A Rogue Economist Explains
the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
William Morrow, 2005
Christians Can Learn from the “Rogue” Economist: Spiritual
Reflections on Freakonomics
It’s a rare thing indeed when a widely hyped book merits its
reputation, but Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen
J. Dubner is the real deal. Quirky, entertaining, and full of useful
facts and information—unless you’re the kind of person
who simply hates non-fiction, Freakonomics will not disappoint.
If you’ve already read it and moved on to Malcolm Gladwell
or Jim Collins, I’d like bring you back for a moment to Steven
Levitt’s freaky universe. Or, if you haven’t, do not
be afraid, there won’t be many spoilers here.
his book, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons
in History, Michael Hart observed that Jesus Christ would probably
be considered the most influential person in history if only more
people actually followed what he said and did. It doesn’t
take an economist to know that citizens in our culture are more
likely to call a lawyer than turn the other cheek, but it is something
akin to a cold shower (especially for a professed Christian) when
you let Hart’s remark settle in.
me, the central revelation of Freakonomics is the extent
to which we are all driven by incentives. Drawing
on data from the worlds of sales and merchandising (with examples
ranging from the crack trade to the real estate biz), sports (particularly,
Sumo wrestling), and education, Levitt demonstrates that given the
right incentive (or wrong, as it may be), a significant portion
of the population will lie, cheat, and steal. Conversely, incentives
can make law-abiding citizens of even the worst of us.
got me thinking about Michael Hart. Perhaps the problem with Christians
is that we lack a proper incentive plan. Let’s be honest:
the system of heaven and hell invented by our ancestors no longer
works for us. Another inducement scheme bequeathed us by our forbears
is the tax exemption for religion. Aside from giving society a slight
warm and fuzzy feeling, what does it do for us? Freakonomically
speaking, it provides no positive incentive to do good and, insofar
as there are no demands made by society in exchange for the privilege,
it probably has a slightly corrupting influence.
for the question of heaven and hell, St. Thomas Aquinas would say
that incentives based on hope and fear are imperfect. (Only gifts
offered to God out of love are perfect.) This
hearkens back to what I believe to be the core message of Jesus:
Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. In the Christian system,
it is the love of the Father/Mother that enlivens us, draws us out
of darkness into light, and is the burning torch that moves us forward.
In the love of the Father/Mother lies our encouragement to be and
do good. As Jesus notes, from this encounter flows the need to turn
in love toward our neighbors, meeting them with peace and justice.
But it is in God’s love that our good deeds are rooted.
first step in furnishing for ourselves a Christian Freakonomics
will be to analyze our own relationship with God. Is
it the infinite beauty and goodness of God that drives us—or
do doubts and darker motives linger beneath the surface? Certainly
doubt makes for stronger faith, but somewhere along the line I believe
we’ve become too accepting of our doubts, weakening our resolve
to do what Christ commanded.
how real, how palpable is the God we worship each Sunday? I can’t
recall the last time I heard a sermon that sought to make God real
enough to shake me to my bones. We hear all kinds of moralizing
from the pulpit, but until we regain the awareness that it is God’s
Love that gives all meaning and all bearing to our lives, we risk
forever coming up short of the blazing example of our Founder and
Brother, Jesus Christ. Now there’s an incentive plan for the
©2006 John Tintera
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