The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America

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The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America by Robert H. Nelson Pennsylvania State University Press and The Independent Institute * 2010 * 416 pages/392 pages * $35.95 hardcover; $19.95 paperback

Reviewed by Art Carden

W all, like sheep, have gone astray. We have sinned. We must humble ourselves. We must repent and turn from our wicked ways. These are the messages of our modern-day secular religions: economic religion and environmental religion. Throughout The New Holy Wars, Robert H. Nelson uses theological reasoning to explore them. His book is an excellent contribution that will help us better understand the intersections between economics, ethics, and theology.

Economic and environmental religions both deliver old wine in new bottles. According to Nelson, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, a religion can be "understood ... as a person's way of framing his or her basic perception of the world and its meaning." Religions require priesthoods. Some religions believe we need priests to mediate between God and man. Economic religion requires priests to mediate between gold and man. Environmental religion posits the need for mediators between Gaia and man. The 9/11 attacks, for example, were interpreted by some as punishment for our economic sins, while Hurricane Katrina was interpreted by others as punishment for our environmental sins.

Economics as such is value-free, but many economists are not. Twe ntieth-century neoclassical economics created, Nelson writes, a "gospel of efficiency." The most prominent economic religions he identifies are varieties of statismi socialism/communism, Keynesianism, and industrial policy. Socialism claimed that centrally planned economies would produce abundance, which would cure social ills. According to interventionist varieties of neoclassical economics, experts could "fine tune" the economy. The push for "scientific" policy-making turned economists into a group of godsby-committee issuing edicts from Mount Olympus (or from seminar rooms at Harvard and MIT) to be followed by our wise and noble rulers.

Nelson also discusses the rhetoric of economic and environmental religions. Environmentalists' accounts of the "damage" we're doing to the natural environment or how this or that arrangement of flora and fauna has "intrinsic value" independent of its ability to satisfy human wants bring to mind Misesian/Hayekian questions: How do we know? How is "intrinsic value" measured? How is it a guide to action? On what basis does the activist substitute his or her judgment for mine? We can argue about who does or does not have superior revelation, but this is properly discussed as theology rather than economics or natural science. …