Review

Economics with a moral dimension

Manna from Heaven: From Divine Speech to Economic Science
By Dalton Garis
George Ronald
Oxford

A classic example is when Archimedes famously paired his knowledge of the mathematics about volume with the everyday fact that water rises in a tub when one steps into it. "Eureka!" A way to measure the density of an irregular object was realized.

In Manna from Heaven: From Divine Speech to Economic Science, Dalton Garis brings together two fields that are not often paired: economics and religion - and arrives at a creative synthesis that enriches the reader's understanding of both.

His thesis is that there exists a set of innate commonalities between the laws and principles revealed by religious prophets and the laws and principles that govern economics. And that by better understanding those commonalities, humanity can better control its economic destiny - and also perhaps gain insights into the nature of religion.

Dr. Garis, who is an associate professor of economics at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, UAE, ranges widely in his exploration of this thesis.

He considers traditional economic theories and the history of religion - and in particular Islam and the Bahá'í Faith, of which he is a member. He also examines the interplay of science and religion, how ideologies impact human society, and what it takes to effect broad social transformation in our modern age.

The result is an absorbing and thought-provoking volume, especially for its consideration of moral values in economics.

Early economists, of course, were very much concerned with how moral values affect economic behavior. Adam Smith - author of The Wealth of Nations, which is sometimes viewed as capitalism's founding document - was originally known as a moral philosopher, and his work explored economics as part of a moral system.

In Manna from Heaven, Dr. Garis argues that economists have moved too far from the proper consideration of moral and spiritual values in their study of how people make economic decisions, reducing the "dismal science" - as Thomas Carlyle once called economics - to mathematics and behaviorism.

By studying the dialogues of the prophets, he suggests, it is possible to understand better the moral and spiritual reality in which human society exists - and to better thereby understand economic behavior.

He notes, for example, that much of modern economic analysis is predicated on the "rational" behavior of individuals - the idea that they will act with maximum self-interest in their economic decision-making. But often true self-interest lies in taking a long term view, as when one bypasses a frivolous purchase today in order to save up for something of more lasting value - skipping a double decaf latte, in other words, to save for the down payment on a house.

Dr. Garis suggests that the holy writings of all religions have always urged taking the long view, preaching sacrifice today in order to acquire things of more lasting value, such as social well-being or eternal life. And this appeal to our higher nature, our higher values, is the real basis of economic rationalism, he writes.

"The conclusion is that economics sees society as being composed of spiritually rational agents and predicts ultimate extinction for any society in which the generality of its members are not spiritual, that is, where they are myopic and selfish," Dr. Garis writes, adding that this is not generally acknowledged by modern economists.

"What is obvious to most spiritually minded individuals is that the source of such attitudinal behavior is rooted in the dialogues of the world's religions. Placed therein is the structure and logic justifying interpersonal investments and actions that delay gratification."

Dr. Garis finds many other commonalities between the knowledge that has been revealed to humanity in the world's great religions and modern economics. He discusses, for example, the cost of corruption and hate in economic systems - two moral hazards that are, of course, discouraged in the sacred scriptures of the world's religions.

Even the concept of sin has parallels in economics. "Since economic science studies how people use resources in ways yielding the greatest possible returns, then anything leading to systematic waste comes pretty close to the concept of sin," he writes. "For example, if finished goods of high value ready for human consumption (bread) were diverted to use as an intermediate input good (feed) to make another finished good (chicken), this would be a sin because of the waste involved."

Dr. Garis said the idea for the book came from a personal exploration of the verses of the Qur'an and other holy books for their economic content. "Soon I was convinced that the divine dialogues and verses of these books had an unexplored capacity to establish the fundamentals of economic science and also of many financial practices now commonplace."

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