Religion and institutions

By Matt Nolan 07/12/2013

I see the Pope made some comments about capitalism and social justice, and a bunch of economists were unhappy with this (Mankiw, Sumner) – or were unhappy with the way economists viewed the Pope’s comments.  Note:  This piece is a good discussion.

My view is easily summarized.  Meh.  I grew up in a Catholic family, going to church every week and doing all the classes – and if there was anything I learnt from reading all the “social justice literature” it was that Catholicism as an institution likes to frame things as battles between “right” and “wrong” rather than actually trying to understand the subtle undertones of what is actually happening.  The Pope seems like a nice guy, who is well intentioned, but he relies on “common sense” views of rising injustice – rather than looking at the facts.  While this makes Catholics feel good about themselves, it is a lazy way to talk about justice and fairness – which implies that there is some truth to what he says (we should talk about these matters) but it also propagates dangerous falsehoods.

Note:  If anyone is wondering, I’m not being bitter here.  Growing up my church was filled with good people who were incredibly supportive, who gave me good life advice, and who were always kind – I have nothing but good feelings about any of this.  But the general attitude that exists in society as a whole, that there are obvious good and evil things, is dangerously naive.

Yes, many Catholics have different value judgments than wider society – with far more redistribution desired (I will of course admit to being in this direction on a personal level).  And this is cool!  But I just don’t see this as a reason to employ empty rhetoric to persuade others to introduce policies that favour your value judgments, which is what they are doing.

Of course, this brings us to the actual subject of this post – religion is an institution, an institution that fills a certain role within society and the lives of an individual.  When we think about ideas of ‘social capital’, religion offers us a lens on the type of community/social institutions we are talking about when thinking about this issue.  This is a common idea, and with the use of a little game theory we can even state that Jesus was an early applied economist.

As individuals we are boundedly rational, we form groups and use their judgments and expectations to form our own.  Even secular individuals do this in a way comparable to religion:

Sticking to the religion example, it is clear that religion offers many positives.  Many of the rules written in the New Testament offer clear moral guidelines that help individuals co-ordinate and co-operate.  The weekly meeting point for individuals helps to build trust and social integration.  The sense of purpose associated with religion gives people direct consumption value/peace.  All very lovely.

However, religion has undeniably reinforced negative racial stereotypes.  It has reinforced sexism.  It punished people based on their sexual preferences.  It has helped to cause wars.  It reinforced the push for “normality” and “homogeneity” in society when individuals are inherently different!!!  Institutions that provide “social capital” do so within a group – but individual groups often define their own purpose and focus on the basis of how they are different from other groups.

For a slightly different example, think of the way we talk about income inequality.  We almost always look at arbitrary “nation states”.  Not global inequality.  Less often we will look at regional inequality, but always with reference to this nation state.  There is nothing “natural” about the nation state – it could be a lot larger, or a lot smaller.  It could encompass more groups, or less.  But we base our view on a whole range of factors (justice, fairness, the performance of our group, and our view about what people and things matter) on this nation state.  Individuals view of the state is part of their “social capital” but there are negative and positive aspects to this.

Many conflicts about fairness are actually pushes by individual groups to get what they perceive to be in their interest, even if it involves hurting other groups – people are just supporting their team, because they believe it supports the interests of their group.  And this is completely sensible for individuals – as it would be impossible to process, and co-ordinate, a completely optimal solution.

But this also tells us why it is important for clear, transparent, and independent analysis of these types of issues.  There are trade-offs in society, and different sets of values.  Making these clear and accessible to people helps to improve choices, and hopefully helps to improve the evolution of institutions – although this is not given, as institutions are heavily history dependent.

To finish, SMBC sums things up nicely: