Stories Economists Tell: Studies in Christianity and Economics
Hill, P. J., Independent Review
* Stories Economists Tell: Studies in Christianity and Economics By John P. Tiemstra Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2012. Pp. xiii, 191. $18.40 paperback.
A wide range of people from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and worldviews practice the discipline of economics. When there is enough commonality among some practitioners, they may coalesce into an organized group for both fellowship and discussion of the academic discipline they practice. Such is the case with economists who adhere to the Christian faith. For some time, there has been robust interchange among Christian economists as to the relevance of the Christian faith to economics. In 1982, a formal organization, the Association of Christian Economists (ACE), was formed and now counts some four hundred members. It publishes a journal, Faith and Economics, and sponsors sessions at the Allied Social Science Association meetings, and its members often organize conferences that take up the intersection of Christianity and economics.
John Tiemstra has been a longtime member of ACE (as have I) and the most outspoken critic of how Christian economists do economics. It is very useful, therefore, to have a compilation of many of his writings. Stories Economists Tell consists of fifteen short essays Tiemstra published between 1988 and 2009. With them, one is able to follow his thinking over twenty years. The chapters are organized into four categories: Christian theology and economic methodology; government, business, and society; economy and the environment; and globalization and competitiveness.
The first section on methodology is the most interesting because it is here that Tiemstra has been the most vocal critic of much of other economists' work, especially Christian economists. His methodological problems with economics have remained quite consistent over time. He believes that Christian economists should do economics, but they should do it differently from other economists. His primary criticism is the restrictive assumptions of the rational-choice model. Thus, he proposes a Christian economics that uses many of the standard tools of economics (p. 36) but moves beyond the standard neoclassical paradigm because, by "accepting as data only observed economic behavior, and not introspective reports concerning motives, values, and the like, economists have cut themselves off from an important source of information" (p. 23).
There are two responses to Tiemstra. First, the ability to explain phenomena with a limited set of assumptions about behavior gives economics much of its power. Second, even though economics does rely upon a limited set of assumptions about human behavior, it is not as limited as Tiemstra claims. In a 2009 article, he disputes "the account neoclassical economists give of human motivation, particularly the assertion that all relevant human motivation stems from a natural and laudable drive to maximize one's standard of living" (p. 59, emphasis added). In a 1994 article, he asserts, "The problem is the assumption that pecuniary considerations are all that ever matter" (p. 41, emphasis added). Tiemstra sees the basic assumptions of economics very differently than I do. I can't think of a single economist I have worked with who thinks that all people all of the time try to maximize their pecuniary income. Nor do economists deny that conceptions of justice, fairness, and sustainability are relevant to economic actors.
Most introductory textbooks simply assert that people have well-defined goals and try to fulfill them the best they can. In their introductory text Modern Principles of Economics (New York: Worth, 2012), Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok ask, "Do economists think everyone is self-interested all the time? Of course not. We love our spouses and children just like everyone else! But economists do think that people respond in predictable ways to incentives of all kinds. Fame, power, reputation, sex, and love are all important incentives" (p. …