Evangelical Economics

(Dedicated to the memory of Harry Magdoff)

Right-wing faith-based politics in the US has its counterpart in faith-based economics. The school of economics that dominates education, journalism, and politics — called “neoclassical” economics — has absolute faith in two secular gods. These are private property and markets. Neoclassical economists believe that these two institutions cause the maximum achievable economic prosperity and progress for all. Alternative schools of economics (Marxian, Keynesian, and so on) are denounced by neoclassicals as heretical and absurd. People persuaded by these alternative schools are ridiculed as wrong, insufficiently trained, or simply stupid. If they persist in the error of their ways, they are said to be driven by sinister, perverse motivations and painted as anti-science, anti-reason, anti-American, anti-prosperity, and so on. The fervor of the neoclassical faithful determines which epithets get hurled (and the speaking opportunities denied, the teaching jobs withheld, etc.).

The first holy institution for neoclassical economics is private property as opposed to the state itself owning or administering socially-owned property or collective property. The second is the market (rather than political, cultural, traditional institutions) as the means for distributing resources (land, labor power, and capital) to the producers and distributing products to consumers. Private property owners “freely” buying and selling in markets is what delivers optimum economic performance and results for everyone. The neoclassical faithful praise Adam Smith for the insight that private property plus markets function so perfectly that it seems as though God’s “invisible hand” guarantees that everything works out for the very best for all His children.

Right wing evangelical religionists believe that the good life requires absolute subordination and obedience to their interpretation of God’s word. Evangelical economists believe that economic prosperity, efficiency, and progress require the same subordination and obedience to the dictates of private property and markets. Selected Holy books serve evangelicals as final proofs of God’s word. Similarly, other selected books — the textbooks summarizing neoclassical economic research — serve neoclassical economists in the same way.

Right wing evangelicals worry about the Devil who always lurks: the threatening other to be banished, defeated, ostracized, silenced, or converted.  For them, the bad are those driven by the Devil to disobey, ignore, or deny God and thereby interfere in his plan for world happiness and salvation. For evangelical economists, the bad are those who lack faith in private property and markets. They disobey — usually by getting the state to disobey — the freedom of markets and the liberties of private property. Thus they interfere in the optimum economic results that would otherwise flow from private property and free markets. The threatening others for neoclassical economics are the “heterodox economists” (the word currently in vogue) who dissent from the neoclassical orthodoxy and thus must be banished, defeated, ostracized, silenced, or converted.

For rightist evangelicals, the sick and the miserable are those whose insufficient faith and resulting bad behavior drew God’s punishment. Yet, that punishment is also a merciful test of their faith to see if they can and will repent and thereby emerge from their tribulations. The healthy and prosperous are those who have passed God’s tests by means of faith and moral behavior. It follows, for example, that for the state to help the sick and miserable is to interfere in God’s will and God’s ways, to deprive sinners of the freedom to respond to God’s will and pass His tests which is their only real hope for salvation.

Likewise, for the evangelical economists, if the state helps the unemployed, the poor, etc., it interferes in the workings of private property and markets. That precludes the poor and unemployed from learning and responding to market pressures and signals — passing the market test — that alone can enable them finally and permanently to overcome their economic tribulations. (by working, changing jobs, adjusting “lifestyles,” learning skills, etc.). In response to markets, the economically “disadvantaged” can pull themselves up by the boostraps. Only then will they truly emerge from poverty (acquire property). By contrast, state support will only sap their initiative and deepen their culture of poverty and dependence.

The rightist religious evangelicals recognize that sometimes the Devil wins, but just for a while before God returns the faithful to supremacy. Dark times occur when people lose their faith, turn to wicked ways, suffer, and thus are eventually brought back to see God’s light. The neoclassicals work a parallel story about how, in the Great Depression of the 1930s, people lost faith in private property and markets. This opened the way for the economic devil — FDR’s New Deal state — to interfere with private property and markets according to the statist economics of Mr. Keynes. But the state was eventually recognized as the cause of economic suffering that could only be overcome by returning to full faith in (subordination to) private property and markets. Thus, the right wing evangelical politician, Bush, made common cause with the evangelical economists for the Great Revival we have today.

The arrogance and intolerance of rightist evangelicals makes them disinterested in the details of the Devil’s minions. They lump together atheists, agnostics, and those faithful to other Gods than theirs as all simply evil. The evangelical economists match them by driving from their temples (the schools, the media, and politics) every kind of economist other than the neoclassical. They care little for the difference between Keynesians (who want state interference to save capitalism from the failures of its markets and private property) and Marxians (who think civilization can and should do far better than capitalism). For the neoclassicals, everyone else is dangerous and unacceptable. And so they justify the fact that nearly all economic teaching, publishing, and politics in the US is exclusively neoclassical.

Once again, in the name of absolute truth, dissent and debate are banished as a moral imperative. Until, of course, the next revolution and renaissance of genuinely free thought.

Rick Wolff Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002).