Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review of The Economics of Honor by Roelf Haan

I just finished writing a review of Roelf Haan's book The Economics of Honor: Biblical Reflections on Money and Property, for Faith & Economics.  The book consists of a series of essays, or sermons, on biblical passages that speak about economics and poverty.  For the full review, you will, of course, have to check out the journal, but here is a brief excerpt that hits one of the high points and one of the low points of the book:

The best part of Haan’s work is his wiliness to delve into specific scripture passages in depth.  This focus allows him to illustrate well the connection between economic problems and individual sin. He convincingly describes the path from idolatry to injustice, with the focus on individual responsibility before God (i.e. chapter 4).  Haan does not stop there, however.  He also is able to show where the Bible addresses systematic injustice and dysfunction. This ability to hold together the importance of both personal responsibility and systemic order is his true gift to the field of biblical economic ethics.  Haan’s essay on Isaiah 58 (chapter 19) especially stands out in this regard. 
Unfortunately, in some important areas, Haan’s ethical vision seems too narrow.  In his strong reaction to the abuse of political and economic power, he too quickly attributes the sins of Latin American dictators to an underlying economic system.  It is true that combinations of economic and political power have, historically, been extremely dangerous, but this observation does not automatically implicate the discipline of economics the way Haan argues it does. Haan’s reading of Milton Friedman, for example, (pg. 73) strangely misses the motivation behind Friedman’s suspicion of government control of the economy. Indeed, libertarians like Friedman share many of Haan’s concerns about the abuse of political and economic power.  They disagree only on whether a reliance on markets will lead to a concentration of power, as Haan argues, or decentralized power, as Friedman (1982) famously argued. This narrow and negative view of economic ethics also shows up in Haan’s treatment of poverty and wealth.  Readers will search in vain for a moral distinction between wealth gained through abuse of government power and wealth gained through entrepreneurial activity. Instead Haan seems to agree with the dependency theorists that all wealth is necessarily implicated in oppression (see chapters 7 and 21).