Asheville – As a general rule, religion and politics should not be mixed. The litany of reasons include the fact that Jesus is too holy to spin and gossip, stir up frenzy, and label “others” as beyond mercy. Also, nowhere in the Bible did Jesus command his disciples to lobby government for more tax-funded humanitarian aid programs; he taught them to use their own hearts and hands to perform acts of kindness as well as miracles. Moreover, saints try to emulate the Kingdom of God on earth, and heaven is generally described as a place with no economic scarcity, no crime, and perfect leadership.
Therefore, judging the book by its cover, it was anticipated that this review of The Economics of the Parables was going to be harsh. The author, Father Robert Sirico, is a co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Lord Acton earned credibility for weighing and considering all available information to come to the most probable conclusions, “let the chips fall where they may.” His desire to record history as accurately as possible shone through his writing as well as his refusal to speak things he couldn’t believe, even when it meant his excommunication from the Catholic Church. So, it was perplexing to think a fellow admirer of Lord Acton would author such a naïve title.
Delightfully, however, the book, which looked as childish as the subject matter, addresses all of the above and goes beyond. In fact, Father Sirico frequently criticizes the large volume of unresearched political bias he has heard masquerading as sermons on the topic. He wants to be clear that economics is not the Savior’s main message; instead, the priest is only using it as peripheral learning material. What’s even better, the economics lessons he found are well-reasoned, with conclusions aligned with the Chicago-Austrian school – with an added bonus. Sirico disagrees with schools of thought that presume to explain all human behavior exclusively in terms of economics.
The book is brief, but dense in well-developed one-minute lessons on economics principles that the majority of decisionmakers these days are missing. He uses a few parables, in which Jesus gives what many consider surprising conclusions, to explain that prices are not, as Karl Marx suggested, accurate calculations of the amount of brawn and thought exerted in production, but subjective valuations, made by necessarily incomplete data, that are persuasive enough to convince the buyer and seller to make a trade. Thus, the price is always right, and attempts to legislate fair pricing distort markets, interfering with the information they would naturally create. The author credits Jennifer Roback Morse for pointing out that such laws often have their origins in envy, make envy profitable, and thus serve as perverse incentives for the sin.
Father Sirico uses the same set of parables to discuss entrepreneurship. For all the guff they take, entrepreneurs are not generally greedy. Instead, “In a market economy, you become rich by serving, not ruling, others,” he writes. Entrepreneurs take risks and make sacrifices to make available innovations that people want. In the absence of coercive pressures, people won’t buy things they don’t like; thus, oft-disdained profits may be viewed as indicators of satisfied customers. However, Father Sirico says, “We must keep in mind that what is reflected on the level of economics are only subjective values, not virtues.” Assessments of whether buying things like video games or cigarettes will make a person a good steward of the limited time and resources he has in this life will not be made by the market, but by conscience, which, hopefully, receives guidance and support from home and the various churches.
On the subject of employers and employees, Father Sirico sees in the Parable of the Talents a master who, “expects his servants to exercise their creativity.” The servants who risked investing the talents with which they were entrusted had learned to manage inevitable uncertainty instead of allowing themselves to be paralyzed with fear, as the servant who was cast into outer darkness for burying his talent in the ground did. “We must learn the habit of doing the best thing in front of us,” he writes.
Using the Good Samaritan as a springboard, Father Sirico agrees with free-market economists that government redistributions do not create wealth. They just move resources around with a lot of overhead that could have been better utilized innovating or producing more goods and services. This applies to government intervention in charitable services as well as private-sector businesses. It is well-known that government welfare sanitizes charity by creating the illusion that if people pay their taxes, they have done their good deed; the abstraction known as government will take care of the rest. For one thing, this creates a moral hazard, which Father Sirico twice illustrates with reference to the upkeep of public restrooms. For another, he quotes Pope Benedict XVI. “The State, which would provide everything, absorb everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person – every person – needs: namely, loving personal concern.”
Father Sirico takes it even further. “Government welfare payments create dependencies that justify ever-higher spending, vast waste, and the pain and suffering that come with the taxation and control necessary to enable those things. The welfare state is by its very nature connected to vote-buying schemes and fraud. Welfare programs foster dishonesty on the part of the officeholders who pass them into law, the government employees who implement them, and the program beneficiaries.” He also reminds the reader that, whereas economics deals with finite resources in zero-sum games; love, charity, and other virtues of an eternal nature can grow and multiply infinitely, without diminution.
Above teaching good stewardship, the parables teach to look beyond the pecuniary. Father Sirico considers the Prodigal Son and his brother to, at different times, have placed material satisfaction over love of family. In the Sower, he reads counsel to live intentionally. “Every action we take, even if mistaken, is performed with the hope of making a situation or condition better – to diminish dis-ease in some fashion.… The desire to embrace truth when we find it is the challenge, and it is vital to know what enables or disables that capacity.” In a few parables where Jesus has mystified generations with his uneconomic conclusions, Father Sirico points out he is only teaching mercy.
The Economics of the Parables is a combination of fresh insight into old parables and sound economic arguments. At times, Father Sirico will go off on a series of tangents, but for very good reason. Plus, as with other, very good religious writings, the reader just might find stitch-in-time advice with apparently no connection to the matter at-hand.