Secular Economics?

Quick distinction before we begin: atheism states there is no conclusive proof god exists; secularism that the state is neutral with regards religion using neither coercion or favour on citizens to one belief or another. The conscience of the believer and infidel is safeguarded equally. Sadly an article in the National Catholic Register mixes them up, accusing secularism of adding to the fiscal cliff, confuses the two. They mean atheism and in particular non belief in heaven and hell stopping us being virtuous.

Economics without God

Economics does not lend itself to an atheistic philosophy, because political economy is not really into those questions. Marx tackles religion from a philosophical context, and for him economic relationships underpin the social order of any given system in his political economy, theocratic or capitalist. Critical examination of such things matter for him because: “The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” (Marx)

A moral economic philosophy that may almost sound appealing to atheists is Buddhist Economics by Schumacher. That uses Right Livelihood, one of the eight parts of the noble path, to suggest that economic development needs to also address moral development – something which traditional economics does not model. The idea here, at a basic level, is not simply generating happiness. It is reducing suffering for both labour, producer and consumer. That for Schumacher is the basis of his thinking in using Buddhist philosophy to maximise the traditional economic maxim of optimising well-being.

That does not require the idea of an after life because Schumacher is using the here and now of a life. With no deity to worship or please Buddhism can be said to be atheistic. However, we cannot get away that the major suffering idea in Buddhism being samsara – the cycle of death and rebirth. The goal is to, by such things as right livelihood, end this cycle, possibly taking many future lives to achieve. As written in Why I Am Not A Buddhist, atheists could reject such ideas as being unverifiable on an empirical level – the same reason for rejecting god. The point is Schumacher in his thesis is not using thoughts of an after life in how we should behave with every day economic activity. Rather he is using philosophical ideas for making very real everyday decisions concerning our own welfare.


For the writer at the National Catholic Register, such thinking that ignores an after life explains why the fiscal cliff ever emerged on the horizon:

To boil it down, the moral world of Christianity was prefaced on the existence of the soul and a hierarchy of its virtues. In this moral scheme, avarice (aka greed) was a vice, and so the inordinate desire for worldly wealth was a character defect that ruined one’s soul (and hence damaged one’s chances for bliss in the next life).

However, secularism, in rejecting Christianity, left us with no heaven to hope for or hell to fear. One of the effects was the dilution and then dismissal of the need for virtue. The notion arose among early “capitalists” that passionately pursuing one’s own material self-interest actually resulted, as a happy side effect, in producing moral social order and even something like virtue in the individual. In buying and selling, they reasoned one must be honest or risk losing customers; one must be just in one’s transactions for the same reason; one must be industrious and prudent or one’s business would fail.

But as we became more secular, things became more crass. Some began to argue that a vice, greed, was actually good, because the desire for wealth — especially if it is inordinate and all-consuming — will produce more wealth for oneself and others and spread technological, medicinal and practical benefits that enhance everyone’s life.


In summery the desire to spend more than was coming in, and creating a social welfare state like Europe, is to be blamed on us abandoning the notion that at least God is watching and keeping score. Though by spending more on the less advantaged via social welfare receipts may be considered virtuous by some, especially Jesus. Also, when it mentions USA government expenditure being similar to the European level it crucially misses out military spending – account for that and Europe is significantly higher. No mention of “those who live by the sword die by the sword” could mean the cost of holding said sword for so long. Which the USA as number one military spender is equal to the same expenditure as the next 20 odd countries combined.

Why do I sell myself?

Adam Smith observed:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

However that advocate of free markets also had this to say:

“How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.”

“Theory of Moral Sentiments” is a primer if you ever believe free market promoting economists by nature lack feeling, or empathy. The economy supplies our wants and needs without appealing to anyone’s better angels. At a restaurant you do not have to convince the waiter you are a good person before he takes your order. The chef feeds you because ultimately they need to feed themselves. How we chose an occupation is a worthwhile question to explore from a material and psychological point of view.


The article essentially is making as it’s straw-man Gekko from Wall Street. Remember that prior to his “Greed is good” speech he talks about a time when executives were accountable to the stockholder for the running of the business – and that times have changed. He suggests that his ability to liquidate as an asset stripper is the only sanction to make them run a business properly. In a free market economy, to ensure they focus on making real profits for their share holders or else:

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.


Rather than an economic regulator in the sky being taken more seriously in compliance meetings, we could argue that real and immediate sanctions in the career of chairs and executives of boards would be productive. That means real accountability to stockholders, transparency in the statistics of the company, and effective regulation and enforcement of rules including sanctions that will modify behaviour, or at least recuperate any loss and more then punish any reward for breaking.

As such game theory, moral hazard, and other concepts used in economics would be a better tool than trying to make people believe there is treasure in heaven rather than asking about stock options. Virtue is something we all have an interest in promoting without thinking we need heaven and hell to make people moral. We need something more palpable.

How we deal with knaves is the thing in the here and now, as well as making our own character not all about the materialistic, but about living a good life that makes us happy.

The picture comes from a thoughtful blog on thinking about economists of the past here

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78


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Filed under America, atheism, Economics, economy, Religion, secular

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