Religion & Liberty Online

The economics and morality of infinity

In this week’s Acton Commentary I take on Thanos’ zero-sum economic worldview as manifest in Avengers: Infinity War. In the classic debate over positivity and normativity in economics, Thanos is definitely not a value-free figure. He pursues, with single-minded tenacity and brutality, the moral good he perceives.

Toward the end of the piece, I cite Hayek as an example of an alternative perspective, one that sees development and possibility where Thanos sees decay and finitude. Hayek is, in his own way, a normative economist, in the sense that he thinks there is a moral justification for embracing the spontaneous, extended order. As Irwin and Yuengert put it, “The purpose of his research and writing is to argue for reliance on emergent order as a matter of policy.”

Thanos’ worldview has not reckoned with the Hayekian insights that it is only on the basis of the extended order that civilization has developed to the scale and size that it has. This is, as it turns out, a powerful moral argument for its maintenance and defense rather than for its dissolution or destruction. This comprehensive sense of survival is the first of the two moral standards that Irwin and Yuengert identify in Hayek’s work. As they write, “We can discern two kinds of permanent value metrics in Hayek’s writings: the value of survival, and the value of free human striving.”

It turns out that so often those who are not concerned with survival of individuals (as opposed to the preservation of the species or life itself, as in Thanos’ case) are likewise not concerned with their free development and striving. This is the perhaps the key difference between Thanos and his opponents. As Cap tells Vision, “We don’t trade lives.”

Survival and striving tend to go together, if you consider survival in terms of individuals and not just the mass or a portion of the whole. Irwin and Yuengert provide a citation from Hayek that succinctly distinguishes an aspect of his moral defense of the free economy contra Thanos’ centrally-planned, zero-sum worldview:

[The free moral order] is able to sustain more from discoverable resources (and indeed in that process discover more resources) than would be possible by a personally directed process. And although this morality is not “justified” by the fact that it enables us to do these things, and thereby to survive, it does enable us to survive, and there is something perhaps to be said for that.

Or as Hayek also later observes, “neither socialism nor any other known substitute for the market order could sustain the current population of the world.” And that carries some significant moral weight.

Read more: Ian Irwin and Andrew Yuengert, “The Laboratory as a Discovery Process? Vernon Smith, Hayek, and Experimental Economics,” Journal of Markets & Morality 19, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 253-274.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.