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BOOK REVIEW

It uses principles founded on the idea that economic transactions between people can be analysed mathematically and scientifically. 

Economics: An economist reflects on the meaning of life, money and what really matters. By Ian Harper (Melbourne: Acorn Press, 2011)

The author of Economics for Life, Professor Ian Harper, is one of Australia’s best-known economists and an active churchman. In his book, Harper shares both insights gained from his professional career as an economist, and how his Christian faith has influenced his perspective.  

Economics is chiefly concerned with material wealth – especially at the societal level. Economists study things like energy costs, interest rates, business cycles, taxes, and employment levels – and advise decision makers on how to make choices that will lead to greater material prosperity. 

The most common theme across Harper’s book is that the claims of economics have to be put into their proper perspective. Economics deals with big-picture issues like poverty, employment, and electricity prices. It uses principles founded on the idea that economic transactions between people can be analysed mathematically and scientifically. For some people the claims of economics have become a kind of panacea – a secret formula to solving all of life’s difficulties. As Harper explains, ‘economics has become for them a religion which is authoritative over all of life and lays bare life’s myriad mysteries’ (p 32). 

In the book Harper seeks to bring a spiritual perspective to economics – explaining that while economics focuses on the material condition of humankind, it cannot shed light on our spiritual or existential condition.  ‘Economics attempts to understand the material world. It does not advance a philosophy of life, much less a set of metaphysical values by which people may attempt to lead worthwhile lives. Economics is not a religion.’ (p 32) 

While it is probably not surprising that materialists see the science of material prosperity as some kind of gospel, Harper’s view is that economics on its own can’t claim that only the material dimensions of a problem are relevant to a satisfactory solution. While economics has its place in understanding the material world, it cannot displace the Christian Gospel.  

Harper’s book is broken into three main sections. They are well written and relatively easy to comprehend. The first section, ‘What is economics anyway?’, explores some core assumptions of economics. Here Harper tries to set the record straight about what economics can and can’t do, dispelling myths and setting boundaries. This section of the book provides several wise and practical perspectives.  

Harper is cautious about economics moving beyond factual, scientific statements and into the realm of opinion.  For example, regarding inequality, Harper explains: ‘…economics can tell us how material wealth is created...however it is powerless to tell us how wealth should be distributed.’  

The section concludes with a chapter on the value and morality of markets. Here, Harper discusses the role of sin and the importance of personal responsibility. Harper reminds us that debates around the benefits and costs of market economies and their relative prosperity pale into insignificance when compared to the eternal nature of life with Christ.  

In the second section of the book, ‘Economics at work’, Harper begins by providing a short history of the Australian economy. He then proceeds to explore his involvement and perspectives on core areas of interest and experience: minimum wages, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and financial system reform. There is less in the way of specific Bible-based insight in this section, but it is still engaging.  

The third section, ‘Beyond Economics’, begins with Harper exploring a biblical perspective on wealth and affluence. It concludes with Harper sharing his own personal conversion story. Harper’s conversion begins with his wife’s conversion to Christianity, his initial resistance (‘hadn’t we come this far without the need for a spiritual crutch?’), entering a journey of honest intellectual inquiry encouraged and guided by others, and finally concluding when he found the case for Christianity too overwhelming to resist. Harper’s choice to include this personal element in the book is refreshingly honest and brought authenticity and texture to the author and his message.   

Economics may not interest everyone (I will let you make up your own mind about whether it deserves being sometimes labelled ‘the dismal science’). Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to anyone seeking a biblically-informed perspective on the subject. It may also help those interested in the intersection of Christian faith and questions of national economic prosperity. The book may also help you make some better-sounding arguments at the next family Christmas party! 

Mark Jennings is an economist and a member of the Canberra Church of Christ. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.     marcusjjj@yahoo.com.au

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