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Pastor to Clinton

Mises Daily: Thursday, March 18, 1999 by

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Two Faces of Forgiveness

President Clinton's pastor and spiritual adviser J. Philip Wogaman has shown great interest in economic theory and policy. A professor of Christian Social Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., and pastor of the Foundry Methodist Church, his writings on economic systems display a relentless moral condemnation of the market economy. But when it comes to judging the errors of government planning, regulation, and politics in general, he urges an attitude of unremitting forgiveness.

In 1977, he wrote The Great Economic Debate: An Ethical Analysis, because "humankind is now engaged in a great debate of world wide and historic magnitude on the question on how economic life should be organized." After grappling with all possible systems and combinations of systems, he rejects the market economy in the strongest possible terms in favor of "democratic socialism."

His choice, he claims, is not ideological but rather based on Christian morality. This is the only economic system, he believes, that can generate economic justice. Its rational planning and genuine democracy lead to individual self-expression and freedom. He even asks incredulously: "How could Christians support any other economic ideology?"

Certain spiritual errors, however, are more forgivable than others. He extends the hand of charity to anyone swayed by Marxism. "Marxism can speak to the conscience of Christians," after all, "precisely because it expresses some basic human values which are very close to Christian ones."

In fact, "the Christian cannot find anything to quarrel directly with the Marxist idea of the human spirit." Marxism is, according to our professor of social ethics, "concerned, both morally and economically, with the creative possibilities of every human member of the community, and, in this sense, respects the value of each person."

Marxism looks especially good when compared with the "predatory individualism" based on the "principled selfishness of an Adam Smith." Capitalism's central notion, he says in all fairness, is that "voluntary co-operation is the ethical model of community." The problem, he says, without sufficient explanation, is that this is "dehumanizing."

Why is it more humane to push people around through government planning? Here he relies on the old chestnut that freedom in markets is imaginary. "We may appear to be free to choose our own destiny in a market economy," he cries. "But that freedom is only illusory....Government decisions, taken on behalf of the whole community, may in such cases be the avenue to real freedom."

Wogaman is especially tough on the writings of Ludwig von Mises ("the real philospher of laissez-faire") and F.A. Hayek, calling their "neoliberal" theories "thoroughly naive." He says they failed to demonstrate their central thesis that a market pricing system would not be possible under socialism. The "steady economic growth in the USSR for nearly sixty years" makes one doubt whether Mises's and Hayek's scenario of chaos "will ever come to pass."

Mises in particular is denounced as an "elitist" who wrongly believed that the standard of living in capitalist countries is "incomparably higher" than in socialist ones, and hence Wogaman says his theories should be relegated "to the rubbish heap." After the collapsed of socialist central planning, isn't it he that appears naive?

In 1982, Wogaman contributed an essay for a conference in Vancouver B.C. on morality and the market. His speech "Theological Perspective on Economics" focuses not on production but solely on distribution. "Economic goods should be distributed in such a way as to enhance human well-being and self-acceptance and communal fellow-feeling without asking first whether people have deserved what they receive." Perhaps, then, he wasn't exaggerating about the influence Marx has had on his thought.

His main concern is how to control human self-centeredness ("the original sin"). But he spots the solution: "some institutions may help more than others in bringing out the best in people and in subordinating the destructive aspects of human sinfulness." The best such institution is: government. It's true that "even a democratic government can make mistakes," but at least "its actions will be based upon a publicly argued-out conception of the kind of community the majority of the people want it to be." Vox populi, vox dei.

This is the crux of Wogaman's "theology": Sinful people will commit all kinds of sins in the market economy. But once participants enter a socialist democracy, they will become altruistic, considerate, caring, and, in a word, religious. Their sinful nature miraculously disappears. This is the reason, he believes, why "socialists have managed some kind of problems more successfully than capitalists..."

Wogaman published yet another a book in 1986, Economics and Ethics: A Christian Inquiry. Here he addresses the problem of economic production, which cannot be left to the blind forces of the market. Only those who "have some sense of all the important priorities and how they relate to one another" can decide that. He somehow overlooks the elitism of his own position.

His 1989 book Christian Moral Judgment, he steps back just slightly from his previous position in favor of democratic socialism, worrying that it might create monopolies of power. But even here, he praises socialism because "decisions can at least be made on social, not private, objectives" and at least there is no "advertising that exaggerates materialism."

Finally, in his 1990 book Making Moral Decisions, Wogaman instructs Christians to be careful in judging other people's beliefs. "When we have strong views of our own, it is sometimes very difficult to be fair to contrary opinions. Sometimes we cut corners in argument by responding to the weakest part of those opposing opinions rather than the strongest. Sometimes, even, we will restate the opposing view in an absurd form in order to demolish it more easily."

This is precisely what he has done in his treatment of market ethics. In his blind rage against greed and selfishness, and even after the collapse of socialism, he has not seriously considered the possibility that even an amoral market economy is to be preferred to even the most moral forms of government control.

Wogaman has tried to find our salvation in politics. It should come as no surprise that he has been willing to forgive the pathologies of power, but becomes the very caricature of the inquisitor when it comes to evaluating free enterprise and the market economy.

* * * * *
Ivan Pongracic, an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, teaches economics at Indiana Wesleyan University.


See Joseph Salerno on the religious assumptions behind Keynesian theory and Murray Rothbard on the religious thought of Karl Marx, both PDF files from the Review of Austrian Economics.