A wide range of people from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and worldviews
practice the discipline of economics. When there is enough commonality among
some practitioners, they may coalesce into an organized group for both fellowship
and discussion of the academic discipline they practice. Such is the case with economists
who adhere to the Christian faith. For some time, there has been robust
interchange among Christian economists as to the relevance of the Christian faith
to economics. In 1982, a formal organization, the Association of Christian Economists
(ACE), was formed and now counts some four hundred members. It publishes
a journal, Faith and Economics, and sponsors sessions at the Allied Social Science
Association meetings, and its members often organize conferences that take up the
intersection of Christianity and economics.
John Tiemstra has been a longtime member of ACE (as have I) and the most
outspoken critic of how Christian economists do economics. It is very useful,
therefore, to have a compilation of many of his writings. Stories Economists Tell consists of fifteen short essays Tiemstra published between 1988 and 2009. With
them, one is able to follow his thinking over twenty years. The chapters are
organized into four categories: Christian theology and economic methodology;
government, business, and society; economy and the environment; and globalization
The first section on methodology is the most interesting because it is here
that Tiemstra has been the most vocal critic of much of other economists work,
especially Christian economists. His methodological problems with economics have
remained quite consistent over time. He believes that Christian economists should
do economics, but they should do it differently from other economists. His primary
criticism is the restrictive assumptions of the rational-choice model. Thus, he
proposes a Christian economics that uses many of the standard tools of economics
(p. 36) but moves beyond the standard neoclassical paradigm because, by accepting
as data only observed economic behavior, and not introspective reports concerning
motives, values, and the like, economists have cut themselves off from an important
source of information (p. 23).
There are two responses to Tiemstra. First, the ability to explain phenomena
with a limited set of assumptions about behavior gives economics much of its power.
Second, even though economics does rely upon a limited set of assumptions about
human behavior, it is not as limited as Tiemstra claims. In a 2009 article, he disputes
the account neoclassical economists give of human motivation, particularly the
assertion that all relevant human motivation stems from a natural and laudable drive
to maximize ones standard of living (p. 59, emphasis added). In a 1994 article,
he asserts, The problem is the assumption that pecuniary considerations are all that
ever matter (p. 41, emphasis added). Tiemstra sees the basic assumptions of economics
very differently than I do. I cant think of a single economist I have worked
with who thinks that all people all of the time try to maximize their pecuniary income.
Nor do economists deny that conceptions of justice, fairness, and sustainability
are relevant to economic actors.
Most introductory textbooks simply assert that people have well-defined goals
and try to fulfill them the best they can. In their introductory text Modern Principles
of Economics (New York: Worth, 2012), Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok ask, Do
economists think everyone is self-interested all the time? Of course not. We love our
spouses and children just like everyone else! But economists do think that people
respond in predictable ways to incentives of all kinds. Fame, power, reputation, sex,
and love are all important incentives (p. 2).
One can fault Tiemstra for holding throughout most of his career the view that
economics is more restrictive than it actually is, but in one of his more recent publications
(Notes from the Revolution, 2009) he does see economics as having undergone
fundamental change. He says, The greater openness to new forms of evidence,
together with a growing embarrassment about the lack of sound psychological foundations
for economics, has led to the gradual discrediting of the neoclassical canonical
model and its abandonment for research purposes (p. 61). Again we differ in our
evaluation. I dont see an abandonment of the neoclassical model, but rather its
enrichment by behavioral economics, experimental economics, public-choice theory,
the New Institutional Economics, and Austrian economics. This quibble may be only
semantic, but starting with the rational-choice model of self-interest (not selfishness)
still seems the most profitable way to introduce students to the economics discipline.
The development of new fields and the expansion of old ones have not led to the
discrediting of economics, but to a robust discipline that has more to say than ever
before about the world we live in.
One of the differences in our take on modern economics is Tiemstras treatment
of government activity. He sees market failure as omnipresent, but only in a few places
in his essays does he recognize the potential for government failure. For instance,
he faults economics for not incorporating issues of power into economic analysis
(p. 76). It would seem that the public-choice research agenda would be at least a
partial answer to his desire to see more consideration of power. It is interesting that
the bibliographies for his articles contain not one mention of James Buchanan
or Gordon Tullock. Mancur Olson gets one brief citation. Other recent work
in economics receives scant attention, including the New Institutional Economics
of Ronald Coase, Douglass North, Elinor Ostrom, or Oliver Williamson.
Tiemstra does posit an alternative economic paradigm, what he calls Post-Keynesian institutionalism (PKI), as the most hopeful for Christian economists.
It is not clear exactly what PKI entails, but it certainly is not the New Institutional
Economics of North, Ostrom, Williamson, and Coase. He likes PKI economics
because it also permits us to ask all of those especially important questions about
how peoples values and religious commitments affect their economic behavior, and
the influence that has on the structure and performance of the economy (p. 40).
Again, it would seem, though, that experimental economics, behavioral economics,
game theory, public-choice theory, and the work of economists such as Robert Barro
have already been doing exactly that.
One wishes there would have been more opportunity for interaction between
Tiemstra and one of his contemporaries, economist Paul Heyne. Heyne was also a
devout Christian who took questions seriously about the intersection of his faith and
his discipline. He unfortunately did not publish much of his writing in accessible
places, so his influence came mainly through personal interaction with people he met
at conferences. Liberty Fund published a compilation of many of his essays in 2008
as Are Economists Basically Immoral? and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and
Religion, which was reviewed in The Independent Review in the Winter 2010
issue. Heyne takes up Tiemstras concerns in his essay Can Homo Economicus Be
Christian? He argues that economists have done a poor job of defending and
explaining the basic assumptions of their model but concludes that the self-interest
assumption of economics is powerful and useful even if it doesnt explain all behavior.
Heyne agrees with Tiemstra that the bright line that many economists see
between positive and normative economics does not exist. However, never departing
from his role as a Christian economist, Heyne authored numerous editions of a
popular introductory text, The Economic Way of Thinking, through which thousands
of students were introduced to the fundamental principles of economics. Thus, from
Heynes perspective, a thoughtful Christian can also be a practicing economist who
uses the standard tools of the discipline.
Interestingly enough, when one turns to the essays Tiemstra has written
on actual economic problems, he sounds a great deal like a regular economist. It is
clear that his dislike of the standard economics paradigm has not led him to a
completely different set of tools than those used by most economists, Christian and
otherwise. For instance, he analyzes the problems of waste disposal and recycling
in his essay Wasting Time and Wasting the Earth. In one paragraph he uses the
word incentive(s) five times, and not in a pejorative sense. In much of his other
writings, he also sounds like a standard economist. At one point, he discusses the
necessity of government provision of public goods (p. 123). But the concept of a
good with nonexcludability and nonrivalry in consumption flows directly from the
standard assumptions of the neoclassical model. Is it appropriate for a Christian
economist to use that concept? Tiemstra does not explain when and how the standard
tools of the discipline become an anathema for the Christian economist.
One wonders if Tiemstras overall left-leaning posture taints his dislike of neoclassical
economics. He argues that unlike libertarian economists, who believe a
person is simply mistaken to think he or she has such an obligation toward anyone
else, liberal or interventionist economists believe that people sometimes behave in a
self-interested, hedonistic way, especially when only material values are at stake. But
people are concerned about other things as well: stability, security, sustainability,
family, and a degree of equality (p. 52). Perhaps Tiemstra just has his categories
wrong. It isnt liberal and interventionist economists who hold the position he
defines, but economists in general.
Stories Economists Tell is a fascinating read. Tiemstra is articulate and thoughtful
even if one doesnt agree with all of his criticisms of economics. In his effort to reform
the discipline, he makes cogent arguments for consideration of motivations other
than material. His strong commitment to the basics of the Christian faith are evident
throughout the book, and his efforts to integrate his faith with his academic work are
to be commended even if they are not entirely convincing to this reader.