In August of 2005, Joe Carter of Evangelicaloutpost penned these words: 

What we need is a third way. We need a clear Christian vision that understands that markets are a moral sphere (contra the libertarians). We need to promote the idea that free individuals rather than government force is necessary to carry out this task (as the left often contends). We need to realize that the “market” is not a mystical system that will miraculously provide for our neighbor (as many conservatives seem to think). What we need is develop a coherent Biblically-based conception of how the market as a human institution can be used for the redemptive purposes of our Creator. As with every institution, what the markets need is for Christians to act more like Christ.

Though not an explicit attempt to develop a “Biblically-based” conception of economics, Alberto Piedra’s Natural Law:  The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System goes a long way toward integrating theologically oriented thinking with economics. 

Piedra argues that the philosophical foundations for both socialism and capitalism are bankrupt, and do violence to the “metaphysical dimension of man.”  On the one hand, socialist regimes tend to “stamp out man’s individuality and make him a tool of the state.”  In doing so, it destroys the motivation for work and any incentive for economic activity.  Amongst conservative Christian thinkers, these criticisms are neither unique nor new (though this does not lessen thier force).

On the other hand (or the ‘right hand’, if you will), Piedra contends that classical capitalism and its emphasis on self-interest presumes that the ‘common good’ is reached when individuals all pursue what is in their own self-interest.  While it’s had more overt economic success than socialism, this approach tends to “bestow value only on those things that serve economic ends.  Under such conditions man is regarded as one more input in the production process and subject to the same laws of supply and demand as any other factor of production.” 

Piedra advocates solving the problem by returning to the transcendent basis for the “natural law”–what Aquinas calls the “Eternal Law.”  Piedra, in fact, draws heavily from “the Angelic Doctor”:  “In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas defines Natural Law as the participation of the eternal law in the rational creature.  Natural Law is written in the hearts of each and every man…It is the highest way of participating in the Eternal Law [the law ‘by which the Creator wills the universe to be governed’] and has as its main function the ordering of all the forces of human nature toward their proper ends, particularly the intelligence and the will.”  

The Natural Law (which is the participation of Reason in the Eternal Law) forms the basis for all ethics–transcendantal moral directives are themselves built into the very structure of the cosmos, and hence are necessarily teleological.  They are, as it were, guides to help man attain his ‘essential nature.’  According to Alisdaire MacIntyre, “Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how to make the transition” between man-as-he-is and ‘man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature.’  For Piedra, the end of man ‘exceeds his natural capacity’ making it ‘necessary for him to be directed to this end by a divinely revealed law.’  Without it, man becomes the final arbiter of good and evil.

Piedra faults enlightenment thinkers for rejecting this transcendent basis for ethical commands and for human nature.  By emphasizing the autonomy of reason at the expense of “authority and hierarchy,” they made man the “sole arbiter of the truth” and moved the authority of right and wrong into man himself, destroying any objective basis for morality.  Piedra writes, “The arbitrariness of our modern culture lies precisely on its exclusive reliance on a natural theology divorced from the sacra doctrina; on the power of reason and/or experimentation as the only sources to discover the laws of nature.”  

This affects economics, of course, which is the subject of Piedra’s text.  He writes, “Once the concept of transcendence is rejected and man is limited to the immanent, progress and happiness are reduced to earthly goods and the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible.”  When Enlightenment figures asserted that reason was autonomous and rejected the concept of the Eternal Law, they attempted to ground moral commands in self-interest, a project that in most cases neglected to account for the brute fact of human sinfulness.

In economics, this meant that on the one hand, thinkers like Adam Smith emphasized freedom, self-interest, and competition as the basis for economics.  But on the other hand, he had to ground ethics in this realm as well–Smith’s solution, “the spontaneous identity of interests and…the invisible hand of God” ignores the tendencies toward evil of human nature.  In Piedra’s words, “Market forces, per se, will not necessarily bring justice and harmony to the economy.  In such cases there is an irreconcilable conflict between the private self-interest of the producers, those of the trade unions and the community at large; a clash of interests that can only be solved by government intervention or voluntary moral restraints.  But voluntary moral restraints will not prevail unless grounded on virtuous acts.”   

Throughout the rest of the work, Piedra attempts to point out how divorcing economics from its transcendant roots has transpired, both in the history of ethics and in our current global situation.  Throughout he stresses that though sinfulness demands submission to contstrants imposed by the state (even in economics), such constraints should be grounded in the Natural Law.  If society recovers the appropriate understanding of the Natural Law, then they will be able to regain the proper perspective on human nature and human action, perspective that is crucial for preserving human rights and promoting the public good. 

For a reader not trained in economics, Piedra’s book can be difficult.  For someone trained in philosophy, Piedra’s explication is at times frustratingly unclear, especially with regard to how we know the Natural Law if not through the powers of reason (Lewis seems more clear on this point in The Abolition of Man).  However, Piedra’s book is also a primer on the history of economics, and his explanation of the ethical basis for economics is intriguing.  Piedra is well-read and the book is well-researched and thorough.  I would highly recommend it to any interested reader, and suggest that readers interested in having a robust Christian worldview carefully consider his arguments.

Update:  spelling errors removed.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

2 Comments

  1. […] However, I should point out as “thanks” to Stacy, I have finally fulfilled two more reviews for “Blog for Books.”  There are more coming, but I am closer to being caught up on my obligations.  I would highly encourage you to check them out here and here.  As always, I’d love to hear thoughts and feedback on them. […]

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  2. Becca…

    After reading that, I swear the world has gone insane!…

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