Now when we talk about environmental concerns, some of what I've heard from fellow religiously conservative Christians is that we can't afford to make some of the necessary economic changes to our current system because of how it could change the economic numbers. And they are concerned with the economic numbers because if the economy does not do well, we all suffer and possibly start to lose what we have.
So what do we make of an economic model that does not focus solely on numbers? That is what we run across with the economics of Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist who has taught at Cal Berkley (click here for bio). Despite the fact that Max-Neef's religious views stray significantly from any orthodox Christian beliefs, many of his economic views speak prophetically to the economic status quo. And if they really speak prophetically to our current situation, then there might be some truth in his views. Here we will be reviewing the first two minutes of around a 5 minute interview with Max-Neef where he concisely lays out his economic model (click here for the YouTube video).
Max-Neef describes his economic model using 5 assumptions and one basic value principle. His assumptions are below:
- The economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
- Development has to deal with people and not with objects.
- Growth is not the same as development and development does not necessarily require growth.
- No economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
- The economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere. Hence, permanent growth is impossible.
That no economic interest whatsoever, under any circumstances, can be above the reverence for life. And I say life meaning much more than just human beings, life in all of its manifestations which we are one example.
Now, having read or listened to Max-Neef's economic model, what is the first word you think of when you hear the word 'economics'? It certainly would not be the word 'numbers.'
See, for as long as economic theories and practices are oriented solely around numbers, economics is, at least informally, often confused with reality, and reality is reduced to economics. And why not? Numbers deal with facts. And the necessary practices that make our economic numbers go in the right direction as well as the practices that cause the numbers to go in the wrong direction are what some call reality. But when we think this way, reality is reduced to economic reality and thus there are no social or environmental realities to consider. Thus, when we want to change our business practices because of environmental concerns, how much change we are allowed to make is limited by [economic] reality. Or when we want to change our laws and regulations in order to reduce or eliminate the exploitation of employees, the laws we are allowed to pass are controlled by [economic] reality. And when we want to change our business practices so as to address wealth disparity either domestically or between nations, we cannot make any changes that challenge the current [economic] reality. So for as long as we orient economics solely around numbers, what we have done is to make economics the pie rather than a piece of the pie. We make numbers the judge of all that is right and wrong in our world without ever questioning the validity of economic practices and whether we can live with those numbers.
The question we Christians must answer is whether making economics the pie itself is a form of idolatry. And if so, we should be somewhat ashamed of the fact that Max-Neef's assumptions and moral value do what we should have been doing: that is tearing down the alter where sacrifices are being made to the god of numbers. For where we allow exploitation of the environment and/or the people to be practiced for the sake of the right numbers, we find ourselves serving economics and worshiping money. And we also find that we tend to give ourselves over to authoritarian leaders.
Max-Neefs assumptions and value principle change the position of economics from being a king to that of being a servant. It's not that numbers are no longer important; it is that we must realize that there are other realities to face as well. Thus, healthy social and biological environments become walls that contain what we can and cannot do in economics. Again, contrast that with how economics is solely concerned with numbers. For when that happens, both we and our environment are constantly called on to sacrifice in order to adjust to the newest intrusion made by our economic model, policies, practices regardless of the future consequences. Sooner or later, those adjustments include making moral compromises. And the more moral compromises we are called to make, the less intrinsic value we recognize people as having.
Why it takes a non-Christian to humanize economics and put it in its place says something about the state of religiously conservative Christianity here in America. For those who point solely to numbers in response to what Max-Neef presented, we should note that those realities not only exist in the context of a fallen world and sinful people, they promote a further fall into sin. And eventually that further falling causes chickens to come home to roost.
Max-Neef makes some other good points in other talks. And one can consider what he has to say by listening to him on YouTube or reading his books.