[The following is from a photocopy of an article in a journal that has ceased publication. The article is very difficult to locate. The late Paul Heyne was an exceptional theologian, ethicist, and economist, who authored the highly acclaimed economics textbook, The Economic Way of Thinking (now in its 12th edition.) His collection of essays, Are Economists Basically Immoral?, is a must read for anyone wanting to reflect on theology and economics. This article is particularly intriguing and I hope this post will help keep it from passing into oblivion. I've uploaded a pdf version as well: Click here.]
by Paul Heyne, Stewardship Journal, Winter 1993, 17-22.
The King James translators opened the door to confusion when they chose the English word steward to render two entirely different Greek words. An epitropos is a person to whose care of guardianship something has been turned over, the custodian of what actually belongs to someone else. An oikonomos is literally the manager of a household or estate. While this might be the managers own household, so that an oikonomos is not necessarily an epitropos, in New Testament times it usually meant the household of someone wealthy enough to turn managerial responsibilities over to an agent. These two meanings have been blended into the concept of stewardship that prevails among church people. We are to be good managers of the resources with which God has entrusted us as His agents.
In 1980 the Fellows of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College published a book titled Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources. They have now produced a revised edition of that book under the title Earthkeeping in the Nineties:Stewardship of Creation.  It is an excellent book: clearly organized, well informed, reasonable and balanced in its judgments, superbly written, and graced with a large number of delightful cartoons reprinted from various magazines. In addition to incisive commentary on some of the issues, the cartoons provide evidence that the authors do not belong to any of those dour and deadly sects that confuse seriousness of purpose with gravity of countenance.
My criticisms of the book are almost all linked to the concept of stewardship. While I readily concede that we Christians are epitropoi, custodians of the resources that God has entrusted to us, and that we are all called to be oikonomoi, good managers of the households under our care. I cannot agree that any of us is capable of being an oikonomos in the sense intended by the authors of Earthkeeping in the Nineties.
The problem is that we live in a complex, decentralized, highly specialized society that no one controls or can control. What we call our “economy” is not at all analogous to a household or anything else that could possibly be “managed." Each of us can Influence the economy, though almost always in ways too trivial even to be noticed outside a very small circle. Government officials can typically exert a somewhat larger influence, and a few government officials, such as the President or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in the United States, can exercise a substantial influence. But even these powerful offic1als cannot manage the economy. Stalin himself at the height of his power was not able to manage the economy of the Soviet Union. A modern industrial society, characterized as it is by extensive and minute division of labor, is a social system far too complex to be managed by any oikonomos not endowed with godlike powers.
None of this seems to have been noticed by the authors of Earthkeeping in the Nineties -- or by any of the considerable number of other writers who have attempted in recent years to organize their thoughts about the Christian faith and ecology around the concept of stewardship. The arguments proceed consistently as if it lay within the power of someone to manage the resources of the earth. The fact that no one is in charge or can be in charge, and that what emerges from all our efforts is the undesigned and quite often unintended product of our interactions-this fact fails repeatedly to affect the argument at any of the points where it seems to me to be of crucial importance.
"'Economics,’ in its original sense,” the authors of Earthkeeping write, "meant the management of one's own household, and thus was quite limited in scope." Then they add, in parentheses: “Its meaning, as we shall see, has since broadened considerably." That's not correct. The meaning has not broadened; it has undergone a dramatic transformation.
The change in meaning was obscured at the beginning of the nineteenth century by a set of French and English writers who adopted the term 'political economy' to describe the new science they wished to construct on the foundations that had recently been laid by Adam Smith. They took the term over from pre-Smithian writers, who had reasoned that if economy (oikonomia) is the science of household management, then the proper term for the science that studies the management of the larger household of the state ought to be political economy. The French Encyclopedie, in a 1775 article on Political Economy, authored by none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stated that the word "economy" originally signified only the wise and legitimate government of the household for the common good of the whole family. The meaning of the term was subsequently extended to the government of the large family which is the State. In order to distinguish these two meanings, in the latter case it is called general, or political, economy, and in the former domestic, or private economy.
The meaning of the term "political economy' changed completely, however, in the fifty years after Rousseau wrote, under the decisive influence of the ideas put forward by Adam Smith in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith did not consider himself to be doing political economy when he wrote The Wealth of Nations. The late Jacob Viner, a distinguished scholar of the history of economics, put the matter this way:
Smith used the term 'political economy" a dozen or so times, and every time, except perhaps once, he meant the economic policy of a nation. Since Smith generally took a dim view of the benefits to be derived from national economic policy, political economy must for him have been nearly synonymous with "economic poison."
We need not inquire further into the confusions that caused the term "political economy" (and later "economics") to be applied to the science founded by a man who was in reality attacking the notion that a whole society could be managed in the manner of a household. The key point is that the modern science of economics is not about economizing but about exchange. Economics does assume that individuals economize; and sometimes the introductory textbooks will harass innocent students mercilessly with formal techniques for explicating the logic of the economizing process. But almost everything important that economics has to say about the operation of economic systems has to do not with managing but with the process of exchange. The core of economics is “supply and demand,” which is a way of thinking about exchange, not about economical management.
We can clarify the difference through the example of traffic. Air traffic controllers can reasonably be said to manage the movement of commercial airline traffic: they impose upon all the pilots flying commercial places a central plan that dictates precisely for each one the time of take-off, the speed and path of ascent, the route to be followed, and the time, speed, and path of descent and landing. But no one manages the flow of vehicular traffic on the streets of a modern city in this way. Drivers choose their own times of departure, routes to follow, speed of travel, maneuvers along the way, and final destination, reporting their plans to no one and continually revising these plans as they see fit. Drivers are not completely free to do anything they please, of course. They are constrained by the decisions of other drivers in the vicinity. There are also "rules of the game,” some of them very specific but others quite vague, that limit the choices drivers may make. Within these rules, however, and sometimes a bit outside them, drivers pursuing their own interests with very little concern for the interests of others (largely because of extremely limited knowledge of those interests) coordinate their interactions and arrive safely and expeditiously at their destinations.
No one manages this process in the sense of controlling outcomes. Traffic engineers can influence the process by changing the timing of traffic lights, altering speed limits, or adjusting parking regulations, and over time they can increase their influence through street construction or closure. But they can neither predict not control the specific results. The most they can aim for is a smooth and rapid flow. An air traffic controller is an oikonomos. There is no oikonomos in the world of urban traffic, neither on the streets, nor in the control centers of traffic engineers, and anyone who aspired to become an oikonomos of urban traffic would have failed to understand the complexity of the problem.
What is obviously true in the case of urban traffic because of its complexity is far more true, but, unfortunately, far less obvious in the case of a modem interdependent economy. It was not obvious to the authors of Earthkeeping in the Nineties. They miss the point most dramatically, perhaps, in their chapter on "The Appropriateness of Techno1ogy." The chapter opens with these sentences:
Sometimes we speak of '"technology” and “economics” as though they were vast movements and processes beyond our control. Some Christian thinkers have even seen in the apparent autonomy and irresistibility of these forces a good indication that they are demonic -- inherently destructive, anti-human, and anti-creational in their thrust. So it is often easy to blame technology or economics for environmental (and other) problems.
The authors of Earthkeeping reject this stance. Technology and economics, they insist, are not outside our control. They are somewhat sympathetic to the grim analysis of Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society (1964) and many subsequent works decrying the tyranny of technique. They concede that means or technique do often seem to be in control, leaving us no apparent room for autonomous decisions. They want to take Ellul's analysis “very seriously -- both because of its explanatory power and because it is rooted in profound truths of human pride, sinfulness, and rebellion.” In the last analysis, however, they reject the arguments of those who claim that technology is a force compelling us to do dehumanizing and destructive things. Their reasons are instructive:
We do not disagree with their analysis of the deplorable things which have been done to the earth and its inhabitants. But it is we ourselves who have done these things, not technology. It is not technology, for example, that forces us to invent the automobile and then (because of increased mobility) to spread out from our cities into suburbs and shopping centers which cover good farmland. It is rather that we humans like to be mobile. And we like to live outside the city, on a plot of ground big enough to have trees and grass around us; the mobility makes that goal possible. And having chosen to live outside the city, we prefer also to have our shopping areas and even our places of work close by. We could choose otherwise, but we usually do not. The mobility of the automobile makes it possible for us to make such choices, but they are still our choices, not those of technology.
"It is dangerously misleading,” they write toward the end of the chapter, "to blame technology: the problem lies rather in individual choices. But our choice can be so warped or obscured that technology effectively does become an independent force."
It is precisely here that the metaphor of the oikonomos has led the authors astray. Tyrannical technology or free individual choice are not the only two options, especially not when the failure of individual choices is taken to be primarily a moral failure, the result of "human pride, sinfulness, and rebellion." The authors consistently overlook the implications of the fact that ours is for the most part a society organized through exchange transactions. They fail to understand the origins and dynamics of social or environmental problems that are indeed the product of individual choices, but are nonetheless not intended by anyone at all, and that can therefore neither be attributed to moral failure nor corrected by moral renewal.
Consider the authors' example of the automobile. As they correctly point out, technology did not force us to invent the automobile or to follow its invention with suburbs, shopping malls, and urban sprawl. All these things were produced by our choices. But which of these choices is morally reprehensible, a particular reflection of human pride, sinfulness, or rebellion, "warped" or “obscured?” Is there something wrong with the desire to be mobile? Or the desire to live surrounded by trees and green grass? Or the desire to have our shopping areas and places of work close to our homes?
Let us take everyone's favorite worst case, Los Angeles. And let us grant all the criticisms of those most hostile to the automobile cu1ture: that the automobile has ruined both the natural and social environment for those who live in Los Angeles, polluting the air and destroying the possibility of residential areas in which people can be effective neighbors towards one another. Should we hold technology or human sin responsible for this disaster? The best answer is, Neither of the above. It could have all come about, and did in fact largely come about, through the interplay of individual choices that cannot really be faulted. Individuals made numerous decisions that were both rational and moral, and unintentionally produced an unacceptable outcome. Put another way: each individual behaved in the manner of a good oikonomos and all together produced a mess.
Suppose that every inhabitant of Los Angeles was miraculously converted overnight to the worldview of St. Francis of Assist. We would no doubt see major changes in the behavior of Los Angelenos; but I would not be at all confident that we would see a decline in air pollution caused by the automobile. Each newly-sanctified Los Angeleno, eager now to bring benefits and blessings to all other beings, would still need his car to do so effectively, given the physical layout of the city and its environs, just as any current Los Angelena desirous of doing good, finds her automobile a valuable asset for getting food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and clothing to the naked, for visiting those sick or in prison, and for earning income with which to do any of these things more effectively. Citizens of Los Angles who make the “good steward's” choice and leave their cars at home end up getting less done, breathing more exhaust fumes, and dying earlier than those who refuse to behave like "good stewards." That looks like very bad stewardship.
It will not do to respond by saying that "every little bit helps,” because in situations such as this it really does not help and may even hurt. One driver makes no discernible difference to anyone except that former driver, who may feel better inwardly but will not thereby improve the quality of the environment for others (while, of course, worsening it for himself.) Moreover, those large-spirited souls who choose to walk rather than drive leave more room on the streets for mean-spirited souls, thereby prompting over time a progressive displacement of good works by the works of evildoers. One reason the miraculous conversion of everyone in Los Angeles would not solve the problem of automobile pollution in the city is that if all the converted did stop driving, they would thereby make it more attractive for the unconverted to drive into Los Angeles and even to move there. As long as driving one's own automobile is perceived as the most effective way to accomplish one's purposes, automobile traffic will tend to expand in urban areas, until the congestion that it creates makes driving no longer the most attractive option.
Environmental problems are largely created by decisions that would be perfectly acceptable -- a responsible use of resources, good stewardship -- if only “the right number” of such decisions were made. The question therefore is: For what specific purposes should we put carbon dioxide in the air or encroach on the habitat of threatened species or draw down the stock of non-renewable resources?
Satisfactory answers will depend on information not available in any publications and not known or even remotely knowable by any single oikonomos. The way we use resources is determined by the interactions of individuals who are pursuing the projects that interest them, in response to their perceptions of the relative costs and benefits of alternative choices, and in accord with the established "rules of the game.” Money prices are the critical bits of information that make possible the continuous adjustment and coordination of all these independent projects, so that order and cooperation usually emerge from what looks at first like a prescription for chaos.
What should we do when what emerges is unsatisfactory? We must change the rules of the game. That will rarely be easy to do. A change in the rules will almost certainly affect some people adversely, and they may resist. Moreover, we often cannot know in advance precisely what changes are necessary to produce the improvements we want. Nonetheless, this is the direction in which we must move. We will almost certainly fail to achieve our objectives if we simply ask people to become “better stewards."' No one knows what “stewardship of creation” implies for his or her own actions. Exhortations to change our life-styles just do not give us sufficient information. Changes in the way we live will entail costs as well as benefits; to avoid much ado about very little, a good steward must be able to predict in some reasonable manner the benefits and the costs of the many life-style changes that are possible. A good manager, after all, does not make arbitrary or capricious decisions; the art of good management is the art of comparing costs and benefits.
Good will is not enough, if for no other reason than that we must finally choose among the multitude of competing and sometimes incompatible projects that good will suggests to us. One cost of doing good works is the opportunity thereby foregone to perform other good works. How far should we go in our efforts to live more simply? What should we do when our decision not to drive leaves us less time for being with our children or preparing meals at the homeless shelter? What costs are we justified in imposing on others, such as members of our family or work colleagues? How should we take account of what others are doing? In some situations the fact that few others are doing something creates a case against our doing it; but in other situations it creates a case for doing it. The abstract thinker will overlook such questions as these, but someone who wants to be an oikonomos and not just talk about it must somehow find procedures for making such decisions.
Values do matter. That is why books such as Earthkeeping in the Nineties can make important contributions to the development of sustainable and otherwise more acceptable patterns of living. A necessary condition for the kind of social changes hoped for by the authors of this book is a different sort of consciousness. But raised consciousness is not a sufficient condition for dealing effectively with social problems created by good people doing good things. What we require in such circumstances, where good economizing by individuals is producing bad collective consequences, is something that has very little to do with religion or morality. We need social institutions that generate more appropriate specific incentives.
The difficulties are ultimately political rather than economic. Most people need little urging to behave like good economizers: but they economize on the basis of the information and incentives that they actually encounter. If this produces consequences that are unacceptable from an ecological perspective, we will have to use political processes to alter the rules of the game in a fashion likely to produce more appropriate information and incentives. It will often be hard to discover satisfactory new rules, even harder to enact them when the new rules impose differential new burdens. But these, it seems to me, are the principal social challenges that will confront us if we decide to do a better job of “earthkeeping" than we have done so far. Theology will be of much less help in meeting these challenges than we are inclined to suppose.
 Loren Wilkinson. ed. revised edition. Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation (Grand Rapids. MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.)