What Is ‘Economic Man’? – OpEd


By Kishore Jayabalan*

Intellectuals are often vocal critics of capitalism. Most of them lean left politically, so it is easy to identify anti-capitalism with progressivism. It is therefore no coincidence that the modern welfare state has been administered by elites eager to correct supposed market failures on the way to a more egalitarian society. Leftist elites tend to be university professors rather than captains of industry, but elites they remain.

How, then, are we to explain the growing dissatisfaction with capitalism among those hardy band of intellectuals who call themselves conservatives?  Has capitalism changed in some fundamental way so as to lose their support? Or was it always seen as the ugly sister to be tolerated for the sake of the alliance against communism? Perhaps there is something about intellectuals, regardless of their political affiliation, that leads them to look down upon moneymaking as the driving force of society.

In a sense, this is nothing new. Historian Jerry Z. Muller explains the ways intellectuals have criticized capitalism in his book The Mind and the Market. Nowadays anti-market sentiment is especially strong among one small but influential subset of intellectuals: conservative theologians. See, for example, the latest issues of the religious-political journal First Things as well as Acton’s own Journal of Markets and Morality.

First Things was founded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a strong defender of the market economy. His book Doing Well and Doing Good was instrumental in my decision to become Catholic, serving as a bracing antidote to the nonsense contained in documents such as the 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All. Fr. Neuhaus’s journal convinced religious-minded people that capitalists are called to contribute to the common good by being good capitalists, i.e. they needn’t renounce their professions or pay reparations for their sins.

The current editor of First Things, R.R. Reno, takes a different approach. In his column on Michael Novak’s book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Reno writes, “Capitalism is not a choice, as it seemed to me and many others when Michael wrote his book. It is our fate—and our problem.” Reno once appreciated the historical necessity of linking economic freedom with democracy institutions and a religious moral culture; times have changed, however. Capitalism has become a “rigid ideology,” so we need to reconsider economic freedom and the ends it serves. Reno concludes, “What Michael Novak failed to recognize—what we must acknowledge—is that the dynamism of free market capitalism invades, overturns, refashions, and sometimes destroys these places of rest.”

My Acton colleague Sam Gregg has already replied to Reno by calling for religious conservatives to join free-market advocates working for ordered liberty rather than reject capitalism. Nothing is fated for free societies, so the task is still ours to undertake. We are pawns of Wall Street no more than Eastern Europeans were pawns of the Politburo. In rethinking capitalism, we will need both a vision of the free and virtuous society as well as policies that move us toward it, theologians as well as economists.

Bringing theologians and economists together is precisely what happens in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets and Morality. It is devoted to a discussion of John Maynard Keynes and moral issues, an important topic especially since a ranking Vatican official recently called for the renewal of Keynesian policies and a “new New Deal.” Whether this is a sound course of action depends on 1) whether Keynes was right in his economic thinking and prescriptions and 2) if so, whether they are applicable to our times. (I will soon be sending Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man to Archbishop Tomasi.)

Two articles in the issue are particularly relevant to the theological critique of economics: “Homo Economicus versus Homo Imago Dei” by Brian Fikkert and Michael Rhodes and “Homo Economicus as Fallen Man: The Need for Theological Economics” by Robert C. Tatum. The first sees these two anthropological visions of man as diametrically opposed; the second sees some convergence. What appears clear to me is that theologians and economists often speak past each other, rarely finding common terms to discuss common concerns.

One notable exception to this problem was the late Paul Heyne, an economist who was trained as a theologian and co-author of the textbook The Economic Way of Thinking. In his last lecture (h/t Jordan Ballor), Heyne named six errors moralists make in criticizing capitalism:

  1. 1) Overemphasizing motives, neglecting consequences
  2. 2) Identifying selfishness with self-interest
  3. 3) Not realizing competition results from scarcity, not capitalism
  4. 4) Not seeing how prices provide information to coordinate activities
  5. 5) Not understanding that justice is applied differently in the family, the       community and the economy
  6. 6) Thinking divine perspectives can be applied directly to human affairs.

Like Reno, Heyne admits that markets destroy communities but adds that we shouldn’t expect markets to do otherwise. The individuals who live in local communities form them with their habits and behavior, i.e. culture. Culture molds society as much as, if not more than, economics for Heyne.

Free-market advocates, however, should admit that economics and “the economic way of thinking” also affect culture in no small ways. They need to address questions such as: What social or cultural factors keep economics in check, especially in a society that places commerce at its center? What happens when economics overcome these limits and comes to dominate at the expense of other goods? What are the downsides of the unlimited acquisition of wealth and an increasingly financialized economy?

Having studied political philosophy in graduate school and then working for the Holy See, I quickly became accustomed to hearing these types of concerns about economics, which was my initial field of study and profession. I didn’t and still don’t have many answers but I’m no longer surprised to hear them. (While economic ignorance is a problem, economic arrogance is probably a bigger one, as the economist Irwin Stelzer admits.) This type of questioning is good for economics both as an intellectual exercise and as a means to serving the common good of society.

Politics and religion often take a condescending view of economics and assume it can be directed and controlled at will, which the Keynesians were all too willing to allow. Elites tend to like dealing with other elites at the expense of the people. The problem is that the people need to work and will find ways to do so regardless of what their betters tell them and whichever models they may design.

Thankfully non-Keynesian economists take a much more humble approach to what can be known and dictated to a free people. Dare I call such economists populists?  Maybe there is a way to bridge the growing divide between conservatives and libertarians after all.

About the author:
*Kishore Jayabalan
is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute’s Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. [email protected]

This article was published by the Acton Institute

Acton Institute

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is named after the great English historian, Lord John Acton (1834-1902). He is best known for his famous remark: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Inspired by his work on the relation between liberty and morality, the Acton Institute seeks to articulate a vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing. To clarify this relationship, the Institute holds seminars and publishes various books, monographs, periodicals, and articles.

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