Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - Religion and Economics
by Tibor R. Machan

For a few days this March I have been attending, as I have in the past, the Ludwig von Mises Institutes's Austrian Scholars Conference. It is a very mixed affair because many of the presentations are just too loose to be considered scholarly, although here and there valuable notions do get aired and there are some rigorously enough argued papers given as well.

One particularly questionable presentation occurred on Saturday morning, March 19th, when Robert Nelson laid out his case that economics--especially the theory of free trade--has to be understood in theological terms. Basically the idea is that free market economics is universalists and
normative and this could only come from the Christian doctrine that has all along endorsed universalism and an ethical perspective on human life.

Nelson insists that Adam Smith's references to nature, natural, naturalism and the like--whenever nature comes into play in Smith's works--is best understood in a theological vein, especially since Smith combines this with occasional references to God. Moreover, Nelson argued, the very idea of economic progress gains its normative thrust from religion. After all, with progress comes hardship and anxiety, at least for some, and there is an element of faith about taking the trade-off to be of overall advantage to humanity.

What is most questionable about the thesis that Nelson advanced--and one that is gaining some play in the intellectual community in our time--concerning the ties between religion and free market political economy is that the best framework within which to understand the latter is the former. Nelson, as many others, simply assumes that when a normative component is added to economic analysis--which, contrary to so called scientific economics, does assume the value of prosperity or material progress--there is no secular framework for making this intelligible.

And Nelson & Co. do have a point, at least if we consider the bulk of secular humanist understanding of human affairs. Such understanding has tended to be non-normative, even anti-normative. The idea is that without a supernatural realm, everything must be understood to consist of nothing
but matter-in-motion. This is the doctrine of Democritus in ancient times and that of Thomas Hobbes in the modern era. It is modified a bit in the works of Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx and made more complex by modern physicalists such as Paul and Patricia Churland and Ted Honderich. All these maintain both the reductive or dialectical materialist thesis and the idea that such a thesis eliminates the normative dimension of reality, renders it unintelligible.

If this were the case, then the stubborn intrusion of normative (ethical, political, aesthetic) topics in human affairs would understandably invite the theological framework Nelson insists is required to make sense of free market economics. But is it so? Is the secular framework wedded inextricably to materialism or physicialism?

From the time of Socrates and Aristotle to our own, there have been secular thinkers who have denied the reductive materialist stance and embraced, instead, a pluralism, a view of nature that makes ample room for the normative dimensions of human life. Of course, Ayn Rand is the most notable of such thinkers in the contemporary era but there have been others, less outspoken--for example, David L. Norton, whose Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethics Individualism (Princeton, 1976), makes a very powerful case for individualism within a naturalist framework. To
ignore the contributions of the neo-Aristotelians to this discussion is a disappointment, of course, and Robert Nelson may be faulted for his silence here. Still, it is somewhat understandable that he, like so many others, would equivocate between the normative and the religions outlook,
leaving the impression that if you cannot incorporate religion into your philosophy, you will have no room for ethics and, by derivation, for free market economics either.

I should add at this point that there is now a school of religious thought that focuses on what is called intelligent design, claiming, in a nutshell, that the complex configuration of the content of nature cannot be explained without recourse to an intelligent designer, which would have to be God.

The trouble with this view is that intelligence is a power of a well-focused mind and a mind is found where there is a brain. But a brain is a biological entity's organ and such an entity is part of nature. So, the intelligent design thesis is, then, circular: in order to explain nature by it, nature must already exist.

But even part from these metaphysical and ontological problems of religion and theology, there is the misunderstanding of what a secular position must involve. Although some secularists--even the majority of them--are indeed materialists, they are not the only game in town. There is neo-Aristotelian secularism that makes room for a variety of causes in nature--mechanical, teleological, quantum, and so forth--and thus makes ample room for ethics and political principles. There are other places to look for the case for liberty than one that poses all the conundrums of theology and religion.
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