Towards a Christian Rethinking of Economics

Draft

Abstract:

This paper should be of interest to any reader, not just Christians. It emerged from discussions of the Mark Carney 2020 Reith Lectures that ranged widely over economics, and generated interesting findings, with the help of a Christian perspective. 1. Economics needs to, and can, be widened in a number of ways. 2. This widening can be systematized and made practical with the help of Dooyeweerd's philosophy. 3. It can be further enriched by elements of Christian thinking, especially on values, fall and redemption. This offers a framework and a way ahead, in which economics inherently takes account of important issues it traditionally has overlooked, such as biodiversity, climate change, unpaid household activity especially in the Two-Thirds World, and 'nebulous' values in society.

Introduction

Note: "Christian economics" does not take sides between socialist versus capitalist. Rather, it offers a much deeper critique of both and of the apparent opposition between them, and also offers hope for a solution.

Mark Carney's 2020 Reith Lectures offer a good launch pad for rethinking economics, especially in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has revealed something of the real value of things. A group of Christian thinkers began a series of Reith Lectures Discussions, over the first half of 2021 (that page also gives direct links to the Reith Lectures).

These discussions ranged very widely. While recognising economic theory, we also were open to the complexities of everyday and practical life and economic activity. As one participant put it, "we've covered so much and we've talked about so many aspects from so many different angles."

Therefore, "we need a framework to work with." Our findings, abstracted from the points made in our discussions, perhaps suggest where we might look for a suitable framework for understanding economic activity. It is inspired by Christian perspectives, and also makes use of a philosophy that was also so inspired.

We think it might make genuine contributions to mainstream economics, finance, economic policy, etc. in all its varieties,, without taking sides with currently entrenched camps.

The Findings

If you wish to access them, points from the first eight lectures are collected in Rethinking the Economy, with the help of a Christian Perspective under the following main headings (that they are 8 is coincidence):

These findings are drawn together in the Conclusion, which supplies links back into the other sections, which contain links into the discussions, so that readers may trace and check their progeny.

These findings were the source of the initial version of this page, from which it has developed.

Our Proposed Framework

1. Widening.

We found ourselves going beyond conventional contemporary ideas, in ways that contribute towards those who wish to rethink some of the basics of economics, finance, etc. As far as we can tell, this widening was motivated and guided by our common commitment to Christ, but not constrained by either traditional nor contemporary views held by Christians or the Church. We saw the following types of widening as needed.

The above sets a direction for rethinking economics from a Christian perspective, but it does not indicate how to go in that direction. To do this, to make this workable, so that people can actually carry this out, we need a systematic understanding of economic activity, healthy living environment, harm, value, and measurement.

Brief Explanation of the Widenings

Here is a brief explanation of the four widenings above, with indication of some thinkers that are already working in them, and this rethink relates to them.

Widen economics to consider all aspects of life. Examples: biodiversity, climate change, unpaid household activity and voluntary activity. Such things have been recognised by fringe economists for years, but have recently been discussed in the main stream - for example, respectively by The Dasgupta Review, Mark Carney's Reith Lecture on the Climate Crisis and the United Nations Consultation on the Structure of National Accounts - all of which featured in our discussions. These are factors with a meaningfulness that cannot be reduced to economics, and which operate in ways that economics cannot adequately explain. So economic theory and practice needs to know how to take them properly into account. However, we want to go beyond such thinkers in two ways.

Widen from presupposing good to acknowledging harm. Various products that boost the economy are harmful. Examples: our discussions included junk food, causing obesity, cheap clothing, depending on injustice, aviation, which generates greenhouse gas emissions and spreads pandemic viruses, meat production, which not only generates greenhouse emissions but results in loss of biodiversity, and gambling, which generates addictions and broken families. Authors have drawn attention to each. There are many other kinds of harm. Yet economic growth seems an absolute commitment by governments and economic theories alike, and these sectors contribute vast amounts to this growth (as well as to taxes) - and some are seen as contributing to national prestige or character. Junk food makers contribute taxes that support the health systems - which are needed to deal with the obesity they cause: as one of our participants put it, we're just going "round and round and round". The elephant in the economics room is: Should such sectors be shrunk rather than allowed to expand? Are our (wealthy) economies unhealthily bloated? Over the past decades, many have questioned whether growing GDP should be an aim of governments and economics. Example, Raworth's Doughnut Economics suggests a curb, "the ecological ceiling." That deals with just one harm, ecological, and ignores others. Some of the harm would seem essential - the example of rescue helicopters was given. But much comes from less-essential economic activity, especially as surfeit and resulting from greed. Mariana Mazzucato has drawn attention to some of that. We seek responsibility:

Widen to embrace both micro and macro economics together. The division between the economics of households/firms and that of nations, disucussed by Keynes, Fisher and others. Many economists recognise they overlap and affect each other, but understanding of their relationship seems to be limited. Mark Carney tries to cover both in his Value(s) book, but he seems to offer no clear conceptual framework by which this may be achieved. We seek:

Widen value, beyond just money and even beyond measurment. Quantitative measurement of value has driven economics practice and theory at its core for at least 2500 years: money, currency, etc. Yet much value in life cannot be so measured. "Money can't buy you love" as the song goes. In earlier and in non-Western cultures non-monetary value was maintained via other aspects and spheres of human activity but, as Mark Carney in Value(s) points out, the whole of society itself has become marketized, seeing everything in quantitative monetary terms. Dasgupta tries to bring some of the non-measurables into the mechanisms of measurement, by defining e.g. natural capital, as the Ecosystem Services approach also tends to, but Gunton et al. argue that some things have value even without serving humans. We seek:

That seems like a tall order. Even if we achieve some of these, it will be a contribution. Yet, we have five small reasons that give us hope of achieving something across all the desiderata above. (a) Real life actually has all these components in it, and so in principle it should be possible to gain some kind of understanding that amounts to 'wisdom'. (b) We recognise that theoretical approaches (such as economic theory, social theory) are fundamentally limited even though of some utility, so we do not begin with theory, but welcome "everything and anything", as one participant put it. (c) We approach the entire arena from a fundamentally different direction, in terms of both philosophical meta-system and religious presuppositions. (d) That thinkers are already addressing the desiderata suggests it is valid to seek them. (e) From our discussions, and from work in other fields, there is reason to believe that the fundamentally different approach we explore contains the natural ability to fulfil several of the desiderata together, rather than one after the other.

These percolated our discussions, and the following sections introduce some of that approach. We do not claim that it reaches answers to all questions. It might, however, open the door a tiny bit, so that others can go through and explore. In our Tenth Discussion the possibility of widening measurement was mooted.

# 2. Systematizing.

We need a systematic way to seek these desiderata. Where can we find a systematic understanding of economic activity that might help us? Over the centuries, many economic paradigms and theories have been proposed, and many more are emerging today in response to the failure of the earlier ones. Yet even some of these are insufficient, in that many just react to one perceived problem in past ideas. If we want to widen in the various ways mentioned above (and maybe others yet unknown), we need a systematic understanding of the very nature of the economic aspect of reality itself. In our discussions, we found two things that helped us in thinking this through: Christian values, and Dooyeweerd's aspects.

2.1 'Christian' Values?

It was suggested that we use a published set of "Christian values" to provide a systematic basis. It is that of Brian Edgar, in his Evangelical Alliance blog, in which he lists the following:

Though some of us wondered if other things should be included in the list (e.g. the Fruit of the Spirit, Galatians 5:22-23), we decided to take the list as it was and discuss: "How can each Christian value contribute to a healthy living environment?" and especially considering economic activity. This gave us practice at working out how such 'nebulous' values might be important to the economy.

However, we found ourselves going outwith this list, such as discussing kindness. The list omits some things from the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Things like biodiversity and the shepherding of the rest of Creation are missing. The list is not sacrosanct. (As mentioned below, its value to us was for reasons other than being a list.)

In our discussions, we found ourselves referring to Dooyeweerd's aspects, which is a list of ways in which the whole of Creation is meaningful and Good, which was very systematically drawn up from a Christian perspective.

3.2 Dooyeweerd's Aspects

So, our proposal is that this widening can be systematically explored and facilitated by using Dooyeweerd's philosophy, especially his ideas of aspects and multi-aspectual human functioning. (Those Christian values may be seen as functioning in various aspects.)

His fifteen aspects are ways in which things can be meaningful and good, and they are irreducibly distinct (cannot be reduced to each other):

As an example of how these might be applied to widen economics to consider other aspects, the following might be aspects of poverty, helping us to widen our view beyond mere "$1 per day" etc.:

Notice how some of the later ones exacerbate some of the earlier ones. That accords with Dooyeweerd's idea of inter-aspect dependency.

Dooyeweerd believed that the aspects are related in several ways, inherently: dependency, analogy and arguable a few others, and he set store by the order. Later aspects retrocipate earlier ones, which antecipate (or anticipate) later ones. McGibbon [2018] suggests that such "cipations" may be considered in pairs and triples to help us understand the meaningfulness and functioning of many things systematically. For example, we might understand:

Aspects along with their relationships offer a systematic way of understanding economic activity. The idea still has to be worked out, explored, critiqued and refined.

3.3 Dooyeweerd's Philosophy

The widenings above all resonate with, and may be supported philosophically by, Dooyeweerd's philosophy, as follows:

As one of our participants remarked, "I think a Dooyeweerdian approach enables us to be systematic in recognising the radical implications of the Christian approach. [For example] if the Christian approach calls us to be self-sacrificing, Dooyeweerd's aspects give us a way to think about that carefully, without overlooking things and just making it [nebulous]. To be self-sacrificing is difficult and requires some careful thinking."

# 3. Enriching with Christian Perspective.

On the other hand a Christian perspective can enrich the systermatic Dooyeweerdian perspective. A Christian perspective takes seriously the reality of human sin and the possibility of redemption that is made possible by God in Christ and not just human effort.

First, the reference to Christian values (whichever ones are chosen) is not replaced by using Dooyeweerd's aspects but rather we found the following benefits from our discussion thereof:

Second, the Christian understanding of the reality of human sin is freeing. We can indeed talk about things going wrong and harm occurring, whether or not we use Dooyeweerd, and this takes us beyond most economic thinking, a Christian perspective on this can take us even further. It tells us that the wrongness is in me, not (just) in others nor the situation. I am culpable, and I need forgiveness. Acknowledging this is very freeing, because we get to the heart, not just to the actions, not even the untarnished actions. Especially in the light of the next point.

Thirdly, the Christian idea of redemption, which is made possible by God in Christ and not just human effort, gives the antidote to human sin (forgiveness and cleansing: c.f. I John 1:9) and the harm it does (restoration: Romans 8:19-23). So, if there is acknowledgement of human sin, then God can act to rectify in a way that humans cannot - for example biodiversity loss or climate change. (It does not guarantee that he will do so, but there is the possibility.) This is the basis for hope (but not for complacency).

On the other hand, as one of our participants put it, "a Dooyeweerdian approach enables us to be systematic in recognising the radical implications of the Christian approach."

Conclusion

The contribution of our discussions, therefore, seems to be (a) to widen beyond conventional economic discourse, (b) to open up the possibility of an avowedly Christian perspective in economics ...

... and to do so without 'taking sides' in the supposed battle between socialism and capitalism.

References

Mark Carney's 4th Reith Lecture. Also Chapter 11 of Carney 2021.

Carney M. 2021. Value(s). William Colins.

Dasgupta Prof. Sir P. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity; The Dasgupta Review. UK Treasury.

Edgar B. 2021. Available as pdf at: Eight Core Christian Values (pdf); for list, see Christian Values and the Economy.

Gunton RM, vanAsperen E, Basden A, Bookless D, Araya Y, Hanson DR, Goddard MA, Otieno G, Jones GO. 2017. Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable. Trends in Ecology and Evolution April 2017, 32 (4), 249-257.

Raworth K. 2018. Doughnut Economics.

Mazzucato M. The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy.

United Nations, 2021. Rethinking the Structure of National Accounts for 2025.


Compiled by Andrew Basden 25 June 2021, from Findings of Reith Lectures Discussion, as part of Christian Thinking in Economics

Last updated: 1 July 2021 from ideas that emerged during the 9th Reith Discussion. 2 July 2021 added Dooyeweerd's aspects, and also the link between xn values and aspects; renamed 'xn.rethink' from 'reith.findings'. 4 July 2021 added re micro-macro, and also added a point to how Dooyeweerd's philosophy offers this. 5 July 2021 bit more on poverty. 7 July 2021 xn and y. 9 July 2021 systematizing intro. 12 July 2021 cipations. 14 July 2021 widening rearranged, with micro-macro rewritten and put later, and money and measuring rewwritten; abstract. 16 July 2021 slight changes. 21 July 2021 described the widenings, and changed a bit else; refs.