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Economics Raises Profoundly Moral Questions

R&L: You are a professor of economics and a Christian. How do you understand the relationship between your faith and your field of study?

Loury: I am also a teacher, so I see the interaction between my faith and my work as a professor manifest itself not only in my scholarly research and writing, but also in the conduct of my daily affairs in the classroom. So if I can cast your question somewhat more broadly, this is an issue about the nature of my relationships in my university and in my classroom and the sensibility that I bring to the issue of the stewardship of those responsibilities, which are very powerful in the lives of the young people who are looking up to me for intellectual and moral guidance.

R&L: Would you say there is anything particularly Christian or moral about economics?

Loury: I think the subject matter raises questions that are profoundly moral–the distribution of the resources available to a society, the questions of poverty, and that sort of thing–but I also think there is an element of it in which it is not easy to say exactly how one brings the gospel to bear on it. For example, where is the Christian element in the interpretation of statistics? Such things are fairly well-defined and well-focused, so I am inclined to talk more about the spirit that I bring to the doing of the work, rather than the work itself.

But there certainly are moral issues in economics such as questions of distribution, entitlement, and desert. The intellectual enterprise is in its way one of justification, that is, one gives an account that is purportedly scientific but has the force of intellectual justification for the social order in which we live. It seems to me that as a Christian I must be reflective about that process and not be slavishly committed to the status quo simply out of the fact that it is what exists, or that it is the norm.

R&L: If economics is the purposeful action of human beings, does not that almost intrinsically imply a moral dimension to its practice?

Loury: I would say absolutely so, and you deepen the discussion with that observation. We economists often tend to think more in terms of existing institutions: the market, the firm, the corporation, the buying and selling that determines prices, inflation, government intervention, regulation, and all of that.

But if you cast economics in terms of the study of purposeful action, we can now talk about the management of the household, marriage and the family, how one divides time between work and family, one’s obligations as a citizen–political economy in the broadest sense. There is a wide range of moral questions like these, and I think one finds one’s Christian commitment constantly being evoked in response to those questions.

R&L: As an expert in economics, how do you grapple with the tendency to see man as only an economic being, as opposed to seeing man more broadly as a moral being?

Loury: I recently wrote in response to a particular work in social science that after reading this book I am even more impressed with the limited utility of the social sciences in the management and conduct of human affairs. What I meant by that was that we tend to take only a piece of the person as the venue for our study. There is something that is reductive about that process. I went on to say that human beings are not defined by their desires at a point in time, and they are not even defined by their biological limitations. I wrote in that article that God is not finished with us when he deals us our genetic hand. We have a free will, we are spiritual creatures, we have souls. So what we are in the fullness of our humanity transcends what it is that can be understood through the particular window that an economist or psychologist or sociologist might bring to it.

You asked me specifically how I avoid being limited in that way, and I can only say that in my own life I have grown to the point where I can see the dangers of that kind of limitation. I have tried to read and reflect as broadly as I can about the problems that I study so as to not allow my disciplinary blinders to have me, in effect, dehumanize the objects of my inquiry.

R&L: Let’s talk about your book One By One from the Inside Out. You say there that the gap between America’s ideals and its racial practice is narrowing, yet race remains a tenacious problem. How do we reconcile these things? Why is America apparently more concerned than ever with the problem of race?

Loury: The gap certainly is narrowing as measured in a wide variety of ways: educational achievement, occupational penetration, all the places in society now open to blacks where they would not have been welcome not so many years ago, and in the extent of parity of pay to people who are doing comparable jobs. One can demonstrate that there has been narrowing in these respects. I think there are two dimensions I would stress to try to give an account for why the gap, although narrowed in those ways, is nevertheless in our consciousness still a gaping one.

One of the dimensions is the underclass, that is, the problem of the very poor in the inner cities, a problem which has gotten worse even as this gap has narrowed for people who can get themselves into the system of opportunity that is there and available to them.

The other is that we have, to a certain degree, lost our way around the moral imperative of transcending race within our political communities–what used to be called integration, the ideal of black and white together that Martin Luther King would evoke. We no longer believe (I speak now of American society as a whole) that it is an ideal toward which we should be prepared to exert a lot of effort in order to make progress.

The underclass problem is so profound, so deep, so intractable, and engenders such powerful emotions. Whites may feel disdain when observing contemptible behaviors of the underclass. Blacks may feel shame and share the tragic sadness and pathos they see among the inner-city black poor to whom they are connected by bonds of blood, common history, and shared culture; those who look at the human tragedy there can only be outraged by it and in some way alienated from the larger society because of our inability as a society to grapple with those problems. I want to be clear that I am not placing blame anywhere here at the moment, and I am not giving an account of who is responsible for what. I think there is plenty of blame to go around. But I am simply saying that the fact of this social schism and its racial coloration, if you will, adds enormously to the difficulty of bridging the racial gap.

R&L: And in the face of that reality, you argue that affirmative action is not helpful in promoting progress among disenfranchised blacks?

Loury: I do, although I must say that where I make my argument about affirmative action would perhaps be a little bit different today than when I wrote my book. I do not believe affirmative action is at all an important instrument in dealing with the problems of the underclass that I just described. It is virtually irrelevant in that respect. I do think, as you suggested, that the institutionalization of racial preferences–the constant focus on counting people by racial numbers–is unhelpful in facilitating the transcendence of race as a social category and leading us to see ourselves as Americans and as human beings rather than representatives of racial collectivities.

However, today I would say–which I did not say in my book and which was brought on to some degree by the intense discussion on affirmative action now going on throughout the country, especially in California–that I can imagine instances where simply out of a prudent necessity to manage our public affairs in the face of the reality of the racial gap one may want to pay some attention to, for example, the racial representativeness of major institutions in the society.

A president or governor making appointments to his or her administration may want to pay attention to the need to have some diversity in these appointments. I do not think they should make a public big deal out of it. They should not do what President Clinton did after he got elected, which is say “I’m going to have an administration that looks like America” and basically pat himself on the back for how many women, blacks, and Hispanics are in his cabinet. But I think a president would be ill-advised to pay no attention whatsoever to whether or not he had appointed any racial minorities to the federal bench. I think he would be unwise to appoint a cabinet which had no women in it, even if he were appointing only the best qualified people. It would be unwise because it would basically convey to the public a disregard for the sensibility that these institutions should be in this way representative.

Maybe this is somewhat of a subtle argument, because I do not mean to say that there should be quotas and that in any particular case a person who is outstandingly qualified should not get the nod. I do mean to say that if the decision maker, the president or governor, would steadfastly insist he did not know or care anything about the ethnic or racial identities of the people he was appointing, he probably would be behaving in an unwise manner and would provoke problems that one need not provoke. So with that qualification, I would affirm what you said, which is to say that affirmative action is not helpful to us in solving this racial problem.

R&L: You are offering a nuance here as I understand it. Would it be correct to say that you are calling for a non-politicized cultural sensitivity to taking affirmative steps toward diversity?

Loury: Yes, that is right, without making diversity into some kind of demigod. If you have a police force in a city with a large racial ghetto where there are problems, you might want to have a few black officers on your police force. If I knew that some women coming into my health clinic for gynecological examination might feel uncomfortable with a male doctor, and I had a staff of four or five gynecologists doing those exams, the idea that I should seek at least one woman doctor for that group is not, in my mind, such a crazy idea. It is a way of being sensitive to the needs of my clients, even if in some abstract sense a woman should not care about the gender of a competent doctor. The fact that women do care, the fact that the black community does notice, suggests that as a matter of prudence I should make some efforts towards diversity.

R&L: Some people classify you as a conservative, but you have at times been a harsh critic of conservatism. What is wrong with conservatism, and how would you instead prefer to label yourself?

Loury: I do not honestly know if I can properly call myself a conservative anymore, since conservatives have become so conservative. Perhaps I never have really been a conservative, and perhaps the labels are not all that useful anyway. I will say this, though. I came to be counted among conservatives in part because I came to be deeply disillusioned with and such a fierce critic of liberalism as a way of approaching the problems of race and poverty, or really as a way of approaching how our society should be ordered. That disillusionment and dissatisfaction remains.

If one is talking conservative in the sense of Edmund Burke–a traditionalist, a pragmatist, a person who is skeptical of radicalism, who in the manner of Reflections on the Revolution in France wants to ask “Before we all start cheering about all this reform, let’s wait and see what it leads to.”–I suspect I do have that temperament. I am also relatively conservative theologically, that is, as a Methodist and a born-again Christian, I tend to have conservative instincts on cultural questions.

But lately, I have been somewhat concerned about the way in which the development of political and intellectual activism among conservatives has become hard on the race question, lost a certain amount of charity, and taken on perhaps a certain tone of self-righteousness. I have been uncomfortable with that, and found myself obliged to say so publicly, and to that degree I found myself becoming a critic. But I still stand by many of the beliefs that led me into the conservative fold in the first place.

R&L: Part way through your career as a university professor, you had a conversion experience. How did this conversion affect the way you approached your academic discipline?

Loury: I went through a crisis period. I was broken. I was deeply in trouble in my life in the way that too many of us get in trouble. It led to some problems and those problems were dealt with, but that crisis period laid bare a bankruptcy, a spiritual vacancy, and in trying to deal with that as honestly and directly as I could, I found myself being led into a relationship with Jesus Christ. That changed my life, and it changed my work. It has led to a little career as a kind of a writer and speaker who unashamedly and openly declares his faith and attempts to link it in various ways to the questions of welfare reform, affirmative action, poverty, and then more broadly to the question of our responsibilities in the universities and as intellectuals.

I will be delivering a lecture at the chapel here at Boston University later this term on the subject “Where is the soul in social science?” in which I intend to elaborate on some of the thoughts I briefly described before about the human being whom we deal with and the extent to which our scientific approach is in the end fundamentally inadequate to the task of full understanding. It needs to be supplemented by a kind of knowledge that we cannot derive from our deduction, so instead we must make use of what has been revealed to be true to us. It is an argument for the use of revealed truth alongside the kind of “truth” that one can know through the social sciences both in the doing of our work and in the translating of our work to public action.

R&L: I think it should be underscored that you are not repudiating the life of the intellect, but that you are simply saying that in order for the human person to take account of who he is, he must consider his transcendent dimension.

Loury: That’s absolutely right. I am against arrogance, not intellect. I am against the presumption that intellect, on its own, can do for us what I do not believe it cannot do. It cannot tell us the meaning of life. It cannot finally resolve the most profound questions at the center of our struggles, as individual persons both within our families and within our society. After I have done my statistical analysis and interpreted it as a social scientist, I still have to step back and ask, “What does it mean for those matters that are most important?”

Or to give another example, as a teacher I certainly know I have to put together a syllabus, and there have to be books on it, and I have to think about the ideas in those books and how those ideas fit together. That is an intellectual task. When I stand up to lecture before my students, when I ultimately lead them in the passionate undertaking of the study of the subject, there has to be more. There has to be a reason to study it. While I will not preach from the Gospel to these students, I certainly will allow it to be reflected in my own person that there is a rootedness spiritually that allows this intellectual undertaking to be put to a useful purpose. Without that, it is really just so many puzzles and so many exercises, and it has no life.