Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

The Clergy and Economists: Two Windows on Common Objectives

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

The Clergy and Economists: Two Windows on Common Objectives

Article excerpt


There are important differences between the clergy and economists, though not as many as most believe. I shall argue that there is little to distinguish the clergy from economists on humanitarian grounds. Their worldly objectives are similar. The differences between them are in their emphasis on how to achieve their common objectives. These differences in approach are important and should not be understated, but neither should they be overstated as they almost always are. While the clergy and economists emphasize different paths to their common objectives, those paths complement each other. Yet, they are commonly discussed as if they represent morally irreconcilable differences in objectives because of a tendency to confuse means with ends.

My hope is that members of the clergy, in their desire to achieve a better world, will see economists as allies instead of as adversaries. This hope may be dismissed as preposterous by some because I argue that market incentives are the most effective way of achieving many of the social outcomes that most of the clergy favor. Those most opposed to market incentives for achieving desirable objectives have the most to gain by taking a look through the economic window presented here. Much of the skepticism, indeed hostility, toward markets is based on distorted and mistaken views of how markets operate and what they accomplish.

Better Angels vs. Economic incentives

Religious differences notwithstanding, most people respect the clergy for their noble objectives and effort to achieve those objectives by encouraging and celebrating the better angels of our nature mentioned in Lincoln's first inaugural address. Most approve of the clergy's concern with encouraging behavior such as sharing with, and serving the interests of, others; helping the poor; sacrificing for the good of the wider community; acting as good stewards of the earth's resources; being concerned with protecting the environment; and generally living a life that promotes social cooperation and harmony.

Such a claim on behalf of economists would be met with incredulity and probably derision. The common view is that they are primarily interested in money and financial success; more likely to celebrate economic competition than social cooperation, with little regard for those left behind; prone to see profit and private property as ends in themselves, with little regard for the unfortunate consequences that can result from their pursuit, including the harm imposed on the environment and future generations; and more concerned with how greedy individuals can secure more for themselves than with how they can share with, and promote the general well-being.

This view of economists, and their objectives, is a caricature. Like most caricatures, it may contain an ounce of truth, but it also contains several pounds of distortion. Economists are indeed interested in money, competition, profits, private property, and the influence of self-interest on human action, but they are interested in these things not as ends, but as a means of achieving more social cooperation, service to others, and better stewardship of the environment and our resources. The earthly objectives of economists are quite similar to those of the clergy.

To understand why this similarity in objectives is seldom recognized, we must recognize that the clergy and economists are looking at the world through different windows, and these different windows suggest different ways of reaching common objectives. Instead of the clergy and economists acknowledging that their views yield understandings that are neither completely correct nor completely wrong, they tend to become overly critical of the other's view and let that obscure many of their common objectives.

It is useful to consider two broad approaches to improving the world. The first is to improve people so that they do the right things out of a sense of moral duty. …

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