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Questions for a “Christian” view of economics (Acton 3)

With the lecture on economics, I entered new territory, since like most theologians, I have very little background in economics. (I like money, though, so I think that helps.) So, rather than walking through the whole lecture, which I don’t think I could do meaningfully, let me highlight a few areas in which I have some questions.

1. Private Property

The lecturer argued that secure private property rights are necessary for effective economics. For example, unless I’m convinced that you rightfully own that car, I’m not going to give you any money for it, because I don’t want the real owner chasing me down later. So, for consistent and predictable economic exchange, you need to have secure property rights.

I have several questions here that maybe some of you who have reflected on economics more than I have can answer. First, and most importantly, how does this right to private property connect with the Christian anthropology articulated earlier. The lecturers here have posited several times that there is a necessary connection between these two, but I have not yet heard any meaningful explanation of what this connection might be. Does a truly Christian anthropology necessitate private property? Wouldn’t this entail the existence of private property in the eschaton? Are we willing to go that far? Indeed, the closest that I’ve heard to a biblical argument for private property so far are the various commandments not to steal. But, it seems like a more robust defense is necessary for such an apparently important concept.

Second, the lecturer made a distinction between private property, which includes the property of corporations, and governmentally owned property. But, with the rise of mega-corporations in the modern era, is it that easy to make such a distinction?

Finally, even if we agree that private property is divinely intended, how will we determine what constitutes legitimate rights of possession? Who gets to make the rules that govern right of possession? Or, do we need to argue that these particular rules are also somehow grounded in the creation order?

2. Consumerism

The lecturer made a point of arguing that the free market is a “consumer sovereignty system.” In other words, the whole point of a free market is to provide people what they want. If enough people want low-priced shoes, the market will produce them. And, that’s great as long as our wants are appropriate. But, if enough people want pornography, the market will produce that as well. So, she argued that a free market needs to be tempered by “Christian realism and Christian morality.” (Could we still call such a market “free”?) So, we utilize the power of the free market, but we make sure that it is guided by Christian convictions to produce those goods in accord with Christian morality.

Setting aside for a moment the seeming impossibility of such a task, doesn’t this simply capitulate to an understanding of economics that is inherently consumeristic? Even if we succeeded to developing such a Christian market, it would still be a “consumer sovereignty system” oriented around producing and consuming goods based on personal desires, perpetuating the idea that humans are defined primarily as producers/consumers. Wouldn’t we be better off focusing what it really means for human persons to flourish in the world and then consider how best to create economic realities that contribute to that kind of flourishing?  Maybe that’s naïve in a broken world, but it seems like a good place to start.

Thoughts on human dignity

The Acton University confernce opened this evening with approximately 400 people from more than 50 different countries. At dinner I sat next to a young woman from Myanmar who is studying contextual theology in the Netherlands. I have to admit that I had no idea that Acton had such a global draw. It was impressive. And the attendees appeared to be similarly diverse in race, gender, and denomination (approximately 50% Catholic, 50% Protestant, and 5% Orthodox; I realize those numbers don’t add up, but he added the Orthodox at the end and I’m not sure how it affects the first two numbers).

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, the president of the Acton Institute, gave the openening address entitled “Thoughts on Human Dignity.” Apparently this is his standard first-night presentation, introducing all of us to some of the basic principles of the Acton Institute.  It was an engaging presentation, but it did leave me with a number of questions that I hope to pursue further over the next few days.

  1. Several key terms went without clear definition. Most importantly: liberty, virtue, dignity, image of God, right, and nature. All of these were used repeatedly in the presentation, and I’m sure they’ll be key to many of the seminars as well. So, I’m hoping for much more clarity in how these terms are being used.
  2. Although Sirico repeatedly referenced the “complexity” of the human person, he tended to emphasize the rational/intellectual aspect of humanity. He often referred to the importance of “ideas” for shaping human life and indicated that it is primarily our rationality that separates us from the animals. That left me wondering if there wasn’t an implicit rationalistic anthropology driving some of this despite the occasional mention of other dimensions of human existence – relationalty, physicality, etc.
  3. There seemed to be some ambiguity in the presentation on the relationship between the individual and the corporate aspects of humanity. Sirico said at one point that “we are not individuals,” emphasizing the relational dynamic. But later he also said that a human person was an irreplaceable particular (or words to that effect). I’m sure the tension between these two was mostly rhetoric, but it did cause me to wonder if sufficient thought has been given to both of these dynamics and how they are related to one another.
  4. One of the more interesting moments came during the question/answer time at the end. Someone asked Sirico if he could talk about the resources that the Trinity or Christology might have for addressing some of the issues that he’d raised in his understanding of anthropology and how it relates to dignity, liberty, and society. Now granted, these areas may not be Sirico’s strong suit. But I was still surprised to see that he had little to offer by way of response. He did indicate that he was sure the answer was yes. But he clearly had not spent much time reflecting on what those resources might be or even significant thinkers who might be helpful for understanding this. Given Acton’s premise that a theologically robust understanding of the human person is fundamental for an adequate approach to issues of economics and governance, this apparent lack of trinitarian and christological reflection is more than a little concerning.
  5. And, finally, toward the end of the presentation he brought up the “right to personal property,” and he argued that this right is grounded in the imago Dei and that protecting this right is essential to establishing and maintaining a flourishing society. I knew coming into the confernce that this was going to be a significant point of emphasis. But, apparently I’ll need to wait for one of the seminars to unpack this assertion more because Sirico did very little to support the contention.

Those are five of the questions that I left this evening’s presentation with. Since this was merely an introduction to the main ideas of the Acton Institute, I expect that many of them will be unpacked further as the week progresses. At least, I hope they will.