Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics, by Robert H. Nelson, Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 378 pages, $24.95
Writing several years ago about the crisis in economic thought, Irving Kristol observed that, along with the general decrepitude of social science and moral philosophy, "theology has practically ceased to be a respectable form of intellectual activity." This circumstance, Kristol thought, leaves economists with moral passion nowhere to go.
Robert Nelson has taken up this profound challenge and has produced a treatment of this issue that goes beyond what might be called the Michael Novak Project, i.e., the religious sanctification of market economies. Nelson aims deeper, observing that even though the Enlightenment abandoned the idea of a transcendent God, the biblical view of man and society has remained largely intact. Material forces replaced natural and divine law, faith in Progress replaced faith in Providence, and economists replaced priests. Not just the form but even the substance of economics became theological in character.
Nelson aptly cites Keynes's remark that economic controversies resemble "medieval disputations at their worst." And Nelson has a point in observing that the wars of the 20th century in many ways took on the character of the religious wars of old partly on account of competing visions of political economy. If Nelson's thesis is ultimately judged defective, as I shall argue below, we must still give him his due for recognizing something very important. That economics, which was once considered a subdiscipline of political philosophy, can be regarded now as a theological discipline owes largely to the fact that it is the only humane science left with any intelligible idea of value.
"When studied with any degree of thoroughness," Irving Babbitt wrote way back in 1924, "the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem." Babbitt's declension suggests perhaps that economics has achieved theological stature by default, on account of the various crises of the other humane sciences (theology included), and that Nelson is setting out on the right track.
The great virtue of Reaching for Heaven on Earth is that it squarely confronts the fact that the intelligible value of economic theology—Progress—is itself now in crisis. We still believe in material progress, of course, but we no longer believe, as "modern economic theology" has taught since the Enlightenment, that material progress is a sufficient basis for a general human progress. The faltering of the idea of progress is the defining characteristic of what everybody today is calling "the postmodern age." Hence, Nelson observes: "The character of the postmodern era may well be defined by the theological answer given to the loss of faith in modern progressivism and its various offshoots."
Rather than anticipate new theoretical breakthroughs, Nelson sees the shape of the postmodern age deriving from another oscillation between the two very old theological frameworks that Nelson understands generically as Romanism and Protestantism. From the Roman tradition we inherited the ideas of reason, law, private property, markets, economic growth, and the modern welfare state. From the Protestant tradition we inherited a distrust of reason and individualism, skepticism about human nature and the prospects for human improvement, and belief in the inherent corruption of human institutions.
Nelson's discourses on which thinkers belong to which tradition are the most intriguing and compelling part of the book. Nelson provocatively challenges the familiar themes of Max Weber and others about the economic and political consequences of Romanism (and especially its derivative, Roman Catholicism) and Protestantism. Even if Protestantism tends mostly to generate disorder, Nelson nevertheless understands the necessity of protest in human affairs. (He even makes the old can't-live-with-it, can't-live-without-it gambit.) So, Nelson writes, "the current age is, in short, a Roman era that is being challenged by a new band of protesters against its theological foundations." With the demise of Marxian socialism, the most substantial protest to the present order comes from radical environmentalism, which supposes nature to be a God, instead of supposing there is a God of nature.
Having labored so exhaustively to establish the bipolar framework of Romanism and Protestantism, Nelson attempts to propel us into the postmodern age by harmonizing Roman order and Protestant pluralism. His constitutional device to accomplish this harmonization is something called "free secession." Nelson subordinates all principles of individual liberty and market economics to the principle of "free secession."
"The Right of free secession might thus supersede economic principles of free markets, free trade, and other past freedoms in providing a founding principle for a postmodern economic order," he writes.
The nation-state, Nelson thinks, is obsolete or even dangerous. Groups of people should be allowed to secede from their existing nations and form their own local political units, based on whatever values they prefer, mediated perhaps by several single-purpose world government agencies (arms control, environment, etc.). It sounds like an ugly crossbreeding between the New World Order and the spontaneous order.
There is no need to refight the American secession crisis of 1861, to which Nelson makes several unfortunate references, to see the defects of this scheme. The defects become apparent by pushing immediately to the reductio ad absurdum: What happens when single individuals decide to secede from everybody else and declare their solitary sovereignty?
Don't laugh. There is an eccentric fellow in West Australia who has declared his ranch a sovereign nation. Prince Hal of Hutt River Province will stamp your passport and exchange currency to spend in his gift shop. The lack of a limiting principle to free secession, or the specter of individual sovereignty it presents, points back immediately to the necessity of individual rights and the limiting principle of government by consent of the governed. In this light, "free secession" is seen not as postmodernism but as a mere devolution of pluralism and individual rights that opens upon Hobbesian vistas.
Regardless of the merits of Nelson's prescriptions, it is not merely churlish to raise the deeper issue of whether Nelson's analysis is truly theological. Although Nelson skillfully insinuates a theological character to economics dating back to antiquity, economics does not really achieve its theological character until transcendent Providence is secularized through the idea of Progress. In other words, "economic theology" only achieves its theological status with the death of God.
But without a serious regard for transcendence, for a higher order beyond this order (including, perhaps, the immortality of the soul), Nelson's "economic theology" only takes on the form rather than the substance of theology. Theology without God is rather like football without the ball.
Why is this important? Although it is not immediately obvious, the rise of the kind of Scientific Progressivism represented by the death of God and "economic theology" presents serious theoretical challenges to individual rights and limited government. The metaphysical or transcendent basis for liberal democracy can be summarized as follows: Because men are not God or gods, unqualified wisdom is unavailable to man, and therefore unqualified power should never be entrusted to human hands.
This is not to say that one must believe in God to believe in the principles of limited government. Rather, it is simply to recognize that the secularization of Providence through Scientific Progress implies that unqualified wisdom—or complete explanation and mastery of human affairs—is possible, and hence that unqualified power can be benevolently exercised. By negating the Socratic skepticism that is the basis of limited government, modern secular theology diminishes the scope of human freedom.
Nelson's admirable attempt to rescue theology from irrelevancy and economics from the emptiness of value-free positivism does nothing to remedy this problem; in fact, it reinforces it. "Economic theology" and other secular progressivisms should abandon their claim to theological status. Nelson and others might be reluctant to do so, for such a step would relegate economics to the subdiscipline where it began.
Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is research and editorial director for the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Political Economy of the Death of God".