Is a Christian economics either desirable or possible?

A recent survey demonstrated that the majority of the UK population are now atheists. However there is another change which goes against the trend to a more secular society. Liberal theologians such as myself are seen increasingly as being in error and the new movement in theology is a return to what can only be termed pre-modern Christianity. A Christianity in which the Bible is seen as the last word, the ultimate expression of God’s will. A rejection of theologists such as Bultman who described the New Testament as a mythical expression of the essential Christian truths. This new movement in the protestant church is associated with the theologian Karl Barth. Within the church system  this return to Christian roots is mirrored in the growth of the pentecostal church movement, which is led by its members and dispenses with guidance of intellectual theologians. In fact I was taken aback when one Christian philosopher described Liberal theologians such as myself as being misled by demons.

Now this movement to return to the Christian roots is increasingly taking over the churches, if it becomes more successful it could result in a radical rethink of the approach to the all the sciences that deal with humanity. In England the Christian philosophers and theologians who advocate this approach believe that Christian philosophy should be at the centre of all thinking or as one philosopher said, ‘theology is about everything and philosophy is about one thing’.  Philosophers such as John Milbank believe that God’s creation of universe was not just a physical creation but  a creation of everything. One part of creation is the spiritual and all the truths about human existence and the nature of the universe are part of this spiritual creation. Truth is not found through rational enquiry but it recovered from the spiritual world created by God. The people best placed to discover these truths are the theologians, as those who seek a knowledge of God are best able to uncover God’s created truths. This philosophy is as John Milbank writes is a reversion to pre-modern Christianity, that is Christianity as it was before the renaissance.

John Milbank and his fellow radical orthodox Christians don’t want the abandonment of all the post renaissance disciplines such as economics, sociology and Cartesian philosophy, but rather a redrafting of them. The practices of these subjects should be informed by an understanding of God’s truths. This can be achieved in two ways, either economists, philosophers undergo an initial training in the truths of Christianity as discovered the theologians or Christian truths become part of the warp and woof of the subject. Universities in the 19th century were overwhelmingly Christian institutions and the economists of the period can be said to have been practising the first method of inclusion. The second would involve a radical redrafting of subjects such as economics if the practice of economics was to include Christian concepts and understandings.

Although the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were in the 19th century Anglican Christian institutions the practice of Christianity was limited to a knowledge and understanding of the ‘Thirty Nine Articles’ which were considered the essentials of the Anglican faith. If the student could recite them it was considered sufficient to warrant membership of the two universities. However if the radical orthodox Christians had control of the curriculum all students of economics would have go undergo a course of study in Christian doctrine. Economics would become a subsidiary of the department of theology. Once considered to be sufficiently imbued with Christian doctrine students would be allowed to study economics. Possibly if the radical orthodox christians had there way, the Philosophy, Politics and Economic degree (PPE) would become Theology, Politics and Economics (TPE).

However there is the warning from Aristotle when he writes at the beginning of ‘The Ethics’ that although he knows the meaning of the word good, that does not prevent him from doing bad actions. What he recommends is the instillation of virtue through habit, so good actions become habitual. In 2000 years of history Christianity has a very mixed record. There is for every compassionate and loving St. Francis, a St. Dominic, who use power and violence (in this example through the threat of and use of burning at the stake against heretics) to prevent error. George Bush’s war in Iraq was in part a Christian Crusade against the barbaric muslim regime of Saddam Hussein. In all probably compelling all economists to undergo a training in theology would at best have very mixed result, there would be a few St. Francis’s but many St.Dominic’s. Misunderstood and misguided Christian zealotry could cause as much distress as the misguided and malign doctrine of Neo-Liberalism.

A more fruitful approach would be to incorporate the key concepts of Christianity into economic practice. An economics which incorporated  Christian ethics would make it if not impossible, make it less likely that an economics such as Neo-Liberalism with its disregard for human life and dignity would ever become the dominant economic philosophy.  In the gospels Christ says that the supreme commandment is to ‘love the lord God’; a moral injunction which the theologian Caputo states is best demonstrated by loving your fellow man. What he advocates is agapé the disinterested love of our fellow men, or in the words of the Old Testament, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. If agape was accepted as the  ‘summum bonum’ of economics, practices such as Says Law would be removed from the subject. What Says states is that in the time of a recession any legislation that seeks to prevent incomes being cut is self defeating as it only creates more unemployment as employers lay off expensive workers. The same goes for the actions of trade unions as who try to protect workers wages in a recession. What for Says is the correct remedy is to let wages fall until they become so low that the struggling businesses can now afford to take on the newly cheapened workers. These newly employed workers will spend their incomes and generate increased demand which will kickstart the economy into a recovery. Although no politician or economist would ever say that they are a follower of Says, they do put his ideas into practice. The response of all governments to the crisis of 2008/9 was to cut incomes. In Britain this was achieved by freezing the pay of all public sector workers and by transferring many workers from permanent employment to lower paid self employment. The starkest example of this cruel policy is the austerity policy forced on Greece which saw pay reduced to levels that reduced many workers to poverty.

What so many politicians forget is that the practice of economics should aim at maximising the welfare of the people. (There is a section in economics textbook entitled ‘welfare economics’ , a section conveniently ignored by most practising economists.) Today so many economic policies do the reverse, they aim to minimise the welfare of the many so as to maximise the welfare of the privileged few. Policies such as increasing government expenditure in the times of recession (to offset the fall in demand and incomes caused by the recession) would be prioritised over those which recommend the cutting of the coat to fit the cloth. The problem of austerity policies is that the suffering they cause the great majority is rarely justified. Only in exceptional circumstances should the harsh austerity policies of today be applied, in such circumstances occurred at the end of World War II, when the government needed to direct the nations income into rebuilding a war damaged economy.

What economists most need is an ethical code built into their subject. Economists as with all people will only act in the best interests of mankind, if constrained to by the rules. Without such constraints they will not be inhibited from selfish policy recommendations that benefit them and their sponsors. Far too many economists are employed by consultancies (funded by wealthy individuals) or work for financial organisations that want to see economic policies drafted to promote their own selfish interests. When for example the government increased income tax for the wealthiest to 50%, there was a howl of protest from the economists who work for these self interested organisations. They all claimed that the increase in tax would be a disincentive to enterprise. Only the writing of a strict set of ethical rules into the subject would prevent its abuse at the hands of self interested individuals. At present the very lax approach of economists to ethics leaves it open to abuse, disinterested economic analysis all to often means disregarding the normal ethical rules that govern human conduct.

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