Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Empire (of Economics) Strikes Back

Yesterday I probably spent too much time doing two things: 1) playing PacMan [the other 30th Anniversary] and 2) re-reading about St. Augustine's wrestling with the doctrines of free will and election. I had kind of hoped never to jump into the free will/election tar pit on the blog, but it's Pentecost... a day for boldly following the Spirit.

It is without a doubt daunting to try to follow Augustine's evolution on these topics. But, what was clear to Augustine was that if you threw either free will or election under the bus you were also denying large parts of scripture, both the Old and the New Testament. Augustine's writings started with an emphasis on free will (and trust me, this is not from scholarly original research on my part but rather is my attempt to summarize what I have read over the years) because he was reacting to a heresy and he believed it important to argue that God was not the author of Sin: Adam and Eve were the authors of the human fall. Apparently after periods of intense study of Paul and the Old Testament, he more publicly emphasized the biblical passages supporting predestination and election. And, of course, later in life, he famously opposed Pelagius' total emphasis on free will and his (Pelagius') rejection of the idea of original sin.*

Across all of the sources I've read, the resulting summary of the Augustinian position is usually stated something like the following: "Humans have free wills, but the natural consequence of original sin is that we will inevitably (but not always) choose to sin." Or, as I have seen it described elsewhere, we are free to be slaves of sin. Or, as R.C. Sproul says in Willing to Believe,
"For Augustine, the sinner is both free and in bondage at the same time, but not in the same sense. He is free to act according to his desires, but his desires are only evil....He is a slave to his own corrupted passions, a slave to his own corrupted will." Is that clear enough? Bueller? Bueller?

Economists are often accused as being intellectual imperialists with regards to the other social sciences. Let me continue in that tradition with the following very immodest statement: if Augustine (or, for that matter, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Arminius or Wesley) had been trained in economics, this might not all seem so complicated.

Economics separates the act of choosing from a) preferences, and b) the constraint set. In this light, the debate about free will is a red herring. As Augustine realized, but we find difficult to accept: the Bible emphasizes both free will and predestination because, contrary to what we so often hear, there is no conflict between free will and predestination. Of course people have free will. God made us that way, and the exercise thereof is what got Adam and Eve into so much trouble. (Cue the Wesleyan hymns.) The real story about election is not about our free will but rather about our preferences. The "election" thread of scripture is all about the fact that human preferences will naturally lead us to choose to sin, and that it is only through the calling of the Holy Spirit that our preferences are changed, not the presence or absence of our free will. (Cue the Calvinist hymns).

Two final thoughts. 1 ) I may have lost my membership in the Calvinist Economists' Society for the discussion above; and 2 ) Economists run like crazy from any questions about how our preferences are changed (in fact Becker and Stigler argue forcefully that they don't). The discussion above more or less kicks that whole can of worms (what does it mean for our preferences to change) down the road for a later post. In the meantime, read Romans 7:15-25 for the potholes that lie ahead for the economics empire.

* A great expression of the Pelagian idea of sin and redemption can be found in the book A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (provided that you read the original, full length, British edition and not the American edition---- or the Kubrick movie).

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