Aquinas and the Market: Part 4, An Economy of Grace?

I want to linger a bit with the third approach toward theological economics described by D. Stephen Long in Divine Economy and surveyed by Mary Hirschfeld in Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

Recall, this third approach toward theological economics is devoted toward the task of critiquing the values and metaphysics inherent in modern economics, capitalism most specifically.

To be clear, this project isn't just pointing out all the ways capitalism is bad. No doubt, there are a host of ills associated with capitalism, but addressing those ills quickly brings us back to the conversation about trade-offs which, once again, effectively sidelines theology.

So this project isn't about pointing to noxious outcomes of modern economics and saying "Bad!" It is, rather, an attempt to evaluate the assumptions, values, and metaphysics of modern economics to locate the source of these noxious outcomes, to get to the root of the matter, if you will.

Phrased differently, we want the critiques to be more than descriptive, we want them to be explanatory. Descriptive critiques are too easy and generally useless. It's easy to gesture over the world of modern economics and finance and lament all the locations of desolation. But that tour of sadness typically doesn't cash out in any practical proposals beyond a broad "Capitalism is bad, therefore, socialism."

To be clear, my economic thinking tends toward the socialist. I'd like a much larger and robust social safety net, starting with universal health care. But the socialism vs. capitalism debate is a live and longstanding economic debate about trade-offs that, again, sidelines theology, reducing theologians to cheerleaders who, given their theological commitments, root for their preferred economic team.   

All that to say, the work of this third approach toward theological economics isn't about 1) descriptively lamenting capitalism, or 2) theologically rooting for socialism. That isn't to say that something "socialistic" might not emerge from the critique of capitalism, just that it has to flow out of a conversation that starts down at a deeper level.

So, we have to start our theological critique the level of values, assumptions, and metaphysics. Now, when you survey theological works of this type, as Hirschfeld points out, what you often come across is a contrast that is made between capitalism and "God's economy." On the one side, with capitalism, you see assumptions like self-interest and scarcity.

It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that self-interest and scarcity are foundational to modern economic thought. As Hirschfeld writes, "The standard definition of economics identifies it as the science of how to allocate scarce resources...It is the scarcity of resources that necessitates a science of choice." And the model of choice behind modern economics is the self-interest of Homo economicus. As Hirschfeld describes: "[Homo economicus] seeks to reach his ends as efficiently as possible. He is generally modeled as doing so by maximizing his utility..."

These assumptions, scarcity and self-interest, among others, are then used to create the models of modern economics.

But what if these assumptions are wrong? For example, if we assume scarcity and self-interest we create a system that is inherently competitive. To be sure, that's the great win in capitalism, how it leverages competition toward the common good. As Adam Smith famously wrote: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages." And there's no questioning that this appeal to self-interest does produce economic growth.

And yet, the theologians counter, might some of the ills we find in capitalism be ameliorated if we found ways of emphasizing the cooperative aspects of human relations over the competitive? If so, perhaps we should question the assumptions of self-interest and scarcity, the twin engines of competition.

And so, a contrast is made. On the one side is capitalism, with self-interest and scarcity. And on the other side is "God's economy." In contrast to capitalism, "God's economy" is characterized by mutual aid and cooperation, and it flows out of abundance and gift. In these discussions, you'll often hear the refrain, "Capitalism is an economics of scarcity, but God's economy is an economy of abundance." And where there's abundance rather than scarcity, there is enough to share, and an economy of gifts can emerge.

In sum, what you often find in this theological critique of capitalism is self-interest, scarcity, and competition set to one side, with gift, abundance, and cooperation set on the other. From that contrast theological criticisms are leveled against the assumptions, metaphysics, and values of capitalism.

To give an illustration of what this sort of critique looks like, Hirschfeld examines some of the work of Kathryn Tanner, one of the best theologians in the world who has tackled theological economics. For example, Tanner describes God's economy as an "economy of grace," which sharply contrasts with the competitive economy of capitalism. Tanner writes:
God creates the whole world, in all its aspects--material and spiritual--according to such a noncompetitive economy, so that it should be such a noncompetitive economy to every degree possible...
Hirschfeld summarizes Tanner's approach in contrasting a noncompetitive "economy of grace" with modern financial markets:
Tanner identifies a field of Christianity as a contrasting case [to capitalism], wherein the good, grace, is not scare and the pursuit of it is noncompetitive. Finally, she asserts the dominance of the theological discourse by arguing that we should contest the notion that all fields of human endeavor are inherently competitive. In particular, we should take the principles of the economy of grace and apply them to the material economy to transform it into a field that is likewise noncompetitive to the degree possible.
My first observation is simply to note how Tanner illustrates this particular approach to theological economics. Specifically, Tanner is making a theological evaluation and critique of the values and assumptions at work in modern economic thinking and modeling. She's not merely lamenting an ill of capitalism (e.g., income inequality), positing a value we need to reach (e.g., climate care), or advocating for a specific policy (e.g., raising the minimum wage). She's working at the level of values, assumptions, and metaphysics.

My second observation is that, as it stands, I love what Tanner is saying. Whenever I hear a vision of the kingdom of God articulated and envisioned--economies of grace, gift, and abundance--my heart sings.

But my third observation is why I'm doing this series. The problem, as Hirschfeld reminds us, is that the Machiavellian critique we highlighted in Part One is looking us squarely in the face. Economies of grace, gift and abundance are very idealistic. Just how realistic is an "economy of grace" in a global economy? That question haunts me whenever I hear theological critiques of capitalism. As Hirschfeld comments:
Unfortunately, [Tanner's critique of capitalism] is left with no answer to the Machiavellian challenge that we should avoid utopian thinking. Tanner's critique, [for example,] of the role of finance in our our economy omits any account of the function finance could play if it had the right spirit. As a result, there are no tools for pragmatically thinking through what could be done to combat the negative effects she details. Correlatively, Tanner's take on financial capitalism is one sided. There is indeed much to critique. But Tanner gives no tools for thinking about how to balance the negative effects of modern capitalism with its beneficial role in, say, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the past few decades. Tanner thereby leaves herself open to the Machiavellian charge that this is mere utopian thinking.
It's this utopianism that haunts me in theological discussions of capitalism. I know that God's economy is an economy of abundance. But the real world, the world of the Fall, is governed by scarcity. Resources and goods are not infinite. And yes, I don't like building a world through appeals to self-interest. But any economic scheme that doesn't make self-interest a key feature of human motivation is doomed. The sad history of communism testifies to this.

And so, here I stand, waffling between realism and idealism. And it raises a question for me: Can theology offer anything to economic discussions other than descriptive laments about capitalism tied to idealistic contrasts with "economies of grace"?

Because while capitalism might be bad, prescribing heaven doesn't seem to be very practical.

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