Original Sin and the Market Economy

Many years ago I used to work with a Jesuit, who told me once that after his first month of hearing confessions, he no longer believed in original sin. “Nothing original about it,” he told me. “Just the same thing over and over.” We know, from centuries of observation, that the market economy is basic to human nature. Put a bunch of people on a desert island, and within a generation, if not less, they will be buying and selling in complete obedience to the law of supply and demand. Every experiment in non-market economies that post-industrial humanity has tried—from the communes of Oneida and Amana to the Soviet Union—has dissolved into its fundamental market essence. The only partial exception is the Israel kibbutzim, and they merely replace the individual, as a player in the market economy, with the group.

It has become fashionable to conclude from this factual situation that the market economy is not only natural to the human personality and society, but a Good Thing, as Cellar and Yeatman (authors of 1066 and All That) would say. In fact, that is a wholly separate question.

Virtually every religious tradition recognizes that human nature is flawed. Many of the things that are natural to the human being are Bad Things. The depth and reparability of the flaw may be defined differently in different theologies, but even the most optimistic—that of Rousseau, for instance—cannot escape the reality that this fundamentally good, free being has somehow managed to produce a society everywhere that puts people in chains. Even those who have defined our world as the best possible do not necessarily believe it is good. So why do we so optimistically list the market economy among the good things humanity has invented (like indoor plumbing and the smallpox vaccine) rather than the obviously bad things (like war and torture) or even the dubious achievements (like the beeper, the boom box, and the singing commercial)?

I suspect the answer is that the people most interested in encouraging the acceptance of the market economy as a Good Thing are those who profit from it the most—who can also, by definition, afford the biggest PR budget. They can even afford to disguise a large portion of that budget as subsidies to academic and managerial research.

From the point of view of, you should pardon the expression, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the undiluted market economy is nothing short of an abomination. One of the central premises of that tradition is the ultimate importance of every human being, made in the divine image and likeness. The market economy takes the position that everything is either a commodity, with a market value, or worthless. The market value of a person is defined by what s/he owns or by what s/he can produce for other people. Those people who own nothing and can produce nothing (because they are too young, too old, too sick, or lacking any marketable skills) are worthless. The undiluted market economy, as adumbrated by Ayn Rand, for instance, has no room for them. The minute such an economy feels any strain of scarcity—in a war, for instance—it will dispose of them, or at any rate do nothing to keep them alive. A pure market economy whose members feel affluent at the moment may continue to support these “useless mouths”, either from force of habit or sentimentality or most likely from the diluting influence of some non-market theology, whether it be what we normally recognize as religious, or one of the more secular theologies of socialism or communism. But we define that generosity as a luxury, a failure in our otherwise clear-headed realism.

However, our society (like almost every society on the face of the earth) still likes to think of itself as being based on non-market religious or quasi-religious values. Like just about every other society, except some of the socialist- and communist-related ones, it is not willing to recognize its religious tradition as being anti-market, even in part. It is not willing to recognize even the possibility of conflict between its supposed moral foundations and its economic system, much less to try to explicate a right relationship between the two.

That’s a relatively new problem. In the Middle Ages, all the major Christian theologians had something to say about the right conduct of economic affairs. So, by the way did the eminent Muslim theologians of the same period. So did the rabbis who compiled the Talmud, and their successors who commented on it until fairly recently. We now consider that kind of discussion fundamentally illegitimate, or at any rate pointless. Marx and Lenin are largely responsible for this problem. “Scientific socialism” means that economic systems no longer require moral underpinnings, any more than the law of gravity does. What the followers of Marx and Lenin seem to have missed is that the scientific laws of economics (whatever they may be) can be misused by bad people just as the law of gravity was misused by the people who dropped Jan Masaryk out the window. And science has no argument to offer against this misuse.

In fact, whether Marx and Lenin were conscious of it or not, the “scientific socialism” they formulated was a theology, a statement of how things ought to be rather than how they are. By refusing to recognize that reality, they undermined of their own ideas, and the legitimacy of any moral critique of the natural behavior of human beings and human societies.

We need to take up that hallowed task again, from the point of view of the tradition with which I am most familiar, the Jewish tradition. Since our society still pays lip service to the “Old Testament” as part and parcel of the Christian tradition to which it also pays lip service, must of this analysis is at least consistent with the official values of the larger society.

So let’s begin with Genesis I, 27: “in the image of God He created them…” The creation narrative has always been interpreted in the Jewish tradition to point to the infinite significance of every human life. One of the reasons God began the creation of the human race with a single couple, we are told, is to emphasize that saving a single life is equivalent to saving the whole world. The rabbis tell us that we are all descended from Adam so that we cannot tell each other “my ancestors were greater than yours.”

From there, we can look at the Book of Deuteronomy, with its extensive social legislation. It makes two main social policy points: 1) no property is permanent. Slaves are to be liberated every seven years. The Jubilee, every fifty years, requires the return of land to its original owner and the forgiveness of debts. What we call ownership is more of a long-term lease from the real Owner of everything—God. And 2) several classes of people are under special divine protection: the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor, and the Levite. What they have in common is that they do not—cannot—own land, which, in an agrarian society is the only link to the means of production. Lacking that link, they are given instead certainly divinely-legislated rights: in the case of Levites, to tithes and sacrifices; in the case of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor, tithes, gleaning, and the leftovers of the olive and grape harvests, as well as the right to be paid before sundown on the day their work is performed. Arguably, this was the first affirmative action legislation. The author recognizes that it is not natural for human beings or human societies to grant these rights to their least fortunate, most “worthless” members. So the book drives its legislation home with dire threats of the penalties for disobedience—military defeat, exile, drought, famine, plague and disorder.

This theme recurs among most of the major prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos. They inveigh against “doing what comes naturally”, whether the lawless behavior in question is sexual, culinary, juridical, or economic. The whole point of being the Jewish people is not “doing what comes naturally” in any of these areas. That is our side of the Covenant. The Other side is that, if we violate our obligations, we will suffer exile and destruction—but eventually (after we clean up our act) we will be forgiven and restored.

The Jewish tradition has its own way of talking about “doing what comes naturally.” We call it the Yetzer ha-Rah, the evil impulse. Some Christian theologians equate it with original sin. But the rabbis are a lot more pragmatic. “If it were not for the evil impulse,” we are told, “No one would ever get married, produce children, do business, or build a house.” In short, “doing what comes naturally” is essential to individual and collective human existence. “Natural” economic behavior—the market economy—is one of the essential things the evil impulse enables us to do. But the evil impulse has to be carefully controlled, by the Yetzer ha-Tov, the good impulse, and the divine commandments. Including, of course, the commandments protecting poor and powerless people.

In short, the impulses that power the market economy are no worse than sexual libido, but they are also no better. The market economy does an efficient job of creating and distributing wealth among the people who can afford to participate in it. It does a terrible job of providing for people who can’t afford to participate. Which is fine, as long as we have some other way to provide for such people. As long as we do not make claims for the market economy beyond its real competence.

Today’s discussion of welfare revolves around the words “work” and “responsibility.” They are the shibboleths of both sides. Nowhere in the rhetoric of either side do we hear words like, “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” still less any intimation that people in these categories have a divinely-legislated right to our support. Nowhere do we see any recognition, on either side, that some people—the very young, the very old, the disabled, the unskilled—cannot reasonably be expected to work or bear responsibility for their own support, and nonetheless have a right to live and therefore a right to our support. We have allowed the market to dictate not only our economy but our morality. We would be better off deriving our morality from Newtonian physics (which tells us that what goes around comes around) or the kindergarten code (take turns, clean up your own mess, don’t hit), the game of checkers (as enunciated by the Baal Shem Tov—make one move at a time, always move ahead rather than backward, but when you get to the final rank, you can make any move you want), or even the sign the Chicago Transit Authority used to post at the back door of buses: “Wait for light, then push.” The market economy is driven by the flaws in our nature. To make a livable society, we must place that economy under the limits set by our better natures and the commandments.


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