Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Markets, Free Trade, and Religion

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Markets, Free Trade, and Religion

Article excerpt

Harry Truman once complained that he wished he could find a "one handed economist" because his own economic advisers were always telling him "on the one hand" or "on the other hand." There is one issue, however, on which almost all economists, whatever their political views, have traditionally agreed, that a policy of worldwide free trade is economically desirable.

In some ways this might seem surprising. For the first several decades after World War II, the University of Chicago school of economics was a virtual pariah within mainstream American economics because of its strong advocacy of free markets. Chicago thinking gained many more economic adherents in the 1980s and 1990s but economic critics still were numerous.

Yet, free trade is an extension of free markets to an international level. Why is there so much greater agreement among economists when it comes to the role of markets in the international arena? Searching for an answer takes us into a novel area for most economists, the competing "religions" of economics, with potentially different domestic and international implications. (1)

Economists seldom study the sources of legitimacy of economic institutions. It would require a journey for them into the realm of ideas and culture--indeed, into religion as well. Even if they had any such inclinations, a typical economist today--given his or her economic education and subsequent professional career--would feel unequipped for the task.

Moreover, economists think--or at least they say in their public pronouncements--that they are scientists. For many of them, an appeal to culture is seen as the last refuge of a failed economist. Economists have little interest in exploring the ends to which the economic system will be put--the ends are simply "given." In practice, however, ends and means are not easily separable. Without bringing ends into the economic discussion, it is not possible to make informed economic policy judgments concerning the desirability of particular economic tools such as the "market mechanism".

Unlike economics, it has traditionally been the task of religion to identify ultimate ends; indeed, this is one good way of defining the term "religion:" the systematic practice of the identification and communication of ultimate ends. Absent consideration of religion, therefore, the full conduct of economic policy making will necessarily be seriously incomplete.

Economists also overestimate the extent to which traditional religion has receded from economic affairs in modern times. It is true that the forms of religion in the modern age have changed significantly, from a dominance by traditional Jewish and Christian faiths to a new large role for "secular religions" in society. To a surprising degree, however, secular religion is characterized by the adoption of scientific metaphors that recast older traditional messages of religion in a new--often misleadingly technical sounding--language. (2)

Marxism, for example, is now commonly recognized to have been a disguised form of Christianity (for the devout a Christian heresy), in which human beings have fallen into sin and corruption (an "alienation" attributable to the class struggle) but will soon experience an apocalyptic moment in history, out of which will emerge a new heaven on earth--the Marxist millennial coming, as one might say. The American progressive-era "gospel of efficiency" similarly sought a new heaven on earth along an economic pathway, now to be reached, however, more slowly and incrementally, with significant progress already to be seen in the events of the present (Marxism and progressivism thus mirroring a longstanding disagreement among forms of traditional millennial theology within Christianity itself).

Free trade and free markets are not simply means of organizing the economic side of life but seek to order the structure of whole societies in the pursuit of final ends that transcend the material alone. …

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