Can the Market Save: An Intersection of Economy, Mimesis, and the Atonement

By Leeuw, Gawain F. de | Cross Currents, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Can the Market Save: An Intersection of Economy, Mimesis, and the Atonement


Leeuw, Gawain F. de, Cross Currents


This project arises from some dissatisfaction. I found many public commentators unconvincing in their description of market activity, and churches and individuals lacked a roadmap for negotiating commerce as disciples of Christ.

Although sympathetic to the desires for a world where wealth is more equitable, I found many standard analyses of commercial economies by theologians to be insufficient. Certainly, along with Barack Obama, Alan Greenspan, and Pope Francis, there is some problem in our system of arrangements; however, my intuition is that the brokenness in our current state of affairs is not a found in advocating for either a commercial or a planned economy. (1)

In this paper, I seek to show how mimetic theory can illuminate markets and our role in the institutions that participate in them; and how it links with one theory of the atonement. Mimetic theory sheds light on how a diminishment of government will result also in a diminishment in the virtues within commerce. As institutions, both corporations and governments make plans and share information within their organizations; both consume; and both produce. The venn diagram between the different institutional sectors and their actions, overlap greatly.

Many theologians are familiar with Adam Smith, Hayek, Marx and Keynes. (2) Some theologians, like Michael Novak, Max Stackhouse, and James McCann emphasize the creative, wealth producing aspects of capitalism; other theologians, such as Daniel Bell, D. Stephen Long, and Timothy Gorringe challenge the market. In one of the more illuminating dialogues between the economists Rebecca Blank and William McGurn, we see a general acceptance of the market, but a disagreement about the role of government intervention. It is my view that the stalemate can be broken with a deeper reflection about the dynamics of the market, desire, and freedom, from an alternate view of the individual and the institutional forces that shape individual behavior.

To undertake this task, I will first seek an accurate understanding of what markets are. This will require an assessment of the neo-classical economic self, the acquisitive self, which I will argue conceals, rather than describes, how people actually behave. I will then illustrate how our institutions, whether operating primarily in the market or as representative of the public will, mutually reinforce each other because the networks cannot be kept separate.

Although I believe the scriptures indicate a preferential option for the poor, require hospitality toward the stranger, and an understanding of our economic life as dependent upon God, the case for a specific economic system remains elusive. We don't need to have a particular faith to defend a system, and we need not assume that our religious codes of conduct require adherence to an economic philosophy. Neither socialism nor capitalism needs Christianity to make their case. But if we do assume Jesus saves, we can assume that some transformation requires understanding our relationship to the market differently. What I will do is offer, by the end of the paper, some possibilities and challenges for Christian communities. They will not be exhaustive.

One primary challenge arises from a seemingly simple category confusion: the distinction between the descriptive and the normative. Economists can study how markets actually work. They look at data, distinguish between correlation and causation, and look for mathematical ways to explain the flow of money. This may be different than a theory deduced from a model that assumes we are rational, self-interested actors who think like economist. Empirically defined research can reveal the different ways incentives work, but an economist may begin by elevating the calculating, acquisitive, self-interested person, implying that a kingdom of industrious private shopkeepers is our free-market utopia. Fortunately, some economists have sought to quantify and challenge a narrow version of "economic man" through the study of behavior. …

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