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Law and Economics Training for Religious Leaders:

My undergraduate classmate and University of Missouri antitrust scholar Danny Sokol suggests that rabbis who preach on public policy issues could benefit from training in law and economics:

Jews around the world have taken tikun olam [the religious duty to "repair" and improve the world] to heart and historically we have been at the forefront of social movements far disproportionate to our small numbers . . . I think about this in part because as someone teaching a law and economics course semester, I think back to one of the founders of the law and economics movement - Henry Manne [ed. note: Manne is a former Dean of George Mason Law School]. One of Manne's many great accomplishments was to introduce law and economics to a wider audience of law professors and practitioners. It seems to me, based on years of hearing sermons from various Rabbis, that the Rabbinate in general could use some law and economics training. Most sermons lack any semblance of understanding of economics, particularly those that address issues of tikun olam. I would love for Manne to come out of his Florida retirement to conduct law and economics workshops for clergy. Law and economics training could help Rabbis to understand how economic incentives work and how these incentives help to shape law and policy and vice versa...

In August, Notre Dame professor and Catholic legal theorist Rick Garnett made a related point in criticizing Pope Benedict XVI's apparent plan to issue an encyclical condemning tax evasion for denying revenue needed by "society as a whole" and contributing budget deficits, while ignoring the much greater comparable effects of excessive and wasteful government spending.

More generally, it seems to me that many religious leaders who pronounce on public policy tend to reflexively favor increasing the role of government with little consideration of ways in which the interventions they favor might have perverse results, or ways in which social problems can be alleviated by reducing the role of the state instead of increasing it. Left-wing clergy seek to increase the role of government in fighting poverty, discrimination, and the like, while right-wing ones tend to focus their political energies on promoting "morals" regulation. This may well be painting with too broad a brush, and I'm sure there are religious leaders who are exceptions to this generalization. Nonetheless, it seems to me true as a general pattern (though I welcome correction by anyone who has compiled systematic data).

Learning basic law and economics won't necessarily turn religious leaders into libertarians. But it might give them a greater appreciation for markets, and engender at least a modest skepticism towards government. There are, to be sure, many clergy who don't make a practice of preaching on public policy issues. Danny's argument (or at least mine) doesn't apply to them. But it surely does apply to the many who do.

By the way, I have no doubt that the public policy pronouncements of leaders of atheist organizations often display just as little knowledge of economics as those of clergy. However, few people (even among atheists) give credence to the public policy views of atheist spokesmen merely because of their status as leaders of atheist organizations. By contrast, many religious people do take seriously the public policy pronouncements of their clergy, especially when those pronouncements are linked to religious duties such as Tikkun Olam.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. A Pet Peeve--DC Rabbis Blathering About Politics:
  2. Law and Economics Training for Religious Leaders:
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A Pet Peeve--DC Rabbis Blathering About Politics:

Ilya's post on rabbis' (and other clergypeople's) economic ignorance reminds me of one of my pet peeves, D.C. area rabbis who give overtly ideological sermons on general political topics like gun control, environmental issues (see Sam Kazman's post My Green Rosh Hashannah), and the like.

Put aside the issue of whether such sermons are appropriate as a general rule, and whether rabbis are completely miscontruing the concept of "tikkun olam" when they claim a special Jewish interest in such issues under that heading; I have a narrower complaint. In the D.C. area, no matter how much any given rabbi studies up for a sermon on, say, the living wage movement, immigration reform, or national health insurance, there are always going to be hundreds of individuals far more knowledgeable on the topic available as guest speakers. Indeed, in many cases one or more real experts will be in the chapel as the rabbi gives a rather ignorant talk on the subject (I've found myself in that position, once).

In short, why would I go to a synagogue to hear a rabbi speak about, say, the prospects for U.S. intervention in Darfur, when I could attend a speech by a real expert at Brookings, SAIS, or some other DC venue? If the rabbi has some wisdom to impart regarding how Jewish law and/or tradition specifically speaks to the topic of his sermon, that's another story. But in my experience, most of these sermons are more akin to a bad op-ed written for a general interest newspaper, and can only be attributed to some combination of laziness (much easier to write up a quick talk on gun control than the philosophy of the RAMBAM); pandering to the overwhelmingly liberal congregation; misusing the pulpit, in a rather inefficient way, to further one's own political ideas; and rabbinical frustration at not being a real "player" in DC.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. A Pet Peeve--DC Rabbis Blathering About Politics:
  2. Law and Economics Training for Religious Leaders:
63 Comments