Evelyn De Morgan, The Worship of Mammon (1909)
An embarrassingly bad story on PM about economics versus Christianity spoiled my drive home on Good Friday. I suppose they need to present something about religion at Easter, but can’t they do better than this?
The hook for the story was Glenn Stevens’ revelations at some ‘charity breakfast’ and on Sunrise that he’s a practising Baptist. If you go along with the PM story this is supposed to raise the issue of whether you can reconcile Christian faith with neo-classical economic doctrines.
But if this summary of the Chairman’s comments is anything to go by, then, as far as Stevens himself is concerned, PM’s take is a total beat-up. He chats pleasantly about the influence of religion on his personal life; all the rational reader wants to know, however, is whether his religious convictions affect his decisions. And on this he has two things to say. The first is exactly what we want to hear, namely, that for all practical purposes his religion doesn’t influence his analysis:
Well I don’t think that I would draw those interpretations about the judgment of God and so forth as a result of economic downturns. I think what we’ve learnt is something that we knew or should have known all along which is that market economies are characterised by cycles, that human behaviour is driven by alternately greed and fear and that therefore economic systems are occasionally prone to this kind of instability.
Whew. He’s a just a healthy Keynesian, it seems. The second thing he has to say is as innocuous as one could come up with:
I think if you are a Christian God has given you certain capabilities to do a job, to earn a living and the Bible teaches that you should do that as if you are doing it for Him, because you are, and that’s my attitude.
So it turns out that Stevens’ comments don’t point to any tension whatsoever between religious belief and public service. What, then, do we learn from the rest of the PM story?
Well, next we are introduced to Paul Oslington, economist and theologian, who’s worried that economists’ focus on individual preferences seems to disqualify ‘philosophers or theologians’ from making their own judgements.
This has a muffled ring of truth to it, but it isn’t that clear what he’s talking about. Is he talking about individualism as a positive methodology — the supposition that behaviour is best explained in terms of individual motivations rather than institutions, social conventions, shared meaning systems, and so on? Or is he referring to the fetishising of individual preferences as a gauge of welfare, the refusal to go beyond the Pareto criterion, that pervades orthodox welfare economics?
These are both issues of fundamental importance, but it’s absurd to suggest that the main challenger to atomistic individualist methodology or Paretian welfare econonomics has been Christian theology. If a curious neoclassical asked for a reading list to broaden his horizons amd escape from the individualist paradigm, you could prescribe a thousand treatises on sociology, political science and secular ethical philosophy before you thought about adding any Christian ones.
Then we hear from Robert Fitzgerald and Frank Quinlan about the need for economics to learn more from theology (and, for good measure, vice versa), and how Adam Smith’s thinking straddled both.
But again it’s far from self-evident that the theological element in Smith’s thinking should inspire us all to return to theology. Smith was a deist, and as far as I’m concerned it’s to his credit that he and other moral philosophers of the enlightenment succeeded in escaping the bonds of theology to the extent that they did. Prior to Darwin it would have been difficult to conceive that complex, self-adjusting systems don’t need designers.
It seems to me that the whole PM story is a manifestation of a lingering prejudice that ethics is the province of religion, and that the churches in particular are the conscience of society. With this assumption firmly in place, then, as soon as the media discover that this businessman or that technocrat practices religion, then instantly a story is born — about the contest between material and moral imperatives, and how certain brave individuals undertake a tortuous balancing act on behalf of society.
There is still a residual notion in the popular mind that Christianity exhorts us to ‘Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.’ But the fact of the matter is that the Christianity of Luke 18:22 has long since been deemed impractical by the churches. Neither conventional morality nor mainstream Christianity objects to business or profits per se, provided they adhere to certain ethical guidelines. It might be avaricious to spend your fortune on your own consumption, or to risk other people’s money for your own enrichment. But the churches don’t teach that building a business empire is wrong..
Theology doesn’t provide any fundamental critique of capitalism nor offer any alternative system. Socialism and social democracy are secular movements which, on the whole, have been opposed by the churches even where they did not threaten religious freedom. On the plane of abstract theorising, rigorous theories of social justice have come from secular philosophy, not theology.
Of course the churches do a lot of good work ministering to the poor. But it shouldnt need to be pointed out all the tme that world’s three biggest philanthropists are non-believers. To quote Christopher Hitchens’ favourite challenge: “Name one moral act performed by a theist that could not have been performed by an atheist.”
People who wish to devote their lives to speculating on the nature and intentions of an all-powerful supernatural being have every right to do so. But as long as there is no evidence for those speculations, why should anyone else look to theology for enlightenment on the ethical dilemmas of contemporary capitalism?