21 September 2011

Deus ex forum

Forum? Fora? My Latin is rusty. Oh, forget it; my Latin was never any good to begin with.
The Economist | Free Exchange | Deus ex machina: Faith in the free market

File this under heterodox economics:
About one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and champions the free market as a matter of faith.

"They say the invisible hand of the free market is really God at work," says sociologist Paul Froese, co-author of the Baylor Religion Survey, released today by Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"They think the economy works because God wants it to work. It's a new religious economic idealism," with politicians "invoking God while chanting 'less government,'" he says.

"When Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann say 'God blesses us, God watches us, God helps us,' religious conservatives get the shorthand. They see 'government' as a profane object — a word that is used to signal working against God's plan for the United States. To argue against this is to argue with their religion."
This is so deeply weird.

These people are missing the entire concept of the "invisible hand" metaphor. Smith's point was that markets work despite not having a single locus of organization. "Oh, what's that? Markets work as if there is a benevolent, omniscient director? That must be because there is a benevolent, omniscient director! I will call him Jehovah." How facile.

Look, I think that the market system which mediates voluntary transactions between strangers is fully consistent with Christian teaching.  (I don't have time to discuss this.  See, perhaps, here and here.)  Market economics work because they're elegant systems which can use local knowledge to guide a global system.  It's a beautiful set up.  Maybe God set the universe up to make this possible, maybe not. But either way there's absolutely no need to think he's theistically pulling strings day by day.

Also, also, also... Smith was as close to a heretic as the Scottish enlightenment got. (Well, that's a bit of a stretch. His quasi-mentor, Hume, was actually denied professorships for his heterodoxy, so maybe Smith is in second place?) One of the main thrusts of Smith's work, as well as Hume's, was figuring out how to explain the behaviors of men without having to resort to "God makes it happen."  If you support markets because you think God is pulling the levers behind the curtain you are missing the whole point.

On the other hand, I really dislike this "dog-whistle" analysis. I don't like commentators telling me some candidate or media figure didn't really mean what they said, it was just a wink-wink, nudge-nudge secret coded message to their supporters to communicate a more sinister idea. (1) It's a little arrogant to continuously claim you know what people really mean. (2) It's trying too hard. The overt message here plays to a crowd well. Why posit a covert message as well? (3) It's a non-falsifiable theory. (4) It's overly broad. I can always claim every one of my opponents' utterances actually means something else.

Furthermore, the government is profane by definition.  It's certainly not sacred, right?  That only leaves one option.  "Put not your faith in rulers, or in the offspring of man, in whom there is no salvation." You may disagree, but it's hardly a fringe position, theologically, to claim that the state is profane. Even the Papacy, back when it was most enamored of mucking about in politics and governance during the Renaissance, maintained that spiritual and secular authorities were two different things. They of course claimed the the latter must be subordinate to the former, but they still maintained they were two different things. "Two swords," Boniface VIII Gaetani called it.

No comments:

Post a Comment