Posts Tagged decisionmaking

Conservatives and Coercion in Morality and Economics

One Way signOver at Public Discourse, Nathan Schlueter explains why he’s not a libertarian, providing concise conservative responses to 10 popular libertarian claims.

This week at Values & Capitalism, I look at two of those claims, related specifically to coercion and market intervention. Finding myself arguing alongside libertarians on most economics-related issues, I thought Schlueter’s points were helpful in illuminating a key distinguisher between conservatism and libertarianism, even if the policy outcome ends up looking similar.

Here’s Schlueter’s sixth point/response:

6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality. Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character … The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.

This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism. (emphasis added)

The question for conservatives, I argue, seems to be that we think coercion may sometimes be justified and/or helpful. We certainly don’t think it should be in play to the extent progressives do—who seem to pursue centralized control as an ideal—but conservatives recognize that certain features of human nature demand it.

In the end, I argue—piggy-backing on Schlueter—that much of this comes down to realism:

This hits at the deeper level of why conservatives think coercion in economics is sometimes necessary to preserve order. It is here, I believe, that conservatives find themselves fighting between two forms of utopianism: one which actively pursues coercion with little regard for real-life liberty, and one which actively pursues so-called liberty with little regard for real-life humans (or the real extent of certain real-life consequences).

Schlueter points out this distinguisher in his #9 response, which I believe draws the clearest line between both orientations. Conservatism’s “true realism,” as Schlueter notes, is summed up aptly by James Madison, in a line from Federalist No. 57 containing plenty for both libertarians and progressives to detest:

‘The aim of every political constitution is first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.’

Read the full post here.

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Beyond the Noble Savage, Beyond Economic Man

Economic ManThe topics of self-interest and sacrifice are commonly discussed on this blog—my own view being that any form of either is bound to lead to selfishness unless both are aligned to God’s will (through good, old-fashioned obedience).

I’m currently reading Love & Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, in which author and economist Jennifer Roback Morse takes a unique approach to the subject, arguing that our views of “rational” man have been severely lacking on both sides (if your ideological buckets are that neat and tidy, that is).

Without incorporating love into our usual assumptions about the self and the other, argues Morse, we will structure a philosophy of life around a fantasy and be doomed to a mechanistic, regressive society.

First, the not unique part—i.e. a summary of the context:

The decentralized market economy is probably the most celebrated self-regulating social institution. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” insight shows that people pursuing their own self-interest can actually end up furthering the public interest through no intention of their own. Since Smith’s time, free market economists have developed the Invisible Hand concept further through a construct called homo economicus, or economic man. Economic man is a rational person who calculates the costs and benefits of each potential action and chooses the action that brings him the most happiness.

The obvious problem is that we are not, and can never be, fully rational, no matter how much Ayn Rand wishes it were so (though we can certainly be more rational than we are).

On the other side is a similar problem, one which, though more obvious, is plagued by increasingly abundant misunderstanding: other people have an even smaller chance of being “fully rational” on our behalves.

The lofty bureaucrat on top of the hill may think he has a better idea than we do about the appropriate price of an orange (or a cup of coffee), but our personal preferences would likely differ if Grocer Bob had the chance to experiment. Of course, the implications lead to deeper struggles than the prices of oranges and coffee, which is why more fundamental, philosophical variations on Rousseau’s “natural goodness of man” have long served as platforms upon which many a tyrant has constructed his moralistic authoritarian palaces.

Yet even critiques of centralized approaches to knowledge and decisionmaking—Hayek’s, most notably—seem to only get us back to square one: that individual choice would be better (and it would!).

Yes, our knowledge is limited, and yes, our definitions of the “good” will not naturally conform. These are crucial realities to confront, but do they mean that Read the rest of this entry »

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Embracing God’s Message, Ignoring His Method

In what serves as a nice complement to my recent posts on obedience and the spiritual side of socio-economic decision making, PovertyCure recently posted a video of Peter Greer (HT), in which he adequately captures the church’s unfortunate tendency to embrace God’s message without seeking God’s method.

Watch the video here:

Economist Victor Claar captures similar activity in the first part of his critique of fair trade, documenting the modern church’s impulsive, near-trendy promotion of counterproductive trade schemes.

My question: When we see “good intentions” (quotes intended) result in something like the temporary inflation of a market — not to mention the subsequent destruction of otherwise beneficial and growing enterprises — what are we to assume the driving motivations are behind those specific decisions? Are such efforts to “help people” really taking a holistic Biblical approach? When our “charitable” endeavors fail miserably, should we use our Bibles to justify those actions, or should we deeply question whether those actions were all that “Biblical” in the first place?

Yes, Jesus told us to help the poor, but how do we do that, and what else did he tell us to do?

In the case Greer describes, the church may have achieved its short-term aim, but in the process, it did some serious damage to a local provider, and probably many others. This would seem to make the given community’s long-term prospects worse.

Is this what God wanted? Was it God’s intention to temporarily flood the egg market and put people out of business, only for the need to reemerge the very next year, but this time with a lack of suppliers? Was it the voice of the Holy Spirit that told this church to “give x to y!” or was it the voice of “Hey, I’ve got Read the rest of this entry »

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Chosen Instruments: Obedience and Socio-Economic Decision Making

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul, Pietro De Cortana, 1631I have received a bit of criticism for my constant claim that obedience is the defining factor of the Christian life (e.g.), with most of critiques rooted in the belief that we are to instead focus on “sacrifice” or “love” (as if obedience to God would not involve either).

My questions are most simply: (1) love according to whom and (2) sacrifice for what?

I recently wrote about this very thing, emphasizing the need to follow the Holy Spirit in all that we do (hint: that’s why he’s here).

To further solidify this point, I wanted to take a moment to look at the Apostle Paul — a man who understood that “following the way of love” was interconnected with “eagerly desiring the gifts of the Spirit” (i.e. learning to hear his voice, discern it, and do what it says). As I have also previously noted, such an approach is extremely difficult because there is no hard-and-fast, legalistic solution. The Christian life is not a one-stop, altar-call sort of thing.

Paul had a good grasp of this, and made clear in his letter to the Philippians. Following a summary of his personal trials, Paul provides encouragement to the believers by honing in on the value that obedience will yield while also reminding them of the tensions it implies for their work here on this earth:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

We all know what this means for our post-earth destination (or, I hope we do), but what does this mean for our own personal callings and struggles today? What does this mean for our socio-economic engagement with others?

First, it is clear that Paul has a purpose and that purpose is not his own. He did not endure imprisonments and beatings for nothing, yet he also did not endure them for personal glory or some lofty martyrdom status. Paul was not standing in the streets and blocking traffic for the mere purpose of being hauled away and lauded in the annals of do-gooder history. Paul was not offering himself as a firstborn calf on some altar of cultural symbolism or earthly greatness.

Paul was arrested for speaking the truth and doing what God told him to do. He was not seeking suffering as an ideal for himself (or anyone else). He was seeking the Glory of God to the point of suffering.

Likewise, Paul’s impetus did not come from some fleeting passion for “social justice.” Paul did not discover his life’s purpose from reading Barbara Ehrenreich in undergraduate school and getting worked up about class divisions and money-grubbing sinners. His purpose came from Read the rest of this entry »

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Responding to Economics Through Wonder, Heartbreak, and Hope

We need to be careful when discussing the intersection of economics and religion, lest we improperly conflate the two or segregate them altogether.

One goal of this blog has been to push toward achieving and discovering the proper approach: to determine the real questions Christians should be asking and proceed to tackle them head on. Far too often our debased disposition gets the best of us and we approach such matters legalistically and/or materialistically, as if there is a sanctified list of dos and don’ts for general economic activity paired with Biblical prices, a God-ordained wage, and an easily discernable end-game equilibrium.

Such an approach impacts our entire view of value — both temporary and eternal — and in turn, is likely to distort our personal economic decisionmaking, our responses to basic economic activity, and our overall attitude and orientation toward the economic sphere at large. This is likely to also impact our view of God, whether directly or indirectly.

Our discussion needs to press toward a deeper tension, and in a recent piece at Cardus, Gideon Strauss lays forth the types of questions that will challenge us toward getting there. Although the piece is geared toward “business leaders” — the likes of which are certainly a relevant audience — the questions therein also apply to your average minimum-wage worker (or whoever else).

Indeed, if Christians did so much as simply struggle with these types of questions from the very beginnings of their work experiences, we could probably get more things right earlier (and probably get a lot more true “business leaders” overall). Our answers will surely bring disagreement, but I’ll leave that for other discussions. For now, I would simply submit that we be attentive to respond to each with a transformed mind.

To frame his approach, Strauss organizes the questions under three groupings, each of which center around human responses to God: questions inspired by wonder, heartbreak, and hope. These, Strauss says, “we may ask of a particular business or market, or a national economy, or perhaps even, of the global economic order.”

Here’s the rationale for each: 

[#1] I believe that: The whole world of making products, providing services, buying and selling, building companies, establishing relationships of trade—marketplaces filled with businesses and their customers—can be a vibrant expression of what it means to be human in God’s wonderful creation.

[#2] At the same time, given the fractured state of this world, our economic lives are often a source of heartbreak: when poverty overwhelms us; when we cannot find work, or make payroll; when our businesses fail, or governments make it hard to do business; or, when we slavishly devote ourselves to the hunt of money and discover at the end of our pursuit that all we have does not matter.

[#3] And yet, part of the good news that crested over the horizon at Easter is that also this vital but broken part of our lives is a theatre of hope: despite the evil and suffering that can make human life a misery, the original promise of business activity and market relationships is being redeemed, and we can work with courage, lead with love, and expect our efforts to bear fruit of very long-lasting value. (emphasis mine)

I encourage you to contemplate each and read his responses and explanations. For all ye lazy ones (or simply for a teaser), the main questions are listed Read the rest of this entry »

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