When Theologians Talk About Economics

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has some interesting comments on mistakes that religious types make when they let their pronouncements wander into the field of economics:

Now, it’s fine to make non-scientific claims when you are not making science. But when we mistake science for theology—and vice versa—we make mistakes. When some clerics disputed the heliocentric model of the Solar System on the basis of scriptural evidence, they were not even wrong. They were doing bad science and (even worse) bad theology.

In economic theology, this most often takes the form of what I’ll call aestheticism—in other words, giving economic warrant to certain arrangements not on the basis of either empirical determination or (I would argue) good theology, but rather a romantic, aesthetic feeling.

This might seem a little vague, so let me give some examples.

A good example would be John XXIII’s praise of government subsidies for agriculture, based on aesthetic rationale, even though one of the few topics on which almost all economists and other experts agree is that government subsidies for agriculture are a disaster. Now, maybe those experts are wrong—unanimous experts are more often wrong than we like, and the Gospel is the supreme authority. But this seems to be something the Pope isn’t aware of. Empirics shouldn’t be the end of the discussion, but it should be part of it.

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