Was Jesus an early applied economist?
Posted October 31, 2007on:
According to a number of religious people, there is a Jesus economics. Now I don’t agree with their idea of the sort of economics Jesus presented at all, that may be because I’m not a religious academic, or it could be that these people just didn’t understand what economics actually is (for example they complain that we study scarcity, when Jesus economics is about abundance. That is silly, economics is the study of scarcity. Just because its Jesus economics doesn’t mean it can break literal definitions.)
I see Jesus as an early welfare economist who was trying to create appropriate social norms that would maximise social welfare. I feel that he excelled at trying to get people to solve the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma provides a case when individuals acting in their own self-interest screw each other, and ultimately themselves over (there is a benefit from co-operation, but no individual incentive to co-operate). Jesus realised that if we follow a social norm where we “love each other as we love ourselves” (which in economics terms would imply that we value the outcome for other players as much as the outcome for ourselves), then we will make choices that maximise the total surplus, and as a result are pareto optimal.
Given that Jesus obviously followed solid economic principals when creating rules of thumb that he knew would benefit society in the future, can we call him the first economist? Ultimately, no. Although Jesus lived before Adam Smith, who according to Wikipedia was the first economist, this spectacular website on the schools of thought in economics points out that the Ancient Greeks heavily studied the economy, and I am sure that there were people before them that had theories of scarcity. Ultimately, the study of economics is implicit in everything we do, a surprising number of problems boil down to issues of scarcity and allocation. The first human that was able to employ self-reference would have been the first economist (or maybe it was a different animal, after all we know that Chimps can play the ultimatum game).