It can actually be quite instructive to consider economics not as a science or sociology but as a religion, complete with doctrines, priests, and constant references to faith. So says John Rapley in his essay from The Guardian last July.
“Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle” … it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.”
If the economy is the new religion of the masses, then economists are its priestly class replete with their own denominational squabbles and even scandals. The economists are like priests,
“…giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment. For a long time, they seemed to deliver on that promise, succeeding in a way few other religions had ever done, our incomes rising thousands of times over and delivering a cornucopia bursting with new inventions, cures and delights.”
Economics dominates modern ethical discourse. Profitability now equates with ethical virtue. The bottom line ethical question for Western society–the question behind all of our other questions–is no longer “what is true?” or “what is good?” and certainly not “what is beautiful?” The bottom line ethical question of our day is “what is profitable?”
If economics really is a religion, then it is by far the most successful and widely held belief system in human history. Rapley writes,
“With nearly every country on the planet adhering to the same free-market playbook, and with university students flocking to do degrees in the subject, economics seemed to be attaining the goal that had eluded every other religious doctrine in history: converting the entire planet to its creed.”
Perhaps it is time for our society to rethink the sovereignty we’ve granted economics. Their predictive and organizational powers were at an all-time high just before the 2008 collapse. Some economists even bragged that they had essentially depression-proofed the economy. They were wrong.
This reality inspires Rapley’s most stinging critique:
“The hubris in economics came not from a moral failing among economists, but from a false conviction: the belief that theirs was a science. It neither is nor can be one, and has always operated more like a church. You just have to look at its history to realise that.”
I’ve written about this extensively. Free market capitalism is a powerful modern myth. There is no such thing as a “free market.” All markets are created and governed by rules that restrict some forces and unleash others. This fact cannot be emphasized enough.So, when economists appeal to the “free market” to justify a specific order to our society, they are really appealing to a set of rules they themselves have designed. In this way our modern economists are not unlike the priests of the pre-reformation Roman Catholic Church. An appeal to church doctrine was identical to an appeal to God.
Modern economic dogma is presented as though it is a force of nature, holy and self-evident. In truth economic dogma is created by the economic priestly class, and designed specifically to benefit the priests and their billionaire patrons.
Observance to modern economic dogma, Rapley notes, “is enforced in much the same way that a religious doctrine maintains its integrity: by repressing or simply eschewing heresies.”
Yet it’s easy to demonstrate that this view of economics struggles with internal coherency. Economic dogma is not built on natural data as is the case with physics or medicine. Economics is built on human data generated in much the same way as church dogma.
Hence economic data is open to wide variations in interpretation. Rapley says, “just as you can find a quotation in the Bible that will justify almost any behaviour, you can find human data to support almost any statement you want to make about the way the world works.” This situation is perfect if you are selling consulting services or self-help books. It’s not so great if you are part of the working class. The priests control access to the money god. The priests make the rules. They control the system.
Sadly, the priestly class of economists and their friends in the political class have not designed economic systems that are fair for everyone. Appeals to individual liberty, limited government and the free market ring quite hollow today. These doctrines have given us an economy that no longer works for average people. CEO pay has grown 90 times faster than typical worker pay since 1980. The world’s 8 richest men hold more wealth than half the world’s population put together. In America the top 1 out of 1000 households holds about 90% of the wealth.
Perhaps the time has come for an economic reformation. We could characterize modern day figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as the Luther-Erasmus one two punch of a growing economic reformation.
As long as the billionaire class continues to buy and sell politicians (the ruling class), whose laws and positions are substantiated by economic research produced by economists (the priestly class) then this religion of economics will continue to slide toward corruption. As it does things will continue to get worse for the working class. At some point American society will reach a tipping point. Sooner or later the reformation will come.