Thursday, June 30, 2011

Christianity and the Invisible Hand

In his classic 1926 work Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, R.H. Tawney (1880 – 1962) explores the complex relationship between Protestantism and economic development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As a Protestant himself (Tawney was an Anglican), he builds on ideas espoused by Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, demonstrating the influence the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation unknowingly had on the development of modern economic thinking.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism serves as an ‘examination of the spiritual problems concealed behind the economic mechanism of our society’, and its general thesis is concerned with the role of Protestantism in the exclusion of ‘economic activities and social institutions from examination or criticism in the light of religion’. Although Tawney was not a Distributist, here he identifies the golden thread that runs throughout Distributism: the belief that economic phenomena ought to be expressed in terms of personal conduct, and not in terms of mechanism. The mechanism we are most familiar with today is commonly known as the ‘invisible hand’, by which what would otherwise be the ethical concerns of the individual buying and selling in the market, are absorbed into a self-regulating system that supposedly ensures the maximization of resources for the benefit of all. Tawney clearly understood that this conception of economics relegated Christian charity to a region that subsists beyond our everyday interactions with others in the world we find ourselves in:
If preachers have not yet overtly identified themselves with the view of the natural man, expressed by an eighteenth-century writer in the words, trade is one thing and religion is another, they imply a not very different conclusion by their silence as to the possibility of collisions between them. The characteristic doctrine was one, in fact, which left little room for religious teaching as to economic morality, because it anticipated the theory, later epitomized by Adam Smith in his famous reference to the invisible hand, which saw in economic self-interest the operation of a providential plan… The existing order, except in so far as the short-sighted enactments of Governments interfered with it, was the natural order, and the order established by nature was the order established by God. Most educated men, in the middle of the [18th] century, would have found their philosophy expressed in the lines of Pope:

Thus God and Nature formed the general frame,
And bade self-love and social be the same.

Naturally, again, such an attitude precluded a critical examination of institutions, and left as the sphere of Christian charity only those parts of life which could be reserved for philanthropy, precisely because they fell outside that larger area of normal human relations, in which the promptings of self-interest provided an all-sufficient motive and rule of conduct.1
The work of the invisible hand relies on the premise of what Tawney calls the ‘all-sufficient motive’: self-interest. Not only is our Christian charity removed from our daily economic existence, but it is replaced by the very thing Christian charity bids us to overcome. In many respects this new rule of economic conduct has brought forth much material fruit, but if we are to have any faith in the words of Christ Himself and His countless commands with regards to money and material possessions, it is something we cannot accept insofar as it is founded on selve-serving interests and relationships of exploitation and violence. Overcoming the blind acceptance of the unjust mechanisms of modern economics, as materially advantageous as they may be, is perhaps the first step towards a truly Distributist economy. In the words of Pope John XXIII in his 1961 encyclical on ‘Christianity and Social Progress’, Mater et Magista:
[If] the organization and structure of economic life be such that the human dignity of workers is compromised, or their sense of responsibility is weakened, or their freedom of action is removed, then we judge such an economic order to be unjust, even though it produces a vast amount of goods whose distribution conforms to the norms of justice and equity.2
A recurring question with regards to Distributism concerns its practical implementation. How are we to begin to live out these ideas? The first step, as outlined both here by Tawney and the consistent teaching of the Church, is to come to the realization that the supposed moral neutrality of the economic order is a modern illusion, and the invisible hand of the modern economy, if it even exists, is not a substitute for personal accountability and restraint in one’s participation in the market. The next step is simply to open oneself up to living in accordance with this realization, and allowing Christian charity to once more govern one’s actions within the sphere of economic activity. This step is difficult, especially as the realization deepens of how implicated we really are by virtue of our participation in--and reliance on--such an unjust system, and how dependent we’ve come to be on the structural violence that is concealed behind the economic mechanism of our society. It means re-evaluating what we buy, how much we buy, who we buy from and what kind of work we do. It means praying to God for the grace to give up our jobs if they don't contribute to the common good of society, asking ourselves whether the work we do helps feed, clothe and shelter man, or whether it distracts him from the natural and supernatural ends he is called to, enslaving him with worldly and useless desires. Dorothy Day wrote that 'everyone should be able to place his job in the category of the works of mercy' in one way or another. It is here where the commands of Christ and his call to a detachment from earthly possessions begin to take on a new meaning for the industrialized world, where the call to come out of Babylon3 is perhaps louder than ever. 

1. R.H.Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, p.191-192
2. Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, nn. 82-83

3. Apocalypse 18:4

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