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Economics, as a social science, occupies a peculiar space within academic and national life. Economists deal with acting, choosing human persons,and their behavior in the most fickle area of life, the commercial marketplace; yet economists employ mathematical devices drawn from physics and the hard sciences. Unlike hard scientists, they are not content to study and discover what is given and seek improvements only within this constrained framework. Economists also see themselves, in the words of that old progressive Thorstein Veblen, as “keepers of the community’s material welfare.” They thus employ every manner of value and moral judgment in the practice of their science.

Those who doubt this reality should examine any issue of the top economics journals,wherein the reader finds myriad pieces discussing topics such as wealth distribution, discrimination, the moral integrity of the environment, justice, and power. Whereas mathematical methods are explicitly taught and defended, the implicit value judgments adopted by the profession are rarely questioned and often not even admitted by the authors. Nor is this a new trend. Examining the history of economic science, one finds that moral claims and value judgments concerning
the human condition have always played an important role in its intellectual development.

Observing this fact, Robert Nelson attempts to strip away some of the scientific pretensions of the profession and treat (as he puts it in his title) Economics as Religion . Economists, he claims, “serve as the priesthood of a modern secular religion of economic progress that serves many of the same functions in contemporary society as early Christian and other religions did in their time.”

Nelson makes a very strong claim, asserting that economics has its own moral system,priesthood, exoteric and esoteric teachings, a social agenda, a means of social salvation, a> vision of what constitutes paradise, and precise prescriptions and injunctions concerning how to get there. His point is that economics has chosen this path as a means of enforcing its own internal belief system and asserting its influence in the social and political world. Not just one school has embraced religious forms of argument and legitimation—all of them have, from the early Progressives,
to the Keynesians, to the Chicago School, to the New Classical and Neoclassicals.

Nelson has clearly uncovered an important, often ignored, dimension of economics as a discipline and profession. He is certainly right to emphasize that, in practice, there is no such thing as a value-free economist. He is also justified in noting that economists often try to apply their methods and assumptions to areas of life far beyond economic phenomena. This approach becomes both offensive and absurd when economists take on issues like marriage, sexuality, or the economics of religion itself. When someone with actual training in moral theology or religious history and doctrine dips into this literature, he is struck by the ghastly incompetence and stunning hegemonic arrogance of the economist who believes that a simple postulate, like the universal call of material self-interest, can provide ultimate explanatory power.

Nelson’s analysis is particularly satisfying when describing the economist’s faith in the tools of state power. When one considers the record of central planning by government authority, one finds much to regard as failure. Despite the faith of the Progressives, New Dealers, and Great Society social planners, the state has not tamed the business cycle, equalized the distribution of wealth, raised up the poor, provided equal opportunity for all, saved the environment, or stemmed financial crises.

Most improvements in material well-being in society stem from market actors and the natural development and extension of entrepreneurship in a market setting. They are not the automatic result of laws, legislation, regulation, and market manipulation. Why, then, are so many economists still so convinced of the merit of state power as a tool of social and economic improvement?

One can certainly explain such behavior as an indication that economics is a religion and thus resistant to internal questioning. The trouble for Nelson’s thesis is that it’s no less sensible to chalk it up to the kind of error to which all modern academic disciplines are prone. Like history, sociology, and political science, economics is slow to learn, slow to change, and slow to adapt to new realities.

Nelson thus goes much too far in his insistence that the extended (and overextended) metaphor of “economics as religion” can capture the essence of how economists think. Is it really true that when an economist asserts that “unemployment is bad,” this is evidence of a doctrine rooted in religious faith? Likewise, if he claims that “people ought to be prosperous,” is his statement really dependent on a hidden metaphysical claim?

Nelson is able to employ his metaphor for 350 pages because he appears to have less respect for religion as a discipline than he ought to. In Nelson’s view, “religion” has little to do with God; it isn’t even a spiritually centered endeavor, much less a rigorous and systematic belief system concerning the relationship between time and eternity. Instead, it is merely a value-forming process. It is frustrating to agree with so many of the author’s insights, particularly with regard to issues of wealth distribution and environmentalism, while having to look past his primary argument.

None of this is to say that I do not sympathize with Nelson’s attempt to emphasize the moral foundations of the market economy and economic thinking. However, these valid and valuable points could have been made without, in effect, discounting and diluting genuine religion, not to mention making an overly broad, and ultimately unconvincing, criticism of the discipline of economics.

Robert A. Sirico is President of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

Image by Advantus Media licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.