“Positive Economics vs. Good Intentions”
By Benjamin A. Rogge
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?
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 marketplace. 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 or flat? Is the earth the center of the universe or isn’t it? Was the world created at 9:00 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 findings.
If economics 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.
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 research 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.
Let me 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 the scientist who tells him what he wants to hear.
What does the fact that economics is still itself, an under-developed 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 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.
Let me 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 economic policy.
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 normative economics.
Normative 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.
So 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.
In listing 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 problems.
Some Basic Assumptions
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 situation 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.*44
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 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 important 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 man’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.*45
Christian Economics: A Case Study
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 work.
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 of Churches).
First, we 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.
Now let’s 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 economics.
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 group.
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!
Similar 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 trade 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. 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.
Some Christians 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.
But clearly, within certain limits, social security does work; it does provide much needed help to many in real need.
Surely the 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 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 chooses 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 knowledge.
Take “freedom 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:
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.*46
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 involved.
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 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.
Whatever form the payments may take, relief provided by the state does work; it does provide assistance to the needy. 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?
Aquinas 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.”*47 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.
It is interesting to note the way in which these questions are handled in the thirty-eighth 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 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 is 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 of 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 economics.
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 capacity.”
If Economists Disagree, Let Christians Be Tolerant
My function 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 reason.
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.
Unfortunately, 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 enterprise[r], 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.
The 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.
Part III Chapter 2 of “Can Capitalism Survive” by Benjamin A. Rogge (1920-1980) published in 1979 from collected essays.
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