The Original Sin of Economics

Yves here. While this article argues that Christian theology is behind the individualism that pervades mainstream economic thought and provides useful detail, I feel compelled to weigh in on its conventional and therefore distorted take on Adam Smith.

For starters, Smith was a Shakespearean actor and even lectured on Shakespeare’s imagery…and it was Shakespeare who first used the expression “invisible hand” in Macbeth. As John Kay pointed out:

Macbeth, having ascended the Scottish throne through the killing of Duncan, must cover his tracks by ordering the murder of Banquo….

Macbeth’s hitmen kill Banquo, but his son escapes to England. The whistleblower exposes Macbeth’s activities and returns to Scotland with an invading army that deposes the murderous king. The pursuit of self-interest not only fails to add up to the overall betterment of society; it ultimately destroys those who engage in it.

Similarly, Smith regarded his The Theory of Moral Sentiments as his most important work. From the Adam Smith Institute:

The Theory Of Moral Sentiments was a real scientific breakthrough. It shows that our moral ideas and actions are a product of our very nature as social creatures. It argues that this social psychology is a better guide to moral action than is reason. It identifies the basic rules of prudence and justice that are needed for society to survive, and explains the additional, beneficent, actions that enable it to flourish.

Self-interest and sympathy. As individuals, we have a natural tendency to look after ourselves. That is merely prudence. And yet as social creatures, explains Smith, we are also endowed with a natural sympathy – today we would say empathy – towards others. When we see others distressed or happy, we feel for them – albeit less strongly. Likewise, others seek our empathy and feel for us. When their feelings are particularly strong, empathy prompts them to restrain their emotions so as to bring them into line with our, less intense reactions. Gradually, as we grow from childhood to adulthood, we each learn what is and is not acceptable to other people. Morality stems from our social nature.

Justice and beneficence. So does justice. Though we are self-interested, we again have to work out how to live alongside others without doing them harm. That is an essential minimum for the survival of society. If people go further and do positive good – beneficence – we welcome it, but cannot demand such action as we demand justice.

Virtue. Prudence, justice, and beneficence are important. However, the ideal must be that any impartial person, real or imaginary – what Smith calls an impartial spectator – would fully empathise with our emotions and actions. That requires self-command, and in this lies true virtue.

End of editorial. Now to the main event.

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

When you think of original sin and the fall of Adam and Eve, an economics class probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. After all, economics is a secular discipline. Or is it?

Maybe not entirely, considering that the earliest economic thinkers had religion very much in mind when they laid down its tenets. Economist A.M.C. Waterman notes that economics was a branch of moral theology in the Christian West until the eighteenth century, while ethics professor Michael S. Northcott holds what we now call “economics” or “political economy” was the province of moral philosophers and theologians until the mid-nineteenth century.

Adam Smith was the son of a devout Presbyterian mother and lived in a world dominated by the Kirk. As economist Paul Oslington notes, his writings, despite a certain amount of personal skepticism of religion, are strewn with religious concepts, such as his view of nature as demonstrating “providential care” and the “wisdom and goodness of God” (Theory of Moral Sentiments). And, as Oslington attests, Smith’s work was often interpreted theologically by early economic enthusiasts like Scottish minister and political economist Thomas Chalmers and Richard Whately, holder of the first chair in economics at a British university. Both saw God’s will in the conversion of self-interested actions into the greatest economic good.

This God, it appears, was a classical economist.

According to Northcott in “Political Theology and Political Economy,” economics developed with a Christian perspective that can be traced to a particular time and place. This view held that human beings, and nature in general, were forever tarnished by the Fall and Original Sin. He points to the Reformation, which swept through Europe in the 1500s, as the catalyst for a widely accepted view of hopelessly sinful humans capable of redemption only through individual faith. The combination of pessimism and individualism, Northcott argues, is the key innovation of this period of Christian theology, which manifests in the work of Thomas Hobbes, who depicted wicked humans who would run amok unless the State protected them by underwriting private property, law enforcement, and contracts.

Economic individualism is born, with the State as its guarantor.

The influence of Christianity on the development of capitalism and economic thinking was memorably examined by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904). Weber homed in on the fact that Protestants, especially the Calvinist variety, believed that a person’s place in heaven was already decided and no amount of praying and almsgiving would change it. With this bleak picture in mind, Calvinists turned their efforts to work in the secular world, imagining that God’s favor could be discovered in piles of money.

Weber also saw monasticism playing a fundamental role in the development of economics and economic practices, observing that monks, trained in methodical, self-denying habits, promulgated the idea that God wanted you to stay occupied and find yourself a “calling.” As this view influenced the secular world, many people, especially Calvinists, started to look at business as a calling, adopting the monkish perspective that God meant you to carefully save money and reinvest in your enterprise.

Safeguard those piles of money, and for heaven’s sake don’t give them away.

Weber saw these cultural shifts as tending to draw people away from focusing on the commons, the sharing of resources, and yeoman farming (farming associated with a class intermediate between the gentry and the laborers and serfs). They instead turned their attention to joint stock-holding corporations, factories, and the calculation of wages and profits.

Values shifted from cooperation to competition, from shared prosperity to individual gain. The idea was that you may as well focus on your self-interest in this world because you can’t save anybody. Never mind the poor, who deserved their fate and clearly did not have God’s favor. For Northcott, this Reformed theology freed people from responsibilities represented in the old medieval system which, while flawed (for example, by a rigid class system), at least had some elements of redistribution and morally grounded economics in bans on usury, the rise of trade guilds, some local regulation of prices and wages, a negative view of avarice, and a framework of society as a social organism.

Northcott traces a thru-line of the money-focused mindset in John Locke’s emphasis on private property ownership and productivity, along with the idea that you can “own” nature when you use your labor to improve it. From there comes banking and financialization as ways of “redeeming” the land from the Fall. Salvation lay in turning the surplus extracted from improving nature into money. The new moral code: money-making is the ticket to heaven. To sin is to fail to maximize your personal gain.

Northcott observes that early economists like Malthus took the story of the Fall and its aftermath to mean that scarcity was God’s plan – so there was no point in trying to eradicate poverty or promote equality. It wasn’t important whether or not your individual actions were inherently good: what mattered is how much wealth they produced.

Christ may have warned about the accumulation of wealth, but this strain of Christianity clearly favored the rich.

Northcott notes that by the mid-twentieth century, we get what’s known as the Kaldor-Hicks criterion, whereby the actions by individuals, firms, or governments that increase wealth are judged beneficial even if some people are harmed. Lives are priced competitively. This mindset was evident during the Covid pandemic when the vulnerable and the non-affluent were expected to sacrifice themselves for the economy. (Dan Patrick, lieutenant governor of Texas, summed up his view of the lives of America’s senior citizens, explaining, “there are more important things than living.”)

However, other strains of Christianity interpret religion and its relationship to economics quite differently. There have always been Christian thinkers pushing back on the code of competitive individualism and its bleak outlook, like nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin. Ruskin, raised in an Evangelical tradition, became a vociferous critic of classical economic thinking and capitalism. As Northcott observes, Ruskin pictured the Garden of Eden as evidence of the peace, abundance, and sharing of resources that God intended for us. As Ruskin scholar Jeffrey Spear and I have observed, he abhorred the idea of placing a market value on human life and what he termed the false Gospel of Mammonism, which made the pursuit of self-interest a social good and excused – or even promoted – the exploitation of human beings and nature. Ruskin favored the western tradition and values rooted in Scripture and the classics over those of classical economics.

Poet William Wordsworth, raised as an Anglican, was another figure from the Romantic movement known for his critique of capitalism and economic thought. For him, communing with nature was the means through which people could experience God, and that path was open to everyone, rich or poor. He decried the displacements and turmoil ordinary people faced as the Industrial Revolution commenced, as well as the despoilation of nature that came with it. Like Ruskin, he deplored the condition of workers in the market economy. In his 1829 poem “Humanity,” Wordsworth challenges Adam Smith’s most famous book by name:

“For the poor Many, measured out by rules

Fetched with cupidity from heartless schools

That to an Idol, falsely called “the Wealth

Of Nations,” sacrifice a People’s health,

Body and mind and soul”

In the nineteenth century, Christian socialism emerged, first in England, combining the goals of socialism with what they saw as the proper religious and ethical values of Christianity that had been abandoned. This translated into the promotion of cooperation, helping the poor, and fostering goals and practices like cooperatives, trade unions, mutual insurance, and egalitarianism. Northcott points to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), as the catalyst for Catholic Social Teaching, which advocated more economic equality and the sharing of nature’s goods.

Economic historian and Christian socialist R.H. Tawney, born in 1880, saw human character as inherently social and warned against the focus on self-interest and facing God in isolation. He maintained that for property owners, economic responsibility outweighs privilege. For him, business without ethics led to evil. As Tawney put it, “a religious philosophy, unless it is frankly to abandon nine-tenths of conduct to the powers of darkness, cannot admit the doctrine of a world of business and economic relations self-sufficient and divorced from ethics and religion.”

Christian socialism met a powerful foe in the twentieth century in the form of the Mont Pelerin Society, launched in 1947 and led until 1960 by Friedrich Hayek. This group of influential economists, bankers, and intellectuals promoted the individual freedom of the producer and consumer over common concerns. They set themselves against social projects like the New Deal that intervened in the economy to increase the power of ordinary people. For them, the government should only infrequently take action to reduce inequality or promote the people’s welfare.

We’ve seen, of course, how that has turned out: Extreme inequality, private ownership of public goods, ordinary people disempowered, a global financial meltdown driven by neoliberal deregulation, climate disaster, and a pandemic that burdened the poor but saw the rich getting even richer.

For Christian thinkers like Northcott, the pessimistic individualism that lives on in neoliberalism is the Original Sin of economics – a sin that has proliferated for the last two hundred years, culminating in the precarious situation of humanity of the twenty-first century. For them, as the welfare of people and planet are increasingly threatened, it is this stain that must be removed if we are to save ourselves and, as Wordsworth urges, “come forth into the light of things.”

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  1. Acacia

    Nice summary of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Were he alive today, I wonder how Smith would account for the sociopaths who rule us.

  2. begob

    Granted, Smith’s few references to the invisible hand can be distinguished from his notion of spontaneous order because markets, but that still leaves the question of causation to which he had no answer except the idealism of justice and virtue. His position is analogous to Isaac Newton’s in respect of gravitation: it is real but I can’t explain it except by appeal to God. Newton ended up a blood-thirsty mint-master pursuing counterfeiters to death – arguably the inevitable end of his alchemical inquiries. The assessment of The Wealth of Nations by Wordsworth (quoted in the article) may be as plain as it ought to be.

    As for the main event, it seems to be a restatement of the division of piety within Christianity, between social teaching and predestination, and that has been chased down to gruesome effect so often as to qualify for the definition of insanity. The entire subject – including Smith, including the liberal state of nature and veil of ignorance – remains on the idealist side of the ledger.

    The only available politics for shifting to the materialist side is by way of Lenin. I wonder if the Ukraine war is the latest attempt to make that shift by force – Putin has stated that he’s fixing a mistake made by his predecessor. I’ve gone too far, haven’t I?

  3. KD

    Parramore’s article is pretty bizarre. Aristotelean philosophy posits natural teleology in the world, and certainly for biological organisms and collectives. A community naturally exists with a natural communitarian end, and the good is manifest by virtue of the souls in the community cooperating toward their natural end.

    Descartes and Hobbes banished teleology from nature, and ends became the province of human subjectivity. This gives rise to the Hobbesian anarchy, where humans all pursue their self-interested ends and justify their means in a self-interested way, necessitating the Leviathan to keep everyone from eating each other. Hobbes is absolutely your first modernist, atheist, reductionist and there is zero evidence there was a single theological sentiment in Hobbes which was not forced by political expedient.

    There is nothing “theological” about Malthus’s the notion of scarcity, production grows in a linear fashion, and population grows in an exponential fashion, and math. If you have too many rabbits and not enough foxes, the rabbits will starve. Evolution posits many more are born than will have surviving and reproductively viable offspring, that is scarcity, and it changes the gene pool over generations. These notions are fundamentally descriptive of the order of nature, whether or not they have some kind of archeological origins in theology.

    Classical liberalism was rooted in a war between new social forces of production (merchants, manufacturers) replacing old social forces of control and production (landlordism, serfs, peasants). No one gave a damn about eradicating poverty or equality. It is only when the old landed gentry are either defenestrated or married into and incorporated into the bourgeois that concerns turn to how to manage the hoi polloi now that you don’t have a local landed aristocracy to crush peasant revolts and you have to deal with militant industrial workers in cities, so you end up with managed democracy where we have formal equality, and we are assured that those “more equal” than the others are using their greater equality to raise up everyone else, so that this “more equal” status is justified. Just as the Communist Party was using the mechanism of the totalitarian state to eradicate all class differences which would result in the disappearance of the state, today our billionaires are using their nonprofit entities to promote diversity, inclusiveness and equity, which will ultimately eliminate all class and racial divisions, resulting in these nonprofit organizations becoming obsolete. If you don’t believe them, ask them, and if you are too skeptical, it is probably proof you are a bad person. [But don’t forget ESG as well.]

    As far as the “invisible hand,” if you use linear equations to model economic activity, your linear system will return one solution, and your model will have a stable equilibrium. To the extent that your model is accurate, you will find the economic system returning to that stable equilibrium. The “invisible hand” is an artifact of the mathematical models employed in the 18th century, although it clearly displays a certain theological retention from a prior era.

    1. hunkerdown

      Malthus didn’t limit himself to merely observing and affirming that theory of undisciplined reproductivity of the lower orders, a common enough trope among societies with bureaucratic classes. Malthus in fact sought to moralize austerity as the machinery of God’s purpose (bottom of p104). Christian theology’s lifestyle choice of channeling of the “passion between the sexes” toward population growth and away from “sodomy”, “onanism” and other non-reproductive activity, as usual, generated the problem to which it proposed itself as a solution. Humans can understand their own reproductive limits when their societies and leisure classes do not actively disinform or manipulate them.

      On the other flank, production only scales linearly when parasitic classes (such as theologists and philosophers) exempted from productive labor are allowed to appropriate and direct the products of labor toward themselves and, generally, away from improving the conditions of the labor army, conserving the relations and norms by which bureaucrats can abstain from, and sometimes are enjoined from, productive labor. The Malthusian drama is, consistent with the Shirky Principle, an error meant to naturalize and reproduce the very conditions that ostensibly made the error necessary, but really just allow a leisure class to compel others to serve them, as usual with teles and other lies.

      1. KD

        production only scales linearly when parasitic classes (such as theologists and philosophers) exempted from productive labor are allowed to appropriate and direct the products of labor toward themselves

        First, there is a static assumption in Malthus, you have a fixed amount of arable land with a fixed amount of productivity, and once you have more people than land that can be tilled, people will starve (which happened in the 14th century in Europe). This is, of course, false, agriculture science can increase the amount of farmable space and increase productivity, so it does not have to be linear, which is why you have the contemporary debates between the Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich to which passing reference was made in yesterday’s ecological apocalypse. [Capitalism is for horses, its not for men, doctor said it’d kill me but he didn’t say when.]

        On the other hand, Malthus does apply when we are looking at petri dishes, and even if we hit the technological singularity, there is an absolute carrying capacity of a physical environment no matter what.

        As far as the parasitic classes consisting of philosophers and theologians, it has been previously noted that man does not live by bread alone.

        1. hunkerdown

          I notice you very carefully avoided dealing with the falsehood behind the exponential numerator, and carried on with your narrative as if it were still valid and not socially constructed, explicitly, by the theologian’s feelings elevated into fact.

          And I note that theologians and philosophers were the ones to originate that argument that just happens to construct the world in which they have value, therefore circular, therefore invalid.

          1. KD

            In my estimation, theology and philosophy are elite activities primarily utilized to legitimate the existing power of the ruling class, or in the alternative, to overthrow it. In this respect, they are pragmatic value added for someone sitting outside the circle.

            1. Karl

              I’ve been reflecting about this interesting statement of yours, and on balance I think it’s right:

              theology and philosophy are elite activities primarily utilized to legitimate the existing power of the ruling class, or in the alternative, to overthrow it.

              Philosophy and theology do seem to change and evolve to meet the pragmatic needs and contingencies of the times as defined by the prevailing culture. Well, what really shapes the prevailing culture and defines its needs? The classes with the power to do the shaping, usually by way of control of the organs of knowledge (academia), media (printing presses) and–yes–the Churches.

              I suspect the main way this works is the academy shapes the thought leaders; the thought leaders shape what’s discussed in the newspapers and magazines; clergy and laity imbibe the same messages. Clergy deliver passionate sermons that conform to the conventional wisdom, so shaped, all the while assuming they are delivering divine truth via the Holy Spirit.

              This how the leaders of the German Lutheran and Catholic churches could (and did) say Seig Heil, forgetting the commandments against idolatry. Jesus in scripture is clearly an advocate of the ethics of non-violence, yet Churches tend to fire preachers who speak against popular wars in their churches.

              Case in point: Last Sunday, I heard a passionate pro-Ukraine war presentation in a progressive UCC church that calls itself “Peace Church”. The presenter was speaking the neocon line that this war was a “Civilizational Struggle” that the West needed to win at all costs. I was the lone outspoken critic of this line of thinking, that it would prolong the war and further the suffering in Ukraine, and was “shushed” by everyone in the pews (which included many retired clergy).

              I’m reminded of Twain’s story “Peace Prayer”. Often we pray for peace but what we really pray for is war.

          2. KD

            falsehood behind the exponential numerator

            . . . am I to take it from you comment that Christianity can take credit for exponential population growth due to its success at stamping out buggery and onanism within the British Empire? Have you heard of the British Navy and British Public Schools?

            1. hunkerdown

              Procreation serves different functions for the landed vs. the unlanded. Christianity can take credit for establishing taboo on the recreational usage of rum, sodomy and the lash, and making a positional good out of them. (Speaking from observation, there are very few working class people in the Leather lifestyle, and the vast majority of them are subs. The Puritans would have been proud, in private.)

              The difference between theology and philosophy as actions, and theologists and philosophers as members of a guild with prior or exclusive rights to the practice, is clear enough. When the true costs of total worlds are taken into account, those outside the circle only tend to stick around if they are somehow captive to it.

            2. Ludus57

              In 1913, whilst First Lord of the Admiralty (equivalent of Secretary of the Navy), Winston Churchill had an argument with some of his admirals during a strategy meeting.
              One of them accused him of “having impugned the traditions of the Royal Navy”, to which Churchill responded: “And what are they? They are rum, sodomy and the lash.”

    2. EC

      I rarely comment here, but you’re quite right. Ignorance of pre-Cartesian philosophy is obvious in the articles from both Parramore and the Adam Smith Institute website. For Aristotle, ‘social psychology’ and ‘morality’ were different ways of looking at the same thing. Psychology that was doing its job well would facilitate moral living, the purpose of which was human flourishing.

      It was Descartes who began the separation between the two, as part of his insane (literally) idea that the mind and body were two separate substances. And Hobbes and Locke pretended that we could look at an individual in isolation, as though a life devoid of other humans beings isn’t warped and empty, as though we don’t come into this world completely dependent on other human beings. Many of the ‘new, revolutionary breakthroughs’ in economics, psychology, sociology, etc are basically new ways of finding out how Descartes, Hobbes and Locke were wrong in their fundamentals. But most isn’t new: it was in Aristotle and the medievals.

      1. podcastkid

        Descartes put a connection at the pituitary gland. If you’re persuaded by Rupert Sheldrake on some things in these times, you might (I mean I might) think more in terms of stem cells. But that might be just as incorrect (or incomplete) as we don’t know. If the energy of the sixth chakra pertains to one dimension and that of the seventh to another, how are they connected?

        Humans go along groping. We’re lucky in this era to apprehend a little how quasi-blindly. IMO a lot of our current unknowing pertains to dimensions. This article came before the Higgs field was proven, but to me Odenwald [little known I guess save on the net] writes well, and conjecture germane on a number of things remains at the same level as it was in ’17.

  4. dingusansich

    If Ross Perot had looked like Cary Grant, where would we be now …

    Another facet of neoliberalism bearing mention, what with events, dear boy, events: the effect on national power of deindustrialization to maximize profits through outsourcing and minimize the power of domestic labor markets. The strategic geniuses among the power elite, fellow neos who got onboard that Titanic—the wages of spin always being outstanding—now plot feverishly, steaming full ahead toward icebergs in their colossal, ginormous, biggest-now-and-ever-will-be ship with the firm intention of sinking them. We’ll see how that works out. Or the cockroaches will.

  5. eg

    For me the follies of economics are rooted in bad human anthropology — that’s whence comes this illusion of the radical individual. This is further compounded by the other ridiculous features of “homo economicus” — all-knowing and eternal. That the field has degenerated into a second rate branch of mathematics only serves to further conceal the unquestioned normative assumptions buried in the models, a self-perpetuating state of ignorance made permanent now that the history of economics has all but been defenestrated from the academy and all of its mainstream institutional programs.

    The road to the hell brought to us by the Mont Pelerins and their fellow travellers begins for me with the marginal revolution and the abandonment of the crucial distinction made by classical political economy between earned and unearned income that is now completely and utterly lost in the neoclassical orthodox mainstream. Much mischief is thus propagated and perpetuated …

  6. carolina concerned

    Christianity, as any religion, is not a leading philosophical force. This is where Weber went wrong. Christian philosophy reflects the social philosophy of the culture the churches are trying to attract. Evangelical Christianity is not the philosophical source for the MAGA/Evangelical culture. The MAGA/Evangelical culture is the philosophical source for the Evangelical churches.

    Similarly, capitalism is not the driving cultural catalyst for economic philosophy that is believed to be and is presented as by the profiteers. That force would be the industrial revolution of the past two centuries.

    Capitalism is a great economic model as a component of the economy. Capitalism is a bad social philosophy. Our problem today is that capitalism has become in the past 50 years the dominant social philosophy. This has led to a general economy that is dominated by profiteers/predators. The economy has become out of balance. The profiteers/predators need to be regulated and their wealth partially redistributed. Read Piketty.

  7. Socal Rhino

    Seems a truism today that everyone quotes Smith but no one reads him. In that way Wealth of Nations reminds me another often cited, seldom read book.

    I think Lars Syll has a similar but sharper take on the fall of economics – happened when it stopped being social science and practitioners confused its mathematic models with reality.

  8. LY

    Usual suspects of Hobbes, Calvinism, and Hayek. Lloyd Blankfein doing “God’s Work”.

    At a the grassroots level, how did the Prosperity Gospel evolve and come about? I doubt too many of its adherents think about the history of the movement, nor about the ideological influences.

    1. carolina concerned

      Protestantism is retail religion. The reaction to Martin Luther opened the opportunity for numerous start-up religious sects. The driving motivation was profit, whether monetary or prestige. Each sect had to sell itself to the public as any other business start-up. The most successful of these has probaby been Christmas, the ultimate Prosperity Gospel.

      It is great that you are asking for a focus on the grassroots level. The is more real than academia.

      1. cfraenkel

        “The driving motivation was profit” – funny / ironic / tragic considering the standard framing of the 95 theses being a response to indulgences hoovering up any and all available profits for the glory of Imperial Rome.

        What goes around comes around.

  9. Questa Nota

    Smith’s era, and many others in many cultures, had people with ideas about, even awareness of, moral sentiments and being social creatures. In today’s atomized world it takes extra effort to engage and maintain contact with what used to be more foundational. Do your part to shift the balance away from the nasty, brutish and short of Hobbes.

    For a supplemental read, try Tocqueville in Arabia for the discussions about how different societies and customs look at the world.

  10. Hayek's Heelbiter

    I find it peculiar to read an essay that cites so much about Christianity and nothing about Jesus, most of whose teachings (and actions) were with regard to economic justice and economic inequality with almost no words about the social issues that so obsess the Christian right.

    1. podcastkid

      People try to extract principles out of Genesis, and bracket aside talking snakes [Ellul did it alright with 2nd Kings]. The real errant thing in it, though, might have been the wonderfulness before the fall. And on that was built the aim to “get back”? Did Jesus say anything about getting back? The more I contemplate it, the more I see how I’m a heretic to evangelicals, and a nutjob to most here…I mean to be pursuing what Origen and Tolkien were talking about. LOVE Susan’s comment, but, if the rights of humans and the rights of nature are “self-evident,” why did it take so long for someone to try to put’em in words?

      Title does not convey Tolkien’s viewpoint (original sin happened before life on earth).

      Re-drafting government piecemeal like Popper…issue by issue. There’s no wiping things away down to tabula rasa, I mean discovering that it’ll work. Cause no one’s omniscient enough to put down words that’ll last.

  11. Karen’s hubby

    “Morality stems from our social nature.”

    I think that German mad man who pronounced god dead would say that it stems from our own individual self interest.
    Then any reading of Marquis de Sade will show that in opposition to the mellowed romantic Rousseau , our social nature can be a force for good just as well as evil. Nature making no distinction between the two.
    So as with everything else, morality depends on those who do the definition of morality, it can’t stand on its own legs.

  12. Samoan

    Jesus was not a neoliberal. Michael Hudson has mentioned this in “… and forgive them their debts”. Ancient Judaism and Christianity since Leviticus (specifically Lev 25) was written was against wealth accumulation and debt piling up. Modern neoliberal Christians seemed to have forgotten about the Jubilee year even though it was literally the first thing Jesus said as a priest (Luke 4:18).

    Fortunately there are groups like the Poor People’s Movement trying to bring this back.

  13. chuck roast

    Yesterday, I began watching a video with Yanis Varoufakis. Yanis opened his rap with “On the one hand…” I’m thinking, Yanis has got to be goofing on us. On the other hand he was laying on the irony. Lynne Paramore identifies any number of hands toiling at this troubled soup. Which leads me to think where is J.S. Mill in this recipe?

    Am I missing something, or hasn’t an entire obscurantist school been built on Mill’s Utilitarianism and Marginal Utility theory. I can remember an whole semester…two actually wasted on these academic margins. An entire edifice raised on the production and consumption of one more (or less) widget. As overwhelming and entrenched as it was widespread and breathtakingly inane.

    The endless multitudes of God’s creatures engaged in cooperative and indeed selfless behavior lost on generations of utility maximizing academics. Mill must be at least a demi-god in this Parthenon of bad ethics and worse theory…on the other hand…

  14. DJG, Reality Czar

    Yves Smith, true to form, produces a better headnote than the article posted.

    This paragraph from the Adam Smith Institute is unexpected and telling: “Prudence, justice, and beneficence are important. However, the ideal must be that any impartial person, real or imaginary – what Smith calls an impartial spectator – would fully empathise with our emotions and actions. That requires self-command, and in this lies true virtue.”

    Why, these are the basic teachings of Confucius. One only has to read the Analects.

    Likewise, I’d argue that empathy, self-command, prudence, and justice are central to the thinking of Epicurus. They certainly infuse the great poem by Lucretius.

    After that, Parramore’s theological wheels fall off. Like so many Americans, she seems to think that Christianity is unique to the Anglo-American world. Wow. Well, there’s a cameo by Calvin.

    There is no (theological) way that Calvin was influenced by monks like Benedictines (and related orders) and the Franciscan movement. Calvinists repressed monasticism.

    Further, it is the motto of the Benedictines, Ora et labora, Pray and work, but Catholic ideas of both praying and working are a far cry from Calvinist Geneva and fantasies of predestination.

    And a cameo by Pope Leo.

    And if economics was a branch of theology during those non-Anglo centuries of Catholicism and Orthodoxy (I won’t expect Parramore to know anything about the Coptic churches…), why doesn’t Parramore address Saint Francis of Assisi and Lady Poverty?

    1. GramSci

      Per Hobbes, the Second Estate (alphas, esp. first-born males) was in place long before the invention of literacy invented the First Estate (betas, esp. females and second-born sons). Through this First Estate, literacy gave the betas some cross-generational control through Scripture (“the Law”), even though the Second Estate continued to prefer tooth-and-claw dominance contests.

      Since the Death of God (Darwin, 1859), the Press (“the Fourth Estate”) has “progressively” replaced the First Estate. Nevertheless, the Second Estate continues to wield most power (“money”) and to sire/appoint the hierarchy of the estate.

      Plus ça change …

  15. Susan the other

    It was embarrassing to hear that our dear Congress actually passed a “resolution” that we would never be a socialist country. Are they all dumber than stumps or did the smart ones duck that vote? The USA spends about 35% of revenue on social entitlements. The EU 45%. China? The evil Ruskies? Our Congress really is a goddam clown car. You would think that the wiser members would prevent the idiots from disgracing democracy like that. There is nothing in our Constitution that says we cannot choose the kind of government we need. And if “socialism” offers us the most practicable solutions to our predicaments, then socialism it should be. I’m reading a book published in the 1890s (I think, can’t decipher the Ramen Noodles) but it never mentions socialism or capitalism nor any of the wars of the 20th century, so I think it’s older. But it talks about the evolution of social Justice in Germany where the peasantry banded together in walled cities to protect themselves from the marauding knightly lunatic princes who simply pillaged them for the money and goods the “nobility” needed to maintain all their privileges. The church was even worse, totally corrupt, etc. The knights of the pope also pillaged the poor. So the peasants came together to protect themselves, created prosperous cities and wrote charters to establish their rights. So between now and then we have run amok by ignoring the rights of Nature. The place to begin again is clearly to establish the rights of Nature. I can hear it now, Congress will make asses of themselves declaring “We will never establish the rights of nature.” Right?

    1. GramSci

      Per Hobbes, the Second Estate (alphas, esp. first-born males) was in place long before the invention of literacy invented the First Estate (betas, esp. females and second-born sons). Through this First Estate, literacy gave the betas some cross-generational control through Scripture (“the Law”), even though the Second Estate continued to prefer tooth-and-claw dominance contests.

      Since the Death of God (Darwin, 1859), the Press (“the Fourth Estate”) has “progressively” replaced the First Estate. Nevertheless, the Second Estate continues to wield most power (“money”) and to sire/appoint the hierarchy of the estate.

      Plus ça change …

  16. scott s.

    The article seems mainly concerned with Reformed Theology as it evolved in England. It does give a nod to “strains of Christianity [that] interpret religion and its relationship to economics quite differently” but doesn’t delve into why these strains differ.

  17. gerry

    To me, the original sin of our economic system is taking the concept of property and elevating it to the level of life itself. The postulate that one has property in ones own life is evident in the concern with “life, liberty, and property”. Prior to Locke and the other English philosophers of property, common lands and the rights of usufruct were applied to the use of resources. The justification and acceptance of absentee ownership that give exclusive rights to the owner is what has led to our current state as we elaborate that concept ever finer. In this sense, property is theft and without a fundamental shift in the rights of property, our civilization is doomed.

  18. Rubicon

    The ever evolving western branch of Christianity is a mere corollary to the early Roman Empire when the Roman Aristocrats killed/overthrew the Kings of Rome. Unlike other ancient societies, the Roman aristocrats never allowed Debt to be extinguished. What we see today in Capitalism emanates from that singular event in the Roman Empire.
    See the renowned works of Dr. Michael Hudson who has studied how differently the ancient economies differed sharply from the Roman Empire.

  19. Dick Swenson

    There seem to be many “hands” in philosophy. We have Smith’s “invisible hand” and “the dead hand of the past” that seems to be the hand that is invisible in the originalist’s interpretation of documents such as our Constitution.

  20. Ep3

    Money is the great equalizer. There is no test that says “u r a better person than your neighbor”. What is the definition of “better”?
    But with money we can make it tangible. With money you can build an empire, you change the world. ‘So he must be a good person bcuz he has so much money’. ‘Jim is lazy, he doesn’t have any money’. But if jim had 480bn in the bank, he wouldn’t be thought of as lazy, even if he laid in bed all day, did drugs, and played video games.

  21. Wukchumni

    I heard there was a movie with an invisible hand having a tryst with digits, but gets bitten by Pavlov’s dog-and a Rabies infection sets in…

    …an Adam Smithee production

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