Aquinas and the Market: Part 1, The Machiavellian Challenge

I want to devote a series of posts sharing and interacting with Mary Hirschfeld's book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy.

I picked up the book because of a burgeoning interest in Aquinas, along with a longstanding interest in how Christianity relates to economics given issues like poverty, inequality, consumerism, and climate change. I found Hirschfeld's book accessible and well-written and very insightful and illuminating. Thus my desire to share and direct you to her book.

Today, let me start by sharing a recurring dissatisfaction I have when Christians and theologians talk about economics.

Specifically, there's always a whiff of utopianism around Christian critiques of capitalism. That is, we see the ills of capitalism and set next to it a better vision of economic practice and life, a sustainable economy that benefits everyone, an economy that cares about the climate and that leaves no one behind.

But how practical are these wished-for economies? It's easy to dial up idealized visions of the economy. But these visions often amount to wish lists than realistic and implementable policy recommendations. Economic talk among progressive Christians spends all its time talking about what the economy should be where economists see themselves as dealing with the economic realities on the ground. So Christians talk and talk, but economists don't listen because we aren't talking about anything real.

What I found refreshing about Aquinas and the Market was that Hirschfeld begins with this demand that theological economics start with the practical concerns of economists. This is likely due to the fact that Hirschfeld received a PhD in economics from Harvard, followed by a second PhD in theology from Notre Dame. This makes Hirschfeld uniquely qualified to assess how a typical economist would hear theological critiques about economics. Which leads Hirschfeld to start the book with a very practical, non-utopian posture.

Hirschfeld calls this posture the Machiavellian challenge. And I think theologians should keep this challenge always in mind. Quoting Machiavelli:
Since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.
This quote captures much of my angst when Christians, mainly progressive Christians, talk about the economy. We can articulate such beautiful alternatives to capitalism, and my heart sings when I imagine these worlds, but after the talk is over there's always this Machiavellian voice in the back of my mind: "This is beautiful, but it'll never work."

To be clear, don't read this series thinking that, by the end, Hirschfeld is going to solve all that ails us, economically speaking. She's keen to avoid the Machiavellian trap as well. Hirschfeld's point is that Christians need to do more than offer up economic wish lists, and stop assuming that wish lists are real critiques and solutions to our economic problems.

In short, Hirschfeld contends, if Christianity wants to engage economics it needs to start where economists do their work, offering substantive critiques at that level of engagement, at the level of economic modeling and thinking. And that's what Hirschfeld tries to do in her book.

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