Steven McMullen's What Difference Does Christianity Make In Economics?

Steven McMullen has just published a very interesting short article about a What Difference Does Christianity Make In Economics?.

Main Motivation: Usually Christian thinking in economics is split down the middle into those who welcome government action and those who hate it, but Steve McMullen wants to find some basic principles on which both sides of this conflict might agree.

Main Source: After looking at the 1990 The Oxford Declaration, he proposes five main principles for a Christian economics:

He elaborates on some of these, and especially on our universal concern about poverty, and then discusses how we should transcend the conflict.

It is a marvellous, succinct piece of work. However, I think I might make some suggestions to take his search further.

Is there something major missing in this? Might his desire to resolve the left-right conflict have narrowed his view, and especially his presuppositions?

Comments

AB: When I read it, 4 days after it emerged, there was one comment on the blog, which I will deal with first, because it draws attention to how we might and might not think about Christian impacts on economics:

Comment on Blog: "I look at these five and wonder, why there is nothing about the importance of understanding and fulfilling God's purpose in our lives. We are commanded in the Lord's Prayer - the importance of which all Christians surely recognize - to pray "Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven". Surely, then, we ought to prioritize these two points that Christ has highlighted for us, general enough that though we may dispute with one another regarding specific application, their inclusion as guidelines for formulation of policies and philosophy regarding economics, for example ("Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven") is an unquestionable given."

AB: A useful comment, about God's purpose, but it needs to be taken out of the realm of Christian theology and redirected to ask,

AB: I think that Steven McMullen has made a good start in answering that, which the commenter does not realise. At least some of the five points indicate something of God's kingdom, God's rule in the area of economics if, by "God's kingdom" we mean "the way God intended the economic aspect of Creation to function." That is the approach that I believe Christian economists should take.

RG: The only institution mentioned in McMullen's five principles is the Church, and that when he says "We have an obligation to respond to poverty", he doesn't offer any reflections on the roles of the various corporate "we"s in which each of us participates (families, businesses, states, churches, etc). // The intertwinement between economics and politics that's evidently prominent in this piece is something that I tend to think needs recovering in a robust way, recalling that the discipline we know as economics grew out of one called political economy.

AB: I like Intro, which leads up to his five principles: useful and thoughtful.

AB: McMullen's first four principles, the first four, I notice, are more juridical or ethical aspects of reality than economic. In principle, I like it that economics should take other aspects into account (as these do), especially the later aspects, but 4:1 against economics seems a bit unbalanced. I would hope for more about the economic aspect as such, alongside links to other aspects - and I believe it is possible to do so. For example, one that he misses, but which we have recognised, is the issue of value as such and its diverse kinds (though he recognises it partly in naming three of society's institutions) and the issue of measuring value (which Richard G and Neal O are good on). Those are centrally economic issues (though measuring is also quantitative). So are the issues of frugality / efficiency, and resource. e.g. What is a resource, from a Christian perspective (and how does this differ from the various non-Christian economic paradigms)?

AB: He asks us to allow "necessary vagueness" about some things - and I like that and agree with him. His list of what is not included is interesting, such as minimum wage or wealth creation. Food for thought. On what basis may we validly decide such things are not included in the list>? However, his reason for excluding them seems a bit too oriented to avoiding the usual conflicts. I agree that the contention between government and freedom should be avoided - but why? I return to that below.

AB: McKullen mentions universal Christian agreement about poverty. However, I have a problem with this, at a fundamental level (though not at the practical level). Since Jesus and many others were poor (e.g. Francis of Assissi, George Muller, various missionaries), I cannot see poverty as fundamentally an evil, at least not from the economic aspect (except perhaps absolute destitution that leads to starvation etc.). So what is evil about it? Is it not the juridical issue of injustice, and the ethical attitude of unconcern? And is not the assumption, among most cultures, that it is shameful to be poor, also an evil view? Should not shame be for those who are shameful in God's sight? However, that is

AB: Christians have spoken with one voice against materialism. I like that.

AB: He then has a section on polarization. I agree with him that we should avoid it. However, I don't find much indication in his article of any sound basis for avoiding it. What I mean by a sound basis is not a moral imperative that Christians should love one another etc. (which does enter his article), but rather an understanding of the root of the conflict and why that root is to be dug up.

AB: Here is an example of the kind of basis I would find helpful. I think the conflict is an expression of the Nature-Freedom ground-motive, which is a presupposition about the nature of things. The Nature-Freedom ground-motive is a false presupposition, not a valid one, even though it has dominated Western thought for 500 years. That it is false implies that the conflict is itself false. Also, that the alternative ground-motive, Creation-Fall-Redemptionm, is more in line with Reality and more solid, can point the way to how to address the conflict. Namely that Creation is diverse yet coherent, and the two sides in the conflict may be seen as two aspects thereof.

Conclusion

We need a more fundamental rethink of economics from a Christian perspective. While we are called to be "peacemakers", and hence look for ways to bring warring parties (socialist, capitalist) together, is not the conflict based on presuppositions that can be questioned, such as about the role of money, or the nature of poverty?

We are working on such a rethink, concerning how economics is embedded among all other aspects of society and reality, and should cope with multiple values, which McMullen partly covers, but also things he does not, such as the mandate of economics, how to incorporate the host of recent thinkers, the harm that economic activity can do, and responsibility to the whole of Creation.


This page created under the aegis of Christian Thinking in Economics, which aims at a major Rethink of Economics from a Christian and Philosophical Perspective.

Created: 24 August 2021. Last updated: 27 June 2022 made into web page and slightly tidied and parts reworded.