The Original Sin of Economics

By Lynn Parramore / Institute for New Economic Thinking

When you think of original sin and the fall of Adam and Eve, an economics class probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. After all, economics is a secular discipline. Or is it?

Maybe not entirely, considering that the earliest economic thinkers had religion very much in mind when they laid down its tenets. Economist A.M.C. Waterman notes that economics was a branch of moral theology in the Christian West until the eighteenth century, while ethics professor Michael S. Northcott holds what we now call “economics” or “political economy” was the province of moral philosophers and theologians until the mid-nineteenth century.

Adam Smith was the son of a devout Presbyterian mother and lived in a world dominated by the Kirk. As economist Paul Oslington notes, his writings, despite a certain amount of personal skepticism of religion, are strewn with religious concepts, such as his view of nature as demonstrating “providential care” and the “wisdom and goodness of God” (Theory of Moral Sentiments). And, as Oslington attests, Smith’s work was often interpreted theologically by early economic enthusiasts like Scottish minister and political economist Thomas Chalmers and Richard Whately, holder of the first chair in economics at a British university. Both saw God’s will in the conversion of self-interested actions into the greatest economic good.

This God, it appears, was a classical economist…

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