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Faith, Work, and Economics: A Guide Book

Economics is too important to put in a place of ultimate importance.


by Brian Dijkema
February 15, 2017

If you’re visiting this site for the first time, you might have a few questions: what does faith have to do with economics? Why are we talking about work and economics? Isn’t labour just one element of our economy? What about capital? Why is there such a strange mix of material here? Why do empirical, quantitative, studies show up alongside these strange theological meditations? Why all this talk about schools, churches, charities, and families?

I’m glad you asked.

What we’re trying to do here is to make our discussions about economics a little, well, richer. While our current discussions of economics in North America are sophisticated, they have a tendency to be a bit two-dimensional—too narrowly focused on labour and capital, for instance, or in finding the right balance of incentives to shape behaviour. Often these discussions are presented as purely uninterested matters of science. But, as one establishment economist recently noted, the vast reams of empirical papers "are based not only on our understanding of how the world works, but also on our judgments about what makes a good society."

We agree, and think that the best thing for public discussion of economics is to be up front about those judgments, to communicate them as clearly as possible, and to subject them to the same level of rigorous debate as you might find in a refereed journal of economics. In a sense we want to bring back political economy: to bring back discussions of how our view of economics is shaped by our view of what makes a good society. To do that you need work on an axis from the empirical to the theoretical work and to use each to shed light on the other. That’s why you’ll find discussions of what Papal Encyclicals have to say about work and labour, alongside a policy paper on trade unions alongside a paper exploring methodologies attempting to measure the effects of competition on public budgets. That’s why you’ll find discussions about the economics of capital and credit markets alongside discussions of how our cultural views of debt have shaped the payday loan store in your neighbourhood.

But it’s not just the politics we’re interested in. Cardus has long said that what we want is a market economy, not a market society. We are firmly opposed to “markets without limits” while firmly holding to the claim that markets are the “only sane way to structure interactions in economic life.” In fact, we might even celebrate the idea that there are markets in everything, provided that we’re also willing to recognize that there are some things that money can’t buy—there are moral limits to markets. Finding and exploring those limits requires us to ask how economic life interacts with those parts of our individual and social lives that are not economic in nature. What are markets for, and what they are not for? Your answer will be shaped in large part by what you think people are for.

We believe, and we’re convinced there’s ample evidence to support the belief, that people are economic but that they are much more than that. We worship, we play, we marry, sometimes we don’t, we form communities of all sorts (there are associations for everything!), we learn. Economics can neither fully explain these motivations and behaviours, nor are we well served when we ignore the role that economics plays in those parts of our lives.

We assert that, to a large degree, our economic health and vitality rely heavily on institutions, habits, and behaviours that are not primarily economic in nature. That’s why you’ll see studies about the role of churches, schools, and families in our society and about how they affect the economy, and vice-versa. That’s why you’ll see us talk about the role of virtue and trust in our economy. If you think of If you think of human beings as if they were only economic animals, or even primarily economic animals, then, you may inadvertently “undermine the means by which a society sustains a robust civil culture of cooperative and generous citizens” as Samuel Bowles puts it. In fact, you “may even compromise the social norms essential to the workings of markets themselves.”

Economics is too important to put in a place of ultimate importance. It is important because it is one context in which we personally work out what it means to be human. That’s not a metaphor. If you think of business solely in terms of profit, you will become less human. If you try to ignore the importance of profit, you’ll be out of work. Our personal work and the associated nature of our work in corporations and other economics institutions are manifestations of our unique vocation as human beings. This is true whether you’re raising children, building pipelines, cleaning floors, making music, or structuring a billion dollar loan. But if you act in accordance with the belief that economics is the only thing that makes us what we are, you are likely to begin treating others like animals in the workplace and they will respond in kind. And you will forget that work is about more than money—it’s both a source of personal meaning and an incredible display of our sociality. Our program will explore the ways in which economics—our personal work and the myriad ways we organize our work together in business, markets, and society—makes us more, or less, human.

To paraphrase Jacques Maritain: this is a program premised on the claim that economics is for people, not people for economics.

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