One of the more famous quotes of Harry Emerson Fosdick has to do with beginning and ending points. “He who chooses the beginning of the road,” said the renowned preacher, “chooses the place it leads to.” It is an important point to keep in mind as theologians and political economists alike confront issues of public policy.
Determinations regarding what ends we seek as well as what means we choose to achieve those ends often flow, whether acknowledged or not, from understandings of human nature. In order to fully grasp how such determinations come about, it is important to begin at the beginning.
From the theological perspective, Stanley Hauerwas and Ted Peters present very different views of human nature. At the risk of over-generalizing complicated thinkers, Hauerwas leans toward seeing humans as fundamentally good, while Peters tends to see humanity as primarily a fallen species. Their conclusions and prescriptions flow from these views.
Experience would seem to call such extreme positions into question. Two figures from the field of political economy – Lord Acton and Adam Smith – offer an alternative vision, as well as alternative approaches to public policy. Both viewed human beings as more complex – subject to aspects of their nature that draw them toward evil, but also blessed with inner goodness granting them the capacity to escape the clutches of that evil.
While there would no doubt be significant disagreements among them, it is interesting to note that commonalities appear between Smith and Acton and early Quaker figures. Several key personalities – Barclay, Fox, Penn and Pennington – all seem to share this more balanced view of human nature and, to some extent, its implications for public policy as well.