Adam’s Fallacy

Other religions find other ways to express the importance of generosity, but I believe that their different paths work towards a similar realization of our interconnectedness. If we contrast this approach with market indoctrination about the importance of acquisition and consumption — an indoctrination that is necessary for the market to thrive — the battle lines become clear. All genuine religions are natural allies against what amounts to an idolatry that undermines their most important teachings.

In conclusion, the market is not just an economic system but a religion — yet not a very good one, for it can thrive only by promising a secular salvation that it never quite supplies. Its academic discipline, the “social science” of economics, is better understood as a theology pretending to be a science.

Religion and The Market, David Loy, 1997


While the right-wing populism of the seventies and eighties had envisioned a scheming “liberal elite” bent on “social engineering”–a clique of experts who thought they knew what was best for us, like busing, integration and historical revisionism–market populism simply shifted the inflection. Now the crime of the elite was not so much an arrogance in matters of values but in matters economic. Still those dirty elitists thought they were better than the people, but now their arrogance was revealed by their passion to raise the minimum wage; to regulate, oversee, redistribute and tax.

Thomas Frank, The Rise of Market Populism, 2000


“Economics functions in a theological role in our society,” [Duncan K. Foley] added in an interview in which he paraphrased Milton, “to justify the ways of the market to men.” Economists, moreover, are “becoming priestly figures, with arcane knowledge” and special powers, he said. Economic laws are cast as universal and invariable. They are even presented as natural laws akin to those of mathematical physics or evolutionary biology.

From the bedrock belief that the pursuit of private self-interest will ultimately benefit the whole society stems a willingness to abide harsh economic measures and consequences, ranging from large-scale unemployment to the destruction of traditional cultures.

This admittedly long sequence of quotes outlines what may well be a very hopeful rhetorical trajectory. The first quote, written by a Buddhist cultural critic and theologian, might be thought of as a response to the Clinton-era market rhetoric that had announced “the End of Welfare as We Know It.” The cruelties and degradations of that program are well known. (If you want to see the research on the impact of these so-called reforms, a good place to start is the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development.)

The second quote was written in the years just before the apparent zenith of neo-conservative power, well represented by the invasion of Iraq, and represented a somber response to a shockingly open and Orwellian rhetoric that would too soon culminate in that era’s great marketing phrase, “No Child Left Behind.” (Here too, the criticisms are widespread and well known. A good place to begin if you want more information, is the Rethinking Schools Online website.)

The final quote, remarkably, is from a review of a new economics textbook called Adam’s Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology. It may or may not become popular in economics classrooms, as the reviewer notes, but it represents a kind of requiem for the market religion that still grips too many people and their politicians. The hope, of course, is that its critical view of the market will become increasingly common in the years to come. Perhaps then the fog of market religion will lift.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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