But what about sin? more from #ActonU

But what about sin? more from #ActonU June 27, 2015


More of our reports from the recent Acton University conference. Read the first six posts here:

  1. The refreshing difference
  2. We can’t create heaven on earth
  3. “Don’t immanentize the eschaton”
  4. Is there really enough to go around?
  5. Letting our Jesus Freak flag fly
  6. Was Jesus a socialist?

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

First of all, my friend Brandon Harnish has straightened me out about Austrian economics and “methodological individualism.” He says that Austrian economics is about “if-then” scenarios rather than predicting how people will behave. Austrian economics is distinct from many other forms of economics in not treating people as “incentive maximizers.” That makes a lot more sense of the concept of “methodological individualism” and the way Reed (and others) described it.

The issue that primarily concerns me, however, is not so much whether a given economic theory is sound as how our understanding of economics interacts with our Christian faith. Evolution, again, is a helpful parallel. The best strategy for transmitting one’s genes, from a Darwinian point of view, may not be one that we want to emulate individually or encourage on a societal level (in part because no reasonable and moral person consciously places “transmitting my genes” as their highest priority in life, above such things as acting with justice and compassion). So even granted that the economic models favored at Acton best describe how the world works, it does not follow that they should be a guide either to personal behavior or to public policy.

There are two lines of argument for why free-market economics should, in fact, be fostered and encouraged. One is that free-market economics is the best way to lift people out of poverty and enable them to “flourish.” If you want to help the poor, then you should start small businesses, not government programs or even, perhaps, soup kitchens (not that anyone at Acton is against soup kitchens, but they reasonably see them as a short-term solution).

Linked to this is the argument that the wealth of the world is not a static “pie” such that more for one means less for another. Wealth can be created. The total amount of wealth in the world can be increased. Hence, people who increase their own wealth are not necessarily harming others–they may in fact be helping them.

Clearly, on a pragmatic level, this is a powerful argument. There is no doubt that capitalism has greatly increased the amount of wealth in the world and has raised the material standard of living for many people. And this rise in the material standard of living has non-material benefits as well–generally speaking, richer societies are more peaceful, more likely to be ruled by law, kinder to the environment, and so on. Clearly the way we try to help the poor should be shaped by an understanding of economic reality and should be focused on helping them stand on their own two feet. That much should not be controversial.

The problem with this line of argument is that, taken on its own, it’s fundamentally utilitarian. This is where the pragmatic, economic side of Acton seems to me to run up against the ontological foundations laid by Gregg and other “foundational” speakers. If, as Miller said in the second foundations lecture, the common good is not a utilitarian calculus, then we have to ask more questions about economic policy than simply “does it increase the total amount of wealth” or “does it make the average person better off.”

From a virtue ethics point of view, we have to ask “what kind of people are our economic practices turning us into?”

This is where the second line of argument comes into play. In this argument, put very well by Fr. Sirico in the closing plenary, free-market economics corresponds to the truth of the human person because it celebrates human freedom and creativity. Economic activity is a chaotic interaction of billions of free, unpredictable human choices that gives rise to patterns of spectacular beauty as well as utility. (Jeffrey Tucker’s witty, mesmerizing lecture on technology and the market in history was a rhapsodic expression of this view). Acton speakers vary on what kinds of limits they want to put on market activity, but all seem to see it as essentially a form of “subcreation” that expresses the goodness of the created order.

But what about sin? As Christians, do we not believe that the created order is, in fact fallen? Do we not believe that sin affects, on a fundamental level, the way in which we interact with each other and with the non-human goods of the created world? If we follow Augustine, then sin is fundamentally about disordered desire–the misuse of created goods in order to stoke our own egos rather than glorifying God.

And historic Christianity, whether Augustinian or not, has consistently held the desire for wealth (not the possession of wealth) to be one of the aspects of human behavior affected in a particularly profound way by sin. The great Byzantine theologian St. Gregory Palamas, for instance, distinguishes “love of possessions” from “the desires that help men live,” seeing the former as less natural and thus more intrinsically “blameworthy.” Indeed, he concludes, “there is no justification in aspiring to become rich even in a good cause.” (“To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia,” sect. 31, in the Philokalia vol. 4, trans. Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Faber and Faber 1995, pp. 304-5.)

More in my next post on the Biblical and traditional teaching on wealth and how the speakers at Acton address it.

ertEdwin Woodruff Tait is a freelance writer, farmer, and consulting editor for Christian History magazine. He blogs at Ithilien and tweets as @Amandil3. (Extra points if you get the Tolkien reference.)

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