Acton Institute Powerblog

Radicaltarianism: Toward an Economics of Possibility and Grace

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downloadOver at Rough Trade, the always intriguing James Poulos celebrates the increased attention  now being given to the “relationship between economic and religious life,” pointing to the Acton Institute’s very own Samuel Gregg to kick things off.

Yet he remains unsatisfied, fearful of a return to what he views to be unhelpful “conceptual frameworks and cultural antagonisms” of the past, and urging us to push toward “a new mode of analysis that breaks away from the old, exhausting debates.” For Poulos, this means embracing an “economics of grace,” an interrelated component of something he has called “radicaltarianism” in the past (see more on this here and here).

Poulos observes the typical divides among Christians as follows:

Christians who accept these teachings [about the fall of man and grace] tend to split into two economic camps: those who lean toward an uncritical embrace of free-market capitalism, and those who tilt toward a far more skeptical, suspicious attitude. For the first group, the social upshot of Christianity is an institutional framework that supports flourishing with minimal reliance on the state. Christianity supplies a good foundation for market activity. For the second, the most durable and authentic institutional frameworks supplied by Christianity raise damning questions about the sustainability of neoliberalism — the secular “democratic faith” that gives market capitalism its modern philosophical foundations. For both groups, the key is that, ultimately, religion drives sustainable economic life. The difference is that the first group typically understands religion in a Protestant way, as a driver of explosive, and morally legitimate, economic growth, while the second takes a more Catholic view, doubtful of the moral purity of explosive growth, and focused much less on growing capital than other sorts of things, like families.

Although I disagree with where precisely Poulos draw his lines — sharing much of Rodney Stark’s skepticism about an explicitly Protestant ethic (etc.) — such divides do exist, labels aside.

Describing the state of the debate more broadly, Poulos argues that our political factions have also proven unhelpful, using terms like “economic growth” based on limited materialistic assumptions. From the “Chamber of Commerce wing of the Republican party” to the Krugmanns and Yglesiases, Poulos observes a muddled and confused debate about “capital” vs. “jobs,” bypassing “what it means to be human” altogether. “The kulturkampf between reactionary Christianity and progressive neoliberalism has closed off our economic debates to some powerful possibilities that our enemy camps both refuse to countenance,” Poulos writes.

This, for Poulos, is where an “economics of grace” is sorely needed — one in which we go beyond thinking about economics merely as the “interrelated phenomena of production, consumption, and transaction,” and instead eagerly anticipate the potential for something more powerful and transformative to take place across our endeavors.

Poulos explains the “radicaltarian” approach as follows:

Radicaltarian anthropology proposes that being human is defined by the unforeseeably, unpredictably rich experiences of extraordinary flourishing that can transpire when we encounter one another in a condition of readiness for those experiences…The key is that the actual creation of our definitively human experiences is not “owned” or “possessed” by us or anyone else. It’s inaccurate to say that you or I, as individual selves, create these experiences, or that they belong to us…

…In other words, the experiences that define what it is to be human irrupt gratuitously into our lives — and only do so if and when we orient ourselves expectantly, joyfully, and with authentic integrity toward creating the possibility of their irruption…

…The free-market fable of economics is that I meet you with x, you meet me with y, we reallocate until we’re both better off, and we leave the transaction happy. The fable of a mixed economy is that the government preallocates our x and y, or redistributes them after we reallocate them ourselves, to maximize the general welfare. Radicaltarian anthropology tells us that being human is defined by living out the possibility that I meet you with x, you meet me with y, and, in a way neither of us and no human could have planned, we leave the transaction with z.

In a subsequent Twitter exchange, Hunter Baker responded with some healthy skepticism, unconvinced of how radicaltarianism “offers more than free markets,” and noting that “many market transactions” fit Poulos’s radicaltarian formulation of x-for-y-equals- z.

Baker is right that what Poulos is arguing for seems to retain a pro-free market position. If so, Poulos’ framing of the original formulation as a “free market fable” is perhaps not as fair or universal as it could be, particularly for pro-free market folks like Baker and myself who spend lots of hours splashing in the faith-meets-econ wetlands. But to Poulos’ earlier point on those in the “Chamber of Commerce wing” and beyond, such an unfortunate mindset does exist among plenty of conservatives and libertarians.

Thus, I may be misunderstanding Poulos’ approach, but from where I sit, the radicaltarian approach seems to be more about reorientation than upheaval, echoing what I myself have preferred to call “transcendent economics” (here and here). In this sense, it calls for us to focus on a readiness for transformation rather than a rejection of the means for getting us there (e.g. the market). Such a reorientation will, however, lead us to reject those which are not the means for getting us there (e.g. cronyism).

If this is the case — that Poulos’ “economics of grace” aims, most simply, to reorient us toward the possibility of transformation in trade and the corresponding relationships that come of it — room for optimism exists. Although I have yet to see this bubble up among the cultural or political chatterclasses in any profound sense, the conversation is indeed already taking place.

For example, I recently interviewed Neighborhood Film Company on how their for-profit business transforms the lives of adults in recovery, beyond mere material well-being. At On Call in Culture, we are dedicated to elevating stories such as this, examining how our work must be oriented as servant to God and service to others. What this means for the economic, social, and spiritual order is profound. As Lester DeKoster puts it, “civilization is sharing in the work of others,” and “work restores the broken family of humankind.”

morse_loveeconomicsIn addition, groups like Poverty Cure and HOPE International consistently elevate the transformative power that trade and exchange has on lifting up those in the developing world, showing how economic empowerment and the gospel of grace make for a powerful combination in alleviating poverty in all of its forms.

Economist Jennifer Roback Morse wrote an entire book, Love and Economics, on how love is what holds society together, cautioning that everyone suffers, from the family to the polis, when we neglect this understanding and orientation.

In Rev. Robert Sirico’s recent book, Defending the Free Market, he dedicates the concluding chapter to dismantling an earthbound mythology of economic man, arguing that “human beings find ultimate fulfillment not in acquisition but in developing, sharing, and using their God-given creative capacities for good and giving of themselves to others—for love.”

I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture of the state of the debate, but only to indicate that a starting point exists. Poulos is right that the status quo of our economic thinking is far too constrained and confined to the material and the temporal. Whether or not we label the necessary reorientation/rethinking/reframing as an “economics of grace” or as based in “radicaltarian anthropology,” more space needs to be made for the irruption of the unforeseen and unforeseeable.

Where our economic systems currently limit such possibility, Christians in particular should be prepared to wage battle as appropriate. Where our systems already give us that room, we should open our hearts readily, recognizing the true nature of human needs while pursuing our call to dream divine dreams.

Joseph Sunde Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute, serving as editor of the Letters to the Exiles blog and content manager of the Oikonomia channel at He is the founder of Remnant Culture and was a longtime contributor to AEI's Values & Capitalism project. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Mission:Work, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • RogerMcKinney

    I think the kind of free market economics that Poulos rejects is the emaciated version found in mainstream economics. What he is searching for he will find in Austrian economics. Here is Mises writing about Austrain econ in “Money, Method, and the Market Process” p. 42:

    “Things are different for modern economics, with its doctrine of the subjective interpretation of valuation. In its context the distinction between economics and allegedly noneconomic ends becomes meaningless. The value judgments of the ultimate consumers express not only the striving after more tangible material goods, but no less the striving after all other human concerns. The narrow viewpoint of a science of material wealth is surpassed. Out of the discipline of wealth evolves a general theory of all choices made by acting men, a general theory of every kind of human action, praxeology. In their behavior on the market people evidence not only their wishes to acquire more material goods, but no less all their other preferences. Market prices reflect not only the “materialistic side” of man, but his philosophical, ethical, and religious ideas as well. The observance of religious commandments—to build and maintain houses of worship, to cease working on holidays, to avoid certain foods either always or on specific days and weeks, to abstain from intoxicating beverages and tobacco, to assist those in need, and many others—is one of the factors that determines the supply of and the demand for consumers’ goods and thereby the conduct of business. Praxeology is neutral with regard to the ultimate ends that the individuals want to attain. It does not deal with ultimate ends, but with the means chosen for their attainment. It is merely interested in the question whether or not the means resorted to are fitted to attain the ends sought.”

  • Michael Jones

    Coincidental that I read this on Adam Smith’s 290th Birthday… I think not. After all Mr. Smith in his introduction to Wealth of Nations argues for morality in the free-market. More likely my reading is providential when further considering the underlying premise of free-market economies espoused by Mr. Smith, that of relationships and self-interest- not transactions: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own
    self-interest.” -Adam Smith (Born June 5, 1723)

  • Also, here’s a short read from James Buchanan about how the preferences of individuals emerge in the market process.