Bringing Religion into Economic Policy Analysis: Many Policy Debates Are Motivated by People's "Religious" Beliefs-Including Economists'

By Nelson, Robert H. | Regulation, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Bringing Religion into Economic Policy Analysis: Many Policy Debates Are Motivated by People's "Religious" Beliefs-Including Economists'


Nelson, Robert H., Regulation


Religion traditionally has had little role in American professional economics, other than as a possible factor in shaping consumer preferences. In the past few years, however, several articles in top economics journals have argued that religion historically has had a significant influence on the levels of economic growth and development of nations. A 2013 article by Christoph Basten and Frank Betz in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, for example, concludes that "going beyond the 'work ethic' hypothesis, we show that [Max] Weber's classic [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism] can be seen to argue that the different religions will also lead to different political preferences, and our empirical results [in Switzerland] confirm this." Those political differences, the authors note, inevitably will lead to economic differences. Another 2013 article by Enrico Spolaore and Roman Wacziard in the Journal of Economic Literature explains that "the recent literature on economic growth and development has increasingly focused on very long-run effects of geographic, historical, and cultural factors on productivity and income per capita"--long-run factors that historically have been much influenced by religion.

If further research continues to show that religion can be an important factor in determining national economic growth, it will pose some novel issues for the field of economic policy analysis. Let us say that careful social science research succeeds in further demonstrating that the character of a religion (and of the formal institutions that serve that religion) can have an important effect on economic growth and development. Does that mean that policy recommendations to government officials in the future might take the form of "Promote religion A," and/or "Discourage religion B"? That might seem implausible, but another way of saying much the same thing is that it may sometimes be necessary to adopt "modern values and practices"--ultimately bringing religion into the picture--if modern levels of economic progress are to be achieved in a society.

Religion has thus often been involved implicitly in economic policymaking. At a minimum, intellectual honesty may now require that this become more explicit. In the modern age, moreover, other systems of belief and values--little different from traditional religions--have shaped societies and their economies. These "secular religions" include Marxism, the American progressive "gospel of efficiency," and--as I'll discuss below--the beliefs that sustain most contemporary economists' basic concern for efficiency.

Bringing religion (in a broad sense that includes secular religions) into economic policy analysis and advice obviously would be a sharp departure from the traditional self-understanding of the economics profession and its place in society and policymaking role. This possible incorporation raises some novel and difficult questions concerning the concept of government and the purpose of economics and public policy. I don't claim to have all the answers to those questions, but in this article I want to offer some evidence from my own personal experiences in dealing with powerful religious elements in government.

THE ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE: A U.S. CASE STUDY

From 1975 to 1993, I served on the economics staff within the Office of Policy Analysis in the Office of the Secretary of the Interior--the highest ranking internal policy "think tank" in that department. I gradually came to discover that religion (in the broad sense I explained above) played a larger role in Interior policymaking than I had expected. The Endangered Species Act was a contemporary version of the story of Noah's Ark; wilderness areas were new sacred places; the building of a dam on a wild river constituted a "sacrilege"; the Grand Canyon put a visitor in the presence of "the Creation"; the Lincoln Memorial (maintained by the National Park Service within the Interior Department) was an American "temple" dedicated to the Christ-figure Abraham Lincoln (who gave his life to save the union); the emissions of greenhouse gases from Interior Department lands (about 20 percent of the United States) were "playing God" with the earth's climate; the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to resolve issues such as the legal authority of traditional customs based in historic Indian religions in a modern society; and so forth and so on.

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