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Moving the Goalposts

October 15, 2012

I have long intended to do a lengthy analysis of the Law on this blog and I still intend to do so someday.  Part of this analysis will cover the economic ideas of the Law which seem at first glance (and probably second glance as well) to look little like most of the ideas we float around nowadays.  As I was pondering this I asked myself a question about what seems like a pretty reasonable scenario: what if you were a staunch libertarian, convinced that less regulation made for more efficient markets, but when you read the Bible you found that the Old Testament economic regulations were not libertarian1?

It seems to me that you have three choices at this point.  Before we go over them I’d like to point out that I’m not primarily interested in this question – I haven’t done the analysis that would get us to any sort of good answer about economics in the Bible.  Instead, I’m interested about the thought process that we engage in when the Bible confronts us in these sort of side-on ways.  We could pick any question that would provoke this response but I thought of this one.

The three choices for our theoretical libertarian seem to be: 1) reject the teaching he finds in the Bible, perhaps by assuming that he must be getting something wrong (although he cannot figure out exactly what it is), 2) reject his previous economic views or 3) move the goalposts.  This last one is most interesting to me.  One reason I like this question is that the Bible simply doesn’t address market efficiencies.  Any argument one wants to make about market efficiencies from the Bible must be read into the text in some interesting way.  Now, sometimes reading between the lines is perfectly valid, but the issue of market efficiencies seems so far removed from the text that one is unlikely to be able to address that from the Bible without a half-dozen intermediate steps that could all be questioned.  Even if the Bible has some great truth about this issue to offer it is very well hidden and one’s economic analysis from more straight-forward sources might be quite a bit better simply because one might understand those sources more clearly.

All this makes it perfectly reasonable to continue on with one’s previous beliefs about market efficiencies.  However, the issue of value is one the Bible addresses quite a lot.  I believe that it would be reasonable to assert not that the Bible does not lay down libertarian economic policies for Israel because libertarianism is inefficient but because efficiency is not the highest good.  This is actually something many of us are familiar with – would you rather have better returns from the stock market or be sure that the money in a normal savings account will be there when you need it?  At different points in one’s life different levels of risk versus reward are acceptable.  The idea that one could have a goal beyond efficiency really isn’t too hard to imagine.  Oddly, I suspect that this particular way of solving the problem is the least likely one.  I suspect that real people are more likely to believe that they are wrong in one of their beliefs then that they are right in both beliefs that appear to be in conflict but wrong in an assumption they hadn’t been thinking about.

This idea is what I call moving the goalposts.  Imagine a soccer match where a particular kick has missed the goal.  If we know that this kick should be in the goal one option to investigate is whether the goal is placed correctly.  In our ideological landscape it is very easy to aim for the wrong targets and so we will frequently need to adjust our mental goalposts.

Ultimately, this is all about one of my favorite topics: thinking about our assumptions and the frameworks we think within.  I believe that one of the biggest things the Bible is trying to do is crack these frameworks open and replace them with new ones.  Frequently this will leave old pieces of information fully intact but, perhaps, solidly pointless.  To use non-economic examples, we’re all aware of things that would make us temporarily happy that are still bad ideas.  For some of us we didn’t realize that these were bad ideas until our frameworks changed and “immediate happiness” dropped down the list of our priorities to be replaced with something else, like “be a Godly person” or even just “have a life I haven’t ruined in ten years”.  We could rephrase this as a change in goals.

I’m honestly not sure if this little thought-experiment will be helpful to anyone else but I find it an interesting way of re-imagining the problem2.  Perhaps this third way through a dilemma, rethinking where our values lie or even what basic terminology means, could be applied to other problems we face as Christians.

[1] They won’t be.  This is in part because libertarianism requires one to clearly divide government from private markets in a way that didn’t exist in the ancient world.  Moreover, many entities, like religion, that are now considered private were governmental, at least in part, in the ancient world.

[2] Despite the fact that it’s not a problem I face – I’m not a libertarian nor am I really sure what the Old Testament is doing economically (although I’m interested to look into it).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2012 2:45 pm

    Personally, I think terminology is a major contributor to misunderstandings and assumptions. I’ve been working on a little glossary for my personal use that I might share one of these days with my own readers.

    I like your moving the goalpost analogy. :)

    • Eric permalink
      October 16, 2012 9:45 pm

      I agree. N.T. Wright has a nice analogy in which he says that many terms are like suitcases – convenient handles for a larger amount of material. Frequently instead of unpacking the material to examine what is the same and what isn’t we just beat each other with closed suitcases.


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