Hunter Baker has a new column at ChristianityToday.com named “Evangelical Minds,” and in it he examines issues of evangelical interest in academics and higher education. Today’s piece quotes me at some length on the question of evangelicals and economics, related to the firing of a professor at Colorado Christian University (scroll down to the final section titled, “Christian Economics?”).
A number of comments have been floating around the blogosphere related to the news coming out of Colorado last week that a professor at Colorado Christian University was terminated because “his lessons were too radical and undermined the school’s commitment to the free enterprise system.”
Andrew Paquin, who taught global studies, reportedly assigned texts by Jim Wallis and Peter Singer. That in itself shouldn’t be enough to get someone fired. The context within which such authors were assigned and how the professor led the discussion could potentially be enough, however. If Wallis’ politics were presented as Gospel truth, by the professor, that would be problematic.
Ted Olson at the CT Liveblog takes this occasion to ask whether there is an “evangelical view of economics.” In a post titled, “A Capitalist Creed?” Michael Simpson similarly says the CCU story is “quite bothersome.” I’ll note in passing that Christians with an explicitly conservative view of economics and political matters would have difficulty getting into the place of even being hired, much less fired, from teaching positions at any number of secular, mainline, and liberal institutions.
But aside from the particulars of the CCU case, of which there are precious few pertinent details available, I’ll attempt to answer the question that both Olson and Simpson seem to be getting at: is there a uniquely evangelical Christian view of economics? Yes and no.
The answer is no if what you mean is there a single, coherent, overarching and exhaustively detailed economic system that is unequivocally endorsed by the evangelical tradition’s view of Scripture.
From the fact that there is no single evangelical economic worldview, it does not follow that every economic option is equally valid. There are economic systems or worldviews that are unequivocally excluded by evangelical views on these matters.
One such set of excluded views would be economic materialism, exemplified for instance in Marxism. And as I’ve said before another economic worldview incompatible with biblical Christianity is anarcho-capitalism.
So, is there (or ought there be) an (unofficial, unstated) evangelical creed on economics? Again, it depends on how you view creeds.
If you see them as doctrinal statements that define the parameters of orthodoxy, setting up the boundaries beyond which is heterodoxy, but within which there is freedom for diverse expression and thought, then sure, there is and should be an evangelical economic creed. It should exclude economic positions that are incompatible with the basic tenets of Christian faith and practice.
But if you think that a creed is a statement of “rigid” orthodoxy that only validates a single, univocal position, then no, there is no single “evangelical economics.” But I happen to think that view of creeds and confessions is itself defective.
No doubt feeding the fears of those who believe that global corporations pose the greatest threat to the future flourishing of humanity, such multi-nationals are beginning to hire their own economists, much like governments have their own financial and economic experts.
See, for instance, this interview on the WSJ Economics Blog with UC-Berkeley economist Hal Varian, who has taken a position as chief economist with Google, Inc.
Where will Varian be focusing his attention? In his words, “I think marketing is the new finance.”
A new film titled “Things of the Spirit,” takes a fresh look at the life and presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge, understandably, received renewed interest during the Reagan era of American politics. Coolidge is perhaps best known for his laissez-faire economic policies and the famed moniker, “Silent Cal.” What makes “Things of the Spirit” different is that it’s produced by a self avowed “liberal filmmaker,” John Karol.
Karol penned a piece last week for the New York Sun titled, “The Case for Cal.” When he first set out to tackle Coolidge years ago he admitted to not knowing all that much about his subject. “What little I knew of Coolidge came from New Deal historians who view him as a somnambulant capitalist tool whose presidency served only as a prelude to disaster,” Karol said. Here are some fascinating observations from his article, which puts Coolidge in a new light:
– If I had to fashion a sound bite to describe him, I would call Coolidge a political minimalist who chose to guide rather than legislate.
– It is on economic matters that Coolidge is most remembered. World War I and its aftermath caused skyrocketing national debt. At the same time, the top income tax rate soared to 73%, stifling private investment. Post-war America was a chaos of strikes, race riots, anarchist bombings, inflation, and unemployment.
– Harding, Coolidge, and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon sought to kick-start the economy by reducing the top marginal tax rate to 25%. They did. Revenues increased dramatically, presaging Arthur Laffer by half a century. Both presidents ran surpluses in all their annual budgets. By the time Coolidge left office, the national debt had been cut by one-third.
– New Deal historians maintain that the tax cuts of the 1920s reversed the progressive tax policies of Woodrow Wilson. Far from it. Exemptions increased so much that by 1927 almost 98% of the American people paid no income tax whatsoever. When Coolidge left office in 1929, wealthy people paid 93% of the tax load. During Wilson’s last year in office they had paid only 59%.
– Less remembered, and less appreciated by contemporary politicians, was Coolidge’s aversion to farm subsidies. At great political risk, Coolidge twice vetoed the popular McNary-Haugen farm subsidy bill.
Karol also makes note of Coolidge’s aggressive actions in cleaning up the scandals from Harding’s administration, and his very progressive views on race for his time. Coolidge was known as a man of immense integrity. He even cut the name tags out of his suits when he asked his wife to resale them, so not to profit from his name and position.
On the film’s website, columnist and radio talk show host Michael Medved, calls “Things of the Spirit,” the finest documentary he has ever seen. George Gilder notes, “The film completely dispels the cliché notion of New Deal historians that Coolidge was a small-minded materialist “Babbitt” whose Presidency served only as a prelude to disaster. See it. You’ll never think the same way about Calvin Coolidge again.” Former Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis also weighs in with a glowing review.
Calvin Coolidge in many ways represents the old fashioned idealism of a largely forgotten generation of common sense and practicality. In a sound clip provided by Michigan State University from 1920, Coolidge warns the country about the dangers of excessive taxation and federal spending. This high quality recording is worth a listen.
Other memorable statements from Coolidge:
– I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.
– The strength of our country is the strength of its religious convictions.
– If only his countrymen would fulfill their basic obligations to one another, most of their problems would take care of themselves.
The theme for Coolidge’s presidential reelection in 1924 was, “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” Today that would sound like a presidential campaign slogan under a global warming platform. Perhaps as the government becomes more regulatory and intrusive, and far less practical, the lessons of Keeping cool with Coolidge will echo louder still.
Chuck Colson locates the perennial problem of human unhappiness with the inability to perceive where happiness truly comes from. There’s the economic argument that while “increased prosperity can’t make you happy, it can, ironically, contribute to unhappiness,” an argument which Colson says, “doesn’t tell us anything about what makes people happy in the first place. Thus, it can’t tell us why increased prosperity doesn’t translate into increased happiness.”
As I’ve noted before, the economic argument is helpful for locating a source of our unhappiness: our fallen, selfish nature. Colson is addressing the ontological question of where happiness comes from. The economic argument is addressing the epistemological question of where humans think happiness comes from. The two answers are related and complementary.
And Colson is ultimately right. As long as humans look only to material concerns for the questions of happiness, we’re doomed to miss the mark. A new monograph from the IEA, Happiness, Economics and Public Policy, underscores this, concluding that “measured happiness does not appear to be related to public spending, violent crime, property crime, sexual equality, disability, life expectancy or unemployment.”
“The stark fact is that, as Helen Johns and Paul Ormerod demonstrate, the difficulties in measuring society’s happiness are insurmountable, and policymakers should not claim that they can control and increase happiness through public policy decisions.”
I have argued for many years now that free markets are intrinsically good. I have tried to engage this issue with Christians but many are either not interested or do not see any importance in the pursuit. I know markets can become bad masters when people lack virtue. I also know that the alternatives to free markets have littered the twentieth century with more death than any single cause in human history. (Think socialism, fascism and Marxism.) And representative democracy, a republic of just laws, is not perfect either but it sure beats the alternatives. Shared power is always better than control by the one or the few. Social engineering and economic planning by an elite and powerful few strips us of both human dignity and true freedom.
Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, is the author of a new book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics, that has a significant bearing on how we should think about the political side of economic concerns in America. Professor Caplan concludes, in words that are not at all comforting to me personally, that most Americans cast their votes on the basis of irrational biases about economics. This, he reasons, is why candidates who oppose free markets, free trade, profits and immigration win. Sadly, I am quite sure that he is right about this point.
Creators Syndicate writer John Stossel, in reviewing the professor’s new book, says: "People tend to acquire wrong opinions about economic policy packaged in worldviews they inherited while growing up." Since people resist, and often strongly, having their own worldview challenged or changed they will vote for those candidates who make them feel good. Stossel concludes that this means "They will vote irrationally." I have long sensed that this was true on an intuitive level but the professor’s argument tends to fortify what I had only sensed but not quite had a handle on how to argue my case well. Simply put, most voters see no compelling reason to vote otherwise since their choices in elections bear no direct consequence on their lives, at least as they understand their lives. Gloomily Stossel concludes, "When irrationality is free, people will indulge their biases." (more…)
In a recent CT column, David P. Gushee, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University, writes, “I am becoming convinced that creation care and what we evangelicals usually call “stewardship” are basically the same thing.” That’s precisely why Acton prefers the term “environmental stewardship” to “creation care.”
But this connection between stewardship and care for the environment means something else too. Gushee concludes that “economic and environmental stewardship go together, hand in glove. Perhaps this rediscovery will motivate us to preserve the health of our planet.”
I’ve made that argument here, “Stewardship and Economics: Two Sides of the Same Coin,” where I contend, “If we hold a biblical view of economics and stewardship, we will not be tempted to divorce the two concepts but instead will see them as united.”
Gushee may find, however, that as his realization of the connection between responsible stewardship and sound economics really sinks in, the positions of the Evangelical Climate Initiative and the Evangelical Environmental Network are in need of some modifications…such that “when economics tells us that there are much more imminent threats and opportunities than global warming, the proper approach to Christian stewardship is to heed these priorities and work to effect changes in the most pressing areas.”
Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, trans. William Wilson, ch. XIV:
Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. Are you able to make a right use of it? It is subservient to righteousness. Does one make a wrong use of it? It is, on the other hand, a minister of wrong. For its nature is to be subservient, not to rule. That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its possessing voluntary choice. And this is the mind and judgment of man, which has freedom in itself and self-determination in the treatment of what is assigned to it. So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are incompatible with the better use of wealth. So that, becoming virtuous and good, he may be able to make a good use of these riches. The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul.
Wealth, like liberty, is not an ultimate end in itself. Wealth is the good product of a rightly ordered economic system. Liberty is the result of a properly functioning political structure. These are both penultimate realities.
But to what end are wealth and liberty (economics and politics) to be subsumed? I know no better answer than to say, “To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.”
Speaking of Milton Friedman, here’s a link to a paper that looks interesting: “Transcendental Commitments of Economists: Friedman, Knight, and Nef” (HT: Organizations and Markets).
Acton president Robert A. Sirico’s reflection on Friedman’s legacy last year noted, “Friedman was a true Enlightenment disciple and feared that truth claims could lead to coercion.”
A contingent from Austria that attended last year’s Acton University produced a video on their experiences:
Want to learn more? Register for next month’s Acton University 2007 (June 12-15, 2007) today.
Applications are also open next month for the Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conference to be held in Sonntagberg, Austria, Sept. 20-23, 2007. Applications will be accepted June 1-July 1, 2007.