Economics and Freethought

Remarks delivered at the September 3, 2000 service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

Soon after the general topic of today's service was announced, someone asked me what possible connection there could be between economics and Freethought. I have to confess that I was troubled by that, not because I doubt that there is a connection, but because I wasn't sure how to go about saying what I think it is.

Here is an academic discipline, after all. There's a Nobel Prize for it. Yet it's also a subject that's hotly debated by everybody and anybody, and even nobodies, in one way or another. The ideas of economics reach into our everyday lives in ways that are obvious, subtle, and unseen. And for a "science," there is hardly anything else to compare with the acrimony and animosity it engenders. It seems to share the worst parts of religion and politics in that people can hardly agree to disagree about it, yet it also touches our personal values in ways that most matters of politics do not. And so, since there is no conceivable way that we can survey the whole subject of economics in a day, let alone the better part of an hour, let me just begin to answer the question of what economics has got to do with Freethought.

To begin with, economics is a social science that has to do with human behavior. It has do with how people deal with one another. And it especially has to do with human motivation: how to understand it, how to predict it, and how to manipulate it. So it should come as no surprise that religion and economics have often intersected, and still do. Stephen Jay Gould has had a tough enough time disentangling religion from the natural sciences. He ought to try it with the social sciences!

The Bible makes numerous references to usury. Of course, it also contains erroneous math, erroneous taxonomy, erroneous medicine, and other things. But the biblical usury references have moral overtones that are absent from other incidental material. It's a curious thing, too, since the Old Testament mentions tend to be condemnatory, while the only New Testament reference, in the Parable of the Talents, is approving. Yet it is the Christian tradition that accuses Jews of being rapacious money-grubbers!

The Catholic Church has frequently weighed in on economic questions. The Vatican has taken positions on all sorts of things from land distribution to development and has actively sought to influence the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Even the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued pastoral letters on economic justice and third world debt and have issued "A Catholic Framework for Economic Life." These are not people whose interests are confined to birth control pills and the legality of abortion.

At the same time, this is nothing new. Religion has historically been entangled with economic forces. The whole history of the Americas, beginning at the end of the 15th Century, was driven initially by the desire of the European powers for resources and markets that was, at least in part, camouflaged by the "benevolent" responsibility of saving souls. The economic result was that horses and onions and smallpox were introduced into the New World while the Old World became acquainted with tomatoes and chocolate and tobacco. The flow of precious metals, though, was mostly one way: to Europe, where inflation was the inevitable result.

But there were other results, too, including the rise of government-created artificial "persons" that we know now as corporations. Insurance, too, became an increasingly common practice, initially as a result of wealthy people writing their names under the notices of ships and their cargoes, promising to pay for certain losses in return for a fee, the first insurance underwriters. As both domestic industry and international trade grew, so did the importance of such things as duties and tariffs and exchange rates.

So it stands to reason that the modern science of economics began at about this time, being largely invented, as tradition has it, by the Scotsman Adam Smith, and set forth in his book The Wealth of Nations, published in the year of our own nation's birth, in 1776. Smith, it is to be noted, was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. He was also a contemporary of his countryman David Hume. Adam Smith's chief previous work, which had established his academic reputation, was a 1759 book entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His thesis in that work was that people can choose to behave morally out of a sense of sympathy with others, a sympathy which is developed and nurtured by the habit of putting themselves in the place of others, or in the place of an impartial observer whose opinion is important to them.

It was Smith who first pulled together and drew the outlines of economics as a social science. In The Wealth of Nations he considered the effects of specialization of labor, of competition, of the allocation of scarce resources by means of market prices, of the comparative advantage of different regions and countries in producing various products, and the ways in which the interplay of all these forces create wealth and lead to an improvement in the general welfare of all. Smith is most famous, perhaps, for his image of "the invisible hand" that leads the private pursuit of personal gain to increase the public good. And he devoted particular effort to showing how the protectionist policies of mercantilism worked in the opposite fashion: by damaging the public good in order to serve private interests. In this and in other respects, I think, is revealed the theme of Smith's first work, that being able to choose what is right depends on being able to look at things from the point of view of all affected parties.

It sure must have been something to have been a thinking person during the last decade of the 18th Century. For Newton had long ago worked out the laws of physics that explained the motion of both heavenly bodies and earthbound phenomena. Newcomen's steam engines, recently improved by Watt, promised to eliminate human toil. Van Leeuwenhoek had opened up a whole new world under the microscope. And Adam Smith had shown that, like the impersonal forces of nature, the world of human affairs, too, was orderly and benevolent. An intelligent person could only have concluded that a better world was not only possible, but attainable and, perhaps, even inevitable.

Thank goodness for Voltaire, who had never been sold on the "best of all possible worlds" scenario. How he would have delighted had he lived another 20 years to see the publication of Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society. For Malthus employed a very simple argument to show that the wonderful world of the future was by no means assured, or perhaps even likely, because of the simple fact that population increases geometrically while food production increases only arithmetically.

It was this realization that turned economics into "the dismal science," as Thomas Carlyle put it in 1849. In an infamous essay on "The Negro Question," he excoriated the liberal Christians of his day for their role in abolishing slavery in the British West Indies and then importing more Africans in an effort to address the subsequent shortage of labor. For this, he said, would have the effect of "'emanicipat[ing]' the West Indies into a Black Ireland ... with pumpkins ... like potatoes." With more than a touch of sarcasm, he observed that, " ... the social science — not a 'gay science,' but a rueful — which finds the secret of this universe in 'supply and demand,' and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful. Not a 'gay science,' I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science."

Listen to what he says later in the same essay: "My friends, I have come to the sad conclusion that slavery, whether established by law, or by law abrogated, exists very extensively in this world, in and out of the West Indies; and, in fact, that you cannot abolish slavery by act of parliament, but can only abolish the name of it, which is very little! ... To save mens' bodies, and fill them with pumpkins and rum, is a poor task for human benevolence, if you have to kill their soul, what soul there was, in the business! Slavery is not so easy to be abolished; it will long continue, in spite of acts of parliament."

Yet the amazing thing is that Carlyle was a rabid Tory. He hated Capitalism because it encouraged what he called a "nomadic" sort of existence. In fact, his ideal form of social organization appears to have been feudalism: a world in which the serfs belong to the lands which they are compelled to work by their "betters." He was indeed an odd person whose rhetoric, though it echoes that of his contemporary Marx, pointed to the past instead of into the future.

The Malthusian insight, of course, also influenced the natural sciences, it being accepted that both Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) were both led to the idea of evolution by natural selection after reading Malthus' Essay. And the predictable result was the economics of Social Darwinism, something quite a bit more dismal, even, than the law of supply and demand.

Which brings us to Karl Marx (1818-1883), who, unlike Carlyle, thought he could still see a way through it all to earthly utopia, though not without considerable struggle. And Marx certainly had no doubts about the relationship between economics and religion. In his famous "opium of the people" passage he says that, "Religion is the general theory of the world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritualistic point d'honeur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal basis of consolation and justification. The wretchedness of religion is at once an expression and a protest against real wretchedness." [Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right," 1844]

Yet in one of the strangest ironies of history, Marxism, supplemented by Leninism, eventually became a religion itself, a religion that brought about wretchedness on a scale previously undreamed of.

Well, if you are still unconvinced of the connection between economics and Freethought, between supply and demand and prices and markets and wages and such "religious" questions as the nature and meaning of life, of right and wrong, and of how to find happiness amidst it all, well, then you simply weren't listening. But rather than repeat myself, take out a dollar and look at the back of it, where our dear, believing fellow-citizens have democratically put their slogan.

My money is sterilized, of course. I just cross out "In God," so that if any such being exists, he won't be offended by being equated with Caesar. How do orthodox Jews like Senator Lieberman and Laura Schlessinger manage to handle this stuff, anyway? It seems to me that they have a phobia about spelling out the whole word and usually just write it as "G-D." But, you see, my bills still say "WE TRUST" on them. That is what money is all about, after all. That's what makes it more than a piece of paper. Even gold, despite some industrial applications, is of no real use in itself for most people. Like all forms of money, it represents a belief that someone, somewhere, at some time, will want to trade you something for it. That's usually been the case in the past. But as the saying goes, "past performance does not guarantee future results." Even the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. government is not a sure thing. But to those who suppose that a dollar has value, as I do, it's certainly more comforting than any god(s).

Thank you and Good morning.