Economics has been called ‘the dismal science’? Is it? Humanity has now reached the stage where we need international conferences on how to stop trashing the planet: are our economic theories contributing to our destructiveness?
‘Dismal science’ was Thomas Carlyle’s description, deemed appropriate to Thomas Malthus’ economic theories. Is it dismal? Is there a proper Christian response to it?
This is the third in a series of posts on wealth. It describes how economic policies today are influenced by Malthus’ Essay on Population, first published in 1798.
I make no claim to expertise in economics. I approach the subject as a theological ethicist, aiming to explore the values underlying the economic theories. On those theories I would welcome the correction of any errors, but have kept my descriptions as brief as possible.
Malthus’ Essay on Population is described as the beginning of classical economic theory because this is where scarcity and inequality were first treated as necessary features of society. This, indeed, is what makes it ‘dismal’.
He argued that, given the shortages of food, an increase in production would improve people’s well-being for a short while. However it would have the effect of increasing the population. With more mouths to feed, the previous shortage would return. Instead of feeding the poor through the Poor Laws current in his day, it would be better if the poor could benefit themselves by delaying marriage and having fewer children.
In fact they had been doing this for centuries; but the Essay wasn’t written for their instruction. It was more of an invitation to blame the poor for their poverty.
Malthus aimed to defend the political system, with its inequalities, against the supporters of the French Revolution. He argued that private property, wage labour and market institutions would, if abolished, reappear within a generation or two. Inequality and scarcity mean poverty for most people, but this is a good thing as they supply the necessary incentives to industry and thrift. Competition for scarce goods produces efficiency in production. The 1803 edition of the Essay argued:
A man who is born into the world already possessed… has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders if he does not work on the compassion of some of her guests.
Today this is a common enough view, though few would put the matter so bluntly. One only has to reflect on the British Government’s current response to refugees. But at the time public opinion was well aware that it contradicted Christian teaching. William Paley defended the traditional argument that ‘the poor have a claim founded in the law of nature’ upon the resources of the rich.
Malthus was treading new ground, and was widely denounced for his ‘impious assertion, that the Almighty brings more beings into the world than he prepares nourishment for’. The offending text was omitted from the next edition of the Essay. Nevertheless his arguments triumphed.
Overall shortage of food was central to the argument. In fact there was enough to go round, and the aid agencies tell us there still is; but then as now, the theories were being debated by people who were taking more than their share and didn’t want to give up their privileges.
The public disapproval was largely theological. Why would God allow the human population to outstrip the resources available for them? It is hard to imagine this question being taken seriously in economic debate now, but then it was a real challenge.
It took some time for a theological justification to be devised, but by the 1820s one had been established. A state of happiness is not what God intended. Human life on earth is in a state of discipline and trial. We are being trained for the next life. Inequality and poverty are suited to the exercise of virtue.
In these arguments we are back to the exploitative theories characteristic of ancient polytheism, the theories against which the Hebrew scriptures rebelled. They had already entered Christian thought. Ever since the rulers of the Roman empire had joined the Church over a thousand years earlier, there had been pressure in this direction. Indeed, whenever wealthy people become aware that their wealth is depriving others of life’s necessities, these are the kinds of justifications they appeal to.
Earlier biblical and Christian theories had claimed that the resources humans need are given by God so that everybody’s life should be a blessing. Most governments dislike this theory as it makes them responsible for everybody’s well-being. It was gradually watered down over the centuries of Christendom.
By the end of the eighteenth century the dominant discourse had dispensed with it altogether. To Adam Smith, economic activity should be directed not to meeting everyone’s needs but to maximising the wealth of the nation. Instead of communities sharing their resources with each other, rich individuals should spend on luxuries for themselves.
With Malthus and his successors the gap widened: meeting the needs of the poor is impossible, and anyway poverty is good for their souls.
From this point on the influence of Christianity virtually disappears from the history of economics, along with any other religious tradition. The dominant narrative continues Malthus’ values: the poor are to remain poor while the nation is to become rich.
We have ended up with a cult of the economy. Whereas ancient polytheistic societies declared that the poor must remain poor because of the gods, today the poor must remain poor because of the economy. Our society worships an abstract of statistics! You would have to be very blind indeed not to notice whose interests are really being served.
Economic theory has become the supreme moral authority. It tells us what we ought to do, and if religious teachings tell us something different they can be swept aside as unscientific and dogmatic. We have even ended up with the absurd notion of ‘helping the economy’, as though the economy could appreciate being helped.
Sceptics may be forgiven for smelling an air of unreality. Most of the time we do not think of ourselves as individuals seeking to benefit ourselves financially without caring about the effects on other people. We wouldn’t dream of treating our family and close friends like that. In fact, what the theory is describing is human relationships at their worst. Yes, we look for the cheapest price when we are dealing with people we don’t know anything about; but as soon as we care about somebody, our priorities change.
So we are being told to be more selfish than we naturally are. We only need to watch people feeding ducks on a lake – perhaps even sitting next to a sign telling them not to – to appreciate that people like to give as well as receive.
Good. As long as we refuse to abide by the dismal rules, there is hope.