Aquinas and the Market: Part 3, Is Economics Value Free?

In the last post we reviewed two approaches regarding theological economics, a taxonomy developed by D. Stephen Long in Divine Economy and surveyed by Hirschfeld in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

Summarizing, the first approach involves theologians embracing global capitalism and the culture it produces, which guts any prophetic or critical relationship that theology might have with economics.

The second approach involves theologians working in the area of normative economics, discussing the various social goods we should collectively pursue. This approach assumes a division of labor between theologians and economists, with theologians specifying the values and economists evaluating the best means to achieve those values. We noted some of the tensions within this approach, especially how it also sidelines theology.

Which brings us to Long's third approach for theological economics.

This third approach involves a more confrontational, oppositional, critical and prophetic stance toward modern economics.

Recall from the last post how, in normative economics, theologians and economics are to stay in their own sandboxes. Theologians talk about values, and economists talk about policy. Trouble is, as we discussed, no one stays in their sandbox.

Specifically, we noted how theologians, along with Christian Twitter, frequently drift from values to policy, assuming a straightforward relationship between a value (like reducing poverty) and a specific policy (like raising the minimum wage). Obviously, the assumption goes, if you care about the poor you should support a minimum wage increase.

Trouble is, there is a lively economic debate about if increasing the minimum wage will have deleterious effects upon the poor. There are liberal economists on one side of the debate and conservative economists on the other, and Christians are drawn toward their respective sides in defense of their positions. But as Hirschfeld points out, faith isn't really informing these debates. All we are doing, she observes, is rehashing "existing economic disputes in a theological key." As the economists debate the trade-offs of a minimum wage increase, faith stands on the sideline, picking a team and cheering them on. Consequently, faith isn't substantively contributing to the economic debate. Faith is just an expression of our team preference, about which economist we're rooting for.

And yet, while theologians do get out of their sandbox, economists get out of theirs as well. And that's where the third, critical approach to theological economics comes in.

Recall, economists see themselves as dispassionate, objective, empirical scientists. Their models are "value free." But are they? The third, critical school of theological economics argues that economic models and assumptions are very, very far from being value free. Embedded within economic thought and practice are assumptions that have normative and metaphysical content. For example, the fact/value split that most economists work with--values in one sandbox and empirical analysis in the other--is a metaphysical assumption. There are rival metaphysical models on offer, so it's ridiculous to say economics is "value free." Economics has a metaphysics, a metaphysics that is open to criticism. In addition, the anthropological vision at the heart of economic modeling--homo economicus, the rational, self-interested, utility maximizing animal--is far from being value neutral.

The point here is that modern economics isn't value neutral or uninvolved with metaphysics. Economics gets out of its own sandbox, and that is where theological economics can have real, substantive engagement. Theological economics does more that debate "the good," it critically engages economic thought and practice by examining and questioning its value-laden and metaphysically-charged assumptions and tools.

Basically, there is a widespread assumption that what Adam Smith discovered with the Invisible Hand is akin to Newtonian physics. Economic theory is simply about the lawful, value-free facts governing human behavior. But markets embody a metaphysics. Capitalism enshrines a value system. There is a philosophy of human flourishing at work in the "science" of economics. This is where theology can, should, and must engage economics.

Hirschfeld's book is a part of this critical, prophetic effort. But she goes about it in a unique way. More on that in the next post.

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