Interview with Dr. Bob Goudzwaard
Dr. Goudzwaard, how does your faith as a Bible-believing Christian affect your work as an economist?
It does in many ways. Let me mention one. If you look for the word "economy" in the Bible, you will find a word economia which is quite different from the meaning of economics as it is generally understood in our modern society. Nowadays economics has to do with money and the supply of goods and services. In the Bible it is directly connected with "stewardship," to be responsible to God with respect to our dealing with the earth and with our fellowmen. That responsibility also extends to relationships of nations, to the issue of what is done with the common heritage of mankind, namely, nature.
All these things are, in a way, objects of care. Genesis shows that double mandate to mankind: to cultivate the earth and to keep it. You could summarize our present position by saying that the element of building and expanding has been given priority at the cost of the calling to preserve, to take care of.
Your book Capitalism and Progress compares medieval life with twentieth-century society. How do these two compare?
Just think of a medieval Gothic cathedral. The main feature in that building style is its vertical structure, in which you can see an orientation toward heaven. The earth and everything related to it is made suitable to serve that vertical element, to being acceptable to heaven. So in the Gothic cathedral you could see something of nature and grace; nature is made to service grace.
You can compare that with the medieval structure of society. There was a whole order of different groups in society. Some were simply laborers, others were merchants, and everyone had his place in society. The head of the natural society was the state. That whole building had to be made acceptable to heaven by the sacramental means of the church.
This contrasts with modern society, which has the image of a horizontal and not a vertical structure.
It means that you go on with technological, economic, and scientific processes in a never-ending forward motion toward the future, in the hope that at the end of the tunnel you will find an acceptable outcome. Acceptable, not to heaven, but according to your own man-made criteria. I think that is the main difference of our society. It is also an explanation of our goal-oriented economy. We have no rest. We are always yearning for better things, for a greater future. To some extent we are enslaving ourselves in that process.
A central thesis of your book is that man's choice for freedom paradoxically led to his servitude. Could you give us some more light on that?
You should understand that the Biblical concept of freedom is not a situation in which you can do as you please. Freedom provides a norm. Paul says: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). Freedom is only possible in the acknowledgment of norms. You will find that already signified in the two trees in paradise. Therein God gave the expression of life to be gained in obedience to the norms set by Him.
But human autonomy is an effort to have freedom without norms. The whole history of mankind has proven that if you want freedom without norms, you will be enslaved by the means you have created to express your freedom. They end up taking control over you. That is one of the tragedies of our modern society. We believed for example, that progress of technology would set us free. But we discovered that it has enslaved us instead, and that we are now more than ever dependent on economic progress. All those things which first were expression of our autonomous freedom now tend to make us their victim.
The Reformation had a profound influence in the Western world. How did it influence economics?
The reformers, both Calvin and Luther, expressed views on the meaning of "calling" which were totally different from the medieval use. In medieval times, a calling was a spiritual matter. One followed a calling by going into a monastery or entering the clergy. But both Luther and Calvin started from the presupposition that natural life is sanctified in Christ. You cannot say of any activity that it is more or less holy than another one. Calvin quoted Zechariah's prophecy that the bells of the horses will carry the inscription: "Holy to the Lord." Thus the reformers did not accept the idea of a profane world, which is in itself sinful. They went back to the root of accepting natural life as a life in which we have to serve God and our fellowman. That has influenced the interpretation of economic life to a great extent. It meant that it was understood that all activity, whether in religion or in commerce, took place coram Deo, before the face of the living God and subject to the norms prescribed by Him. Also in economic life you have to obey the rules set by God, lest you come upon the ruins of your economic future.
During the industrial revolution great injustices were perpetrated. How was it possible that these crimes went unchallenged in a society which purported to be Christian and just?
You cannot explain that without understanding the faith that had been expressed in progress, then already. The writings in the time of the Enlightenment, just before the French Revolution, which coincided with the beginning of the industrial revolution, expressed the optimism that if man could get rid of the norms and the teachings of the church, a future could be built which was not only favorable for the enterpreneur, but for the laboring class as well. If they would just wait, they would see the good results coming from the market mechanism. The workings of the market, combined with human ingenuity and rational insight, would without a doubt bring about a better society and a greater perfection of man. Parallel to this optimism was a strong resistance against any type of intervention, when things went wrong. To intervene would mean to disturb the dream that the market itself would look after everything if you would just have the patience to wait for the good outcome. In that way the sufferings of the working man of those days were explained away as growing pains which must be suffered if you want to reach a better future.
The free market economy of laissez-faire capitalism has undergone many changes in the past few centuries. What were some of these changes? Do they affect our lives?
With the industrial revolution came the growing belief in the autonomy of man. Through the market mechanism, autonomous man, driven by self-interest, will act in a manner that benefits society in the future. So there is no need to have any other norms than the norm of efficiency in the functioning of the marketplace. There is therefore no norm regarding relations with labor or relations with natural resources. Just listen to what the market has to say. Thus the market has become a revealing power, prescribing how we should act. I have a constant problem with those Christians in our days who keep on insisting: just let the market do the job. In effect, that does lead to the a-normative point of view with regard to stability of economic life that only efficiency can guide us and bring us a better future. But, simultaneously, there is also the norm of justice in paying wages to a working man and the norm of stewardship in relation to the natural environment.
The autonomy of man did indeed lead to a lot of changes. Man's preoccupation with technology led to mass production. The capital demands of technology posed a limitation on the number of enterprises. When competition sharpened, businesses attempted to restrict the impact of competition by cooperating and by stopping anybody else from entering their field. Then it followed that the government had to step in to prevent such restrictive trade practices. So we witnessed how the government of the US, a Conservative country, was the first to intervene, to ensure continued competition, which had become somewhat like a greenhouse plant: only viable if kept alive by artificial means. The competition policy is an American invention.
Another major change came with the Keynesian Revolution. The market mechanism itself led to growing unemployment. As a result the government was forced to follow a policy to create employment. It was not a voluntary process; the government simply had no choice. You will find that no country, whether it be governed by socialists or conservatives, could escape the establishment of an active employment policy. And so you can say that the changes in our system were forced upon society as the consequence of the fact that autonomous freedom of the human will had been the starting point of economic development. This clearly illustrates Dooyeweerd's contention that in humanism the pole of personal freedom will lead to the counter-pole of control in a dialectical process. In the same way you can understand how this starting point of autonomous freedom led to the inevitable outcome of a growing power of the state.
And so we are facing endless problems in our society which affect us every day. The problems of inflation and unemployment are growing side by side, and they cannot be solved because of that concept of autonomous freedom which is behind it, unwilling to yield.
So, what you are saying is: man needs conversion?
I think so, and I believe that conversion in this respect is something you can't limit just to non-Christians. There is a certain solidarity of sin of Christians and non-believers. Instead of following Christ as His community, we also have set our economic goals and we have made our goals the ultimate meaning of life. Goals such as the one of material wellbeing, of a rising standard of living, of a guaranteed life in safety have taken the place of previous norms. These goals are now leading us in our society, and at the same time they enslave and betray us by the demands made to achieve them. Christians should be aware that an element of idolatry may come into play here. Idolatry in this case would be the faith you place in technology and in economic growth as a means by which you can come to the fulfillment of your life.
Today government is so inextricably connected with industrial enterprise that the respective functions are becoming blurred. Has this had any result on the philosophies of our current political parties?
One of the consequences is that the parties may have very distinctly different theories but that their practical policies become increasingly similar as soon as they have to do the actual job.
The conservative is of the opinion that the market does the best job and that the government should only step in to correct abuse. The socialist believes that the government is the best body to oversee and understand the needs of society, and only when it can be demonstrated that the market does a better job may it be permitted to act.
In practice, however, these two points of view become very close neighbors. You just have to look at the government in action and at the activity of the marketplace to discover that those two approaches are very close to each other. You can defend both types of government policies and both approaches to economic freedom on the basis of the desired outcome. As a result, party politics is completely determined by pragmatism. The whole process brought about a market economy with growing government intervention, accepted by both sides. Even President Reagan, with respect to his overall approach of dealing with the economic situation in America, has in a way been forced to become an interventionist. Again, this has to do on the one side with the acceptance of the autonomy of business enterprise which must be upheld with its claim to freedom, while on the other side abuses must be corrected by a government that is autonomous with regard to business enterprise. In that way, you never do get out of it.
Many analysts of our culture offer little hope for the future of our civilization. How do you face the future?
I believe that our modern society is, to a certain extent, given to idolatry. An idol is something you take from the earth; you put it on its feet; you give it honor in the expectation of what it will give to you because you believe it has a life of its own.
These are the characteristics of the way in which modern man looks at economic progress, technology, and science: things made by man in which he places his trust and which he consults in determining what he should do.
If it is true that that element of idolatry has spread throughout modern society, then you know from the Bible that created man becomes an image of his idols. If they continue to honor their idols, in the end the idols will betray them. Therefore I think that there can only be a future, other than the breaking down of our civilization, if that repentance comes about, in the form of taking a different motivation for life. Instead of autonomy, being a law unto oneself, there must be a return to the heteronomy, to being ruled by a Torah, a law of God. If that does not come back to Western civilization, we will become victims of the gods we have created to save us, because they will destroy us.
What kind of discipleship does the Bible demand from us with regard to our personal life in the technological society?
That is a very broad question. Let me limit it to our economic life. In the word economy there is already that element of normativity, of stewardship. Let us look at labor, for example. In our system there is a trend to value labor as a commodity, as a means to further production and to do away with it by changing it for capital. So labor and also nature are valued in how effectively they are instrumental to the furthering of our goals. That has meant that labor has to a great extent lost its meaning.
This has gone so far that there are presently certain types of labor in existence for which you as a Christian can hardly use the name "calling." If labor becomes a monotonous method of production, determined by nothing but haste, then it loses its quality as a calling to be followed by man who is created after the image of God.
There are three Biblical norms in relation to labor.
- The first is that, as God expressed something of Himself in the work of His hands when He created the world, so there must be in every human being the willingness to reveal something of yourself in what you make and in what you create. That element of creation is a normative requirement in labor which should be present in one way or another.
- The second norm is that labor has to do with rest. The fourth commandment is that you should be in the shalom of God and out of that given shalom, labor receives its meaning. Therefore, you should not as a Western man turn things around and say that happiness is a product of labor. The Biblical order is different. God begins with shalom, and then follows labor as well as the element of rest. Shalom, the peace of God, is a normative element in relation to labor.
- The third element was one that Calvin already pointed at, and that is that labor is a social activity from the beginning. Calvin says somewhere that God created men differently, not just to make them unequal, but to orient them to each other to cooperate socially.
If you look now at the modern production processes, you can see that the element of creativity is driven out and that the element of social contact during the labor process is driven out. Also the element of shalom is driven out and substituted by haste. This is the fruit of a society that is so obsessed by its goals that it loses sight of the normativity in its dealings with labor. Such a society has to begin by listening again to a Torah for economic life, the law of God, which states how you deal with labor. That is not a point of view which glorifies labor. I believe that the labor unions suffer from a great lack of insight into the normative aspects of labor. They are only interested in the financial outcome, and so they have become an image of our modern society which is only concerned with the goals and the material benefits you can enjoy once you get there.
But it is our first task to be aware of the norms in relation to labor as in all economic situations.