Discussions of Christian views of political and economic issues often break down because of “either/or” thinking. We too often imagine that there are only two or three ways to think about an issue. We then argue over which of the several options is the “most Christian” one.
It’s a mistake, however, to begin a discussion by accepting the current state of the discussion. If the God we confess is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then we can be confident that there are always more hopeful and redemptive ways forward that we have yet to discover.
In The Economy of Desire, Daniel Bell approaches economics from just this perspective.
Thus, rather than articulating a single alternative, the purpose is to provoke further reflection on the difference Christ makes to the economic life of those called as disciples of Christ. Said a little differently, it is not a blueprint for the world but a call for Christians to consider our economic lives in light of the faith we pray and practice. It is about the ordering of our desires so that we desire the good that is God and the role that economies play in that ordering (p. 28).
Discipleship is about the Christian community living now in accord with God’s economy in the midst of the worldly economies. This is to say, we labor and produce, acquire and distribute, buy and sell, trade and invest, lend and borrow, but we do so in a manner that is different from others insofar as we do so in a manner informed by a desire schooled in virtues such as charity, justice, and generosity. This means that in many cases, our laboring and producing and acquiring and exchanging and investing and lending will look very different from that of disciples of the free market (pp. 28-29).
And I just love this line:
. . . envisioning the church as an alternative economy where desire is being healed by participation in the divine economy of God’s eternal generosity” (p. 29).
I’m very much enjoying this book and its careful re-ordering and re-configuring of politics and economics in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
7 thoughts on “A Resurrection Vision of Economics”
It seems to me that Bell somehow pits Christian economics against free market economics. This is odd indeed. A free market allows Christians to make economic decisions that are both wise and virtuous. It also allows people to make decisions that are selfish and greedy.
What is the alternative to a free market? Is it a market that forces people to act in a way that pleases those in charge of it? We are getting some of that today in NYC with Mayor Bloomberg who has decided how large a soda one can purchase. His goal is good: to prevent obesity. But is it right for him to do this?
A market is either free or it restricts various activities. Is Bell, or yourself, want to make certain market transactions illegal? (We can exempt from this discussion things that society has deemed to be wrong – prostitution or illicit drugs.) If not, then there is no contradiction between those who want a free market and those who want their economic decisions to be in line with their faith.
Bell’s not making that move–pitting those two against each other as alternatives. He’s inquiring about the character of a Christian conception of economics that goes beyond those sorts of alternatives. There’s a sense in which even “free” markets aren’t necessarily free. There are forces that shape and constrain our desires and practices, so perhaps rhetoric of freedom in this regard only masks the ways we are actually bound and determined.
He’s not after taking this or that already-decided-upon view (i.e., “free market economics” or “regulated markets”) and advocating that it’s the Christian one. He’s taking a larger and longer view to ask about the sorts of dynamics and forces that constrain our desires and how markets of any sort actually serve global economic forces of capitalism.
Once again, the free market is simply the free exchange of goods and services. The “forces that constrain our desires” do not describe the free market itself but that which individuals and groups within that market provide. It is not markets that lead us astray but, as James says, “each one is tempted when by this own desire he is drawn away and enticed.”
The issue should not be discusses in terms of economics or markets but of ethics and morality. You seem to be stating that our exchanges are not free but bound deterministically which means beyond our control. Then it is suggested that the term ‘free market’ is simply rhetorical and not actual. We seem to be going in a place where we sort of a Calvinist type of determinism regarding what kind of soap that we buy.
Bell’s discussion focuses on matters prior to markets, though he also brings markets into his discussion. And he’s getting at larger and bigger issues than what you or I buy at the store. He’s focusing on ethics and morality (“desire” in a richer, more profound sense, not just “what I want”) and how cultural practices and shifts over the centuries shape habits of mind and heart. I haven’t gotten down to more practical aspects of his discussion just yet, but just to say that whereas you’re highlighting matters of micro-economics, he’s speaking at the macro-level.
I’m not suggesting that exchanges aren’t “free” in some sense. Just that at the global level, there are all sorts of hidden forces that shape and constrain how markets work (e.g., discussions of whether they should be “free” or “regulated” and how both participate fully in capitalism, regardless, and how both assume the primacy of the market) and Bell’s project is to subject these to Christian reflection. Again, he’s doing this–initially, anyway–at the macro-level.
Or, to say it another way, it is true that I have the “freedom” to go to Store A or Store B and also to buy Soap X or Soap Y. But these habits are always already set within wider cultural and global forces and matrices of relationships between markets. Bell’s getting at these larger issues and hopefully he’s going to home in on how this affects the decisions we make day-in and day-out.
Free and restricted markets are both micro- and macroeconomics. Of course, these are all technical terms which you are using improperly. Economics is the science of discovering how markets actually work versus what the desired outcome may be. There cannot be a Christian economics any more than there can be Christian biology.
There are not ‘hidden forces’ that constrain markets. Cultural habits (forces) do not constrain markets. The markets simply allow those things to be expressed.
The danger here is that Bell seems to be talking about societal forces that force us to act in a certain way that leads to some poor outcomes for many. This is approximately how Marx described the world. (Please understand that I am not calling anyone a Marxist. My education is in economics and the philosophy behind both free market and Marxist economic thinking.) You will find the same kind of ideas in Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine, which contains both Marxist economic and social analysis. This may be something that Bell wants to do (without becoming Marxian) but he is well-advised to know quite a bit more about economics and philosophy than he has displayed.
If Christians want to change the market they only need to change their behavior. To change their behavior they will have to change the way that they think. I hope that is what Bell has in mind, but he pretends to understand thing that he really does not.
It doesn’t sound like you’ve grasped what Bell is saying (at least from what I’ve quoted). Check out the book, though!