Economy and Love

Economy and Love

What has love to do with economics? Isn‘t the market order based on self-interest – and not on love and altruism? To quote the famous words of Adam Smith,

“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. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.” (The Wealth of Nations, 1776)

Many like Shane Clairborne propose an alternative to the capitalistic way of economic life – an “economy of love”. The Christian activist in the video series (and book) with the same title: 

„When God leads the Israelites out, one of the first commands that they’re given is ‘Do not take more than you need for each day.’ God was establishing an economy where the Israelites were to trust God to provide their daily bread. Many things were put in place to form them as God’s holy counterculture in the world, and to show the world what a society of love really looks like […]. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means taking care of one another. Rebirth demands redistribution. It’s not a system; neither socialism or communism. It’s an economy rooted in relational love for our neighbor. It means that as we really catch a vision for loving our neighbors, it affects our economics – and nothing is ever the same […].“

Clairborne refers to the giving of Manna to the Israelites in the desert. In Ex 16:4 God says, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day.” The Sao Paulo Statement of 2012 also refers to the food from heaven; in the document, published by the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), it is said, “we reject the ideology of consumerism and affirm an economy of Manna, which provides sufficiently for all and negates the idea of greed”.

An economy of Manna or a “gift economy” persistently ignores that something has first to be produced to be then given away. The temporary and exceptional miracle to the Israelites in the desert is made into a working principle of our economic order. This is nothing but foolish. And it has nothing to do with love if the property of some people is taken from them and redistributed in the name of a “solidarity economy”. Today treasures do not fall down from heaven, they are mostly manufactured by human beings. 

This misappropriation of love shows that the discussion of the relationship between theology and economics is in need of serious repair. Some insight in this excerpt from a research paper for the Lithuanian Free Market Institute‘s (LLRI) project “Multidisciplinary Research on the Problem of Scarcity” may help.


Ontology of love

God‘s essential being is love. He is not just loving, He is love (1 Jn 4:8.16). But for love to be genuine there must be someone to love. C.S. Lewis notes that “The words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” (Mere Christianity) Michael Reeves explains, “Single-person gods, having spent eternity alone, are inevitably self-centred beings, and so it becomes hard to see why they would ever cause anything else to exist. Wouldn‘t the existence of a universe be an irritating distraction for the god whose greatest pleasure is looking in a mirror?” The good news is that the triune God “is a God who is not essentially lonely, but who has been loving for all eternity as the Father has loved the Son in the Spirit.” (Delighting in the Trinity)

From all eternity there is tri-personal love in God. The only God of whom one can say ‘God is love’ is the triune God. If God were not triune and thus not essentially loving, then he would not be wholeheartedly inclined to show mercy.

This loving God is wholly satisfied in himself. He did not need a creation to have an object he could love. But love in its essence is outward-looking and overflowing. God did not have to create, but he freely loved and loves to do so. M. Reeves further concludes that, “since God the Father has eternally loved his Son [Jn 1:18; 5:20; 17:24 etc.], it is entirely characteristic of him to turn and create others that he might also love them […]. It is that the Father has always enjoyed loving another, and so the act of creation by which he creates others to love seems utterly appropriate for him.”

Human beings are in need of loving relationships; our “needs come from God because God has these needs”, says Ellis Potter, but he is quick to add that God “does not suffer from these needs. Having these needs is pure joy for God, because needs are the basis for trust and love. A need that can only be fulfilled by another person requires that you can trust that person to fulfil it. If there were no needs, there would be no real trust or love.” Now in the Trinity “each of the three persons of God fills the needs of the other persons […]. Each of the persons of God is similarly other-centered rather than centered in Himself. Such is the Bible‘s depiction of absolute reality: a totally other-centered God. This other-centeredness is the source of God‘s energy.” (3 Theories of Everything)

Potter has observed something very important. We are in need of love and in general are needy people. After the fall, in a world of sin, this neediness is often painful and coupled with suffering, but in itself it is good because God himself has needs – though in a different way than we. There is no real scarcity or lack in God, as we noticed, and he is not in need of creation. But the three persons of the Trinity need each other; without the other they would lack something. This basic ontological neediness implies that God himself is a sharing God: the three persons delight to share their love and joy with each other, and the delight in sharing some of these blessings with creation.

Love in its essence is giving and sharing. C.S. Lewis captured this in his brilliant The Screwtape Letters. The senior demon advises his devil apprentice that “talk about His [God‘s] love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not […] mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself – creatures”, who are called to freely conform to God‘s will. “We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over.”

In many ways the Aristotelian god comes close to the biblical ideal, and so it is not surprising that Thomas Aquinas adapted “the Philosopher‘s” teaching to theology. Yet Aristotle‘s highest god is also impersonal and non-loving; he is a god whose greatest pleasure is looking in a mirror: “the activity of God, which surpasses all other others in blessedness, must be contemplative” (Nicomachean Ethics); he is a pure theorist, his highest activity is only thinking about himself: “thought which has itself for its object.” (Metaphysics) In contrast, the primal divine activity of God is not pure thought, but pure love, and this is “Gift-love” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves) – giving, out-going love.

God is out-giving and self-giving, and therefore the nature of his universe, Peter Leithart observes, “encourages an ethic of self-giving love”. He sees an “ontology of mutual indwelling” which is also “an ontology of love.” (Traces of the Trinity)

The many Loves

An ontology of love? How can we fit economics into this? Didn‘t we say [in an earlier chapter] that the extended market order is not based on love? Wasn‘t Mises right to state that “People do not cooperate under the division of labor because they love or should love one another”? (Human Action) And what about Smith‘s famous quotes on the “benevolence [or love] of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker”? How can a brilliant thinker on economics like Michael Novak say that love is “the very energy of reality itself”? (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism) Or Deidre McCloskey: “Love does make the world go round.” (The Bourgeois Virtues)

What has love to do with the economy? McCloskey cuts to the chase here:

“The male, prudent, scientific, economistic, and materialist stoic breaks into indignant rhetorical questions: ‘Who cares about sweetness? ‘Sour’ tastes fine to me. […] What possibly could love have to do with the hard world of a commercial economy? Let’s get practical here. Can’t we do just fine in a world of bourgeois business without love? Isn’t that the, uh, point of economics? Isn’t love something for weekends and the Home?’ ”

As is often the case, our intuition can easily lead us astray. We think that we know exactly what love is, and indeed, we may. But some reflection reveals that love is a surprisingly ‘difficult’ doctrine (see on this D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God). And it has to be so. Love is at the heart of the Trinity, and, no doubt, the Trinity is a difficult doctrine, not easy and not fully to understand. If love is really so foundational, it also must be in some ways mysterious and certainly complex. Because there is diversity in the Trinity, we may reasonably expect that love is also characterized by diversity.

C.S. Lewis is again helpful. He reminds us that classical Greek language distinguishes between four human loves: storge, filia, eros and agape. (The Four Loves) They can be translated affection, friendship, attraction, and charity. With the exception of eros all these words are also used in the New Testament.

When Smith, Mises and Hayek deny the necessity of love in the market order they are right insofar they have in mind a mixture of the first three kinds: affection and attraction, friendship and sympathy. Due to their nature we simply cannot apply these loves to numerous unknown people; to implement them we mostly need the small face-to-face group, the family, the church, the company of friends etc. “Loving mankind” in that context is more or less nonsense; loving one‘s country or a doctrine or another abstract entity is possible only in a metaphorical sense (we sense a kind of emotional attraction to them but very often terms other than love are more appropriate). We really can and should love individual people.

We can conclude that storge, filia, eros, affection, sympathy and attraction, are more at home in the smaller groups of direct interpersonal relationships. The extended market order runs on love too – but on a different love. Lewis called the three mentioned loves “natural”; agape, the fourth, is the Trinitarian love in the Godhead, love par excellence, it is “supernatural” love. This is the self-giving, out-going love; love which motivates a person to lay down his life for others. It is sacrificial love, humble love.

Extended love

McCloskey speaks about “love in the extended sense”, and this gives us a clue as to how we can proceed. Affection and sympathy cannot be extended too far, but there can be and there is an extended agape. She mentions the art of listening. Lovers listen to each other; listening is a central virtue in marriage, family and all relationships. Listening is rooted in God who hears us, our groaning and crying and shouting (see, e.g., Ex 2:24); he is the Great Listener, and that is the reason why human prayer makes sense. In the Godhead the Father does not shout at the Son and the Spirit, giving orders and commands. Instead the three person of the Trinity perfectly listen to each other.

Now listening is of highest priority in the economic world – a fact which is often overlooked. “The person in business depends on an imaginative engagement with the customers and suppliers, to guess what they are thinking, to see the witness in them”, McCloskey says. She continues:

“An alert businesswoman ‘subjects herself to every neighbor.’ She listens and learns from other people and from the world, through that selfless respect for reality. The businesswoman’s goods are difficult of achievement, requiring greatsouledness, but depend also on listening to what people want and the world will allow.”

Listening to what people want seems trivial, but it is the attitude and virtue behind all market research. And this is the Alpha and Omega of the free economy. Bad listeners do not only make bad disciples in the Church (see John Stott, The Contemporary Christian); not listening is a vice in the economy too. Whatever a company may produce, if the product is not targeted at research-based costumer needs, everything is done in vain. A successful company listens all the time; it is a great listener, reflecting the Great Listener. McCloskey gives a fine example,

“The business section of the Chicago Tribune has a feature on Mondays called ‘My Biggest Mistake,’ in which managers of small businesses confess to this or that expensive failure to answer the witness of reality: not listening to customers here; not listening to employees there. It is hard to imagine a similar column in a publication directed at the clerisy [intelligentsia]: ‘My biggest scientific mistake’ in running an experiment on oxidative phosphorylation or ‘my biggest artistic mistake’ in wrapping a building with cellophane. The clerisy chooses never to stoop.”

McCloskey rightly connects listening with humility and humbling oneself. Only the humble person is willing to listen. This virtue correlates not only with listening but also with serving. God‘s example shines brightly again: Christ “did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). In the incarnation, the Son of God, “being in very nature God”, became man and took “the very nature of a servant” and “humbled himself” (Php 2:6–8). Following Christ, his disciples, i.e. all Christians, are called “to serve others” (1 Pt 4:10), to “serve one another in love” (Gal 5:13). The Church, the Body of Christ, has to embody Christ‘s example of humble service: “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).

Yet it is not only the Church where service reigns supreme. Paul calls the civil authority “God‘s servant to do you good” (Rom 13:4). The extended market order is glued together by mutual service too, an order in which “everybody serves his fellow citizens and is served by them in return” (Mises above). “Markets force behaviour to be other-regarding”, M. Novak says (Will it Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology). J. W. Richards: “The logic of competition in a market is not about destroying enemies. It‘s about serving the consumers better than your competitors.” (Money, Greed, and God) And the Swiss theologian Rev. Martin Rhonheimer: “As surprising as it may seem: capitalism is the economic system of giving. […] By contrast, socialism is the economic system of taking.” (“Christliche Freiheitsethik und Kapitalismus sind wesensverwandt”)

M.N. Rothbard deserves to be quoted at length,

“The free market, in fact, is precisely the diametric opposite of the “jungle” society. The jungle is characterized by the war of all against all. One man gains only at the expense of another, by seizure of the latter’s property. With all on a subsistence level, there is a true struggle for survival, with the stronger force crushing the weaker. In the free market, on the other hand, one man gains only through serving another, though he may also retire into self-sufficient production at a primitive level if he so desires. It is precisely through the peaceful co-operation of the market that all men gain through the development of the division of labor and capital investment. […] The “fit” on the market are those most adept in the service of society. The jungle is a brutish place where some seize from others and all live at the starvation level; the market is a peaceful and productive place where all serve themselves and others at the same time and live at infinitely higher levels of consumption. On the market, the charitable can provide aid, a luxury that cannot exist in the jungle.” (Man, Economy, and State)

Prudent Love

We could add even more virtues to listening, giving and serving – trust, for example. It is important to see that we apply them differently in the creation ordinances, in Church, family, state and the economy. We as limited human beings cannot reflect all traits of God‘s love simultaneously and in a way identical to him. God is perfect and full of affection, sympathy and agape all the time. We simply cannot and need not have the very same love for everybody and everything. Thus there is no fundamental problem that God‘s love as imagined in the extended order is different from that in a face-to-face group.

We admit that affection, attraction and sympathy are dominant in some areas of our life, but these ‘warmer’ features of love to do not exhaust it. There are also, as we just saw, elements of agape in the world of extended relationships. It is wrong to assign love exclusively to the small word, and rationality and prudence to the extended one. Prudence means foresight, the ability to see and think ahead. This virtue is indispensable to love in general. Th. Schirrmacher explains, “Love is reliant upon thought and communication. Whoever wants to put love into practice has to be prepared to invest a lot of time in order to address the issues of thought, conscience, and counsel along the path to making a decision that has the greatest benefit for everyone involved and that can be justified.” (Leadership and Responsibility) Those who want to love truly have to think deeply: What does the other person need? What are his or her problems? Which are my gifts and possibilities I can bring in? Foolish love is rarely love at all.

The Bible calls us to serve and love God and other people “logically” (Rom 12:1 in literal translation), which means reasonably, not blindly. Love has to be prudent, and prudence is permeated by love. McCloskey wisely observes, “You can’t run on prudence and profit alone a family or a church or a community or even – and this is the surprising point – a capitalist economy.” There is no dichotomy between Love Only (e.g., in the family) and Prudence Only (in the economy). McCloskey is critical of her own profession,

“A company or a market runs partly on Love. Of course a company and a market work also on Prudence. But the modern academic theory of market capitalism […] goes astray in imagining that the only character we need in understanding capitalism is Mr. Maximum Utility, the monster of Prudence who has no place in his character for Love – or any passion beyond Prudence Only.”

Christians should not be surprised by this. God himself is perfect Reason and perfect Love. In all of his created world we, as made in his image, have to echo this.

Love that works

God is also perfect Wisdom. Therefore love has not just an affectionate and a rational aspect; it is also wise. Love has many perspectives, and the loving wisdom is looking at the goals and results of action. Does it really help? Do I really benefit somebody? If we do not care at all about outcomes and results, we do not love. Love is not a purely utilitarian calculus, but there is a place for utilitas (Latin for use, usefulness, advantage).

The tricky point in the economic order is that our knowledge of the results of our acting in the markets is very limited. When we buy a shirt, many people (according to L. Reed in his Pencil even an uncountable number) in the whole chain of production benefit. But I simply do not know who and how exactly they do so. The extended market order is in itself very abstract; and that makes it almost impossible to directly love a concrete person in that chain and care for his or her personal benefit.

Intent, personal will and desire, is an important perspective of all ethics.     Unfortunately, the motivational perspective very often dominates the discourse (at least in Christian ethics). That‘s why many people do not come to terms with the abstract market order which transcends the range of direct personal intent. We mainly have to give credit to Hayek for the insight that we lack the knowledge to pursue the concrete goals of people in the markets. He writes in The Fatal Conceit, “The morals of the market do lead us to benefit others, not by our intending to do so, but by making us act in a manner which, nonetheless, will have just that effect. The extended order circumvents individual ignorance […] in a way that good intentions alone cannot do – and thereby does make our efforts altruistic in their effects.” (The Fatal Conceit)

Instinctual altruism wants to meet the needs of concrete and known people, but the range of such a loving attitude is very restricted. The market order enables us to “confer benefits beyond the range of our concrete knowledge”, Hayek underlines, and thus we can speak about an altruism or love in a “new sense”. We can admit that in the broader market order there is less motivational love on the personal level, and here Smith‘s self-interest enters in; nevertheless many more people do benefit. And isn‘t love the desire to see other people prosper? Because of our love for other people we have to ask what works for them. Hayek states: “It is a betrayal of concern for others, then, to theorise about the ‘just society’ without carefully considering the economic consequences of implementing such views.” He explains why it is so hard to accept the principles and mechanisms of the market order:

What intellectuals steeped in constructivist presuppositions find most objectionable in the market order, in trade, in money and the institutions of finance, is that producers, traders, and financiers are not concerned with concrete needs of known people but with abstract calculation of costs and profit. But they forget, or have not learned, the arguments that we have just rehearsed. Concern for profit is just what makes possible the more effective use of resources.

We have to learn these arguments and to think deeply about all of this; again as an aspect of love, as we have seen. If we have to think deeply about God to make sense of the one God in three persons, this duty to think should not surprise us. Superficial and simple answers are often wrong; the deepest truth is often complex and diversified, and therefore challenges our minds, and demands our thoughtfulness.

To change from enemy into friend

The market order works, and it is an order saturated with a mind of love. “A loveless economy would not work. And it would be hell”, McCloskey notes. Ending this chapter we turn to one important aspect of this love in action: peace. Rothbard mentioned “peaceful co-operation” of human beings; the “jungle” represents the war of all against all. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the extended market order is that it supports and extends peace on earth.

As we saw earlier, Hayek explains in Law, Legislation and Liberty that the original meaning of the Greek katallassein, “to exchange”, also includes these ideas: “to admit into the community” and “to change from enemy into friend”. Of course, all three are closely related. Enemies do not exchange and rarely engage in trade. The verb is also used several times in New Testament. In Rom 5:10 it is said that “we were reconciled” while “we were God‘s enemies”; in 2 Cor 5:18–19 it is also used to mean “reconciliation”.

Paul speaks about our vertical relationship with God. Christians pursue “peace with God” (Rom 5:1). But that‘s not all. The “God of peace” (Rom 15:33) or the Lord of Peace (Jdg 6:24) calls us to keep “the bond of peace” in the congregation (Eph 4:3), to live in “peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18) and to work for the “peace and prosperity of the city” (Jer 29:7). Peace is extended to all horizontal relationships as well.

Peace is the overall ideal. In the human world it goes together with freedom and property. All three depend on each other, need each other and thus constitute a kind of earthly trinity. Mises explains in Liberalism that “the liberal abhors war” because “war only destroys; it cannot create”. Therefore peace “is the father of all things.” (Liberalism In The Classical Tradition) The market order created peace because former enemies started to trade intensively:

“The progressive intensification of the division of labor is possible only in a society in which there is an assurance of lasting peace. Only under the shelter of such security can the division of labor develop. In the absence of this prerequisite, the division of labor does not extend beyond the limits of the village or even of the individual household.”

The division of labour and trade are mutually reinforcing. The extended division of labour creates peace, and peace upholds the market order. “Modern society, based as it is on the division of labor, can be preserved only under conditions of lasting peace.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this, decades before Mises, and remarked in On Democracy in America:

“As equality, developing at the same time in several countries, simultaneously pushes the men who inhabit them toward industry and commerce, not only are their tastes similar, but also their interests mingle and become entangled, so that no nation can inflict harm on others that does not come back on itself, and all end by considering war as a calamity almost as great for the victor as for the defeated.”

John Bolt quotes Irving Kristol‘s Two Cheers for Capitalism, “the best we can reasonably hope for is a society of civil concord, not a community of mutual love.” (Economic Shalom) Yes, mutual love in the sense of affection and sympathy for all mankind is not what we can hope for, not in this age. But concord must not be under-estimated, it overlaps very much with peace. Ridley summarises that the effect of markets “is civilising, not coarsening.” He quotes Baron des Montesquieu: “Wherever the ways of men are gentle, there is commerce, and wherever there is commerce, the ways of men are gentle.” (The Rational Optimist) The last word belongs again to McCloskey,

“Markets and even the much-maligned corporations encourage friendships wider and deeper than the atomism of a full-blown socialist regime or the claustrophobic, murderous atmosphere of a ‘traditional’ village. Modern capitalist life is love-saturated. Olden life was not loving; communitarian life was not; and actually existing socialist life decidedly was not. No one dependent on a distant god such as the Gosplan or Tradition can feel safe. Paradoxically, a market linked so obviously to our individual projects makes us safer and more loving.”

Our world has become more peaceful and, in a certain way, more loving. Isn‘t the Austrian catallaxy an agapaxy?

Scarcity of love

In 1848 Claude Frédéric Bastiat penned one of his greatest essays, “Justice and Fraternity” (Justice et Fraternité). He drew a clear distinction between the areas of justice versus brotherhood or love. Justice is regulated and enforced by law and has clearly demarked limits. Fraternity, however, has its home in the “limitless region of human spontaneity”. Bastiat explains: “One knows what justice is, and where it is. It is a fixed, immutable point. If the law takes justice as its guide, everyone knows what to hold fast to and acts accordingly. But at what definite point is fraternity to be situated? What is its limit? What is its form? Evidently, it is infinite.” Working for others, sacrificing for others is “free, spontaneous, voluntary” and will never reach fixed limits. – These are very important and deep insights. There is never enough love. No one can ever dare to say that he or she has loved enough. Where can we fix the limit?

Paul argues similarly in his first letter to the Thessalonians. “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you […]. And in fact you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia”. They already practice genuine love. But, interestingly, that is the reason for the apostle to encourage them to push the limits of love further: “Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more” (1 Thes 4:9–10). Christian love has no limits.

In itself this lack of love is not necessarily sinful, as the example of the Thessalonians shows. Paul is not accusing them of misbehaving; he is not correcting them. He encourages them to voluntarily expand the boundaries of their love. Of course, after the fall, every lack is also tainted by sin. Far too often not loving enough is sinful. But scarcity of love is not mainly due to sin; it is an ontological ‘deficiency’. Even in a society of human beings without sin and a fall, husbands and wives would face the challenge of growing in love, of expanding their love. It is obviously not enough to be satisfied with “I do not commit adultery”. Marital love is always expandable.

In “Blessings of Scarcity, Hope of Abundance” we explained the fact that human beings always lack new ideas; we will never reach a point where we can state, “Enough of them!”Our creativity is limitless; with our thinking we can always step into new territory. The same is true in the area of ethics. We always lack good ideas, and we always lack deeds of love. There was and will ever remain potential for growth – intellectually and morally.  And this is the way we were created.

These two areas of inherent scarcity make perfect sense in a Christian worldview. God, the Creator, is limitless; we as created beings are limited. But in our reasoning and our moral feelings we sense something bigger, something of a higher calling – of being created in the image of God. Only because of sin did this became a source of deep dissatisfaction and suffering. But in the beginning this scarcity was good. God wanted Adam and Eve to grow, intellectually, morally, spiritually. Scarcity is his primary tool for us to do this.

(Painting: Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Hafenszene mit predigendem Christus, 1598; Alte Pinakothek, München)