Christian Educators and the AP Economics Tests

by May 18, 2018

One common goal of Christian educators is to prepare their students for college. As part of this preparation, many teachers endeavor to prepare their students to take the AP exams in various disciplines. Moreover, parents are likely supportive of this practice since successful passage of those exams can earn college credit, thus reducing the number of courses needed to graduate and, in turn, saving the parents tuition dollars. What could possibly be wrong with this practice?

Unfortunately, in the case of the study of economics this practice inadvertently embraces an embedded atheism, which is thus imparted in the student’s understanding of the subject. The fundamental underlying moral philosophy that undergirds economics as it is taught today is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism was born in the early nineteenth century in the writings of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham put forth the idea that all public laws and policies should be based on a hedonistic calculus. That is, any particular law or program should be judged on the basis of whether the total pleasure it promoted outweighs the amount of pain it inflicts. If the amount of pleasure is greater than the pain, then it is asserted that would be a good government program. In arguing this way, Bentham was rejecting any objective moral standard established by God. In fact, he was rejecting God in his thinking altogether.

One might ask, how this applies to the study of economics? That’s a good question and the answer is that Bentham’s utilitarianism made its way into the study via the work of his most famous student, John Stuart Mill. Mill’s father was a disciple of Bentham who, in turn taught it to his son. It was in fact Mill who coined the term utilitarianism by publishing a book by that title. Mill also wrote the most popular economics text used in the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century utilitarianism got a big boost when welfare economics was launched by such English economists as Pigou and Robinson. They used the mathematical modeling taught to them by Alfred Marshall as a means of attempting to measure the welfare effects of government policies, encoding Bentham’s utilitarianism into the study. Thus, God’s absolute moral law is rejected in favor of a man-made pragmatism that is embedded in what is called neoclassical economics—both macro and micro. As a result, teaching economics from this widely accepted perspective is simply teaching students practical atheism.

For an example of this, I looked at the 2017 microeconomics AP exam. The third question on the exam sets up the basic neoclassic model for monopoly and proceeds to ask the students to interpret the model. Part c of this question asks the students to identify the “socially optimal quantity” of production in the market as if such a quantity actually existed. In part d the question leads the student into a discussion of what government should do to supposedly correct the “socially” less optimal output predicted by the model. Such modeling wholly misses significant aspects of economic reality and falsely asserts that governments are capable of correcting supposed free market failures by violating individual property rights. God’s eighth commandment is simply a complete prohibition on theft. It is not a prohibition on theft except by fifty-one percent vote or for some supposed public good.

The study of economics was not born with this mindset. Indeed, the first economists embraced a natural law perspective that acknowledged an underlying moral order that ought to be respected. In fact, many of the principles they discovered are still given lip-service by the neoclassicals. However, at numerous points along the way, the natural law theorists will have to separate paths with the neoclassicals. It is hard to imagine that ever happening with today’s students if they are not taught the difference that it makes. If Christian educators are teaching the same things that the world teaches, then merely praying before class begins and throwing a few Bible verses around are not likely to make any difference whatsoever in how their students see the world. Their Christianity is simply an add-on that may likely be rejected once the student goes to college. Is that worth the few dollars of tuition that will be saved? I don’t think so.

Paul Cleveland

Boundary Stone was started by Dr. Paul Cleveland. Working as a professor for over 35 years has allowed him to study and think deeply about issues of political economy. He has discovered ways to communicate these sometimes illusive concepts to today's students, often through story telling, which makes understanding these principles more accessible to all of us.

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