Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse just delivered a fascinating lecture overviewing the basics of economic thinking. Beginning with the basic premises of economic science, she rapidly moved through the basic methods of economic inquiry, principles that are foundational to the science itself, before ending with a discussion of the basic instituitions of free markets. For someone like myself without any strong economic training I found the entire topic engaging and of seeming great importance. While many of you may already be glazing over after the first mention of economics (my own knee-jerk reaction to the topic), I urge you to give the field of study a second chance as we work through a few of the most interesting insights.
While many people might see economics and market study a necessary field of inquiry that is far-removed from the work of the Church and perhaps even impossible to approach from a Christian perspective, there are two basic premises of economics that are powerful touch points between Christianity and economics, touch points that allow Christians to open a meaningful and intelligible conversation with economists of all stripes and colors. The first premise held in common by Christians and economists is that there is a truth to be discovered. This premise actually holds two premises within itself, that there is truth and that truth is knowable. While many university departments have joined the relativistic bandwagon, notably the humanities and social sciences, economics depends (like the hard and empirical sciences) on the presumption that truth exists and can be known. In other words, it rests on the notion that the cosmos is a basically reasonable and stable place in which properly functioning human reason results in individuals gaining knowledge of the world in which they live.
The second premise, and perhaps the more exciting one, especially for those who take the existence of truth for granted, is that there is such a thing as human nature; nature that transcends cultural norms and barriers and that can be understood and explained (through careful and thoughtful analysis) as easily by a university professor in England as by a politician in Pakistan. Economics studies the ways in which humans respond to incentives and it has been the (surprising) discovery that humans respond in universal and predictable ways, regardless of race, class, color, or creed. The empirical observation points towards not only the existence of a human nature or essence, but towards a universal nature.
Given these two points of contact between Christianity and economics, the door is wide open for Christians to bring all the resources of Scripture and the revelation of God to man in the person of Jesus Christ to bear on various important and prudential considerations relevant to a wide variety of social and cultural groups. At the same time, the Christian (and the economist for that matter) must recognize the inherent limitations of the field of inquiry. Economics is primarily a study of scarcity, and deals with those aspects of human existence that are limited in nature; economics does the work of allocating scarce resources among infinite wants and needs. The limit imposed on economics by its subject matter must force one to stop and consider those resources and commodities that are not limited, but infinite—resources like the love of God, or the availability of truth. Where many economists part paths with Christian thinkers is by allowing their study, their science, to determine what they admit into their calculus of possibility. The atheistic and materialistic economist will refuse to take into account the effects that love, desire, truth, and other intangible and limitless realities have on the shape of the market. However, the Christian economist can acknowledge the role that these and other factors play in the market while avoiding the temptation to explain them away in terms of purely material cause and effect.
Christianity, then, has some very valuable insights to bring to the science of economics, insights that can keep economic theory from stepping outside of its own boundaries and wreaking havoc by suggesting (or requiring, when economic policies arising from certain schools of thought find their way into the law books) solutions to social problems that cannot be explained by a purely economic analysis. One thinks of the disastrous effects of Marxist economics when applied to the family and the community.