Economics As If Values Mattered
As often as economic issues occupy our personal thoughts or dominate public discourse, the subject of "economics" remains confusing and even intimidating to many people. It seems to be vast, highly technical, and quite impersonal--yet we are each so profoundly affected by its realities.
Despite appearances, economics is in essence a very personal and fundamentally moral discipline. It is nothing short of the web of our material relationships with one another and with the natural environment. Economic relationships have personalities and personal histories. Inescapably, these relationships physically manifest our social and spiritual values.
Our language expresses this duality. "Values" are both moral principles and economic measures. "Equity" is defined both as a financial interest in property and as fairness or justice. The root of "property" is also the root of "propriety." But perception and practice often reflect a division between them.
Many of the economic problems confronting us can be understood as the result of neglected or broken relationships. Americans celebrated the fall of communism, citing its failure to respect individual rights and the legitimate role of individuals in the economy. But we have a tendency to polarize public and private interests and, in our case, to mythologize the private sector and ignore the community as a genuine economic actor.
If it will, the church can play a critical role in healing these divisions. It has a unique contribution to make: philosophically, by drawing on its theology of creation, its understanding of the individual in community, and its preferential option for the poor; practically, because it is the largest and most widespread non-governmental institution and one of the few stable institutions in low-income communities.