Sunday, January 27, 2019

Is God the Invisible Hand?

A Baylor University survey on religion and economics in 2011 revealed something that may be distinctly American, culturally speaking. The results indicated that about “one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and [advocates] the free market as a matter of faith.”[1] Specifically, those Americans believed that the “invisible hand” of a competitive market is actually God at work. Put another way, the assumption is that the economy “works” because God wills it to by intervening directly in the market mechanism itself. Government regulation, in diverting economic supply and demand from “the invisible hand,” is thus sinful. Regulating the economy challenges God’s omnipotence (i.e., power) by interfering with God’s intervention in our daily lives via the operation of the market mechanism. 
A problem for Americans who view God as actively intervening in Creation in general and through the market mechanism in particular concerns a market equilibrium short of full employment wherein unemployed people, who would starve without government assistance, are abundant. Would an interventionist universal deity allow so much innocent suffering, particularly when Jesus is said to advocated caring for the poor? Or can we generalize to say that all of unemployed deserve to be without, and perhaps even to die? This seems particularly harsh, even regarding those workers who get fired for having an intractably bad attitude. Lest the “interventionist” Christians point to charity (derived from caritas, which is higher-oriented human love), why would God set the unemployed up to rely on non-profit institutions even though they cannot be relied on to feed and house people who need sustenance assistance on a daily basis.
A more fundamental problem facing the “divine interventionist” crowd concerns the troubling assumption that as finite beings we are able to have such specific knowledge of God's will as to be certain that the invisible hand is indeed that of God intervening in Creation on a daily basis. St. Denis of the sixth century would remind the "interventionists" that the divine is inherently beyond the limits of human cognition and perception. Even revelation, Augustine warned, must go through a dark window to reach us mere mortals. We cannot, therefore, have knowledge of the particularities of God's will. 
To suppose, for example, that a member of a church choir and bus driver suffered an accident days before a concert because a demon was going after the choir itself whereas God was necessarily behind the choir represents an impious presumption of human knowledge. Such a rationale strains even belief. For some reason, when the human brain enters a religious frame of mind, usual checks on inordinate reasoning/assumptions can go haywire without the mind detecting it. Assuming they cannot be wrong, interventionists may not realize the harm brought on the unemployed by efforts to block regulation that could reduce market volatility and even bring market-functioning closer to full employment. 
Moreover, the confluence of the “interventionist” theological belief and a political/economic ideology is a red flag that self-idolatry is in the mix, or perhaps even the determining force, because ideology is human, all too human. Activist religious groups such as Unitarian-Universalists, Congregationalists, and Quakers, for instance, are at risk for placing particular political, economic, or social ideologies at the forefront in distinctly religious terms. One Unitarian minister once told me that certain social structures are sacred. I replied that as such structures are human artifacts, the appellation of sacred effectively divinizes us, hence is self-idolatry. In other words, faith itself can come to be identified with a particular economic structure--one in which economic inequality does not exist, which may be utopian. The minister was not amused, and I'm sure he believed that he could not be wrong about his belief being salubrious in religious terms. The same can apply to political and economic conservatives who assume their opposition to government regulation has a divine foundation. Most (81%) political conservatives said in the survey that tone ultimate truth exists in the world. The question is perhaps whether they believe that they know that truth and furthermore cannot be wrong about it.
To be sure, one in five Americans surveyed in 2011 said they did not believe that God intervenes in their daily lives, and by implication, through economic markets. Rather than believing that God directs greed to good material ends through an “invisible hand,” the theologically “non-interventionist” Americans favor the human use of government to mitigate economic harm by reducing economic inequality. Such Americans who favor government intervention while not believing that God intervenes in human life tend to believe that there is no one ultimate truth. This may mean that such people are not as likely to assume that they know God's ways and furthermore that it is impossible to be wrong about such knowledge. Yet the non-interventionist view risks the assumption that since God doesn't intervene to help suffering people, why should I? Government regulation can serve as a substitute that lacks compassion and is thus less worthy in religious terms. Furthermore, non-interventionists may be vulnerable to placing their human ideology in the religious void created by the non-interventionist assumption. God doesn't get involved, so my ideology is highlighted even in religious terms because it can solve the problem. 
It is worth observing in closing that relying on government regulation itself, whether from interventionist or non-interventionist auspices, can be inadequate, especially in democracies in which the interests of the regulated prevail in the halls of government due to lobbying and campaign contributions. Especially without a truth-based religio-normative basis for regulation, greed may get the upper hand if religion itself is eliminated as possible a constraint. A normative bulwark based solely on even an ethical principle may not be strong enough to constrain the basic desire for more (i.e., greed). Of course, believing that God does not want markets to be regulated can also enable greed. That the Clinton Administration kept subprime-mortgage-based (risky) bonds from being regulated contributed greatly to the financial crisis of 2008. A religio-normative basis for a non-regulatory economy could thus really put a people at risk. 

1. Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Religion Colors Money Views,” USA Today, September 20, 2011. 

On Christian theological takes through the centuries on greed and wealth, see God's Gold at Amazon.