Neil Jordan: “Faith in Markets: Abrahamic religions and economics”, edited by Benedikt Koehler

In Faith in Markets, Benedikt Koehler (PhD), a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs, has brought together a series articles that consider the ways in which Christianity, Judaism and Islam have encouraged adherents ‘towards behaviours that tended to market economics’ (page 7). The collection discusses the three major Abrahamic faiths and also a contains a chapter looking at eastern religious traditions more broadly, but the focus in this review is on the Judaeo-Christian tradition specifically. The first part of the book considers the mutual influences of religious practice or belief and the market, with three of the chapters in this section being written by the volume editor himself. One of these shows how the teaching of Moses revolutionised the economic behaviour of the Israelites and was unique in basing economic norms on theology. Extending the Sabbath principle to economic life, together with a ban on usury, Moses implemented what amounted to an egalitarian approach to commerce and a de facto system of welfare. Of particular interest in this part of the book was Koehler’s chapter addressing the development of property rights in early and mediaeval Christianity. This piece provides a fascinating overview of the dispute between the Franciscans and the Papacy on the subject of ownership, showing how Pope John XXII established a view, supported by scripture, that grounded property rights in the divine will, independent of and prior to any rights granted by the state – a view which contrasted with the earlier tendency among both pagan and Christian thinkers to link property rights with human convention. Esa Mangeloja and Tomi Ovaska continue the examination of Christian thought in their discussion of the common-property-based economic and political system of Thomas More’s Utopia, showing that the work is in fact full of economic concepts and that Utopia lends itself to a proper analysis in economic terms, just like other economic systems.

The second part of the book consists of chapters that highlight difficulties or paradoxes in the teaching of each of the Abrahamic faiths as they interpret or apply ancient authorities and again, my focus is on the Judaeo-Christian context. David Conway’s contribution examines the manner in which, by rigidly applying the provisions of the Pentateuch regarding poor relief and education, Israel’s ultra-orthodox communities (Haredim) have created an unsustainable welfare burden for the state. This is the result of low labour market participation caused in part by publicly funded specialist schooling, in which men engage in near-perpetual religious study while ordinarily core subjects such as mathematics are not taught – thus exacerbating the employment problem. This arrangement is traced to the requirement in the Hebrew scriptures that those without means be provided for and that the Levites be supported by a tithe in return for their provision of education in national history and divinely mandated law. As honoured in contemporary Israel, however, these obligations place a huge strain on the public finances and ignore the spirit of the original laws themselves, which favoured economic activity, required recipients of poor relief to work where possible and sought to restore those who had fallen on hard times to economic independence and liberty as soon as possible.

In a very engaging chapter, Martin Rhonheimer considers the subject of social justice, beginning with the modern tendency to use this concept in the criticism of inequalities of wealth. The author agrees with F.A. Hayek, that the notion of ‘justice’ makes no sense when applied to the outcomes of economic systems because they are simply outcomes of a particular order and are not aimed at by any individual or group. However, he adds that it does make sense to talk about the systems themselves as just or unjust, insofar as they are devised or at least allowed to persist by human beings. In short, if the rules of the system are unjust – for instance by discriminating against a particular group such that that group cannot engage in economic activity on equitable terms – then we can change the rules in the interests of fairness. Moreover, we quite legitimately use the term ‘just’ in relation to freely acting individuals, insofar as their actions have some positive bearing on society. Rhonheimer’s point is that ‘social justice’ refers to the social or common good, and we would consider businesses, charities and voluntary organisations who contribute to this as being involved in the exercise of social justice as virtue. Thus, while the term ‘social justice’ might have no purchase in distributive terms (with reference to ‘outcomes’), it certainly can be applied to economic orders, organisations and individuals – and it is here that the tension in Christian thought emerges. Rhonheimer contends that the teaching of the Catholic Church has moved away from an understanding of social justice that is broadly compatible with this perspective, towards a view that is closer to the contemporary ‘distributive’ attitude. As such, it has in recent decades become more inclined to favour redistributive social policies and seems less inclined to take account of the very real benefits of a market economy in contributing to the common good. Thus, the Church’s traditional teaching recognised social justice as a moral virtue from which actions conducive to the common good flow, but we must now wonder how easily this sits with its increasingly ‘(re-)distributivist’ view of ‘social justice’ and the statism that this implies.

Overall, this collection contains several interesting studies and for the most part, the writing is very accessible, though some chapters – such as that considering Utopia – would require a degree of prior knowledge in order for the reader to fully appreciate the proffered analysis. More difficult is identifying a general argument or unifying narrative that runs through the book. The individual chapters have previously appeared in the journal Economic Affairs and some reflect the brevity of the article format, but more significant is the overall feeling that they have not been entirely integrated so as to compose a single, unified volume. As can be the way with edited collections, while each chapter is interesting, the book as a whole lacks a clear sense of overall purpose to pull the individual studies together. Perhaps, however, given the subject, this would be to ask too much in this case. Since it deals with three of the world’s largest religions and is not limited to a particular historical period or geographical region, it would be impossible to give more than a series of studies demonstrating different ways in which the Abrahamic faiths have steered their adherents towards practices that tend to market-oriented behaviours and outlooks. A unified account that shows how this occurred frequently and consistently over the centuries would require a much longer book – most likely in several volumes.

While perhaps lacking a sustained argument to bring the entire book together, as a collection that provides thematically organised snapshots of certain strains of thought and practice within major faiths, while considering tensions that have arisen in relation to market principles, this volume will appeal to those with interests in the overlap between religious and economic thought and practice.

 

‘Faith in Markets: Abrahamic religions and economics’, edited by Benedikt Koehler, was published in 2023 by the Institute for Economic Affairs (ISBN: 978-0-255-36824-7). 240pp

 


Neil Jordan is Senior Editor at the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethitcs. For more information about Neil please click here.