Economics: Myth or Reality?
Benjamin. A. Rogge
(Published in The Freeman, December, 1965)
I wish to
begin my discussion with some questions. What can we find in the Bible on
the ethical rightness of the statement that two plus two equals four? What
do the Papal Encyclicals tell us of the justice of Boyle’s Law, that the
volume of an ideal gas varies inversely with its pressure, other things
being equal? Does Christian doctrine tell us that it is fair for a hydrogen
atom to contain three isotopes while a fluorine atom contains but two? Or,
to approach my own topic, is it Christian or un-Christian for a demand curve
to be negatively inclined from left to right?
Economics as a Pure Science
Let me now put
the general case: What does Christianity have to do with the questions of
any pure science? So that there
can be no suspense, I shall give the answer immediately.
The answer is, “Nothing, absolutely - nothing.”
There can no more be a Christian science of economics than there
can be a Christian science of mathematics.
It was a Hindu who first introduced zero into the set of real numbers
and a Greek pagan who first analyzed the process of exchange in the market
place. A microscope and a
telescope seem to be quite indifferent to the religion of those who peer
through them. The law of
diminishing returns has no more relationship to the flight from Egypt than
it does to the flight from Mecca to Medina.
Am I belaboring
my point unnecessarily? Perhaps
not. The proponents of all of the world’s great religions,
including Christianity, have often yielded to the temptation of dictating
answers to particular questions of pure science – and have always been
made to appear foolish in the process.
Is the earth round of flat? Is
the earth the center of the universe or isn’t it?
Was the world created at 9:00 a.m. on the morning of October 23rd,
4,004 B.C.? And, as Clarence Darrow asked, was that Central Standard Time or
Mountain Standard Time? And as
the quasi-religionists of modern communism ask, cannot acquired
characteristics be inherited? I would be belaboring my point if it were not
for the likelihood that many a scientist may yet be forced to kneel in the
snow outside the temple and beg forgiveness for the impertinence of his
were only a pure science, we could now consider my presentation at an
end and say, if all were to agree with me, that Christian economics is
indeed a myth and a most unnecessary one at that.
But economics is both something less and something more than a pure
science, and therein lies the rub.
Something Less Than a Pure Science
Let me begin
with the implications of the fact that economics is something less than a
pure science – but first let me define what I mean by a pure science.
A pure science is one that is concerned with what is and not
with what should be. I shall refer to economics as a pure science as positive
economics and to economics as a set of do’s and don’ts as normative
economics. Now economics is something less than a pure science only in a
special sense. Its goal of finding out “what is” is no different from
that of physics or astronomy, and economists often use search methods quite
like those used by the natural scientists. What makes economics something
less than a pure science is its present lack of success in developing a body
of laws or generalizations accepted as correct by all or almost all serious
students of the subject. The state of economics today is not unlike the
state of physics at the time of Galileo’s recantation.
Even at the
level of what is, economists are so far short of agreement on so many
fundamental questions that the well-intentioned layman can almost always
find some economist who will provide him with scientific evidence of the
correctness of what he wants to believe to be true.
illustrate: The question of whether a minimum wage set by government does or
does not increase the total wage payments going to a given group of workers
is a question in positive economics. Yet in appearances before ministers, I
have been accused of being un-Christian because my findings are that
the long-run effect of a minimum wage is to reduce the total income
of the workers involved.
Nor can I
really be angry at this. The ministers involved want very much to believe
that the problem of poverty can be solved in part by simply passing a law
increasing hourly wage rates – and they can find economists of more repute
than Ben Rogge who will tell them that this can, in fact, be done.
When the scientists disagree, the layman is going to choose that
scientist who tells him what he wants to hear. As a cigarette smoker who
chooses to believe the findings of those who argue that there is no clear
connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, I can’t really throw
stones at the layman who prefers someone else’s findings in economics to
What does the
fact that economics is still itself an underdeveloped area mean to the
Christian? If it is the economist who himself is also a Christian, it seems
to me to require of him an open mind, integrity in dealing with his own
findings and the findings of others, and a refusal to let his wishes be
father to his facts.
When the great
English historian, Herbert Butterfield, visited the Wabash College campus a
few years ago, he was asked if there was such a thing as Christian history.
He replied that there wasn’t, but that there was history as
written by a Christian and that the man’s Christianity would demand of
him that he display the attitudes I have just described.
But what does
the incomplete and confused state of economic science mean to the Christian
who is not a professional economist but who wishes to use economic knowledge
in making his own decisions? It
seems to me that it requires of him the same openness of mind, the same
refusal to let his wishes be father to his facts that it requires of the
economist. He ought to be
anxious to expose himself to various sources of economic information and to
learn from them all that he can. Economic science may be in a primitive state, but this is
only relative to some of the more mature sciences and it still has much to
teach the typical nonprofessional.
I will say
flatly that the typical American who calls himself a Christian and who makes
pronouncements or joins in making pronouncements on economic policies or
institutions, does so out of an almost complete ignorance of the simplest
and most widely accepted tools of economic analysis.
If something arouses his Christian concern, he asks not whether it is
water or gasoline he is tossing on the economic fire – he asks only
whether it is a well-intended act. As
I understand it, the Christian is required to be something more than
well-meaning; he is required to use his God-given reason as well.
Inadequate as economic science may now be, it can save the layman
from at least the grossest errors and can be ignored only at real peril to
the society at large.
summarize my thesis up to this point: I have argued that the word,
Christian, is totally out of place as a modifier to any of the pure
sciences. Generically, economics is one of the pure sciences and hence this
constraint must apply to the concept of Christian economics.
The main thrust of this constraint is undisturbed by the fact that
economics is still in a primitive state of development.
However, this fact requires of the Christian, whether a professional
economist or no, a certain caution, a certain openness to various
possibilities not required (at least to the same degree) in dealing with the
laws of the more precise and more mature sciences.
But this fact does not excuse anyone, be he Christian or no, from the
necessity of learning what he can about economics before making decisions on
Economics as Something More Than
a Pure Science
This brings me
to the second part of my discussion, to the implications of the fact that
economics is something more than a pure science.
There is a positive economics but there is also a normative
economics – an economics that is concerned with questions of valuation, of
right and wrong action or inaction. I have denied that there can be a
Christian positive economics; let me now ask if there can be a Christian
economics is positive economics plus a value system.
Christianity is a religion, and a religion need not involve a set of
values – but, of course, Christianity does.
It follows that the value system in the normative economics of a
Christian should be the Christian value system.
In this sense, then, Christian economics can be very much of a
reality. It will be marked, not by its choice of materials from positive
economics, but by its choice of fundamental assumptions about the nature of
man, his purposes here on earth, and the obligations for right action
imposed upon him by his Creator. I
assume that these fundamental assumptions would be drawn from what the
Christian believes to be the revealed word of God, that is, from the Bible
and from such interpretations of the Bible as the particular Christian
accepts as authoritative.
far, so good; but as an economist embarrassed by the relative chaos in his
own field, I cannot resist pointing out that there seems to be more than one
value system labeled “Christian.” Perhaps
I should rephrase my earlier affirmation and say that not only can there be
a Christian economics there can be any number of Christian economics.
However, I don’t wish to disturb the state of happy (though perhaps
superficial) ecumenism in which we seem to be basking at this time in
America, and so I shall concentrate on what seem to me to be the least
controversial, the most widely agreed upon precepts of Christianity.
What I want to
do now is to list a number of these precepts and then keep them in mind as I
examine just one specific question in normative economics.
If there is, indeed, a Christian normative economics (as I am
arguing there is), we should be able to use it, should we not?
My real purpose in doing this is not to provide you with an answer to
this one question but to reveal some of the dilemmas the Christian
encounters in applying Christian values to problems of economic policy.
these precepts, I make no claim for completeness or absolutely universal
acceptance by all Christians. I list them as the ones that seem to me and,
to the best of my knowledge, to others as the ones most relevant to social
I begin with
the assumption that man is imperfect, now and forever – that he is,
indeed, somewhat lower than the angels.
It follows that all of his constructs must be imperfect; William
Blake and the Anglican hymnal to the contrary, Jerusalem is never to be
built in England’s green and pleasant land.
Next I place on
the list the Christian view of man as a responsible being.
In the words of John Bennett of Union Theological Seminary:
Man never ceases to be a responsible being and no mere victim of circumstance or of the
consequences of the sins of his fathers. Man has the amazing capacity through memory and
thought and imagination to transcend himself and his own time and place, to criticize himself
and his environment on the basis of ideals and purposes that are present to his mind, and he can aspire in the grimmest situations to realize these ideals and purposes in his personal life and in society. It is this capacity for self-transcendence that Reinhold
Niebuhr, following Augustine, regards as the chief mark of the image of God in man that is never lost. (John Bennett,
Christianity and Communism Today, 1960, p. 118).
My third of the
Christian assumptions is that of the significance of man’s
freedom to choose. In its most elemental form, this signifies
Christ’s insistence that he wanted, as followers of his way, only those
who had freely chosen him and his way.
I remind you of one of the most dramatic scenes in literature, the
challenging of Christ by the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. I
shall argue in a moment that this Christian sense of freedom is a most
annoying restraint on social action and, hence, is the one precept most
commonly ignored in Christian communities.
Next and very
importantly is the assumption of the brotherhood of man, with its
clear implication of the necessity of assisting those in need.
The crucial importance of this assumption in the drafting of
Christian economic policy can hardly be overemphasized.
I now add one
of the explicit guidelines, and another very annoying restraint on social
action, Thou shalt not steal.
I close the
list with the Christian’s sense of the forgiving love of God and of the
ultimate hope that comes with the knowledge that this is God’s world. John
Bennett, in discussing this sense in conjunction with a discussion of
man’s sin, puts it this way:
Christian teaching about human nature perhaps reveals most clearly the corrective elements in
Christianity. It corrects all tendencies toward sentimental optimism or utopianism that fail to prepare men to face the stubborn reality of evil in human history, and it corrects all tendencies to disillusionment or cynicism that are the opposite danger. Men who lack the perspective of Christian teaching are in danger of oscillating between utopianism and disillusionment. The first thing that Christians say about human nature is that man, and this means every man, is made in the image of God and that this image is the basis of men’s dignity and promise.
The second thing that Christians say about human nature is that man, and this means every man and not merely those who are opponents or enemies, is a sinner. (Bennett, op. cit., pp. 116-7).
Christian Economics: A Case
My choice of
precepts to include may have already cost me your good will, but now that we
have the list, good, bad, or indifferent, let us see if we can put it to
Here is our
problem: A family in (say) Valparaiso, Indiana, lives in serious poverty,
with not always enough money for food, clothing for the children, medicine
or doctor’s services, or for rent on their small, ramshackle house. What
does Christian economics tell us to do about this?
What kind of a war on poverty does it ask us to wage?
Let us turn
first to the kind of answer usually given by the American Society generally
today (and also the kind of answer generally endorsed by the social action
groups of the large denominational organizations and of the National Council
should pass a law called a minimum wage law to force this man’s employer
to pay him a living wage. Or we should encourage the development of a union
in this man’s work group so that he could expect to receive a fair and
decent wage. Next, we ought to
pass laws that will force such men to save for emergencies, for example,
unemployment, which may be the man’s real problem at the moment. If he is
unemployed, the government should offer him subsidized retraining, so that
he can find suitable employment. If he is in real need, as our particular
man is at the moment, some combination of local, state, and national relief
payments should be made to him.
This is what
most Christians in America today deem appropriate, with perhaps the addition
of a box of groceries collected by one of the churches to be delivered to
the family each Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Does any of
this lack good intent? I think not; on the surface, at least, it seems to meet the
requirement imposed by the brotherhood of man.
go through it again to see if we’ve missed anything. We begin with the
idea of a legislated increase in his wage rate.
Perhaps it would be wise if we first asked what the consequences of
this might be. For example,
could it lead to this man’s losing his job altogether, either immediately
or as the employer is forced by the higher costs of labor to mechanize the
operation, if he is to stay in business at all?
Well, says the economist, that will depend in part on whether the
labor market was competitive to begin with, whether the man was already
getting all that he was really worth. It will depend on whether this law
“jars” the employer into becoming more efficient. In other words, it
will depend on a number of factors of the kind analyzed in positive
My own personal
knowledge both of theory and of evidence would lead me to argue that the
very probable consequence of a legislated increase in wage rates will be
some loss of employment opportunities, and our particular worker could well
be one of those to lose his job. I might add that his chances of being
thrown out of work are increased if he is a member of a minority racial
I may be wrong
on this but I know of no competent economist who would deny the possibility
that a legislated minimum wage will produce some unemployment. If this
possibility exists, a Christian might well wish to examine the findings of
positive economics before supporting a proposal of this kind. In supporting
the idea of minimum wage laws, the Christian may well be causing problems
for precisely those people he wishes to help, and be giving aid and comfort
to a more fortunate worker-employer group which benefits by being freed of
the competition of lower-wage firms. I repeat, good Christian intentions are not enough!
questions might well be raised about the second line of attack on our
special problem of poverty – that of encouraging the development of a
trade union to protect this worker. A union-induced increase in wage rates in the plant or store
where this man works could lead to his losing his job altogether, just as in
the other case. If he is a
member of a minority race, the chances of this will be even higher under the
trade union approach, because of the long-established discriminatory
practices of many of the important unions. For example, in 1962, there were
only three Negro apprentices in the union-dominated electrical trades in all
of New York City and only one Negro apprentice plumber.
Here again the
Ben Rogge version of positive economics could be wrong, but again the
important questions are those of positive economics and not of good intent.
At least one
additional question might be raised. In granting special privileges,
immunities, and encouragement to trade unions, we would be sanctioning an
activity that when undertaken by businessmen can lead to their being put in
jail. As an economic institution (and a trade union is more than an economic
institution), a union is a cartel; that is, it is a collusive arrangement
among otherwise independent sellers of the services of labor, for the
purpose of manipulating market prices to their own advantage.
It is precisely the same in operation as the activities of the sales
executives of the large electrical manufacturing companies that led to their
being sent to prison a year or two ago. In encouraging workers (and farmers)
to do that which we forbid businessmen, we seem to be violating a rather old
concept of justice – that of equality before the law. In a very real sense
we have encouraged the blindfolded Goddess of Justice to peek, and she now
says with the jurists of the ancient regimes, “First tell me who you are
and then I’ll tell you what your rights are.”
To encourage trade unionism may be wise or unwise economic policy but
surely the Christian cannot escape some concern for a policy that
deliberately creates a double standard of right and wrong.
We turn now
to the third of the responses to our problem, that of social security.
Let us force such people to contribute to a program to tide them over
such emergencies. This may be
wise or unwise economic policy but at least it will assure some minimal flow
of income to the family for some period of time.
In other words, it does work.
might be disturbed to know that as the system now works in this country,
low-income Negroes are being taxed to support high-income whites.
How does this come about? A
low-income but fully employed Negro will pay into the fund almost as much
money as will the high-income white. But
the average life span of the Negro beyond age 65 is significantly less than
that of the white, and the Negro can thus expect to draw less in total
benefits. I present this odd circumstance, not as a criticism of social
security per se, because the law could be changed to eliminate this
feature, but as further evidence of the need for the well-intentioned person
to examine policy proposals, not only in the large, but in detail as well.
within certain limits, social security does work; it does provide much
needed help to many in real need.
Christian can find no dilemma here. No?
What, then, of the Mennonites and the Amish who have fiercely
resisted any participation in this program?
Of course, these are patently queer people, who wear funny-looking
clothes and have other peculiar ideas, but they do call themselves
Christians; in fact they say that it is because they are Christians
that they must refuse to involve themselves in social security.
How could this
possibly be? Let us go back to
our precepts of the religion and see what we can find. Suppose we interpret
the brotherhood of man, individual responsibility, and freedom to choose as
meaning that each man should be free to choose, even in economic life; that
if he choose wrongly he is responsible and should seek himself to solve the
problems he has created for himself; and that if this proves impossible, it
then becomes the responsibility of his fellow Christians, as a voluntary act
of brotherhood, to come to his assistance.
Surely, this line of reasoning cannot be immediately labeled as
un-Christian – even if it would confront us with the embarrassing
challenge of doing something individually, directly and out of our own
pockets for this family in Valparaiso, Indiana, of which we have personal
to choose.” Does this apply
only in questions of pure religion or does it constitute a general Christian
presumption in favor of freedom of the individual? If the latter, then the
Christian faces a dilemma. Social security tells a man that he must pay into
the fund, how much he must pay at a minimum, and in what form the fund will
be held. Whether on balance
this is good or bad, it is clearly a denial of freedom.
In the words of the English philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, in discussing
this general type of dilemma:
But a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed, namely freedom, however great
the moral need or the compensation for it. Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or human happiness or a quiet conscience. . . . . This (loss) may be compensated for by a gain in justice or in happiness or in peace, but the loss remains, and it is nothing but a confusion of values to say that although my ‘liberal’ individual freedom may go by the board, some other kind of freedom - ‘social’ or ‘economic’ – is increased.
(Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958, p. 10).
Here then is a
typical dilemma of the Christian as he approaches economic policy; his
concern for his brother leads him to favor a measure that will help his
brother (such as social security) but, to be really effective, it requires
that he also reduce his brother’s freedom to choose.
I note, somewhat sadly, that given this choice, the majority of
Christian peoples have usually chosen to sacrifice their own freedom and the
freedom of others in the interest of compelling people to do what all good
Christians know they should do. This may or may not be the right decision on
the question of social security, but let no Christian say yes, it is
the right decision, with a feeling that no sacrifice of any principle is
Redistribution of Income
The last two
approaches, retraining the worker and providing him with direct relief, are
but two forms of the same thing and I shall treat them as a unit. Government-provided relief is a forced redistribution of
income from one group of people to another group of people. Subsidized retraining is simply a form of redistributive
payment that the beneficiary can receive only if he takes it in a given
form, that is, in the form of tuition-free schooling, combined with
subsistence payments. Whether
redistribution is more efficient if the uses of the money by the
beneficiaries are directed by the government (as in retraining programs,
government housing, school lunch provisions, and the like) than if the money
is simply turned over to the beneficiaries to be used as they wish, is a
complex question and one that I don’t have time to examine.
I would point out only that he who pays the piper, whether he be a
private person or a government agent, will usually be strongly tempted to
call the tune. In other words,
as a matter of sociological probability, most schemes for redistributing
income will usually involve some directing of the uses to which the
beneficiaries may put the funds.
the payments may take, relief provided by the state does work; it does
provide food for the hungry, clothing and shelter for the cold, and medicine
for the sick. Surely, here at last the Christian can relax, secure in the
knowledge that in supporting such measures he is recognizing the obligations
imposed upon him by the fact of human brotherhood in God.
Perhaps – but
perhaps not. As I understand
it, these obligations rest upon each individual to be acted upon as a matter
of conscience. As I remember
the parable, the Good Samaritan was not acting upon an order of government
in performing his good deed, nor was he a paid official of a local welfare
agency, drawing on local tax funds. Does Christian virtue consist in passing a law to force
oneself to do what is charitable and right?
Given man’s imperfect nature, this might be a tenable position.
Unfortunately, though, the law must apply to all; and thus many, who,
for whatever reason, do not wish to give up what is theirs for the
use of others, are physically compelled to do so.
Under Which Christian Precept
Can Force Be Justified?
Ah, but you
say, they should wish to do so. Of course they should, but if they don’t, is the Christian then
authorized to use force to compel them to do so?
If so, under which of the precepts of Christianity?
apparently had found such a precept when he wrote:
The superfluities of the rich belong by right to the poor.... To use the property of another, taking it secretly in case of extreme need, cannot, properly speaking, be characterized as theft. (Thomas Aquinas,
Summa Theologica, 2a, 2ae, quaestiao 66, art.7).
Others might be
troubled though, by the apparent conflict between this interpretation and
the commandment, Thou shalt not steal.
Perhaps it should read, Thou shalt not steal, except to give to the
poor. Under this
interpretation, King Ahab and Jezebel would have been justified in seizing
Naboth’s vineyard, if their purpose had been to distribute its fruits
among the poor.
interesting to note the way in which these questions are handled in the
thirty-eight of the Articles of Religion of the Protestant Episcopal Church
in the United States:
The riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same; as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man
ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.
It would seem
possible to develop what might be called a Christian position on this issue
that would strike against all public charity and make assistance to
the needy a response of the individual conscience. This is in fact a position taken by certain denominational groups in
the country today.
The Personal Practice of Freedom
Am I really
saying that I think the vast responsibilities for assistance to the needy in
our modern, complex society could be entrusted to private individuals and
voluntary welfare agencies? Do I really think that, under such a system, no
one would be left out, no child would ever die of hunger or cold? I honestly don’t know what the consequences would be of
such an arrangement. I only know that the Christian who enthusiastically
embraces coercive, collective charity may very possibly be deriving his
mandate from some source other than his own religion. For example, such an
approach fits very well with a psychological interpretation of man as a
helpless victim of his environment, as a creature not to be held responsible
for his own successes or failures. If
you answer the question, “Who’s to blame?” not with “Mea Culpa,”
but with “Society,” you need not hesitate to turn to the central agency
of organized society, the state, to solve any and all problems.
It is of course
as presumptuous of me to talk of Christian doctrine as it might be for some
of you to talk to technical economics; but I must confess that my own
personal interpretation of Christianity does not fit well with most of the
approaches to social and economic problems of official Christendom in this
country today. Today’s
Christian economics seems to me to be neither good Christianity nor good
But my function
here is not to offer you advice on what to accept and what to reject. That I have done so, both directly and by implication, lends further
credence to the thesis of one of my favorite modern philosophers, Charlie
Brown of the Peanuts comic strip, who was once led to remark, “This
world is filled with people who are anxious to function in an advisory
If Economists Disagree, Let
Christians Be Tolerant
here has been to discuss the topic Christian Economics: Myth or Reality?
I have argued that the word, Christian, cannot and must not be used
as a modifier to economics as a pure science. To do so is to indulge in the
ancient sin of trying by appeal to revelation to answer certain questions
that were meant to be answered by man himself with the use of his God-given
I have argued
as well that, in spite of its present state of imperfection, economics as a
pure science, that is, positive economics, has much to offer to those who
are interested in questions of economic policy. As a matter of fact, I think
myself that much of the diversity of opinion among economists, both
amateur and professional, on questions of public policy stems not from
disagreement over ultimate goals or values but from disagreement over the
findings of positive economics. In
a sense this is encouraging, because it implies that these disagreements can
be reduced over time by improvement in the science itself. Disagreements
over ultimate values cannot be resolved; they can only be fought over or
ignored. Disagreements over questions of fact and analysis are conceptually
open to solution.
I have also
argued that there can be a Christian economics at the normative
level. The Christian can combine his Christian ethics and Christian
assumptions about the nature of man with his knowledge of positive economics
to decide whether any given proposal should be approved or condemned.
The combination can very properly be called Christian economics.
because of disagreements at the level of which positive economics to
accept and at the level of which interpretation of Christian values
to accept, there is no single set of conclusions on economic policy that
can be said to be the definitive and unique Christian economics. The
socialist and the free enterpriser, the interventionist and the
noninterventionist, the business spokesman and the labor spokesman, the
Mennonite farmer and the Episcopalian President of the United States, Ben
Rogge and John Kenneth Galbraith – each will argue that his answers
are the ones most nearly in accord with true Christian economics. In this lies the challenge to the Christian.
only advice I can offer the now thoroughly confused Christian is that he
avoid hasty judgment and that he think with his head as well as with his
heart. He must learn what he can from positive economics and carefully
examine precisely what values are imposed upon him by the fact that he is a
Christian. In the meantime, he can draw some comfort from the knowledge that
the professional economists and the ministers of the Christian churches are
but little less confused than he.
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