The Dismal Science

This description of Economics was coined by Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle in 1849. Joe Carter at The Evangelical Outpost has an excellent Christian perspective on market economics.

Attitudes toward the market economy, however, have less to do with the political spectrum than they do with the conception of who should retain control over economic life. Progressives, fearing that no one is in control and that powerful will take advantage of the weak, believe the state must step in to prevent inequitable and unjust outcomes. Conservatives (as we would define them today), by contrast, put their faith in the system itself and believe that left unhindered by the state, is sufficient to lead to the best possible end result. Libertarians, who view markets as morally neutral, contend that the individual, when allowed total liberty, will usher in the ideal end state. While all of these positions have some merit, they all ultimately fail

If governmental intervention is not the answer, how then should we show concern for the poor? By providing them the opportunities, the resources, and the freedom to more fully enter the market economy. As McGurn points out, “For the poor the real danger is almost never markets and almost always the absence of them.” “It strikes me as not a coincidence,” says McGurn, “that the God who made thinking beings in his own image appears to have put us in a world in which our wealth and well-being depend not only on our own freedom but that of our neighbors.”

How odd it is that we believe that free markets are beneficial for our own lives yet reject it as a solution for our neighbors. We wouldn’t accept having our own economic freedom and access to markets stifled by an intrusive government yet we often believe this is the best option for “the poor”, whether in our own inner cities or on the continent of Africa. Why is there two sets of standards for how to increase freedom and prosperity?

Surely it is arrogant for us to pray for miracles to relieve drought and poverty when God has already handed us the means to do so – markets. Again, however, we rarely hear moral criticism of those who refuse the miracle of the market and insist that God (or someone) perform the far greater miracle of making economic planning work.

This raises an interesting question for Christians: Does God’s sovereignty not extend to markets? If so, then why do we expect, as Morris says, for God to circumvent the institution he has created and provided for our well-being by providing a “miracle?” The primary reason, in my opinion, is that we no longer think theologically about economics.

I admit a personal distaste for theorizing about economics, having been utterly bored by it at school. But it is an important moral topic for Christians. Money, Sex and Power are three forces driving humans; the church seems to be focussed only on Sex. But Money and Power are equally damaging to people when abused.

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2 thoughts on “The Dismal Science

  1. Interesting post. It’s nice to see you back after a long absence from the blogosphere 😉

    Have you read any Bob Goudzwaard? I think you would find him interesting.

    I think it is important that the government provide certain basic infrastructure to people in order that they are able to participate in the market.

    In the first world that means education and healthcare.

  2. Thanks Iain,

    Nope, never heard of that Goudzwaard character. I certainly agree with the provision of education and healthcare.

    But when Chesterton wrote his many screeds chiding the wealthy and promoting redistribution, I doubt he envisioned the situation today where the government provides far more than that … to the detriment of its other roles:
    – serving the public, not lording over them
    – providing for defense of the realm
    – providing for defense of the public, ie police

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