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Not Too Much Sovereignty for Economics, Please: Abraham Kuyper and Mainstream Economics

By November 15, 2008 No Comments

Not Too Much Sovereignty for Economics, Please: Abraham Kuyper and Mainstream Economics

by Kent A. Van Til

Humans tell stories. To our knowledge, we are the only earthly creatures who can. The fact that we can entails memory and imagination. We interpret the past and construct possible futures, and do so in part by the stories we choose to tell. Though all our stories are told in and about the same world, they are all somewhat fictitious since only reality itself is the whole story, and no story can portray anything in its completeness. Stories are constructs of reality that give it meaning.

The biggest stories, the ones that carry the widest range of meaning, are religious–or religions. They tell us who we are, what we should do, and where we are headed. The biggest stories hold the most power; they explain the most. Whoever gets to tell the story holds the power. My task here is to understand how one story, the one told by mainstream economics, relates to the big story of which I’m a part, the Christian story. My tale will unfold in three chapters: (1) telling the Christian story, especially as understood within the Kuyperian tradition of neo-Calvinism; (2) telling the mainstream economic tale; and (3) comparing the two tales with some provisional ideas about how the Christian narrative may need to contest the mainstream economic story.

The Christian Story

The Christian story is the tale of a relationship between a triune God and human persons. In keeping with God’s very nature, it is a love story. Though not needing to create humans, God chose to share the love that characterizes the triune persons with other beings who could also relate to God in love. We were created like our Father; that is, we are relational beings capable of moral and creative acts and bearing responsibilities on and for the earth. As we come to know and glorify God, we share in the nature and values of God. As God is love, we grow god-like by becoming more loving; as God is truth, we grow in god-likeness by becoming more truthful. Et cetera. Given the nature of virtues, the more we participate in them, the more there becomes. Virtue is not a scarce item; its stock grows the more we use it. Thus the ideal situation is for humans to live in peace with God, their fellows, and all the spheres of creation. The neo-Calvinist tradition founded by Abraham Kuyper phrases the latter desideratum this way: blessedness occurs when there is harmony among all the spheres of life, each operating by its own distinct telos toward the goal of shalom.

The next chapter of the Christian story, however, is one of conflict and tension. The main characters in the drama–God and humans–have a falling out. We spurn the love of God, seeking fulfillment within ourselves or in some aspect of creation. We are unwilling to accept the fact that we are not the ultimate story-maker rather than characters within God’s narrative. As a result, our relationships with God, fellows, and the creation have broken down. Life gives way to death and is marked by scarcity, psychic disorder, aesthetic ugliness, and social conflict. None of the spheres of creation achieve the end to which they were ordained. Kuyperians join a wide stream of Christians in seeing sin as a grave problem unfolding in three acts. First, it exercises a downward pull (concupiscence) toward false goods. It also generates particular deeds (sins) that are wrong according to divine law. Finally, it yields conditions of evil, in which culture becomes destructive.

Restoration occurs at all of these levels and in relation to all the problems. The relationship between God and humans is restored, as are those among fellows and the creation. Within creation, restoration occurs when the various spheres of life once again aim at and occasionally achieve their distinct telos. Concupiscence is ameliorated when we turn from evil toward God who is good. We are able to overcome temptation to specific sins by reliance upon the power of the Spirit of grace. Evil too is overcome when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. Christians recognize that Jesus came to restore harmony and forgive sins, but we also know that the fullness of restoration will not occur till the fullness of time. Nevertheless, we accept the renewal of the world as both gift and task, and seek restoration in all spheres of life, including the economic.

The Mainstream Economic Story

The notion that economists are story-tellers is not commonplace. But economists can and do tell tales. Here are some examples: the capitalization of Iowa corn prices, the entrance and exit to computer sales in the 1980s, the Russian move to capitalism. Sometimes economists don’t realize that they tell stories or that people might not understand their unique manner of storytelling. In such cases, economist Donald McCloskey writes: “Economists are like the tourist in Florence who believes firmly that Italians really do understand English, and can be made to admit it if he speaks slowly and very loudly.”1 When economists tell tales, they observe a specific genre whose conventions have changed little over time. For example, they will say that “underneath it all” action X is just like Y. Labor is just like a commodity, slavery is just like capitalization, international trade is just like trade among individuals, etc. In this way, economists create possible worlds, worlds that may seem like fantasies but that can nonetheless be useful. After all, Gulliver’s Travels instructs, challenges, encourages, and entertains even though it is clearly fantastic.

Economists love to move to the third act of the story. What will be the final outcome? Where will the equilibrium occur? In spite of their role as writers of fiction, that is, economists pretend to be physicists who deal only with empirical data. They also mainly talk about what has already happened because they aren’t necessarily great predictors–if they were, they’d all be rich. Adam Smith himself recognized that economics is really a dialogue: “The offering of a schilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so as it is for his interest. Men always persuade others to be of their opinion even when the matter is of no consequence to them.”2

Here then is an outline of the mainstream story.

Humans find themselves in a world of scarcity. The stock of goods and services is limited. Each of us must therefore choose how to allocate these scarce resources efficiently. As we do so, we recognize that there are other humans in the world who compete with us for resources but will also exchange useful items with us if it is to our mutual benefit. The basic problem is thus not one of relations with others, gods, or creation as in the Christian story, but the scarcity that each individual faces.

Each person has the single telos of his or her own happiness. Each may achieve this goal in a different way, but there is only that one goal–one’s own welfare, which each individual seeks. My happiness is determined only by me. The way that I achieve my happiness may well be similar to many others, but as I am a unique individual, my happiness is not measurably identical to that of anyone else. Nor am I in the position to say that one particular definition of happiness is better than any other. Each person identifies a state of affairs that she expects would make her happy.

Different persons have many ideas of what happiness is, but all use the same process to achieve their own happiness. This process is called Rational Choice or Rational Expectations. It says that my mind calculates the most efficient way to allocate my scarce resources so that I can satisfy as many of my ordered preferences as possible, using as few resources as necessary. This rationality does not apply to goals or preferences. Rather, Rational Choice depicts only a rationality of means: how can I most efficiently achieve my given goals. The ends that we choose are just there–neither pure nor corrupt, but simply preferences that we hold and know.

Economist Herbert Simon notes that, given Rational Choice theory’s assumptions, “it doesn’t matter if…[it depicts] the real world or a person’s perceptions of that world.”3 In other words, its story could be fiction or non-fiction. Accordingly, economics becomes not merely a series of measurements and predictions about the allocation of scarce goods, but a theory of human energy and motivations.4 It is a story of who people are, an explanation of why we act as we do. Some would even call this a religion. The particular religion of “neo-classical economics,” says Robert Nelson, professor of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, is “essentially tautological and irrefutable.”5

This is all the more the case when Rational Choice or Rational Expectations theory becomes, in such hands as those of economists like Gary Becker, a theory not only of economic behavior but of all human behavior. The mind is seen as an instrument which is skilled in finding efficient means to achieve chosen ends. But is Rational Choice theory true? The prima facie answer is that it is not. When I write or perform music, chat with a friend, or enjoy a sunset, it seems that my mind is more than a means/end calculator. While it may be true that I act as a utility maximizer some of the time, such as when I interact in the marketplace, it may be false in other spheres of life. The claim that all human actions are explicable only in this way is a reductionistic view of human action and thus of the whole person, and as Reinhold Niebuhr noted, any reduction of the human person leads to injustice. Common experience bears this out. If it is wrong to reduce people to their age or gender or race, might it not also be wrong to reduce someone to his supposed “rationality”?

In fact, aren’t choices really made in relation to our stories? For example, when investing we are not only making a cost/benefit analysis of a particular investment vehicle but also expressing the way we understand saving, and the need to save. Understanding is an interpretive and transformational process, not a purely objective decision. Understanding and interpretation are also inter-subjective, not individual.

Stories in dialogue and conflict

Let us turn, then, to the particular components in these two stories that jostle for Christians’ attention.

The protagonist in the story of mainstream economics is always one individual. Here a common good is only the aggregate of individual goods; it does not depend on the relationship any member may have to another. It depends only upon the fact that some other individual may be the source of my satisfaction via trade. This fact, that the economic story begins and ends with the individual, must be a point of contention with the Christian narrative. In the economic story, human dialogue is reduced to bargaining: “What can you do for my welfare?” On the other hand the Christian narrative is a love story in which Jesus abdicates all his personal preferences and his own welfare for the sake of many others. This type of complete self-sacrifice is a difficult phenomenon to explain under Rational Choice theory. How do you account for martyrdom, when by definition the self is lost by virtue of the action performed?

The conflict. In mainstream theory, the only thing resembling evil or sin is scarcity. Kuyper would call this a “Normalist” position, in which conditions as they are now found are thought to be typical of all times and the way they ought to be. Kuyper, however, is an “Abnormalist” who believes that things are not the way they ought to be; real sin and evil have twisted and corrupted life in all its relationships.

For mainstream economics, there is no sin or wrong. Things may be sub-optimal or in disequilibrium, but the market can usually self-correct for these cases. The human condition is for us to serve ourselves in an effective way. This condition is normal, a given. Evil does not exist, though scarcity does. Salvation is thus an efficient handling of the scarcity so that the most possible preferences can be satisfied.

Again, is this true, or entirely true? If an economist admits at a personal level that preferences for tobacco, guns, and pornography are worse than preferences for fruit, baseball tickets, or baby strollers, might they not actually be worse? Might not preference choices be moral ones rather than amoral ones? And is scarcity really the only problem? It is, I grant, a hard condition. But what of my own hatred, narcissism, and injustice? Are these evils really redressed via greater efficiency? You may object that economics does not pertain to these factors, but inasmuch as it pretends to be a theory of human behavior, must it not address itself to all ugly behaviors as much as it does to “rational” ones?

Rights and wrongs are difficult to account for in mainstream theory as well. As is true of all consequentialist ethics, human rights or laws are not clearly present. If, for example, many people can be made much happier by one person’s loss, the action would be recommended. Of course the one who loses might object. Mainstream economic theory, if conceived of as a theory for all human action, has no norms by which it can judge the rightness of an action itself beyond preference satisfaction.

Related to this is the issue of the climax of the story. The mainstream narrative elevates one value–individual utility. All other values are reducible to an individual’s utility or happiness, and are calculated on that scale. Each individual’s utility is then aggregated to calculate overall optimality. But again, is this really true of values? Can we truly compare the goods of a home-run, a happy marriage, and greater income? Here, Kuyper would argue that they are quite distinct goods, which occur in different spheres. Social, familial, or economic goods are not commensurable. One good–utility or happiness–does not account for the richness of the human story.

The Aristotelian and Thomist would likely agree with his point of view. Things have natures, and the nature of a thing determines the nature of its good. A horse, for example, is good for plowing, carrying, and traveling. A cow is good for milking or beef. The mainstream economic theorist, however, does not need to ask the question: for what is this good? The answer is always the same: for my welfare. But to say that all things have one telos is a grand and false reduction. Different things have differing ends. Not only so, but the things have ends in themselves beyond that of serving as means to my happiness. Christians aver that a butterfly never seen by human eyes nevertheless has the end to glorify its Maker, providing God with a small dosis of enjoyment as She watches its beautiful wings flutter.

In theorizing a wide range of ends Kuyper is particularly instructive. Kuyper saw the evil that resulted from basing society on the sovereignty of the individual or the state. He insisted that each sphere is divinely appointed to be sovereign in its own right, and that one sphere might not encroach on the territory of the other. As I read Kuyper, it seems that establishing such spherical boundaries serves as a limitation to sin, in much the same way that the division of the United States government into three branches limits tyrants. When mainstream economics pretends to represent a theory of all human behavior, it becomes a tyrant that seeks to rule in foreign realms. Kuyper would not have it so. The boundaries of each sphere must be delineated clearly and guarded carefully.

Examples of economic imperialism can be seen daily. Since there is only one telos, non-economic values are compelled to defend themselves on economic grounds. Consider PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. In it people bring personal artifacts to be examined by experts. If the artifact is a porcelain dish, for example, the expert will likely be able to tell where it was made, when it was made, and perhaps by whom. She may also assess the skill of the potter, the uniqueness of the colors, etc. But the moment everybody is waiting for comes when the expert estimates a “value” for the object. The porcelain dish would sell for X dollars. Never mind that the dish has a history, that its maker used sophisticated techniques, that the dish brings to mind fond memories of grandma. The bottom line is that it is worth X dollars.

Point of View. The Kuyperian approach grants sense and balance to the economic story at this point. It insists that economics is not the only sphere of life, nor the only explanatory model of human action. The attempt by one sphere to suppress or dominate all the others must be resisted. True human welfare obtains when the various aspects of life are each geared to their fitting ends, and when the ultimate end is God’s glorification. What then would be the role of economics in a Kuyperian system? Again, we can invoke Aristotle, who understood oikonomia as “the art of providing ourselves the things our household needs.” For Aristotle, true wealth is a stock of things that are useful for their diverse ends within in the polis.6 A polis is a partnership aimed at living well that includes relationships and activities, not only an exchange of goods. The Christian will likely substitute the Kingdom of God for Aristotle’s polis, but in either case, human goals are diverse and societal, not monistic and individual.


What can be done in adjudicating between these two tales? Perhaps the Christian storytellers need to concede that, within the sphere of economics, the economists tell a pretty good tale. We ought to affirm that within its sphere, economic reasoning generally works. When paying attention to the marketplace, we generally do calculate which action will generate the greatest welfare at the lowest expense; there, humans often do act to maximize their welfare as efficiently as possible. But then we need to bring together the storytellers of the two narratives and show that we are all part of a larger conversation. As Donald McCloskey puts it,

If even economics can be shown to be fictional and poetical and historical, then its story will be a better one. Technically speaking, it will be of the genre of comedy, with much wit in its lines, a charming array of types, an amused tolerance for human folly, and most characteristically a happy ending.7

Christians who counter the metanarrative of mainstream economics with that of the Christian story will raise objections at many points. We must urge that humans are more than individuals who rationally satisfy their preferences. We must insist that there really are sins and evils, not merely sub-optimal conditions or disequilibria. We must contend that all goods are not reducible to the one goal of utility. We must contest the notion that the ultimate meaning of the good is only a composite economic good for many individuals. And we must say that all grand narratives are ultimately foolish unless their denouement is found in Christ. That is simply to repeat after our Master that it makes no sense for us to gain the whole world but lose our souls.


1 Donald N. McCloskey, “Storytelling in economics,” in Donald Lavoie, ed., Economics and Hermeneutics(Routledge, 1991), 67.
2Lectures on Jurisprudence (Oxford University Press, 1978 [1763]), 352.
3 Quoted in McCloskey, “Storytelling in economics.”
4 Lawrence A. Berger, “Self-interpretation, attention, and language: implications for economics of Charles Taylor’s hermeneutics,” in Lavoie, 266.
5 Robert H. Nelson, Economics as Religion: from Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).
6 Harold Kincaid, “The empirical presuppositions of metaphysical explanations in economics,” in Uskali Maki, The Economic World View (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 41, 44.
7 McCloskey, “Storytelling in Economics,” 73.
Kent Van Til is assistant professor in the Religion Department at Hope College, Holland, Michigan. This article was originally delivered as a paper at a Conference on “Civil Society and Sphere Sovereignty” at Princeton Theological Seminary, 19 April 2008.