Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Homo Economicus versus Homo Imago Dei

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Homo Economicus versus Homo Imago Dei

Article excerpt

Introduction (1)

One of the primary features of globalization is the expansion of market-based economies from the West to the rest, creating a world that is gradually converging on a fairly common set of economic narratives, institutions, policies, and practices. As a result, many countries are now reaping the same benefits from economic growth that the West has enjoyed since the industrial revolution, not the least of which is a massive reduction in poverty. (2) Indeed, since 1990 the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day--the World Bank's poverty line--has declined by more than half, falling from 1.95 billion in 1990 to 896 million in 2012. (3) Furthermore, many global leaders believe that, should such growth continue, it may be possible to lift the entire world above the $1.90 poverty line by the year 2030. (4)

While the spread of economic growth and the unprecedented reduction in poverty are remarkable accomplishments, a growing number of observers are raising concerns about the form of Western capitalism that is increasingly encompassing the globe. (5) Consider that while real income per capita tripled in the United States between 1946 and 2014, the self-reported happiness of the average American actually stayed the same or declined slightly over the same period. (6) Similar results have been found for a wide range of wealthy, poor, and transitional economies, (7) resulting in what some economists are calling the "paradox of unhappy growth." (8)

In addition, a number of more objective measures of physical, social, and psychological health are also on the decline in the United States. (9) For example, from the late 1930s to the present, a period of rapid economic growth in the United States, there has been a marked increase in mental illness among America's youth. (10) To cite just one statistic, the rate of suicide for people under the age of twenty-four increased by 137 percent from 1950 to 1999." Seeking to uncover the root causes of the rising rates of mental illness in America's youth, an expert team gathered at Dartmouth Medical School to examine the leading empirical evidence, mostly from the field of neuroscience, and concluded:

[T]he human child is "hardwired to connect." We are hardwired for other
people and for moral meaning and openness to the transcendent. Meeting
these basic needs for connection is essential to health and human
flourishing. Because in recent decades we as a society have not been
doing a good job of meeting these essential needs, large and growing
numbers of our children are failing to flourish. (12)

Although there is no single cause for these disturbing trends, there are strong theological reasons to believe that the current form of global market capitalism is partly to blame. In particular, if left unchecked, the narratives, institutions, policies, and practices of mainstream economics that are at the heart of globalization tend to transform homo imago Dei--an inherently relational being created in the image of a relational God--into homo economicus--an autonomous, individualistic, purely self-interested, materialistic creature. Because human flourishing consists of people being what they are created to be, this transformation of homo imago Dei into homo economicus is necessarily contrary to human flourishing and casts a shadow over the rightly lauded benefits of the global economy. This article presents a theological case for this assertion and summarizes some supporting empirical evidence.

It is crucial to note that we are not arguing for a wholesale rejection of market-based economies in favor of high degrees of government control of economic life. Indeed, the track record of the latter is far from stellar. History has shown that markets are generally superior to government bureaucracies at processing information and at coordinating economic activity. More importantly, economic exchange is essential for human flourishing, enabling humans to specialize according to their individual gifts and callings in order to jointly steward God's creation. …

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