Economics 101

Economic Man Versus God’s Grand Design

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In my previous post, I explained why modern economics is unnecessarily confusing for the non-economist.

This is because neoclassical economics only looks at a small piece of the big picture. It places a heavy emphasis on mathematics and assumes away the multi-faceted nature of man.

This leaves us with attempts to assign a number to unquantifiable humans and with a watered-down definition of the human person.

Now to answer the more important question: how did we get here? What events in history lead to such a dehumanized “economic man”?

The Journal of Economic Perspectives claims that economics was closely linked to psychology during the classical period, which lasted roughly from the 1750’s to the 1820’s.

For example, in his book The Moral Theory of Sentiments, Adam Smith takes a psychological approach to the study of economic decision-making, pointing out that behavior is strongly influenced by passions, not cost-and-benefit analysis alone.

By the 20th century, economics veered from the study of psychology, and economists sought to reshape the discipline as a natural science, with great consequence.

Jacques Ellul outlines the historical context and spiritual implications of homo economicus, or “economic man,” in his book The Technological Society. He writes,

The term ‘economic man’ generally referred to a purely theoretical concept…It was framed by omitting certain human characteristics, which man undeniably possesses, in order to reduce him to his economic aspect of producer and consumer. 

According to Ellul, the economic man was formulated in the second half of the nineteenth century, driven by a materialistic obsession of the middle class and the devaluation of all human activities and tendencies other than the economic. He says that during this time,

Nothing happened without money; everything happened by means of it. All values were reduced to money values, not only by the theoreticians but by practice. The only human occupation seemed to be to make money. And this became, in fact, the symbol of human submission to economies, an internal submission more serious than the external.

The materialistic culture paved the way for a new spiritual climate. Ellul claims the morality of the bourgeois collapsed as they began to view work as a virtue and the sole meaning of their life:

Work is the only thing that makes life worthwhile; it replaced God and the life of the spirit. […] If laziness was the mother of all the vices, work was the father of all the virtues. This attitude was carried so far that bourgeois civilization neglected every virtue but work.

Not only did a significant portion of middle class begin to worship their work, but they also believed God expresses his satisfaction by distributing money to those who have worked well, which is reminiscent of the “prosperity gospel” today. Ellul implies the materialistic culture provided fertile ground for the development of the simplified, utility-driven homo economicus of modern economics.

The study and practice of economics has evolved from social science to a math-centric science by gradually erasing the truth of humanity and God in economics. If homo economicus has eclipsed God’s design of humanity – complex, intricate, and made in His image –  how then should we as Christians approach economics?

What do you think? Have men and women been reduced to mere producers and consumers? If so, how should we as Christians approach economics? Leave your comments here.

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  • Don Amyx

    As Christians, I think the Bible has many principles that guide us. Proverbs says that a good name is better than riches and also encourages us to work hard or go hungry. Jesus tells us in the New Testament to love one another as ourselves laying a foundation for charity and also eshews paying taxes. In Peter, the scripture gives guidelines on how to treat the elderly and widows while warning that family who won’t take care of their elderly/widowed family are unbelievers and that the Church has a repsonsbility to look after those people.

  • Read Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues for an account of how one would set the Prudence-Only focus of mainstream econ inside a larger understanding of virtue.

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