Acton Institute Powerblog

Murray, Mariana, and Montaigne’s Fallacy

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The folks over at the Comment magazine site have generously run an essay by me, “Business and the Development of Christian Social Thought.” This piece is a web-friendly version of my editorial from the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which highlights the call for papers for next spring’s issue on the theme “Integral Human Development.” If you have an interest in this theme as it appears particularly in the Roman Catholic social encyclical tradition, or analogous ideas from other religious traditions, including notably the idea of “integral mission” as appears in the evangelical ecumenical movement, be sure to check out and share the CFP.

One of the points I highlight in this essay is what biblical scholar Craig Blomberg, in his paper in the issue’s “Theology of Work and Economics” Symposium, identifies as the “theory of limited good.” He describes this perspective as that of the biblical world, when

most people were convinced that there was a finite and fairly fixed amount of wealth in the world, and a comparatively small amount of that to which they would ever have access in their part of the world so that if a member of their society became noticeably richer, they would naturally assume that it was at someone else’s expense.

As I observe in the essay, this perspective was not unique to the ancient world, and various forms of it come down through the medieval to the early modern period, often identified as the “zero-sum” fallacy. Ludwig von Mises termed this idea the “Montaigne Fallacy”:

The Leitmotiv [i.e., an often repeated theme] of social philosophy up to the emergence of economics was: The profit of one man is the damage of another; no man profits but by the loss of others. This is not a philosophy of social cooperation, but of dissociation and social disintegration. For the sake of expediency, we call this doctrine after its proponent, essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92). In the light of this Montaigne fallacy, human intercourse cannot consist in anything but the spoliation of the weaker by the stronger.

As I note in the essay, you also find this idea as a fundamental assumption in such luminaries as Juan de Mariana, who in his otherwise brilliant Treatise on the Alteration of Money echoes Plato, “one man’s profit is another’s loss,” calling this one of the “fundamental laws of nature,” and correlatively that “one man’s loss is another man’s gain. There is no way around that fact.” This assumption was often one of the animating dynamics behind the mercantilist regimes from the times of Montaigne and Mariana and beyond.

But as Charles Murray notes in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, this conception of the origin of wealth, as merely original distribution and subsequent redistribution rather than creation and mutual benefit, is still a pressing challenge to development today: “Americans increasingly appear to accept the mind-set that kept the world in poverty for millennia: If you’ve gotten rich, it is because you made someone else poorer.” The piece is worth reading in full, especially for those with an interest in the American political scene. Jean Pisani-Ferry also writes this week over at Project Syndicate about similar dynamics in Europe: “Many societies have proved able to overcome a zero-sum mentality and project their perceptions of national interest into the future; Europe must find in itself the ability to do the same.”

But Murray also touches on themes related to integrative conceptions of human development, concerning matters both material and spiritual, as he contends,

The pursuit of happiness, with happiness defined in the classic sense of justified and lasting satisfaction with life as a whole, depends on economic liberty every bit as much as it depends on other kinds of freedom.

It’s hard to think of habit of the mind more pernicious and destructive to the human potential for happiness than the idea that any material gain must be made at another’s expense.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.