Arthur Brooks, President, American Enterprise Institute
Thinking in Public
Monday, October 1, 2012
(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Economics has often been described as the dismal science. Well, you wouldn’t know that by talking with Arthur Brooks. He has been President of the American Enterprise Institute since January of 2009. Previously, he served as the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University. He studied economics, math, and languages, eventually earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and a Ph.D. in public policy from the Rand Graduate School. His newest book is The Road to Freedom, his tenth. Arthur Brooks, welcome to Thinking Public.
Brooks: Thank you, Dr. Mohler. It is a pleasure to be with you. I have been a fan of yours for many years, and I always look forward to talking to you.
Mohler: Likewise. I really appreciate your work, and I appreciate the fact that we get to talk about something that I think evangelical Christians in particular often neglect to think about, and that is, the science, the academic discipline of economics, and I did mention that it is often referred to as the dismal science. A lot of people seem to have an allergy to dealing with economics. One of the things that I think you have communicated quite clearly is that if you really care about human flourishing, you care about economics.
Brooks: That is right. One of the reasons that I came to A.E.I., the American Enterprise Institute, from Syracuse was because I was so frustrated with the fact that we weren’t able in the public policy sphere to make the authentic, moral case for economic freedom. I saw again and again that people will separate their moral convictions from their economic policies and their economic philosophy, or just the way they would deal personally with economic issues. And that seemed to me to be a big opportunity, a big entrepreneurial opportunity to help people think differently about money and about economic issues. In point of fact, everything we do economically exhibits our values. What we spend our money on personally, the policies that we abdocate in the public sphere. These are deep expressions of our values, and if we try to relegate these things to simply nothing more than financial issues and disconnected from our moral lives, we make big, big errors, I think, which have consequences on our personal lives and the lives of others.
Mohler: I was talking to a biomedical ethicist, a physician a few months ago, and he made the very interesting point. He said, “It is very difficult for me to communicate adequately to young physicians and to physicians in training that every single moment of their professional lives is deeply moral. They will never make a medical decision that isn’t simultaneously a moral decision.” And he said, “This is a generation that simply has a very difficult time recognizing that. They want to think of this as a practice. They don’t want to think of it as a moral discipline.” In your writings you have very consistently, more or less, given the same advice to young economists. There is no moment, there is no act, there is no theory that isn’t laden with morality.
Brooks: That’s true, and the most extraordinary literature that is forming these days in the world of neurology is looking at a part of the brain called the medial frontal cortex. That is a fancy way of talking about the part of your brain right behind your forehead. That is an extraordinary part of the brain because it is the most modern and human part of the brain. Neurologists see that it processes the types of cognitions that make us uniquely human. Our ability to make material judgments, executive functions. If you decided which way to go in traffic in a split second based on the stimulant around you. And also your moral judgments are made there. So, the most modern, human, executive part of your brain also is dominated by moral judgment. So what this really tells us, and what those who study this are telling us more and more today, is that we are wired to be moral animals. Morality will actually even dominate in the face of big material judgments. In other words, deciding whether or not to think about material things or a moral judgment, the moral judgment will always win out. That is how important it is to us. Now for you and me, we know that we are wired to be moral creatures because we are made in God’s image, and God of course, is the king of moral judgment. He is the author of the moral sentiments that we feel. But even for people who don’t share our beliefs, it is very interesting that there is a physical connection between moral judgments and brain processes. That is why it is so important to understand that there truly is nothing that is not moral.
Mohler: Well, raising the whole issue of neuroscience again raises a whole host of issues that I would love to discuss, but just to think about what it means to try as a Christian to come to terms with the morality of economics. I’m often pressed on this, and Arthur, you are the economist, I am the theologian. I always want to come back to the fact that the basic world view of economics is that all of our lives are to be lived godwardly, that is unto the glory of God, and that as creatures made in his image, living for his glory, we are to seek to contribute to human flourishing. And the economic principles that at least I see in the scriptures are such things as the connection between labor and reward and the fact that a just economic system would reward labor, would reward investment. The scripture is very clear about that. Would reward savings and thrift, and the right kind of economic system would also be that which would discriminate against such things as those moral opposites such as sloth, and recklessness, and profitly spending and all of the rest of this, and of course the Bible is also very clear in terms of warning about debt. Now, that does not imply necessarily an economic system we put a label on, but wouldn’t you agree that every economic theory has to come to terms with those same basic, moral issues?
Brooks: Absolutely. And that is the reason that the study of economics originally took place in departments of theology. Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations, was the most important economist of modern times, although he wrote his great book in 1776 in Scotland. This is what really set the ship a sail – modern, free-market economics. He was, technically, in the department of theology and philosophy because this was considered to be so fundamental. And one of the things that they would grapple with routinely that we have kind of forgotten today because it has become such a science of numbers at this point, one of the things that we have forgotten but they remembered was what our founders remembered, which was that there is a covenant between God and man and between our founders and us and between us and future generations that man is endowed by our creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now, how do we execute the pursuit of happiness, how do we find our own happiness? And the answer is, in the commercial republic and the days that we spend full of work. Most of us spend most of our day on work. The way that we pursue our happiness is by earning our success, and we earn our success when we create value in our lives and value in the lives of others. And there is literally only one system, and this is really well documented by social scientists, by economists, by social psychologists, that when people feel that they are being treated fairly insofar as they are keeping the rewards of hard work and innovation, that they are being penalized when they are working insufficiently, when they feel that their skills are matching their passions, and entrepreneurship and hard work are celebrated, the only system that does these things where they can earn their success quite literally is free enterprise. It is a miracle what it has done for the world, how it has pulled people out of poverty, and how it has given the people the dignity of feeling like they are earning their success. And my way of thinking, that is not just moral, that is an intrinsically, morally, good thing to do. Something I believe is my apolostolate as a Christian to be able to pursue.
Mohler: I want to track so many of these things, but going back to Adam Smith, and you were right, he never saw himself as an economist even though he was the father of the disciplines in a very real way, he did see himself as an ethicist, concerned with the moral sentiments and with the right arrangement of society. We also begin with the individual. So let me ask you to define something, and when I talk to an economist, I love to ask this question: define the economic human being for me, what Adam Smith called “the economic man.” Who is that?
Brooks: Homoeconomicus, as it were, today, it is considered as somebody who is completely, one hundred percent rational. That is affected entirely by monetary based and articulated incentives, but the truth of the matter is, that homoeconomicus is simply somebody who is well-ordered in his passions, according to Adam Smith. Who has well-ordered morals and as such is equipped to be able to deal with a system that treats him with the dignity of an individual. This is really important to keep in mind. Adam Smith’s first book before The Wealth of Nations, was written seventeen years earlier, and it was The Theory of Moral Sentiment. He said that, “All of us,” and we know this today, you talk about this constantly on your program and in your writing, Al, that people have to be prepared culturally and morally to be able to handle a system of freedom. Will we dignify our freedom, or won’t we? And Adam Smith asked this very question. Homoeconomicus, properly understood as somebody who is morally well-ordered and balanced, and as such can earn his own success and earn the dignity of his freedom.
Mohler: One of the most crucial issues to Adam Smith, as you have well indicated, was the fact, well let’s just take the stereotype that many people have of the kind of individual that a free market is both made for, and you might say, works for. They would think it is a person who looks out for merely his own interests. Adam Smith had exactly the opposite understanding. He is a person who takes care of his own interests in order that he can contribute to human flourishing.
Brooks: That is right. You have it exactly right. We tend to take the causality in the wrong direction. We assume that our passions are unbridled, that we are going to be immoral, that we are going to be greedy, we are going to be unfair with each other, we are going to hurt each other, and therefore we are going to bound these passions with a very strong government that doesn’t allow markets to be free, such that we won’t take advantage of each other, but this is a completely disordered view. It is not just a historic, it is actually overtly immoral. It is wrong to treat people as just calculators who have no moral compass. We are made to be moral. This is what the neuroscientists are finding, this is what our religious views tell us, and what we know is written on our heart to be correct, and so therefore, we understand intrinsically what is right, and we should strive for that, we shouldn’t assume that people are going to be greedy and nasty and that we have to treat them in a statist fashion. We should work all the time, as far as I am concerned to lead each other to a more moral life so that such people can dignify their own freedom. Then, we have to work for an economic system that sets people free.
Mohler: You have taught economics in a major American university, you are an economist who is very articulate, and very much engaged in the public square, you are in constant conversation with other economists. Let me just ask you a blunt question: How many who are currently today teaching and practicing in the area of economics, really concerned with these moral questions? Or is it something in the day by day interplay of a culture in the discipline that really doesn’t play so much a part? I have to tell you, sometimes I cannot tell myself.
Brooks: The answer is shockingly few people are thinking through the full ramification of what it means to be an economist today, but that is actually true of most any profession. I strongly believe that work is prayer, that all of our lives were living in an apostolate to God, and that means it doesn’t really matter if you are an economist or you are selling popsicles out of a truck, or you are a construction worker, or the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, we all are working in our own way with a mission, and the mission to express ourselves and to express something that is for the good of man and for the glory of God. And such, if we don’t think about it in this way, we are making the same mistake as the economist that it is all about the numbers and all about the money. In fact none of our jobs is all about the jobs and all about the money. It’s all about, and this is actually in the words of somebody who is really great, important influence in my life, Johan Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer of music who ever lived. He was a very serious Christian. I don’t know him because he died in 1750, but when he was asked, “Why do you write music?” He said, “It’s simple. I do it for the good of man and the glory of God.” If all of us could live our lives and perform our jobs for those two simple reasons, whether we be economists or not, think how much better the world would be.
Mohler: Absolutely. So, when we think about it in those terms, Arthur, if you think about what it means to try to create an economic system that would meet these moral expectations, that would reward the right kinds of moral choices, that would inculcate the right kind of moral virtues, let’s just say you are starting a society from ground zero. Where would you begin?
Brooks: I would start by looking at what dignifies individuals the most and allows them to earn their success, and I would say, “What actually will allow people to feel that they have created value in their lives and the lives of other people?” They are generating inherent value. They are not being given something that they didn’t earn, and as such, what I would allow them to do is develop their talents, to make their own decisions, to live according to the consequences of their actions to the extent that they are not indigent, and then I would let the market effectively what we now today call markets decide how the outcomes are distributed. I wouldn’t worry about equality of outcomes beyond as I said, the most abject poverty, but I would work diligently, I would work assiduously to create a lot of mobility, a lot of opportunity for people so that people really could get ahead. I would allow people to decide for themselves how they want to express themselves and decide for themselves whether or not they want to work more, less, whether they want to work in areas that are highly rewarded financially or highly rewarded along another dimension with retrospect to how much time they spend with their children or how much time they spend on vacation. In other words, I would have a market system that is not asking people simply to redistribute wealth for the sake of some kind of twister understanding of envy and fairness. I would rather allow people to express themselves as they see fit according to their hard work, their passions, their skills, and their talents. And that is kind of like the free market system as we envision it, and that is incidentally how the system is most fair. We hear all the time today, particularly from the president of the United States that it is not fair that some people have more than others, but that is not the real definition of fairness as most Americans understand it, as I understand it, and the way I would set it up in my ideal economic system. Real fairness means rewarding hard work and merit, and punishing bad behavior. The only system that does that consistently is the free enterprise system, particularly as long as people are well grounded and well developed in their morals.
Mohler: You know, something very interesting came to me when I was reading a very good history of the American labor movement, and again, a topic that could spawn all kinds of good conversation here, but one of the things they pointed out is that many of the labor contracts that were pressed upon American business, in especially the second half of the 20th century were those that wanted to eliminate all incentives to more work, in other words, wanted to equalize pay so that it really did not matter if you made eight car doors a day or two, you got paid the same thing. But the interesting thing was, of course, the economists and others looking at that said, yes, but the labor unions themselves can’t run that way. You know, so you had labor organizers showing up saying, “I can get fifty people to a meet,” others saying, “I can get 500 people to a meeting.” Who got the job? It is because we naturally gravitate that way. I saw another study just recently indicating that, and you covered a very similar issue in your new book, The Road to Freedom. If you just ask people, ok here are two people, you use two secretaries. And one is paid a good deal more than the other, and people say that is not fair, but then you demonstrate that the one who is paid more actually produces a lot more, and has brought a lot more to the position, and the vast majority of the Americans would say, well that is fair. So it turns out, fairness, as I often say theologically, because this creates all kinds of havoc in theology, when people say, “When God has to be fair.” Well, what is fair? Fair works when you have two moms dealing with two toddlers in a sandbox. It doesn’t work in complex, moral, human situations.
Brooks: Fairness, there are a lot of different definitions for it, here among the humans. There is this idea of reciprocity, if I do something for you; it is only fair that you do something for me. There is redistribution, where if you have more than me, it is only fair that you give me some of yours, but by far the most important definition of fairness, and one that is really how the western world became so powerful, was this ethical understanding of fairness as something based on merit. And the truth of the matter is that we have gotten away from meritocratic fairness, despite the fact that most Americans still feel it, because we have moved into a part of our civilization where we have moved beyond being hungry for earning our success. We have gotten so complacent, particularly in recent years, that what we have done is moved beyond trying to win the competition from day to day. Not just against each other, but against circumstances trying to short circuit the competition. So they key idea if we are able to keep in mind, is competition. We hear a lot about crony capitalism and people who are gaming the system. Those are simply people that don’t want to compete, so they want to short circuit the competition by shutting it down. Effectively, every economy, every place where people are actually interacting with people, is made up of two kinds of people: People who want to win the competition by following the rules, and people who want to short circuit the competition, and today more and more, we have a government, we have a ruling class, we have an elite group of leaders, both on Wall Street and on Pennsylvania Avenue who want to shut down the competition. They want to take away our ability to be competitive, to strive, to get ahead, to create. Competition doesn’t mean we want to kill each other, doesn’t mean we want. The New York Yankees don’t want to bomb the bus of the Boston Red Sox, that is not competition at all, but they want to win fair and square. They want to be rewarded for their merit, and if they are rewarded for their merit, we really know that that is what is fair, and that is the kind of society we want.
Mohler: The thought of economics as “intrinsically moral,” in fact, more moral than anything else we can imagine is something that most Americans don’t think about. They look at the Wall Street Journal, or they listen to an economic report, and they think it is just math, it’s just numbers, it’s just money. It’s never just any of those things. It is about individual human beings, the decisions they make, and the economic conditions of their lives that are the result of moral decisions, and for that matter, moral energy. Arthur, we were talking about fairness. One of those dominant theories of fairness, which is labeled “justice” in many situations that has been a very, very dominant in the American academy, is that suggested by the philosopher John Rawls. And Rawl suggests that it is not just equality of status or equality of opportunity, it has to be equality of outcome for there to be fairness. And of course the problem with the Rawlsilian theory of justice is not only the beginning, in terms of the wrong understanding of human beings, but quite frankly, it doesn’t deal with the fact that human beings actually want different things. Some want to work really hard, and live in a big house. Some want to have a lot of time unencumbered by work, some want to live the life of a bohemian artist; others want to live the life of a Wall Street mogul. You know, it seems to me that a moral economic theory has to come to terms with the understanding that human beings are actually incommensurate, very different and diverse hopes and dreams and aspirations.
Brooks: That is so true, and really, the most immoral thing we can do to people is treat them as if they were all the same. If you want to have people in abject misery, and you are the ruler of a country, make sure that nobody can get ahead, that nobody is rewarded for working hard. Make sure that somebody that works hard, you take away what they earn, and make sure that people who didn’t work, you give them something that they didn’t earn. There is actually a term for this, and it is called, “learned helplessness.” This comes from Martin Seligmen, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and his work shows that when you take things away from people who earn them, and you give them to people who didn’t, both sides, both the recipient and the people who have been penalized, they learn helplessness. They become passive, they give up, and they become depressed. In other words, it degrades all of us. It degrades people who have their goods and services and income taken away, and those people who become dependent on a kind of welfare. Now, I am not saying that people shouldn’t have any relief, in fact we have poverty in this country, and we have all kinds of reasons to give people relief. This is a basic fundamental of Christian charity of course. But beyond that, the idea of taking relief and turning it into dependency, treating people the same by redistributing for the goal of equal outcomes is such a moral, materialistic, depressing way to treat humanity as opposed to treating them like individuals. As we believe God treats us.
Mohler: You know Arthur, there is something else that is missing, I think, from most secular conversations about economics, and that is the Christian understanding that we live in a fallen world. And in a fallen world people are not always incentivized by the right things. They don’t always have the right aspirations. As said, it is alright to have different aspirations, but there are some aspirations that are not godward, they are not right, they are sinful. There are some behaviors that are inherently sinful, intrinsically wrong. Economics has to speak to that too, in terms of creating a set of rules that in a fallen world, attempts at least, to maximize human flourishing.
Brooks: That is true. And we have to remember that capitalism, or free enterprise, is simply not a substitute for well-ordered, moral behavior. In fact without a well-ordered, moral behavior among people interacting with each other and the way they deal with themselves privately, it does not matter what your economic system is. It will become corrupted. It will be used to bad ends. One of the most common fallacies I hear about capitalism is that it incentivizes people to be greedy. Of course, that is nonsense. The problem with greed is not capitalism. The problem with greed is the fallenness of man. As you say quite correctly, the places where I have seen greed most damaged to the most people is not even in capitalist societies. It is in socialist societies, where people can capture the government, where people can use the government to their own ends and redirect all of the resource systems themselves. The horrible greed and inequities that happen in the Soviet Union before the law came down were just astonishing. I have never seen anything like it. So, the problem of greed, the problem of fallenness is one of culture, it is one of morals, and it is one of our own hearts. If we want for enterprise to dignify us appropriately, we have to deal with these issues first.
Mohler: Well, and you mentioned the Soviet Union, all you typically have to do is look to Russia today to see a market that is without moral controls, and which you also have a disaster. Many people associate that with capitalism, and that isn’t capitalism, that isn’t free market economics, that is simply autocratic economic exploitation.
Brooks: That’s right, and again, this is as much a lesson, not for the left as it is simply for anybody who might tell any of us, “sell us a bill of goods.” To say that unmitigated capitalism is the answer to all of our problems. That is not right. It is an economic system. It is a machine. It is like a car. If you don’t know how to drive, and you don’t have a proper sense of the appropriate rules of driving, you could do great evil with your car. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you are driving, as a matter of fact. And that is the reason that we have to keep all of these issues in perspective and remember what matters most, first.
Mohler: Ok, so let me throw out some concepts, some words, and ask you to flesh them out for us in economic terms, in the moral context in which you see them. Let’s say the first one is work. Human beings were made, are made, in the image of God and designed for work. So, how do you understand the morality of work? Is work something that is simply a curse we have to live with? Or is it an opportunity to show the glory of God?
Brooks: Work is an inerrant good. Work is a way that we can express ourselves. It is a way that we can express our talents and passions in a constructive way. And furthermore, it is something that will create positive value. There aren’t that many things that people can do to create positive value in our lives and the lives of others every single day. But work is what allows us to do that. We are called, at the beginning of the book of Genesis, it talks about God working. And it says, “God made us in his image, therefore we are, man is made to work.”
Mohler: You know, that is a key point of biblical misunderstanding for many Christians because they know just enough to get into trouble in Genesis one through three, and they know that a part of the curse in Genesis three, God’s response to human sinfulness, is the difficulty of work, the difficulty of toil, but the difference between toil and work is seen in the fact that long before sin, in terms of the order of creation, God gives human beings the dominion ordinance, and they were to work the garden. So work itself is a part of what it means to be made in God’s image. It is a good thing in and of itself.
Brooks: Incredible gift. I mean those of us, and incidentally, the way that the incredible gift of work can give us the maximum of joy is when the talents that God gives us and the skills that we have been able to devlop in our lives can come together in a way that we can match these things. And there is literally only one economic system ever created that maximally allows us to match our skills with our passions, and that is free enterprise. Markets where we can actually look for a job that we are good at and that we like. It is such a funny thing compared to years past where Al, if you and I 200 years ago had been born where we were, and our parents were farmers, why, we would be farmers.
Brooks: There would have been no other choice. As a matter of fact, the year 1800 in America, the average American never left a twenty mile radius of the site of his birth. So, what do you think he was doing? Well, he is doing what his father was doing. But you and I, we can do what we feel we are best suited to do for the good of man and the glory of God. What an incredible miracle, what a blessing. Free-enterprise made that possible.
Mohler: Absolutely. And by the way, many people think, for instance, you go back to 1800. My father was and is in his working career, mostly a grocer, a manager of a grocery store, and I would have been a grocer, I guess. You look at that and you realize it is not just for the lower, the common levels of society; it was also for the elites. I mean if you were the first son of nobility, you inherited the realm. If you were the second son, you went into the priesthood. It was all scripted for you at every level of society.
Brooks: Yeah, that is right. And we have been unchained in this way by the free enterprise system. Something we have been really blessed with, and we throw it away. We play with it at our peril. Think about how work can so easily become more like toil. In this way it is a blessed thing to do something that sets people free, not just ourselves, but others, such that they can express themselves so creatively with their work. Now, that is not to say, I don’t want anybody listening to us to say, “Well, what is this guy, Brooks, talking about that everybody must love their job every single second of every single day?” Of course not. And I don’t either every single second, and I know you don’t either, but the point is, we are able to make choices, and by being free, we can be more expressive. And when we are more expressive, we can create more value and dedicate it to God, and that is worth living for.
Mohler: And I think also beyond that, and you have pointed to this, we want to believe that our lives are meaningful, and one of the ways that we know our life is meaningful is by the work that we do. And by the way, that means that work has to be defined larger than, “job” because there are people who do not have a job but are nonetheless working. To say “you have a working mom.” If she is a mom, she is working.
Mohler: And so we have to understand, and this is where the protestant has to come back and say, the Lutheran notion of vocation comes out so clearly. To be human is to be given a vocation, and a vocation is something you do not only for your own good, but you are fulfilled in it. You do it for human flourishing, and ultimately for the glory of God.
Brooks: That is right. One other point is that in studies we have conducted in this concept of earned success, we have found that the happiest people say that they have earned their success, but they are very loose on the denomination of the rewards. So, very few people actually talk about measuring their earned success in dollars. A lot of them talk about it in terms of their kids being happy, or creating beautiful art or helping other people, or working in their community, or just how much value they create in their jobs. And very few people, it is extraordinary, talk about money per say, and that is the important thing to keep in mind. God gives us all kinds of currency of value that we are going to create. That is the reason that I feel. Right now I am in my office, and I am talking to you, and this is my job, and it gives me joy, and I feel like you and I are creating and earning our success together, and my wife right now is with my kids. And she is earning her success right now, too. My kids are doing their homework, I hope, and they are earning their success, too. We are all doing it in different ways. We all have different vocations, and this is a great thing.
Mohler: It is, and that leads me exactly to where I want to go. Because you just gave this beautiful picture of your family life, and your wife, and your children each doing what each in his station or her station is called now to do, and so Arthur, I want to get in some areas that would make a lot of economists very uncomfortable.
Mohler: One of the most important insights I think both morally and theologically, but also economically is the importance of the institutions that God has given us that lead to human flourishing. I think for any economic theory to be seriously considered as moral, it is going to have to give it a lot of attention to the family, and the most basic institution of society. Marriage, family, parenthood, because the economy of what takes place there is that upon which the larger society’s economy is absolutely dependent.
Brooks: I agree, and even beyond my complete agreement as a Christian and as a family man, I will back up and go to a lower level, which is as a social scientist. One of the things that social scientists like me find again and again when we look at the data is that there are four institutions of meaning in people’s lives that also are most likely to predict their worldly success, which is to say, not earning money. It’s their success at creating value and getting on day to day in the world. And those institutions are, these are the things that predict success for people’s lives the most. They are: faith, family, community, and work. Those are not economic concepts. Those are cultural concepts to the extent that we are thinking and nurturing, paying attention to, working hard on our faith, family, community, and jobs. We are going to be better people, we are going to be happier people, and we are going to be more successful people, and this is not just theology or philosophy, because I am neither a theologian or a philosopher. I am an economist, and I look at data all day long. This is what you find. This is the secret to happiness and success.
Mohler: I loved your reference to Johan Sebastian Bach, and the ability to bring in something like the notion of Luther’s vocation. We are having a very properly ecunimical discussion here. I want to tell you that I think American evangelicals are missing a very important intellectual tool, and this is one that I talk about a great deal, and it is one that I think you are going to relish talking about. It comes right out of this, and that is, subsidiarity. The notion that if something is broken at the smallest level, it is far more expensive to fix it and far less are we able to fix it at a greater level.
Brooks: That’s right. Subsidiarity, you know I love this because I am a Roman Catholic, and Catholics talk about this a lot. Subsidiarity is the basic concept that you do things at a lowest level, closest to the problem. This is sort of theoretical. At this point it basically says, if you have a problem at the family level, don’t try to solve it with the federal government. Don’t try to solve it with the state government, not even with the local government or the school district, or with the neighborhood. Solve it at home first if you can. This is a very important principle because it leads people to flourish the most when you keep things at this low level. This is an extraordinary thing where the Roman Catholic Church through many, many centuries of looking at human behavior and looking at human success and happiness have figured out that this is so important that it is sort of enshrined in the theology of the Catholic church, this idea of subsidiarity. Now, political people like it a lot if they call themselves conservatives, typically, because it is pretty easy to take it from there and say, well government should be smaller. But even forget all of this; what we are trying to do is empower people. We are trying to give people a sense of power over their own lives, control in their own lives, so that they are really in charge and so that they don’t learn their helplessness, they don’t devolve all of their relationships and responsibilities to some higher level authority.
Mohler: Well, that is one of the problems with the contemporary labels we use, “liberal” and “conservative” are not meaningless in our circles, but they don’t necessarily mean what they have historically meant, for instance, I would argue that subsidiarity is absolutely essential to the Christian worldview, and yes, to a true conservatism in terms of the worldview that wants to conserve the things that are essential to human flourishing, such as marriage and the family. Such as community at the lowest level. Because one of the things that the doctrine o subsidiary makes very clear is that as you get into larger and larger levels, your effectiveness falls off hugely. And this is where, and here is the evangelical quoting Thomas. If you go to Thomas of Aquinas, as he made very clear, what you are dealing with here is the fact that truth subsides at the lowest level possible. The truest representation of the family is the family. Anything that tries then to take the functions of the family beyond the family, does so less efficiently, less personally, less lovingly, and sometimes not well at all.
Brooks: Yes, that is right. And I think that everybody listening to us understands the wisdom of this because it rings true. We know that people who have to solve their family crises in a court of law are the most miserable people out there. Your relationship with your wife that you are letting a judge sort it out, you are not going to feel very good about that wife because for whatever reason had to violate the principle subsidiarity, among other things. It just feels wrong, and so this is something that rings true in a lot of our lives. Don’t substitute the government for your family. It is the wrong thing to do.
Mohler: But people hear us talk this way, and what they hear us to say is that we don’t care about people. But the point is, we care about people. We care first to create and sustain the things that make people flourish, but then in a Genesis three sinful world, you do the very best you can to help people whose lives are broken by the brokenness of those institutions and the absence of them. So, you have a fatherless child, and the statistics are that a horrifying percentage of American children live a horrifying percentage of their lives as children without a father in the home. It is to say, we can’t fix that, but it is not that we don’t care. We will simply do the best we can to help, but we can’t put the father back in the house.
Brooks: That’s right. One thing to keep in mind is that by the principle of subsidiarity, if a family is broken, if their relationships are so badly hurt or if in fact somebody around us is hurting for any reason, for any lack, for lack of economics, lack of economic resources, they are poor, for example. The right level isn’t necessarily bringing the government into it. The principle of subsidiarity says, go to the lowest possible level, and that might just be you and me, Al. If your neighbor is hurting, and they can’t help themselves, maybe subsidiarity says, it is time for you and me to step in with private charity.
Mohler: Every major newspaper that crosses my desk over the last three or four weeks, has had an article on how extended families are having to step in in hard economic times, with people having to move back in with losing a job and all this. And I am looking at that saying, “They are treating this as a problem. I see this as the glory of God. That is why God gave us family.” And extended family, the kinship structure is very part of the Biblical vision, and somehow in our mobile, atomic society, we have lost the vision of that, but this is actually why God gave us cousins, and aunts, and uncles, and grandparents. It is so that we would have people upon whom we could depend, and that is far more efficient. I’m not moving in with my state senator, but at some point I might have to move in with a relative. That is an easy choice.
Brooks: Your kids are all listening saying, “What?”
Mohler: Yeah, when I am listening to it and saying, “You better grow up, and get a job, and get out of here.” In order to do the glory of God. And they are. And again, they know, and as you say, this is a moral intuition. It is a moral sentiment. They know that if they got into trouble, they are not going to call the U.S. District Court. They are going to call me and my wife. They are going to call mom and dad. They are going to call each other. They are going to call someone they know loves them.
Brooks: I know. One of the saddest things when you look around the world today at what has happened to these modern democratic social economies, these places have turned away, not just from free enterprise, but from all the constants that we are talking about today, Al, is what has happened to their demography. If I look at Western Europe, you find that it is effectively putting itself out of business.
Mohler: And has been for thirty years.
Brooks: For sure. The average Spaniard by the year 2040 will literally have no brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, or cousins. What does this do to our ability to look out for ourselves, to look out for our kin, to love each other, the people who are closest to us? Does it mean that all of the things that we need during hard times will have to be provided by strangers? Does it mean that we all have to turn to government? And the answer really is, yes. And it is by design. This is where society goes when we don’t pay attention to these fundamental principles.
Mohler: Yes. I am writing an article and am involved in a big research project on this right now. Let me tell you, this is not science fiction. There are robots being provided for the elderly in Japan to keep them company. Robots.
Brooks: That’s right.
Mohler: Simply because they do not have relatives. And you look at this and you realize, this is what every previous generation of human beings would have seen as abject to societal breakdown and disaster and heartbreaking tragedy. And we are just taking it kind of in stride. There are two other words I want to throw at you here. The first of them is “trust.” Trust is essential for any moral economy. Explain how that functions.
Brooks: Trust is the central concept in something that in social science we call, social capital. Which is basically the amount of trust and social cohesion in a society. The basic point is that societies that function best, societies that function at all, have to have some level of trust. If I don’t trust my neighbors, I’m not going to look out for them and they are not going to look out for me. I am going to have to devote a whole lot of resources to make sure that I am not victimized, and they are going to have to do the same thing. Life is simply better when we trust each other, and this is one of the reasons that free enterprise is such a miracle. Free enterprise fundamentally depends on trust. Now, we need rule of law and we need police forces and judges and structures and regulations sometimes, but fundamentally, most of the free enterprise system is depending on the idea that if you owe me something, you are going to pay me. If you come and fix my roof, and I pay you a little deposit, you are going to come back.
Mohler: And that is one of the problems with our contemporary economic condition. It’s because many people think that something is capitalism, when actually it is not capitalism. For instance, true free market economics holds that the market itself will punish bad behavior, but we have removed the ability of the market to punish bad behavior, and now we are trying to have government punish bad behavior on behalf of the market. It looks to me like it is not working very well in moral, much less, in legal terms.
Brooks: Yes. Sure, free enterprise actually builds trust and depends on trust. And as such, it is actually helping to build up a stock of something that you and I understand to be a part of a fulfilling and happy life, trust in each other.
Mohler: I don’t think we want to live in a society in which we are afraid at any given moment that our neighbors are going to steal from us.
Brooks: That’s right.
Mohler: That our business partners are going to embezzle from us. In a Genesis three fallen world, those kind of things happen, but if you don’t have a basic level of trust, you can’t sleep at night, much less function as a moral actor in society. The second word I want to throw at you is one I think you are going to enjoy talking about. And that is that economists I think give inadequate attention to what the Christian worldview actually has really thought about, and that is, counterintuitive to what we have been talking about with work and labor, “leisure.”
Brooks: Leisure is an interesting idea, and it has been basically misunderstood as the absence of work. But basically the whole idea of leisure is the enjoyment of things that are outside the realm of work for compensation. The truth is that in our society today, there is a lot of conflation between work and leisure, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t really know where my fun stops and my work starts and vice versa. I don’t exactly know those things. There are some times when I go on vacation with my family, where I am definitely involved in leisure, but it is not clear all of the time. The key thing to remember is that the idea of enjoying leisure is a really important principle. I know that you have strong theological views on the virtue of leisure, properly understood and virtuously enjoyed, but it is also important because it is so important to character forming that we are able to work when appropriate and not when we are trying to enjoy the company of others outside the realm of work. There are whole areas of social science that deal with the subject of leisure. There is a journal of the study of leisure, believe it or not. It is so critically important, as it turns out, for the proper functioning of people.
Mohler: Well, people think when they hear the word, of someone sitting on a cruise ship having a manicure. That by the way, is not my idea of leisure, but leisure theologically understood, is what we actually do for the sheer enjoyment of it. We are not working for the provision that is a necessary part of our assignment, but rather we are working for those things that give us pleasure. And that means that leisure for many people is working in a soup kitchen. Leisure is coaching a little league baseball team. Leisure is actually, which the classical Christian worldview affirms, leisure is a contribution to society as what we would call, work and profession, because we are unitary human beings, made in the image of God, and every part of us is to contribute not only to the glory of God but to human flourishing.
Brooks: Yes. Every minute of every day we should be doing something that glorifies God and edifies mankind, if we are properly ordered. That means that in my leisure time, I am doing something that is glorifying, that is edifying, that is good, and in its way, productive. So it is almost a false distinction between work and leisure except that it is not compensated, technically. Another miracle, again that comes around from a system that allows us to match our skills with our passions, is that you can do something for its own intrinsic pleasure, and then the weirdest thing of all happens, you get paid for it. It is extraordinary. Not everybody, not all the time, but this is a completely modern phenomenon and it simply wouldn’t exist. You always get this advice when you are in high school, find what you love, see if you can do it for a living, and you will never work a day in your life. That is actually a misunderstanding of the joys of work, of course, because it makes it sound like you will be engaged in pure leisure. The scene that we want of human happiness is not being able to tell the difference between work and leisure.
Mohler: The new book by Arthur Brooks is The Road to Freedom. It is available in your local bookstore. Arthur, what are you working on next?
Brooks: Right now, I am occupied with what is happening with the election here in the United States. I am writing a lot of articles, places like The Wall Street Journal. The next book, however, I think is going to be about the subject of competition. I am really keen to understand this whole subject of chronism and how we shut down the competition of ideas and how we shut down the competition in business, and how basically, this is leading us in business, in government, in a lot of realms of life to not compete, properly understood, in a virtuous way. And this takes us to European style social democracies, and it takes us toward the model of Greece and Italy and Spain. I don’t like where it is taking us, and I think we need to get back to the American culture of competition.
Mohler: Arthur, thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
Brooks: Thank you, Al. I am a huge fan. It has been a pleasure and honor to be with you.
Mohler: It has been a delight to have this conversation and to share these ideas with others.
Well, so much for economics being the dismal science. That was anything but a dismal conversation. The kind of conversation that gets to the most basic issues of human life, and that is where the Christian worldview provides the tools for understanding these things. For affirming the fact that we couldn’t possibly be talking about economics without talking about what it means to be human. What it means to be made in God’s image. What it means to work. What it means to aspire to leisure. What it means to respect the institutions that God gave us in creation for human flourishing, and what it means to understand our own individual responsibility as homoeconomicus as well as homosapiens.
Any discussion of economics has to get to the most basic issues of human life, and also has to realize that the conversation that we have about economics in the year 2012 is at least in terms of the expectations of many people, bracketed by political considerations, by a very limited set of political understandings and economic understandings that are the discussion commonly held in the major media. The kinds of economic condensations, and very crude simplifications that you hear in the television talk shows and beyond. That is why a conversation like this is so important, to remind us that there are far greater issues that are at stake, and of course, from a Christian perspective, it is the issue of Christian truth, it is the issue of God’s glory in creation, and it is the issue of human flourishing. Christians are obligated because we love God to love our neighbor, and that means we are obligated to seek for the arrangements that will lead to the greatest degree of human flourishing. And that means that we all have to think in economic terms. We are not just passive actors on an economic stage. We are those who are making, actively making, economic decisions. We are engaged in economic activities, and furthermore, we have a voice in the construction of economic arrangements that have everything to do with whether human beings flourish or fail to flourish. Are encouraged to do what is morally right or discouraged and then find themselves very much disincentivized from doing what we know we are created to do. We understand as Christians that we have to reframe everything in terms of the glory of God, and we come to understand that God in his glory, in his sovereign wisdom, created us as economic beings because his glory is to be revealed in our economic lives as well.
How important is it to think about that doctrine of subsidiary that says it starts at the most local, basic unit possible, but our economic responsibility does not end there. It extends through every dimension of our lives and of our individual reach. It leads to big questions about how we rightly create and construct society. For Christians, it also gets down to how the church itself is the community of believers functions as an economic community as well with economic responsibilities, making economic choices, and communally committed to the glory of God and to the extension and enrichment of human flourishing. This is the kind of conversation that many Christians simply never get to have. It is a conversation that is strangely and negligently absent, and one for which we have to take a new found responsibility.
I want to thank my guest Arthur Brooks for helping me to think in public, today.
Before signing off, I want to remind you again about the first annual Expositor’s Summit, an important conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary, October 30 and 31 of this year. The theme of this year’s conference is Preaching in a Post-Everything World. Please join me along with John MacArthur and Alistair Begg for this annual conference on the campus of Southern Seminary. For more information visit sbts.edu. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.