to the task — followed, of course, by a nation of noble slaves, anxiously awaiting direction and correction from their masters on top of the hill.

An additional problem with Tomasky’s approach is his false dichotomy between individual and community interests.

The real tension, I argue, is between top-down direction and organic imperative:

For the progressive, being “asked to contribute to a project larger than ourselves” (Tomasky) is akin to being bumped into submission by the bureaucrat’s billy club. In the approach presented here, such demands come primarily through the guidance our personal journeys, community struggles, and, above all, our moral understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Whereas the top-downers believe that truth is already known and thus freedom is unnecessary, the bottom-uppers see a world in which truth must be actively pursued, with freedom being the only thing that will get us there.

I also point to Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises along the way, whose “harmony of all individual interests” provides great support.

To read the full post, click here.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Materialistic Generosity: The Limits of Earthbound Altruism

Mary, Judas, Lazarus, Jesus, painting, perfume

In my latest post at Common Sense Concept, I explore the topic of generosity as it pertains to the Love of God and the Love of Man.

More specifically, I examine the centrality of sacrifice in the Christian pursuit and the corresponding importance of grounding that sacrifice in the divine rather than the debased.

Here’s an excerpt:

We must move beyond our humanistic perceptions of generosity, pushing energetically toward a more heavenly orientation — one that is led by the Spirit rather than the flesh. As Kelly Kapic argues in his recent book, Jesus’ death on the Cross is not just a gift, but an invitation to participate in God’s unique movement of divine generosity.

To explore this point further, I look at a story in the Gospel of John in which Mary lavishes Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment. Judas scolds Mary for wasting precious resources, claiming that they would be better sacrificed on behalf of the poor.

Jesus responds with this: “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

As I argue in the post, Jesus is pointing to Judas’ fundamentally materialistic perspective of generosity — a view that sees human individuals (and their resources) as static and predictable variables to be manipulated through “generosity.”

As far as how this might contribute to our views about politics or Read the rest of this entry »

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Love That Ends in Bloodshed: G.K. Chesterton on Division and Unity

G.K. Chesterton, OrthodoxyI recently wrote a piece at Ethika Politika discussing the problems we encounter when we pursue unity for the sake of unity. My basic argument — which is partially borrowed from Kenneth Minogue — is that moderation lends itself toward ambivalence, and ambivalence wanders from truth.

Shortly thereafter, my good friend RJ Moeller pointed me toward an excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodox, which illuminates similar similar points from a Christian perspective.

In this case, Chesterton points to the differences between artificial unity and active love (a close cousin of truth).

It is just here that Buddhism is on the side of modern pantheism and immanence. And it is just here that Christianity is on the side of humanity and liberty and love. Love desires personality; therefore love desires division.

It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say “little children love one another” rather than to tell one large person to love himself.

This notion of being “living pieces” translates quite well into an individualistic approach to our public endeavors, particularly when we consider the benefits that can come from active struggle and engagement.

Chesterton continues, noting that Jesus made it clear his blood and sacrifice would provoke division, not soften it:

We come back to the same tireless note touching the nature of Christianity; all modern philosophies are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the Read the rest of this entry »

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Economics, Ecumenism, and the Church: An Interview with Jordan Ballor

Jordan Ballor, author, Ecumenical Babel, Acton InstituteI recently reviewed Jordan Ballor’s new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, in which Ballor aims to promote (and initiate) a “critical engagement” of the modern-day ecumenical movement.

Ballor’s argument is careful and thorough while also being engaging and precise, and although the book’s primary focus is on the way we approach ecumenism, it also stirs broader questions about the role of economic ideology in the church at large:

  • What is the proper role of ideology in the church’s social witness?
  • Do ecumenical organizations “count” as churches, and if so, how should we understand their place in the broader “playing field”?
  • How do we as Christian individuals — or even as private Christian enterprises — differ from the church in our responsibilities regarding socio-economic ideology and God’s social purposes?

To expand on these questions (and plenty more), Ballor was kind enough to engage in an interview with Remnant Culture. As in his book, Ballor offers a healthy dose of criticism while providing some clear-cut ways to promote a healthier ecumenism going forward.

Q. As you mention in the book, there is not much “transdenominational authority” in Protestant Christianity. How influential has the ecumenical movement been in establishing such authority?

Not nearly as influential as it might have been, especially over the last three decades or so. There’s an instinct in Protestantism to look outside of institutional groups for leadership and authority, and when such groups squander their standing by spending their time talking about prudential issues in imprudent ways, they do a great deal of damage to their own credibility. The lack of influence that ecumenical groups have these days is largely due to these dynamics. This is more the case for the “mainline” ecumenical bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, than it is for some of the “evangelical” ecumenical efforts, such as the Lausanne Movement. But there’s generally a suspicion of such “transdenominational” authority, and in many cases for good reason.

Part of why I wrote Ecumenical Babel was to try to articulate why recovering such Read the rest of this entry »

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What Would Jesus Cut: Jim Wallis and the Line-Item Gospel

Today at Values & Capitalism, I join a chorus of voices that have been responding to Jim Wallis’ recent “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign, in which he lays out Jesus’ preferred policy preferences in a cute little bulleted list (read more of his thoughts here).

In my critique, I focus on Wallis’ failure (or refusal) to address the actual economic arguments of the conservative evangelicals he disparages. In addition, I take a look at the narrow-minded view of the Gospel that results from such an approach.

Here’s an excerpt:

Rather than even consider whether conservative evangelicals might disagree with him on the actual success of such programs, Wallis skips past all of that, quickly stamping the “Love of God” label on his select list of Jesus-approved policies.

Wallis does not explain how bed nets will actually help the poor (as opposed to being sold on the black market, most likely for extra liquor). He does not explain how various social programs will actually alleviate poverty (as opposed to disintegrating family and creating slaves of the State). He does not explain why he thinks tax cuts for the rich will hurt the downtrodden (as opposed to helping them).

This unwillingness to even pay attention to the arguments of the opposing side is something I have come to see as common among progressive Christians. For many, if a policy is labeled as “pro-poor” it should simply be assumed to be effective. Any questioning of such policies is condemned as cumbersome at best and anti-Jesus at worst:

Rather than focus on the root economic disagreements and engage in deeper discussion, there is a tendency toward hasty advocacy of “action” on behalf of the poor, regardless of the real-world implications or results. Rather than talk about the earthly-realm implications of a higher-realm mission, or the actual Read the rest of this entry »

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Regenerated Value: John Piper on Radical Individualism

John Piper recently released several videos to coincide with the 25th-anniversary release of his defining work, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. As I have written elsewhere, the book’s primary aim is to demonstrate that “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”

The book changed my life (no exaggeration), and much of its contents support Remnant Culture’s overarching thesis. Thus, it is no coincidence that one of these videos hits at the very core of what Radical Individualism is all about.

Watch the video here:

Piper’s main point is centered around Matthew 13:44, in which Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven as “a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up.” To gain the treasure, the man joyfully sells all that he has and purchases the field. (I have commented on this previously.)

In other words, to gain the Kingdom of Heaven, we must be willing to trade in everything. This requires a drastic regeneration of our understanding of value itself, which means that the resulting exchange will not involve an isolated choice or decision in human terms. Instead, the transformative experience of coming to know Christ will necessarily lead to Read the rest of this entry »

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Prophet Motive: Islam and Economic Growth

The Silk Merchant, Islam, painting, merchantsThis week at Common Sense Concept, I take a closer look at John Cassidy’s recent piece in The New Yorker on Islam and economic growth (“Prophet Motive”).

Cassidy’s piece provides a good overview of Islamic economic history (or, at least, one side of it). His eventual conclusion, however, does not exhibit the degree of critical curiosity that one would hope for. In the end, I think his approach is largely limiting to our discussions about the relationship between religion and economic growth.

According to Cassidy, we are not to analyze Islam itself as a religious belief system. Instead, we should focus on more “predictable” indicators of economic activity.

Here’s an excerpt:

[Cassidy points to] more “traditional methods” of analysis, such as focusing on “the way beliefs are codified and institutionalized,” rather than dwelling on theology, philosophy or moral doctrine (as Weber and Novak do). For Cassidy, the matters related to the religion itself —the “spiritual stuff” — are largely unreliable. To make real progress in analyzing religion and economic growth, Cassidy believes we should look toward firmer, more measureable developments in the politico-religious (e.g. usury laws, business partnership, limitations or inheritance practices, etc.).

I disagree with this view and think that religion is indeed a valid investigation tool.

Here’s my response:

If we are going to analyze the merits of a particular religion as it relates to an economy, it makes little sense to toss out the fundamental features that define religious institutions and set them apart from those in the socio-political realm.

Whether formally codified/institutionalized or not, our religious beliefs and convictions fundamentally transform our perceptions, and thus they largely impact our visions. Regardless of whether the specific religion, god, or authoritative text is actually true, Islam has just as much potential to instigate such an effect as Christianity.

To read the full post, click here.

Read the rest of this entry »

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