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Natural Law and Modern Economics

It is probably fair to say that many Christian intellectuals regard the positivist, rationalist social sciences with some suspicion. Many Christians would reject outright the proposition that the human person can be studied with the same tools and with the same detachment as inanimate objects. Probably many more Christians would be willing to make limited use of social science research, without accepting the whole philosophical apparatus that seems to go with it.

Among the social sciences, economics would probably win the prize for having the most mechanistic, materialistic view of the human person and his motivations. My background in economics includes thorough training in mathematical modeling of human interactions, as well as in the Humean, Hobbesian subjectivist contractarian approach to analyzing politics as an exchange system for giving people what they want. So, it may be surprising that I plan to discuss the points of contact between modern economics and the Christian natural law tradition.

With a professional background like this, perhaps the only way I can redeem myself is to say that I am a mother. Being a mother is what redeemed me in actual fact, as well. I am the mother of a seven-year-old adopted son, and a four-year-old daughter by birth.

I once was part of the audience at a conference for adoptive parents of children who had spent substantial time in orphanages. In the course of the conference one of the mothers said, “My son was fed like a hamster.”

All of us in the audience that day knew what she meant. Many of our children had been fed like hamsters too. The attendant at the orphanage takes the baby bottle and wires it between the bars of the crib. The baby can eat whenever he wants, without anyone ever having to pick him up.

Such children are at risk for a serious psychological condition known as “reactive attachment disorder.”

Reactive Attachment Disorder

Attachment disorder is a diagnosis that strikes fear in the heart of any adoptive parent, for many orphanage children are at risk of this condition. What exactly is this problem?

Children who are deprived of human contact during infancy sometimes fail to gain weight and to develop, and may even die. This can occur even when all the bodily, material needs of the child are met. The child is kept warm and dry. The child is fed, perhaps by having a bottle propped into the crib. The child contracts no identifiable illness, yet the child fails to thrive. The widely accepted explanation is that these children die from lack of human contact.

Children who survive without families often have difficulty forming attachments to other people. Even children who are later adopted by loving and competent families sometimes never fully attach to them or to anyone else. The prevailing thinking is that children who do not develop attachments in the first eighteen months of life will have grave difficulty in forming attachments later. If the parents of such children do not intervene by the time the child reaches twelve years of age, the prospects for successful future intervention are thought to be gravely diminished, to the point of hopelessness.

What do I mean by difficulty in forming attachments? The classic case of attachment disorder is children who do not care what anyone thinks of them. The disapproval of significant others is not a sufficient deterrent of bad behavior, because there is no one significant enough to matter to the children. These children do whatever they think they can get away with, no matter the cost to other people. They do not monitor their own behavior, so authority figures must constantly be wary of them and watch them. They respond to physical punishments and to suspension of privileges but not to disapproval of significant others. They lie if they think it is advantageous to lie. They steal if they can get away with it. They may go through the motions of offering affection, but people who live with them sense a kind of phoniness. They show no regret at having hurt another person or may offer perfunctory apologies. They may find it fun to torture animals.

As they grow into adolescence, these children may become sophisticated manipulators. Some authors refer to them as “trust bandits” because they are superficially charming in their initial encounters with people. They can charm people for short periods of time, only to betray the person’s trust by using them. They can con people long enough to use them. In the meantime, their parents and anyone else who has long-term dealings with them grow increasingly frustrated, frightened, and angry over their child’s dangerous behavior, which may include lying, stealing, violence, and firesetting.

As the parents try to seek help for their child, they may find that the child is able to “work the system.” They can charm therapists, social workers, counselors, and later perhaps even judges and parole officers. This child is unwilling to consider others or even to inconvenience himself for the sake of others.

Who is this child? Why, it is homo economicus.

Homo Economicus as Sociopath

Homo economicus is the person who considers only his own good, who is willing to do anything he deems it in his interest to do, who cares for no one. All of his actions are governed by self-

interested calculation of costs and benefits. Punishments matter, loss of esteem does not. He does not self-monitor, so he can always find some opportunity to evade the rules. As to his promises, he behaves opportunistically on every possible occasion, breaking promises if he deems it in his interest to do so.

Parenting an attachment-disordered child showed me that the very stark version of self-interested rationality cannot be what economists really mean to say about the human person. Of course, economists are well-aware that the human person values a great many things of an intangible nature, things that take the person outside of himself and keep him from being a literal sociopath. Nonetheless, the starkness of this image of homo economicus as sociopath shows us that we economists have been, all along, counting on some feature other than pure self-interest to hold society together.

From many perspectives, people working within the rational choice tradition are coming to the conclusion that behavioral norms usually regarded as ethical are central to the smooth functioning of the economy and to society more generally. These norms are described variously as “trust,” “cooperative behavior,” or “self-restraining behavior.” Philosophers, political scientists, law professors, and economists are puzzling over these behaviors.

My purpose here is not to detail a particular solution to the problem of trust within the rational choice approach, but, rather, to show that the rational choice paradigm in general, and economics in particular, has significant points of contact with the Christian mind.

I begin by taking note of the great strengths of economics. Economists claim to be scientists. It is safe to say that economics is one of the most successful of the social sciences. Implicit in the scientific presumption are two propositions, both of which are true and which combine to create the great power of economic reasoning.

Universal Human Nature

First, economists believe that human nature is something universal and enduring. The fundamental truths of the human condition do not change very much from time to time and from place to place. Economists are willing to apply their analyses to any and all societies, in any and all periods of time, and indeed, to just about any human activity imaginable. This view of human nature accounts for the intellectual imperialism of economics into other discplines so common in recent years. At the same time, it is one of the attributes that most infuriates some of our colleagues in the sister social sciences. But, as I noted at the outset, we have been successful because we have focused on something about human nature that is basically true. Some of our colleagues in other disciplines are not even sure whether there is such a thing as human nature.

The second proposition implicit in economists’ claim to be scientists is that there is some truth to be discovered. Human nature is universal and enduring, and, therefore, it can be studied in a systematic and scientific way. By and large, economists do not hold that the truth of an economic proposition depends upon the sincerity of the person who expounds it. We do not, by and large, argue that some economic principles “might be true for you, but are not true for me.” We do not have significant areas of the discipline in which the identity of the author gives automatic status to an idea. We do not, by and large, have feminist economics, which only women can do or understand. We do not have black economics or gay and lesbian economics. We just have economics, and anybody with appropriate training can contribute and participate.

Suppose one posed the hypothetical question to a randomly chosen college professor: Is the material that you teach to undergraduates universally true and applicable? With the possible exception of the physical sciences and mathematics, one would find very few professors today who purport to teach anything universally true. One could probably knock on the doors of economics departments at any randomly chosen state university and find a majority who would claim some universality for their discipline, its insights, and its methods.

This observation alone gives natural law thinking a significant point of entry into dialogue with modern economics. Economists, like natural law thinkers, affirm that human nature is universal and enduring. Economists, in keeping with the natural law tradition, believe that there is some truth that can be discovered by the proper and disciplined application of the human intellect.

Choice Under Constraints

The second major area of connection between the Christian mind and modern economic science is that economists study choice under constraints. Economists affirm two principles of human behavior relating to choice. First, economists believe that people really have the capacity to choose. Second, economists believe that the person remains a free agent even in the face of constraints. The average economist cannot necessarily articulate or defend these propositions, but, for the most part, economists believe these statements. Indeed, many people are attracted to the study of economics precisely because it alone among the social sciences affirms the possibility of genuine human choice.

In contrast, some social sciences argue for determinism of various kinds. Some say that the person is driven by social forces beyond his control. Others, that the person is definitively shaped by early childhood experience. We can accept the validity of these claims in a limited arena, but we can also see that such claims can be, and often are, overstated to such an extent that the reality of human agency is obscured.

To be sure, economics focuses on economic constraints such as income and prices as causative factors in accounting for human behavior. The very language of economics and rational choice highlights the fact that the person is still a choosing agent. We say that the person “decides” to consume something, given the constraints of income and prices. We say that the person “chooses” to behave in a particular way. We do not, by and large, argue that a person with few resources has no choices or is coerced into his actions.

Of course, this approach, at least in a broad way, is consistent with the Christian insistence that human freedom is a reality, not an illusion. Although different Christian traditions may disagree on the precise nature of human freedom and free will, surely we can find something to say to those among the social sciences who take the fact of human choice, human agency, and human freedom seriously.

Conversion of the Modern Utilitarian Mind

Economics has been a successful social science because it has focused on something about human nature that is true–that people are self-interested. One might say that when economists study a disordered self-interestedness that borders on the narcissistic or self-centered, they are studying one of the effects of original sin. We can be sure, therefore, that economists will always have something to study. Furthermore, we might even imagine that economists will have something helpful to say about self-interested behavior. There are, of course, many other things about human nature that are true besides the claim that the human person tends toward self-interestedness. Economists can be enriched by acknowledging these other true things and incorporating them into their analysis.

Economists are sometimes insufferable because they have a truth and they mistake it for the Truth. I remember when I saw the economic model for the first time, at the tender age of nineteen. It was true, I thought. It was good. It had a certain beauty in its elegance. So, I thought to myself: This is it; this is the Beatific Vision. I was hardly alone in mistaking a truth for the Truth; I have found this to be one of the most common mistakes people make, even among those sufficiently catechized that they ought to know better. So, I think economists can be forgiven for confusing their little corner of the truth for the real thing.

For Christ died for them too–the utilitarians, the rationalists, the positivists, the contractarians. I do not know where David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes are spending eternity, but I know where their modern intellectual offspring are. If they are ever to receive the light of faith, it likely will not come from some television evangelist. The best chance, indeed, perhaps the only natural hope for the conversion of the modern utilitarian mind is through Christian natural law.