Christianity and the Market

Article excerpt

How church leaders ignore the Christian tradition of economic liberty

When it comes to the social sciences, many consider that economics wins the prize for having the most materialistic view of human beings. One should not be surprised, then, that some Christians regard the entire discipline of economics with a certain suspicion. At the same time, there are many Christian thinkers (or economists who also happen to be believing Christians) who are quite happy to make use of economic research methods without necessarily assuming that homo economicus constitutes the entirety of human beings' potential and destiny.

While all but the most economistic of thinkers recognise that there are limits to what free market economics can tell us about human action, it is not unreasonable to expect serious Christians of all confessions interested in public policy to think through policy proposals from the 'economic' perspective. Contrary to popular mythology, orthodox Christianity has always valued and championed the power of human reason, seeing in it a reflection-albeit limited-of the divine Logos. From its origins in the writings of Aristotle, economics has always been concerned with thinking through the logic of a range of choices when it comes to the creation and distribution of material wealth.

Naturally, Christianity does not see economics as providing all the answers to human dilemmas. Life is, after all, much more than an exercise in maximising efficiency. But nor should Christians disdain the insights of economics into how flawed and limited human beings, capable of great good and also great evil, might act when faced with a range of incentives.

Reading through much contemporary Christian literature on economic policy, however, can be a depressing exercise, not least because it soon becomes apparent that many Christian leaders have very limited knowledge of basic economic insights. In some instances, this seemingly manifests itself in a certain pride about their ignorance of such matters, or a tendency simply to dismiss economic insights as irrelevant to the discussion. Such standpoints would seem odd to great medieval scholars such as St Albert Magnus and St Thomas Aquinas, who were among the first great Western thinkers to state that the sciences required autonomy if they were to function properly in their respective fields of research.

Then there is the widespread tendency-thankfully much, much weaker now than in the heady days of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s-for some Christian leaders and thinkers to assume that socialism is the most accurate reflection of the type of political economy mandated by the Christian Gospel. In this regard, the defeat of communism and the collapse of liberation theology-the latter being very much the creation of middle-class intellectuals who studied in German universities in the 1960s rather than any 'indigenous' Latin American phenomenon-destroyed many romantic illusions among Christians.

Still, one has the sense that figures such as the current head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury (who once described himself as a 'hairy lefty' on economic matters), have never quite been able to bring themselves to admit the deep moral and economic problems with socialism, or to acknowledge the real moral and material benefits flowing from the spread of free markets around the world.

Not all Christian leaders are like this. There were plenty of Christians-Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox-who greeted John Paul II's 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus, with a sigh of relief. Not only did this encyclical affirm basic traditional Christian teaching about the social and economic value of private property, limited government, profit, and free exchange, but it also spoke positively of entrepreneurship and market economies.

Moreover, Centesimus Annus also severely criticised the cultural effects of state welfarism upon the social order. …