A Critique of Boudreaux on Christianity

Dr. Don Boudreaux is an American libertarian economist, author and professor. He is a long time and central contributor to Cafe Hayek. Today he posted this article criticizing Peter Navarro, a top economics advisor to Donald Trump.

First of all I thank Dr. Boudreaux for calling out Navarro’s bad policy. As far as I have seen, Boudreaux is a great economist, but today I began to see his attitude on religion. That is what I would like to critique here. I also take some issue with Boudreaux’s style in this particular article.

On Style

Reading the substance of the article, it appears to be more name calling than analysis. I don’t expect everyone to be analytical all of the time, in particular in a short blog article. I’m sure it’s a mistake I’ve made many times myself, but it is a mistake. By adopting this style, Dr. Boudreaux is reducing the appeal of Cafe Hayek.

Dr. Boudreaux later compares mercantilism to creationism, saying, “Such an economist today is the equivalent of a trained biologist who is also a creationist: neither really grasps the logic of his science.” While I will later argue that this comparison is invalid on its face, even granting the technical validity I have to point out the low style of this comment.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2014, at that time 42% of Americans believed that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. This belief is properly called Young Earth Creationism, and often loosely referred to as creationism.

At the time of the poll, another 31% of Americans believed that Humans evolved with God guiding the process. These individuals may fall into a number of belief categories including Old Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, Evolutionary Creationism, which is also called Theistic Evolution, Progressive Creationism, and others. These belief systems are also captured in creationism broadly.

So at the level of style, Dr. Boudreaux’s comment amounted to an insult directed toward approximately 42-73% of the American population. Even if his comment is technically accurate, that’s just not a smart thing to say. It’s not beneficial for the libertarian cause or for his own readership and interest.

One last point on style, before we get to validity. Creationists could easily become the most natural allies of Austrian Economics, if the style of libertarian discourse were to become more friendly to the religious right.

From a scientific perspective, Intelligent Design is one of the two leading creationist subfields, the other being theistic evolution. ID focuses on the role of teleology and information as contributors to biological evolution. Austrian economics focuses on the role of teleology and information as contributors to economic and social development.

The interdisciplinary connection is so strong, natural, and obvious that Harvard educated economist George Gilder co-founded the Discovery Institute, now the leading Intelligent Design think tank, and then wrote a book about the link.

George Gilder has been strongly influenced by Milton Friedman, Hayek, and Rand, but is this any surprise? Conservatives in general are highly sympathetic to free market principles. If Libertarians and Austrians want to grow their camp in the most pragmatic way possible, an anti-Christian style is an extremely wrong-headed strategy.

On Validity

In addition to stylistic issues, Boudreux’s analogy between creationism and mercantilism is technically flawed for a few reasons:

  1. Creationism per se cannot be rigorously called incompatible with modern science, since it refers to an aggregate of subcategories, many of which depend on modern scientific assumptions, methods, or findings.
    1. Granted, Young Earth Creationism in particular is incompatible with modern science.
  2. Creationist belief is decoupled from performance as a medical practitioner, in contrast to the relationship between mercantalist thought and performance as an applied economist.
    1. Leading Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham distinguishes between historical science and observational science (1 and 2),.
    2. According to Ham, the latter affects practice. In a debate with Bill Nye, Ken Ham notes
    3. This article, from a pro-secular position, goes over the numbers of medical practitioners who favor Intelligent Design, referred to as creationism in the article, over neo-darwinian evolution.
    4. Note: References to Ken Ham don’t mean I approve of YEC. I’m just making a point, and it’s a serious logical point. Personally, I’m agnostic on the Earth’s age, I think it’s inessential to scripture, and if you pushed me I would say the latest scientific estimates are the best we have.
  3. Lastly, a specific subfield of creationism is leading the direction of the latest biological research, not lagging it. That is, Intelligent Design.
    1. While the argument from design has been around a long time, the scientific field of Intelligent Design is a recent innovation.
    2. Historically, Intelligent Design emerged from the creationist movement. As early as the 1980s, a few Ph.D. awarded scientists were trying to seperate themselves from mainline creationism with a more rigorously scientific approach.
    3. ID began as a legitimate science in my view in 1993 with the production of its first key scientific idea, Behe’s irreducible complexity.
    4. Key ideas continued to develop including Dembski’s Specified Complexity, the undermining of junk DNA, and ID as the best comparative explanation of the Cambrian Explosion.
      1. The latter is a current topic, with a key, highly rated book on the subject published in 2013. The book is Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer.
    5. The majority of the peer reviewed work in Intelligent Design began after 2000, and it continues to be a field of interest and development at the present time.

On Boudreaux’s Views on Christianity Writ Large

Dr. Boudreaux doesn’t have much material published on the topics of Christianity, atheism, religion, or philosophy more broadly. I did find two articles which engage the issues in a direct way, and they seem to support the pattern that Dr. Boudreaux presents an elementary understanding of creationism and the Christian faith.

  • Facts vs. Faith – How do Believers Separate Facts from Faith?
    • Presents a poor understanding of faith including a failure to distinguish faith from blind faith.
    • His incorrect definition of faith: “it means belief in something for no rational reason and without sufficient supporting empirical evidence.”
      • The usual Christian definition of faith, from the KJV rendering of Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
      • My preferred, scientist-friendly rendering of Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the set of things we expect, and the reasons we expect them, although they have not yet been directly observed.”
      • In other words, faith refers both to a rational theory and the application thereof. When a scientist extrapolates or forecasts, he is acting in faith.
    • Mistakenly states that Christian Apologetics violates the basic need of Christians to have faith
  • Social Creationism, Social Deism, & Social Atheism
    • Presents a dated or conflationary view of creationism, resulting in the production of an invalid analogy, consistent with his more recent article.
    • A better analogy would be that Social Deists believe God fine-tuned the laws of economics and left, while Social Creationists believe that God created the laws of economics and continues to sustain them presently. I’m not sure how a social atheist might propose the existence of such laws other than by necessity, and that doesn’t sound convincing.
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