08/09/2005 10:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Re-Imagining the Economy

In an earlier post, I argued that the ability to envision a better future was a matter of imagination. However, what is to some a better future is, to others, a worse future. Hence, those who benefit from present arrangements seek to "take captive" the imaginations of those who would envision and work toward a fundamental re-ordering of the "way things are. Today we consider the sorts of restraints placed upon our ability to imagine a better and more just economy.

+ Economic growth is always good, often the greatest good.

+ Investors of capital deserve a return on their investment.

+ Free, unregulated markets are in everyone's long term interest.

+ Globalization ultimately provides the least harmful economic future.

+ Enlightened self-interest is the best guide for economic behavior.

+ Keeping labor costs as low as possible is good for everyone.

These are but a few of the "axioms" of contemporary economic life that are frequently taken utterly for granted. Any who challenge these alleged "common sense" presuppositions are, minimally, ridiculed as hopelessly out of touch, or maximally, dismissed as dangerous idealogues. Some more compassionate folks may express sadness and even regret, but even they too rarely challenge the fundamental rightness of such claims. Is it not obvious that government regulation and intervention in the free market is bad? Can we not simply trust "Adam Smith's invisible hand," based upon enlightened self-interest, to maximize the benefit to all? Even if these presuppositions lead us to "short term pain," is it not clear that any solution other than open and free markets would only lead to worse? Well, in a word: no! These "axioms" are not at all obvious, and they only seem so when we allow our imaginations to be restricted and controlled by those who benefit most from them.

If we were to take seriously the call to free our imaginations and if we were to choose to act in accord with what the overwhelming majority of religious traditions calls us to, what might a new set of "axioms" look like? Let me suggest a few possibilities:

+Self-denial and self-control apply to more than one's sexual behavior. Let us rein in our desires in order to be sure that all are cared for.

+We have been created for relationship, and these relationships are to be characterized by self-giving love at every level. Consequently, inter-dependence, rather than either dependence or independence, should characterize our life together, and public economic life is no exception.

+Rather than judging success by salary, profits, and possessions, let us judge success by how well executives care for their workers and their customers. And, dare I say it, let us judge our congresspersons by the condition of the "average American."

+Let us imagine that corporations exist first and foremost to employ persons and care for its workers, that they exist secondly to serve particular customers, that they exist thirdly to be good citizens in their respective communities, and finally, that they exist to provide a return for share holders.

+Basic benefits such as health care, a living wage, reasonable preparations for one's later years, etc. is due to all, not just those on the top.

+Public power must always balance and manage private power for the protection of workers, the environment, and local communities.

+Tax policy, regulation, and various legislative tools should be seen as neither inherently good nor bad, but rather specific policies should be judged by their consequences, particularly to the most vulnerable in society.

+Growth in GDP is of little consequence without means of measuring more finely how that growth was obtained. Have we had to "mortgage the future," sacrifice the environment, or exploit workers to obtain growth?

So, what kind of economy could we imagine if we changed the underlying "axioms"? Or, better yet, if we all put our heads together and asked ourselves what kind of future we would like to have, what better set of "axioms" could we develop? There will be those who tell us we are hopelessly _________ (fill in the blank with dastardly insult), but all ideas that are different from the received tradition are initially criticized in this way. In the end, however, there is nothing holding us back from imagining a better tomorrow except our own willingness to let our imaginations be held captive. Let's not do that anymore!

For a longer version with the underlying theological commitments more explicit, go here.