Robert H. Nelson of the University of Maryland Public Policy Department died at age 74 on Dec. 15 while attending a conference in Helsinki, Finland. He was the leading economist writing about the relationship between religion and economics, notably in three books: Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics (1991), Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (2001), and The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Enviornmental Religion (2010). I spent several days with him some years ago at a conference on forestry issues where he was presenting his views on environmentalism as religion. In any case, his death has me thinking about the broader issues he wrote about. I shall note the arguments in these books along with some further observations.
His first book was essentially a history of economic thought that put a certain theological perspectve on thnkers mostly from the fairly distant past. A basic theme in all of his books is that economics is a form of secular religion that posits a material salvation in some distant future as a result of economic growth and redistribution, a material heaven on earth. In that book he posed two competing theological strands in the history of economic thought: a Roman (Catholic) “rationalism” and a Protestant “revelationism.” The former started with Aristotle and included such figures as Aquinas, Adam Smith, Saint-Simon, and Keynes. The latter started with Plato and Augustine, Calvin, Darwin, Spencer, and Marx. A number of observers criticized this pair of categories, noting particularly that virtually the only economist in the second list is Marx (although Spencer did write on economics somewhat). I happen to share the criticisms that it is not clear how useful or meaningful this pair of lists is, although the tradition of lining up historiccal intellectual figures as being Aristotelian or Platonic has a long history in philosophy.
But this does make me think about the especially strong theological/religious element in Marxism, with people “believing” in the philosophy and even specific Marxist economics doctrines such as the labor theory of value. There has been a long history of people “converting” to Marxism and then sometimes “converting” away from it, sometimes becoming religiously anti-Marxists in their disillusionment to a fanatical degree. As an old recognition of this I note a comparison made by Bertrand Russell, someone who considered himself to be a reasonable Aristotelian against troublesome Platonic idealists (recognizing that Marx claimed to be a materialist, not an idealist).
Yahweh (God) = Dialectical Materialism
Messiah = Karl Marx
The Second Coming = The Revolution
The Saved = The Proletariat
The Church = The Communist Party
Damnation to Hell = Expropriation of the Capitalists
The Millennium = The Socialist Commonwealth
The second book got more attention than the first and in some sense made a more obvious point: that current schools of thought can be viewed as sects whose differences ultimately boil down to matters of belief. The subtitle of “From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond” indicates the sorts of schools of thought Nelson was thinking of. My sense is that the Old Keynesian versus Classical Monetarist split was probably less theological/religious than some other splits among economic schools of thought, such as indeeed Marxists and their polar opposites the Austrians. Nevertheless, many people arguing over the Keynesian versus Old (and newer) Monetarists sometimes seem to fall into the terminology of “belief,” often buried in the matter of assuming axioms that cannot be questioned. So, looking at the New Classical school one finds Sargent at one point declaring rational expectations to be an axiom that cannot be questioned and must be used in any serious economic analysis. One must “believe in rational expectations,” even if one knows that it is factually inaccurate (and Sargent would later grant indeed that ratex is indeed false). Of course with Samuelson it is not just his Keynesian macro but also his defense of standard neoclassical microeconomics, with this having also a theological/religious aspect to it.
I would add a sociological element to this general Nelson argument that many economics debates between schools of thought often seem to take on a theological or religious aspect, even if most participants usually at least put on a show of respecting facts and logical rigor and so on. It is an old observation made esepcially by some observers of British economics that especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a tendency for people who became professional economists to come from families that included actual ministers of the Anglican Church (or other denominations), with this coinciding with a decline of that church and its influence. To some extent this is conisstent with the origin of economics in Britain in moral philosophy, which is what Adam Smith was a professor of, and with the very first Professor of Political Economy in Britain being Thomas Robert Malthus, who was in fact actually also an ordained Anglican priest. More generally many economists, although certainly not all, seem to be at least partly driven by motives “to do good,” a sentiment easily coming from people who may be secular on the surface but come from family bsckgrounds of religious practitioners (I confess this might apply to me, with both my quite religious mother’s grandfathers having been Proetestant ministers).
The third of these books may deal with a more serious and controversial issue, the matter of “economic religion” (more or less as described above) against an erstwhile “environmental religion,” with many anti-environmentalist Christian ministers denouncing environmentalism for being a competing anti-Christian religion drawing on paganism and other alternative religious impulses. For Nelson, both of these are “secular religions,” but he recognizes that the environmentalist movement (in contrast to some extent to environmental scientists) has a spiritual side that can be quite fervent and draws on various religious traditions, although it must be noted that increasingly current Christians of at least some denominations are emphasizing environmental themes. But some opposed to these recent views emphasie how the monotheist Judeo-Christin-Muslim tradition has emphasized humanity dominating nature with a “be fruitful and multiply” view. Such a view then merges with the materialist economic “Heaven on Earth” to be delivered by economic growth. In the non-Christian environmentalist “religion” one finds both the Earth Mother worship of neo-paganism but also the Buddhist Economics strand one finds in Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful book that de-emphazies economic growth and sees nirvana as being in a low consumption economy that is associated with a condition of envitonmental harmony that is nirvana on earth.