Acton Institute Powerblog

On modern economics and the reading of old books

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I was living with thousands of Marines on a base in Japan when I discovered a novel about a handful of Classics students living at a small, elite Vermont college. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History instantly became on of my favorite books, partially because at the time (1993) I was dreaming of leaving the Corps and attending St. John’s College, a small college famous for their Great Books program.

But I came upon a passage in Tartt’s novel that made me realize the inherent limits of gaining all of one’s knowledge from the reading of old books. In the novel the six students are having a discussion when one of them says,

“[A]fter all your Xenophon and Thucydides I dare say that there are not many young people better versed in military tactics. I’m sure if you wanted to, you’d be quite capable of marching on Hampden town and taking it over by yourselves.”

Henry laughed. “We could do it this afternoon, with six men.”

When pressed, Henry explains how it could be done. And it’s an idiotic plan.

As a young person who had a passing familiarity with military tactics, I immediately recognized what a foolish boast Henry was making. There is much wisdom and knowledge to be gleaned from reading Thucydides and Xenophon. But Classics majors aren’t going to transform into SEAL Team Six and take over an American town simply because they read some ancient Athenians.

Not many liberal arts majors think reading old books will make them military tacticians. Yet an increasing number of (mostly younger) people think reading old books is sufficient to make the able critics of free markets and the market economy.

Recently, in response to my article asking why conservative Christian outlets are increasingly promoting socialist ideas and policies, my friend Jake Meador said:

There is a movement amongst both young Catholics and many young Protestants to go back to the sources of the western Christian tradition. Thinkers like Elizabeth Bruenig are drawing heavily from Augustine. My friend Brad Littlejohn has worked on Thomas. Others have spent extensive time in the primary sources of Catholic Social Teaching or in reading early Reformed political theorists like Althusius.

What we find when we work with these writers is that Christian reflection on political economy is far more complex than many of us were led to believe. We find things like a robust condemnation of usury, to take one example. In fact, Dante places usurers and sodomites in the same moral category because both are taking a gift that should be stewarded toward fruitful ends and are instead squandering it. We also find, in many historic Christian writers, a far more ambiguous attitude toward property rights, and even a deep suspicion of what we might anachronistically term modern-style western individualism. All of these things make us suspicious of the just-so narratives that the Christian Right often resorts to when arguing for a more libertarian or quasi-libertarian economic system. Given these concerns, it will take more than someone saying, “well, markets account for human sinfulness better than anything else so they’re the best,” which is how Dr. Rathbone Bradley opened her remarks at a recent Acton event.

Let me first say that I heartily recommend this ad fontes (“[back] to the sources”) approach. Here at the Acton Institute we’ve published ten books (so far) in our series on “Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law” where we’ve translated works by such thinkers as Luis de Molina, Martín de Azpilcueta, and Thomas Cajetan. Like everyone else here at Acton, I love and revere the sources of the western Christian tradition.

The problem, as I see it, is not where Jake and his peers start but where they end.

C.S. Lewis once referred to “chronological snobbery” as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” There is a similar fallacy—a reverse form of chronological snobbery—that seems to posit the ideas and thinkers of the past are always superior to those of our own era.

Such a perspective is particularly unhelpful when we consider a field such as economics that is a mix of philosophy, art, and empirical observation. In many ways economics is similar to the study of medicine. Imagine, though, going to a physician who gained all his knowledge about medicine from reading Hippocrates, Galen, and William Harvey. Would you trust them to remove your appendix? Would you follow their advice about balancing your black bile and phlegm? If not, why then would you trust economic analysis from people who have only read Dante or Thomas?

Even at my beloved St. John’s College, the most recent thinker on economics the students read is Marx. Has anything significant happened in economics since Marx was writing in the mid-1800s?

The chart below shows the real gross domestic product per capita around the world from the year 1000 AD to 2008. This graph is often referred to as the “hockey stick of human prosperity” because it highlights the sudden and rapid growth in living standards since the mid-1800s.

Notice that from the beginning of human history to about the time of Marx, almost all of humanity lived in or near conditions of abject poverty. What happened?

As economist Don Boudreaux explains, most of our prosperity is due to specialization and trade.

Boudreaux points out that Adam Smith was one of the first to recognize the causes of prosperity in 1776. But the question is why did no one notice it before? A partial reason is because they uncritically accepted the old ideas about economics that had been handed down for millennia. If you believe, as Dante taught, that lending with interest would put you in the same place in hell as the sodomites, you aren’t likely to create the modern banking system.

The reason someone like Dr. Bradley can say that “markets account for human sinfulness better than anything else so they’re the best” is because she’s both read Augustine and studied the effects of markets on human society since the 1800s.

That is also why so many of us Christians who read about economics both before and after the 1800s are so adamant about rejecting socialism (including social democrat and democratic socialism forms). We have combined what we know from reading the ancients with what we have learned from studying the moderns—including observing modern economies.

We don’t reject the old books, we merely recognize their limits. Just as we know why you can’t take Hampden town simply because you learned tactics from reading Xenophon, we understand what happens when you try to create the conditions for flourishing by relying solely on the economic thinkers who came before Marx.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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