Business & Economy

Book Review of Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices

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Mark Sampson

Victor V. Claar and Robin J. Klay are concerned that much Christian reflection on economics is uninformed by basic economic principles and theory. This, they argue, leads to unhelpful policy recommendations that contradict basic economic concerns. As a response to this, the two authors have written Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices (InterVarsity Press, 2007). They approach a variety of issues by outlining the relevant economic facts, giving an overview of the mainstream economic options, and then offering a Christian perspective.

The authors offer a rigorous defence of the free-market on both economic and Christian grounds. They argue that unrestricted markets direct resources, including labour and capital, to where they can be optimally used. Markets foster creativity and innovation, rectify consumption problems, create jobs and generally benefit all who participate in them. Central to the authors’ argument is the claim that “By themselves, markets do not produce either virtue or depravity” (p. 45). They are simply the product of millions of individual choices. It is those choices that form the moral content of society. This is where “strong religious and cultural institutions” become significant. They cultivate the virtue in society that is then expressed in choices, which the market simply makes possible. However, the authors step beyond the standard defence of the “neutrality” of the market by arguing that markets are “one way in which God’s providence works to sustain and bless humankind” (p. 47). In attempting to make the “invisible hand” more visible by announcing its owner, Claar and Klay have essentially baptized capitalism.

Having outlined their theoretical stance, the authors then approach a number of issues such as the role of government, natural resources, globalization, income disparity, and macroeconomics. There is an almost utopian strain in the authors’ arguments about how the free-market can benefit the world. They contend that, “By the time oil becomes so scarce that no one can afford it, no one will want to buy it anyway because we will soon be discovering better, cheaper, cleaner technologies…” (p. 98). Regarding global poverty, they argue, “the only practical way out of poverty includes more globalization not less” (p. 144). This is because “[m]arkets are often providentially used to accomplish what no amount of Christian charity or political activism alone can achieve” (p. 161).

The book’s main strength lies in the ability of the authors to explain mainstream economic theory in a way that is immediately accessible to all. However, their conclusions are continually hampered by the absence of theological analysis of mainstream economic theory and practice. The authors continually assert that the good of capitalism is that it builds an economic system based on individual freedom of choice. This is an unquestioned good in this book, yet theologically it is deeply problematic. The centrality of “choice” must be questioned. Consider the authors’ claim, “The plain truth is that no nation can achieve material, cultural and moral greatness unless it offers extensive freedom of choice to workers, consumers, producers and voters” (p. 35). The philosophical foundation for this claim, which is the central claim of capitalism, is located firmly in a utilitarian ethic. The “moral good” that is choice lies in the utilitarian claim that rational individuals will always choose for pleasure and against pain. Therefore, the moral responsibility for economists and politicians is to give individuals as much choice as possible. This results in the fundamental assumption of neo-classical economics: humans are rational individuals seeking to maximize pleasure. It is certainly not a coincidence that in a society dominated by the logic of capitalism, the Christian virtues of koinonia, caritas, and agape seem noticeably absent.

Claar and Klay seek to provide a Christian apologia for the free market. This is undermined by the enlightenment-based assumption that economics is a value-free science. As the foundations of the enlightenment crumble in academic discourse, there is the realization that all claims are value-laden, including those of mainstream economic theory. It is methodologically problematic to begin with mainstream economic theory and later attach Christian principles and values. Christian reflection on economics must unashamedly begin with theological convictions and then work from there. Under that rubric, it certainly is possible to argue for some sort of market economy, though perhaps it is more difficult to argue for a capitalist one.

Those interested in further unpacking Sampson’s critique of value neutrality should read Paul Williams’s article on Capitalism, Religion, and the Economics of the Biblical Jubilee.

Source: Marketplace Institute



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