Americans love to think of ourselves as pragmatic. “’American Pragmatism’ has a double meaning since both the school of philosophy and the average American seems more interested in getting things done and the result of action rather than abstract theories which do not inspire action,” according to Philosophy Talk.
“In ordinary speech, pragmatism connotes practicality, commonsense, feet on the ground—virtues Americans like to think of as specifically American virtues. One thing the term does not connote is philosophical speculation. When we say someone is pragmatic, we are usually implying that he or she is not given to abstract rumination,” according to American Heritage. Who could oppose pragmatism any more than he can hate apple pie, motherhood, and the American Way?
Dr. Kimlyn J. Bender encourages Americans to apply that love of pragmatism to economic issues. He is a professor of Christian Theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and contributor to the book Human Flourishing: Economic Wisdom for a Fruitful Christian Vision of the Good Life. Dr. Bender wrote chapter 12, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Karl Barth’s Pragmatism: Lessons from a Disillusioned Socialist for Christian Economic Engagement.”
Dr. Bender claims that Barth abandoned his life-long love affair with socialism, though I’m not sure. He wrote,
“A careful reading of Barth must push beyond the socialist commitments that he held to their underlying foundation, which was a commitment to a concern for persons and his assertion that the church must always favor those forms of social progress that are ‘most helpful in its specific time and place and in its specific situation.’
“This may include, for instance, support for local community initiatives that refuse to allow predatory businesses free reign (such as certain payday and auto-title loan and lending agencies that prey upon the poor) or for those that resist other national companies that drive off local businesses that embody communal goods that extend beyond economic ones (such as small grocery stores in rural areas that provide fresh produce and thus indirectly serve the health of the community’s residents).”
How does Dr. Bender know that payday and auto-title loan companies are bad for the poor? Obviously, he might say, they are bad because they charge high interest rates. If so, he would be guilty of the “broken window” fallacy or seeing only the immediate and short-term consequences of criminalizing such businesses. Good economists know that if there is a demand, someone will supply it. In the case of such loans, criminal organizations will supply the demand and lead to worse consequences for the poor than the legal businesses inflict with high interest rates. We have witnessed that with the illegal drug trade for over 40 years. The real solution to high interest rates for the poor is for churches to set up banks to make zero interest loans to the poor.
What about protecting small grocery stores in rural areas? Bender probably has Walmart in mind, but Bender is unaware that Walmart did not destroy small rural businesses; good highways did. Every weekend small towns across the US become ghost towns as citizens drive to the nearest Walmart or to shop in a large town because they couldn’t afford the high prices and limited merchandize of local stores. In this case, Bender prefers to benefit the local merchant at the expense of its citizens. On what grounds? Bender added,
“Christians may advocate for local governmental and economic decisions that themselves are inclusive of factors beyond those of economic considerations alone. Further examples may include the embrace of certain forms of (reasoned) regulation and even (carefully considered and limited) forms of protectionism (i.e., mercantilism)."
This spotlights the main problem with pragmatism: everyone thinks their own judgement of good and bad policies is flawless, that they can determine exactly the right mix of regulations just as a chef can add the right amount of salt and pepper to a recipe. However, Bender has demonstrated that pragmatism promotes short term thinking focused on immediate effects.
Mises wrote that the purpose of economics is to force businesspeople to occasionally look up and consider the long run and broader impact of policies. What seems good in the short run is often disastrous in the long run, and what is good for one group, such as local merchants, is destructive to the rest of the citizens. And because the government forces them to shop locally, it commits theft from its citizens.
Like most pragmatists, who imagine they can steer between capitalism and socialism, Bender feels compelled to regularly condemn capitalism:
“Modern capitalism enhances and drives our basest desires of pleasure (because they are the most addictive and thus easiest to exploit) for monetary and material reward, and, therefore, modern capitalism, as the maximalization of our materialistic and consumerist proclivities, often works against any conceptions of deeper moral or spiritual questions and is ever at the door to overwhelm them.“
Bender makes several mistakes in this paragraph: 1) The current system in the US is not capitalist; at best it’s a mixed economy. More likely it’s fascism light. 2) No economic system can make people more or less moral. As a theologian, Bender should know this. Humans are born with a strong bent toward immorality and only Christ can change that. The idea that an economic system can influence morality comes from pagan and socialist writers, not Christianity.
3) The professor relies on socialist characterizations of capitalism, derived from Barth, that are inaccurate and dishonest. Letting socialists define capitalism is like asking atheists to define Christianity. Bender should learn the real origins of capitalism in the teaching of the theologians of the University of Salamanca, Spain, in the Reformation, which they distilled from the Bible and natural law.
Pragmatism without a knowledge of good economics, the Austrian variety, would be like an herbal specialist treating a cancer patient. The herbalist will have a very different idea of what is pragmatic compared to an oncologist. He will do what he thinks is pragmatic, but it will be wrong and kill the patient.
F.A. Hayek called such pragmatism rationalism or pseudo-reason in his last book, The Fatal Conceit. It is the fatal conceit because it assumes that the pragmatist doesn’t consider the consequences of his policies in the long run. Good economics is the most practical guide in economic matters because it came from the Bible and its principles have been tested by the experiences of millions of people over three centuries.
Good political theologians understand that the only role for government is punishment of evildoers as Paul prescribed in Romans 13. Evil doers are those, including the government, who violate the rights to life, liberty and property of others. Pragmatists may think they know better, but their nearsightedness does nothing but usher in more socialism and the destruction that follows in its wake.