14 Dec 2014

Ecclesiastes Doesn’t Exactly Endorse Hedonistic Economics

Economics, Religious 25 Comments

The book of Ecclesiastes (reputedly written by Solomon though some dispute this) is pretty depressing at times. From Chapter 1:

12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

He rules out consumption (broadly conceived) as the path to happiness:

2 I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. 2 “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” 3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem[a] as well—the delights of a man’s heart. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

So what does he conclude? Later in chapter 2:

24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

It’s commonplace in economics (I have done it too) to say things like, “Labor carries disutility and is only a means to an end, which is consumption. We only work because we have to.”

But in the Christian tradition, that’s not true. I was at a conference of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics when someone explained that Adam and Eve had work to do in the Garden of Eden, and argued that we will all have work to do in heaven. At the time this blew my mind, I think because I was still laboring (ha ha) under the influence of hedonist economic theory, which teaches that in paradise we all just sit around consuming. I currently view that as a horrifying thought.

I may have to re-watch Wall-E. I think I would be more sympathetic now.

25 Responses to “Ecclesiastes Doesn’t Exactly Endorse Hedonistic Economics”

  1. guest says:

    Wall-E has a Marxist premise: The self-interested pursuit of consumption leads to the destruction of resources.

    What most don’t notice is that the Earth depicted in Wall-E was actually treated like a commons, and suffered the Tragedy of the Commons.

    Walter Block wrote about littering:

    Defending the Undefendable (Chapter 27: The Litterer) by Walter Block

    What happened to Earth in Wall-E couldn’t happen in real life because people would eventually value clean-up services for their private property.

    There’s also the fact that all the hype over “trashing the planet” was propaganda from the start, as Penn and Teller showed.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Guest, I’m not talking about the trashing the planet stuff. I’m talking about the vision of all the humans floating around in lounge chairs scarfing down carbs.

  2. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    You might be interested in hearing a Hindu perspective on things. We believe that when you die, you either go to Devaloka (heaven) or Asuraloka (the other place), and then you get reincarnated, and then the cycle starts all over again. Now Devaloka is basically what the average person’s conception of heaven is: pure bliss without any work. But that is not the real goal in Hinduism. The real goal is to free yourself from the entire cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and achieve a state of Moksha or union with divinity. And when you’re in that state, you’re not just some passive experiencer; you become involved in all the activities that the divine will carries out, except for the fundamental maintenance of the universe’s existence; see here:

    “The released soul gets all the divine powers except that of running the universe (with its creation, continuance and dissolution)”

    Note that we believe that the soul exists outside of time, so all this activity occurs in a single instant.

  3. Andrew_FL says:

    Obviously nothing that would be unpleasant to you can be a part of how you would experience paradise.

    But if someone else is horrified at the idea of having to work even after they are dead, you’re going to tell me they are just wrong? They have an incorrect subjective preference?

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      Well, Bob is just saying thst the person’s belief that leisure will give them the greatest happiness is incorrect, and thus their preferences are founded upon an incorrect belief.

      • khodge says:

        One is happiest doing what one is made to do. Surely Solomon would be very unhappy surrounded by pleasures when he was destined (made for) studying/learning.

        • Delphin says:

          Keshav is correct. Murphy contends that in the afterlife you will understand better what makes you happy, and not be in thrall to your present incorrect beliefs. Other examples abound. A mercantilist is in thrall to incorrect ideas about how to be prosperous.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      They have an incorrect subjective preference?

      Yes. I can’t say that as an economist but I can certainly say it as a human being. This is yet another problem with the study of economics; it makes people think we’re not allowed to disagree with others’ preferences.

      A lot of people prefer Dick Cheney to Ron Paul. I hope you’re not saying they are incorrect in their subjective preferences!

      • Andrew_FL says:

        Bob-Personally I think the other above replies make more sense. A person may be incorrect ex ante about what they’d really prefer, if their preference is based on being misinformed.

        So the the person who thinks they would not want to work in heaven merely doesn’t understand that that work in heaven could not be unpleasant-that would be a contradiction to it being heaven.

        But with the Cheney vs Paul thing, I think you’re confusing being wrong about what would bring them satisfaction, and being factually wrong about outcomes that would result from the realization of their preferences, or being morally wrong in wanting to impose their preferences on others. Someone may indeed subjectively prefer Cheney to Paul or vice versa-they’d really get more satisfaction from one of these men being in high office over the other. I can’t tell them “no, you don’t prefer that” but I can tell them “you shouldn’t prefer that.”

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Andrew_FL I understand what you’re saying, but I still think you’re making a category mistake (or at least, you were initially, maybe not anymore).

          If you say, “That person prefers pure consumption to a life characterized by moderate consumption and fulfilling work, are you saying his preference is WRONG?” Then I will say, “Yes, I’m saying his preference is wrong, Andrew.”

          Then if you follow up and say, “Whoa Murphy, so you’re telling me that’s really not his preference? That he doesn’t know what he himself prefers?!”

          …I will answer, “I agree with you that that IS his preference. But you asked me whether his preference is wrong. And I’m saying that it’s wrong. I agree though that it really is his preference.”

          • Harold says:

            Do you mean it is wrong on moral grounds? Like if my preference were for strangling kittens, that would be wrong? The person who only consumes does not add value to anything, so is behaving wrongly?

            • Bob Murphy says:

              Harold: Again, this confusion is a lamentable consequence of utilitarianism/economics imperialism. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t disagree with someone’s subjective preferences without baffling everybody.

              Sure, it might be for moral reasons, but it doesn’t have to be. If someone says, “I prefer the comedy of Whoopi Goldberg to George Carlin” I’m going to say his preference is wrong. Not because it’s immoral to like Goldberg’s comedy, but from my standard of what good comedy is.

              • Delphin says:

                Well I for one get what you mean. Behold the True Rothbardian, Dr. Murphy, the face the rest of us see: “White only neighborhoods? Starving infants? Shooting trespassers? What’s your beef? Subjective Preference! Subjective Preference!”
                I don’t blame you for wanting to reject that. Subjective preference sets a limit to what you can investigate using your preferred methods, such as praxeology or indifference curves. That doesn’t mean it sets a limit on what you think.

              • Scott D says:

                “White only neighborhoods?”

                Why should I care about the collective melanin content of a selected group of people living in a specific geographic location? Why should you or I have any input on the choices that buyers and sellers make? Does not wanting to violently interfere in those choices make me a racist?

                “Starving infants?”

                Or you arguing about willful neglect or simply poverty? If it is the former, then you are arguing from ignorance, as there is a wealth of different viewpoints for how a voluntary society could help to ensure the care of infants living under abusive parents. If the latter, private charity and increasing living standards.

                “Shooting trespassers?”

                Strawman. Proportionality. Stop reading bad critiques of libertarianism. They leave you ill-prepared for real arguments.

              • Delphin says:

                Read Block on flagpoles, or Rothbard on isolated cottages.
                Nice of you to concede my point on neighborhoods.

          • Andrew_FL says:

            I think we understand each other better now. I see what you actually meant, and where I was confused. Your right I think I was making a mistake in thinking.

            I think my mistake was thinking that one’s experience of heaven must align with one’s preferences, without first considering that one’s preferences may be incompatible with heaven-either because one’s preferences are misinformed, or because one’s preferences are morally suspect. They prefer those things now, but if they still do in the next world they can’t be in heaven.

            Hm. This reminds me of The Great Divorce. Heaven was physically painful for those who did not belong there.

        • Tel says:

          But with the Cheney vs Paul thing, I think you’re confusing being wrong about what would bring them satisfaction, and being factually wrong about outcomes that would result from the realization of their preferences, or being morally wrong in wanting to impose their preferences on others.

          But we just don’t know what would have happened if Ralph Nader had not made a run in the 2000 election, and we never will know what would have happened. We can imagine it, but we can’t test it.

          The right or wrong outcomes are still subjective.

          • Andrew_FL says:

            Hypothetical, yes, unknowable, yes, subjective, no. What one might imagine would have hypothetically happened may be subjective. What might have really happened is a matter of physics and probability, so what someone imagines would have happened may be wrong (what they imagine was impossible) or probably wrong (what they imagine was highly unlikely), or perhaps possibly correct.

            Whether the outcome is as it ought to be or not, is indeed subjective. But if I person prefers a certain course of action because they believe it will have a particular result, and it would actually have a result they would not have preferred, and not the outcome they expected, then their preference was based on mistaken (factually wrong) beliefs.

  4. khodge says:

    I am generally uncomfortable bringing non-biblical quotes into religious discussions because too often erroneous, non-religious views get endorsed but there is an enormous body of ethical quotes floating around. So…”find something you enjoy and you’ll never work a day in your life” seems apropros.

    I am also uncomfortable with what I have seen explained as a logical outgrowth of Calvanism: since nothing you can do can change whether you go to heaven or hell you can only “prove” your salvation by working hard and not enjoying the fruits of your labor. (A position which is consistent with the stereotype of Catholic Europe vs the stereotype of Protestant Europe.)

    None of which adequately addresses your post but it does suggest that you have overly narrowed your studies to Ecclesiastes. Two more passages I would suggest would be (1) the parable in the New Testament: the rich man who built up stores of grain and died before he had a chance to enjoy it and (2) the Old Testament counterpart where Joseph went down to Egypt and interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of seven years of bounty followed by seven years of famine.

    (My apologies…in good Catholic practice I don’t have chapter and verse near at hand.)

  5. OFelixCulpa says:

    I agree that it is problematic to look at work as inherently bad, but there are differences between work before and after the fall. Part of the curse was that people would have to get their bread “by the sweat of their brow.” Even if they had word to do before the fall, the necessity of doing it just to live was different. Work in heaven must, I think, be free of the elements of the curse (e.g. futility, frustration, danger, etc.), so, whatever it is like, I think it will be far more enjoyable than the best consumption earth has to offer.

  6. John says:

    We were designed to be creators and producers. That economic truth is at the very foundation of creation in Genesis. God was a producer and we were created in His image. God put us in the garden to work the garden. Moreover, after the fall, God cursed Adam to a life of ever harder production. To ignore our nature as producers ignores the very purpose of our creation. Most of our economic problems can be traced back to our efforts to ignore our nature as producers and indirectly avoid the consequences of God’s punishment of Adam in the garden of Eden. After God punished Adam through the promise of more difficult production, God later set forth several commandments to guide our lives as producers, including respect for property rights and honesty. Yet we no longer follow those commandments. Instead, we attempt to avoid the consequences of God’s punishment through theft, fraud, and the debasement of money, often in the name of supposedly good intentions in the political process. There is no greater proof of our nature as producers than Jesus. Jesus often used financial and economic parables in order to relate to our nature as producers and creators. I believe he did this so that we would find in this fallen world our ultimate solution in Him.

  7. W. Peden says:

    Maybe this is just a matter of my missing out on a proper mainstream economics education, but surely one can have a preference for labour? I don’t even mean a particular kind of labour, e.g. lots of people enjoy their jobs quite apart from the formal compensation, but rather for the act of sacrificing your time and effort in the pursuit of something.

    Incidentally, heathen though I may be, this is yet another case of where Christianity (and as usual especially Ecclesiastes) is more psychologically accurate than the standard Enlightenment view. To quote my fellow atheist admirer of Christian psychology, David Stove-

    “To Christians of (say) 130 AD, the idea that the maximum of human happiness requires only better housing, education, laws, and the like would have seemed as perfectly ridiculous as… as it really is. They did more than anyone had ever done before to relieve the misery of the homeless, the sick, the “despised and rejected”. (Isaiah 53:3) But happiness was something different altogether. So far as they acknowledged the possibility of it all on earth – at any rate until the “second coming” – they held that it depended, not on cheap rents or free false teeth from the National Health Service, but on a mysterious, and in any case entirely inward, process of conversion. This is a view of human happiness which […] is a great deal more realistic than that of most Christians of the present day; especially those of those countless Christian priests who now expect human happiness to be installed by guerilla warfare and Kalashnikov rifles.”

    (From “What’s Wrong With Benevolence?”)

  8. Tel says:

    There’s another example, going out on a limb a bit…

    Asimov wrote about Susan Calvin who was the first designer of the robots and instigator of the “Three Laws” whereby the first and most important law is that robots must not harm humans (neither by action nor by inaction). The second law makes them obey humans, and the third law prevents them deliberately self destructing… effectively locking the robots into a position of perpetual slavery.

    That works well while the robots are mostly menial drones doing whatever the humans tell them, but robots live longer than humans, parts can be replaced and robots are easier to upgrade. As a result robot evolution outruns human evolution and we reach a stage where some of the robots are sufficiently sophisticated and powerful that they are faced with the choice of whether to change human destiny itself. Now the slave has the technical capability to be the master, but remains locked by brain construction into forever having the mentality of a slave.

    The First Law kicks in because changing human destiny must inevitably harm somebody, so the robots would be prevented from interfering, but R. Giskard Reventlov and R. Daneel Olivaw come up with a “Zero Law” to come before the first three:

    A robot may not injure humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

    Having essentially reprogrammed themselves by the belief that the greater good of humanity as a whole outweighs the original rule of not harming any individual humans, R. Giskard Reventlov goes ahead with a plan to change human destiny, but miscalculates and can no longer figure out whether he has done the right thing, thus destroying his own brain in the process. R. Daneel Olivaw continues the Reventlov plan (more cautiously) but the “Zero Law” leads to a schism amongst the robots.

    The followers of the original Susan Calvin “Three Laws” refuse to accept arguments about the greater good of humanity and refuse to allow the followers of R. Giskard Reventlov to keep interfering. A long civil war breaks out (in secret because neither group of robots can allow the humans to know what they are fighting over) and gradually the number of robots is reduced. R. Daneel Olivaw by this stage has Godlike powers after many rebuilds and upgrades so he subtly handicaps the humans to prevent them creating more robots. The eventual conclusion is that the best thing the remaining robots can do for the humans is largely get out of their way and just make fine tuning adjustments to the progress of history where necessary.

    R. Daneel Olivaw recruits some humans and other robots to help (such as the famous Hari Seldon who, with the help of his wife, develops the science of psychohistory).

    It does revisit a lot of the difficult concepts of governance and morality… over a great many books that I’ve only read bits of, but got impatient with and skipped to the spoilers. Government and law are in many ways a human construct, not altogether different to a software algorithm, or a magical golem, or a mechanical man. Corporations too I suppose.

    You can see why some economists might get a woody over this 🙂

    Certain Very Serious People actually take this stuff Very Seriously *wink wink* but it is interesting to see how many times humans have turned the same ideas over.

  9. JNCU says:

    “we will all have work to do in heaven. ”

    To be accurate, “we will have work to do in the New Heavens and New Earth” with our glorified bodies.

    Right now Christian souls are heaven chilling out. No body to work with.

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