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Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Roots of Economics.

For many generations past, dissenting economists, notably Marxists and Institutionalists, have insisted that conventional or orthodox economics wisdom displays the characteristics of faith or dogma. Robert Nelson takes this lament a step further by arguing that economic thought is not merely similar to religion but is in fact the continuation of unfolding religious doctrine. To be exact, he seeks to show "not only that modern economic thinking is a secularization of the Judeo-Christian tradition in a general sense, but that it recreates many specific theological controversies" [p. 23]. Moreover, despite outward appearances to the contrary, modern economic thinking has not radically departed from "theological content" and receives its social legitimacy not so much from its scientific rigor as from its representation of the Roman religious tradition.

Nelson's central organizing principle is the distinction between two traditions of Western religion, the Roman and the Protestant. Plato, the first great figure in the latter tradition, set the theme of human existence in perpetual illusion, distracted from the reasonable conduct of life by false consciousness. The central focus here is the human will. Among the tenets of the Protestant tradition we find deep alienation from human essence, deluded and unreliable reason, corruption of positive or human law and necessary submission to ironclad mores of conduct not amenable to understanding via the exercize of reason, revelation, revolution, self-sacritice, and communalism [p. 53]. Apparently, the tenets are not meant to be logically consistent ideologically but in mood or temper. Extremism seems to be Nelson's common denominator, as well as a propensity to fomenting disorder [p. 309].

By contrast, the Roman tradition, with Aristotle as its first great figure, focuses upon the human intellect as decisive because there is an orderly and knowable universe which the human being can discem and use to govern its existence. The characteristic tenets here derive from the view that the world exists in a rationally knowable form or fundamental reality that is more basic than the world of ideas and wills. Hence progress is possible, as is justice, and happiness is an appropriate goal for individuals and society. Moderation and pragmatism rather than extremism are hallmarks of the Roman tradition [p. 31].

I have no idea as to the validity of these characteristics on theological grounds but they do yield some dubious results in Nelson's application of them to the history of economic thought. For example, Marx is placed in the Protestant tradition with its avowed pessimism while Veblen is placed in the Roman position with its optimistic outlook. Yet there is no doubt that Veblen's famous passage with regard to imbecile institutions [Veblen, p. 251 and Marx's with respect to demystification and the growth of knowledge [Marx, p. 791 well represent their views. Marx is inveterately optimistic concerning the inevitability of progress and Veblen is truculently pessimistic on the matter.

Other assignations might be questioned. Greens, environmentalists, and the like will no doubt be surprised to learn that their attempts to develop sustainable economic strategies are actually veiled attempts to foment disorder. Ely, Vebren, and Galbraith might be a shade more comfortable with the greens than with the likes of Samuelson, Friedman, and Schultze.

Nelson then attempts to connect - or so I suppose - his economic theology construct to the reality pluralism of postmodernism in a confusing discussion of the two traditions today which amounts to no more than saying that they differ on whether the Roman tradition has been proven by the twentieth century [pp. 306-7]. Some sort of application is attempted in a closing discussion of the "right of free secession," but I could not fathom what it had to do with the rest of the book.

I cannot recommend this book, despite the jacket praise heaped upon it by some very well known scholars.


[1.] Marx, K. Capitol, Vol. I. New York: International Publishers, 1967. [2.] Veblen, T. B. The Instinct of Workmanship. New York: A.M. Kelley, 1964.
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Author:Stanfield, James Ronald
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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