Bono, Babel, and the Myth of Economist as Savior
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Bono, Babel, and the Myth of Economist as Savior

Bono, lead singer of U2 and co-founder of charity-group ONE, recently offered some positive words about the role of markets in reducing global poverty and spurring economic development (HT):

The Irish singer and co-founder of ONE, a campaigning group that fights poverty and disease in Africa, said it had been “a humbling thing for me” to realize the importance of capitalism and entrepreneurialism in philanthropy, particularly as someone who “got into this as a righteous anger activist with all the cliches.”

“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”

The remarks have led to relative hype in “pro-market” circles, but I’d remind folks that these are brief statements made to a small group of innovators and entrepreneurs. ONE has plenty of wrinkles in its past, and Bono’s primary legacy in this arena consists of promoting the types of ineffective, top-down social engineering that groups like PovertyCure seek to expose. When Bono continues to claim that foreign aid, as he understands it, is still a “bridge”—even if just a bridge—it’s reasonable to assume that his orientation toward “bridge-building” has been left largely unchanged by his newfound appreciation for markets.

But although I’m not overly confident that Bono’s sudden self-awareness is enough to radically shift his aid efforts away from fostering dependency, this small admission helps illuminate one of our key obstacles to doing good in the world: overzealousness paired with overconfidence.

Bono describes his realization as a “humbling thing,” and “humbling” is precisely what the foreign aid experts and economic planners could use. As Friedrich Hayek famously wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” As the story of the Tower of Babel well confirms, man has a natural disposition to think he knows more than he knows and can construct beyond what he can construct—all to make a name for himself. The juice of righteous anger is a powerful enabler, and once it’s pumping through our veins it takes even less time for our human tendencies to escalate. After all, we’re only out to deliver humanity to heaven’s doorstep.

Such overconfidence in our own designs can be particularly destructive in the realm of economics, a science that’s in a constant battle over whether it should seek to explain human action, control it, or bypass it altogether. Such planners find a perfect match in eager activists such as Bono. “We can build your tower to heaven,” they’ll say, “and you can make a name for yourself. If only the right policy buttons are pushed and the right economic equilibrium is arranged, the world can be set to rights.”

As Peter Boettke explains in his book, Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, over the past 150 years economics has moved closer to self-confident interventionism and further away from Adam Smith’s more passive perch. Whereas economists were once seen as “cautionary prophets,” they are now elevated as “engineers,” ready and equipped to transform society using “economic science” as their tool. Whereas the economist once assumed the role of a student offering predictive warnings (“If you do x, y will happen”), he has now assumed the role of “practicing engineer,” or, as Boettke also describes it, “economist as savior.”

As Boettke explains:

The economist as prophet is more likely to utter “Thou Cannot” than “Thou Shalt Not.” This sort of economics has a default, though not inviolable, respect for the workings and value of institutions that have survived the process of social evolution. This puts him or her in the position of cautioning those who would remake or ignore the lasting results of those historical processes…What unites the engineers…is their rejection of the cautionary prophet’s default respect for historically successful social institutions.

But the economic engineer’s intrusion goes well beyond barging into more natural and effective social institutions. For in doing so, he treats dignified man and the unpredictable, invaluable relationships in which man engages as the mere mingling of predictable pieces in a larger static game. Such an intrusion should cause great alarm for those of us seeking restoration among the suffering, for how can we hope to improve conditions for the human person if we skip past what it means to be a human person? For the Christian in particular, God instructs each of us to do what the Lord wills. Are we really to assume that this means submitting the poor and rich alike to  Millennium Development Goals, or should we instead focus on freeing all people to pursue what is good and true?

Boettke is speaking specifically of economists as academics and scientists, but if it’s hard for a naïve rocker like Bono to overcome his messiah complex, how hard will it be for the top-down economic planners who have spent lifetimes convincing themselves of the magical powers of their imaginary equilibrium?

In beginning to recognize the difficulty involved in alleviating widespread poverty, Bono is heading in the direction we all should go: toward humility in our efforts to aid our brothers and sisters, and with a careful recognition of what truly elevates and empowers the human spirit.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.