Lans Bovenberg about the need for theology in economic thinking

Lans Bovenberg, Professor of Relational Economics, Values and Leadership, argues for a new light on the economy, starting with the education of economics in secondary schools. In an interview with Studio Erasmus, Bovenberg explains why this new approach is necessary, what should change in the current society, and how we can achieve this. 

Why is it necessary to bring theology into the university?

'These are pretty tough times for the economy and in these times it's important to listen to people who have thought a lot about it. The economy has actually been quite successful if we look at the economic development over the last 200 years. At the same time, we are facing a number of problems: growing inequality, climate change and the enormous pressure people are under for example. And that's why economists are also reflecting: do we need to continue along the path we have been walking for the past 200 years or is it time to make some changes?' 

Why is it important that the approach of the homo economicus should be disregarded?

'Economists like simple models that are very general. That is also our strength. We make models that are very simple but still have a wide application. The homo economicus model has been a good model to approach reality for a long time. The homo economicus actually has two characteristics: he is rational and amoral, which means that he knows how to make smart decisions and that he is only interested in personal gains. That model is a pretty good approach for large anonymous relationships in an anonymous market, but we now see that the economy is getting more and more complex and then you really need different behavioural models. A field that has been very much on the rise in recent years is behavioural economics. It actually recognises that people are very limited and that we make systematic mistakes that companies can abuse.'

Is the problem then that people are not only self-interested or is the problem that you do not get a pleasant society with these kind of people?

'Both. People simply have other motivations than just their own interests. Whether or not people are virtuous strongly depends on the circumstances. We are working with an alternative model that is actually very much based on intrinsic reciprocity. So I value your interest as long as you value my interest as well. The economy actually runs on trust. If I am in a situation in which I do not feel safe then I will act mainly according to my own interest because I have no confidence that someone else will look after my interest. And then I would also become more selfish. So people actually have two sides: a good side and a bad side. And it is all about rearranging society in such a way that the good impulses are stimulated.' 

But what should be different? How are you going to bring these good impulses back into the economy?

There are several roads that lead to Rome: the first way is education. It is very important to redesign the education in economics on secondary school. If we tell children that the good life comes primarily from acting in your own interests, then they will behave accordingly. In the last twenty years the economy has changed a lot, with much more attention to psychology and sociology but that hasn't descended into the education system yet. If you focus on this new view of mankind it is also much more fun for children because they recognise themselves in it. Economics is actually about learning to bear your own responsibility and looking at society and its people as a whole.

The second way is through business life. Companies should try to manage their business by taking certain values as a central point of view. We try to make people more aware of their own values and the values of the people they work with. We are convinced that in the future the focus will mainly be on intrinsic motivation. 

More information

The full interview from Studio Erasmus, 26 October 2020, can be found here (in Dutch). 

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