Brian Fikkert: The Church and Economics

Getting richer is not making us happier. At the 2018 ON faculty retreat, Brian Fikkert of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development spoke to why that is, why it represents a radical challenge to the narratives that dominate the discipline of economics, and how the church can help people recover a holistic anthropology as a basis for economic thinking and practice at the personal and social levels. You can listen to the address here.

Fikkert explained that the discipline of economics is confronting a quandary: It is committed to the idea that having more money is the highest economic good, yet in fact there is no observable relationship between increasing incomes and people’s reported levels of happiness. Growing incomes are associated with longer lifespans, reduced disease and other forms of material well-being, the field must also account for increased rates of mental illness, suicide and other factors.

Displaying a graph showing that incomes have gone up markedly while reported levels of happiness have been flat, Fikkert declared that this graph was for economics what proof that the resurrection didn’t happen would be for Christian theology.

Fikkert explained that the underlying flaw in mainstream economic thinking is its anthropology. Mainstream economics is based on a model (often called homo economicus) in which human beings are autonomous, rational, self-interested, impervious (i.e. not deeply shaped by social environment), material beings. Such creatures, if they existed, would get happier and happier as they gained access to more and more money, because they would have more and more power to satisfy their desires – which is what autonomous, self-interested creatures would thrive on – while suffering no deforming effects because they are rational and impervious. Hence the discipline of economics orients itself toward growth of incomes as the supreme good.

By contrast, Fikkert explained, Christianity provides a model (homo imago dei) in which human beings have souls as well as bodies and are deeply shaped not only by their relationships with themselves (their identity, purpose, etc.) but also by their relationships with God, others and the natural world. Hence the well-being or flourishing of human beings is not primarily a function of their ability to satisfy their desires but of the right ordering of their relationships. And we are vulnerable to the deforming effects of cultural disintegration that can accompany economic growth.

Christianity also points us to the spiritual dimension of culture. Human beings are part of a cultural ecosystem in which individual character, shaping narratives, formative practices and institutions exist in a state of symbiotic and mutually formative interaction. What Christianity reveals is that we make this system in our own spiritual image, and it thus reflects whatever we ourselves are worshiping. We are always worshiping something, and we tend to become an image of whatever we worship. To the extent that we worship God, we will be formed by God’s image and make the cultural ecosystem accordingly; to the extent that we worship idols we will be deformed in their image and deform the cultural ecosystem accordingly.

In this way, mainstream economics has become a major deforming force. The greatest danger of the homo economicusmodel is not that it will prevent economists from understanding the economy. It is that, through the influence of mainstream economics, narratives of autonomous individualism are embedded in the social systems of our economy. We are then shaped by those narratives, and become more like the homo economicus model – which deforms our lives and harms our well-being.

The address included material adapted from two other sources. One is Fikkert’s journal article “Homo Economicus Versus Homo Imago Dei,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of the Journal of Markets and Morality. The other is Practicing the King’s Economy, written by Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt with Fikkert; the book releases in April from Baker.

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