The Role of Hierarchy in the Production of Salvation Goods.

AuthorGochenour, Zachary J.
PositionEssay
  1. Introduction

    Economists generally and justifiably sing the praises of decentralized markets for maximizing consumer welfare. Following Coase (1937), we find that within the market environment are firms that are pockets of central planning. They are typically organized with a rigid hierarchical structure and almost never use prices for internal decisions. The hierarchical, centralized nature of firms should give us pause if we believe that decentralized markets are not just efficient but robust and liberty enhancing in the long term. How should lovers of liberty think of private governance structures that rely on hierarchy?

    In this paper, we discuss the advantages of hierarchy in the production of certain types of religious "goods." As in the secular market, some goods are provided in a decentralized, horizontal way, and some by rigid hierarchical organizations. The mode of production depends on the attributes of the goods being produced. The religious arena is full of goods that either cannot be priced or whose value is greatly diminished when offered for sale. Religious firms must grapple with the trade-offs between modes of production.

    One religious firm, the Roman Catholic Church, has long maintained a strict hierarchy internally, even in the face of challenges arising from within (Ekelund et al. 1996). It has always maintained that the hierarchy is key to preserving the production of the religious goods it produces. It has also maintained that by restricting the freedom of producers, and indeed the consumers, of its religious goods, it improves their welfare. We consider the role of hierarchy in the Church's production of religious goods in this paper. Finally, we return to the question of whether freedom and hierarchy are compatible societal goals.

  2. How the Production of Salvation Goods Is Different from the Production of Other Goods

    As economists have turned their attention to "religious goods" and "religious markets," they have tended to treat churches as firms, engaged in the production and distribution of one or another good to religious consumers. While this approach has attracted some criticism, it has been remarkably fruitful, and it continues to motivate a good deal of the ongoing research on the sociology of religion. Iannaccone, Stark, Bainbridge, and others, working in the rational choice tradition, have identified and discussed a wide variety of goods that religious organizations produce. Furthermore, they have described how many of the functions of religious organizations parallel the activities of secular firms, while recognizing that religion offers an important area of social activity often characterized by "nonmarket" behavior (Iannaccone 1998). The common lists of religious goods includes both personal and social goods, ranging from concrete to abstract and from natural to transcendent.

    While some of these goods have much in common with those economists are accustomed to discussing, others are unusual or perhaps unique, inasmuch as religious markets are in the business of supplying goods that relate to the afterlife. Stolz provides a useful typology for distinguishing between six kinds of religious goods. Three are individual goods--consumer, membership, and personal-and three are social goods: communal, collective, and positional (Stolz 2006). Using standard economic concepts, Stolz distinguishes the goods based on their exclusivity, alienability, divisibility, and transferability. Consumer goods, including both objects and services, can be produced and traded just like any other commodity. Consumer goods include religious icons, prayer books, and other media. These are divisible, exclusive, and transferable, and most importantly, they have no inherent qualities that would make one mode of production and exchange more appropriate than another.

    Membership goods, first analyzed at length by Iannaccone (1992), can be traded, but tend to exhibit some interesting characteristics that differentiate them from other commodities. For one, they are often exclusive, in that belonging to one group requires refraining from belonging to any others. Consumer goods and membership goods fit comfortably into standard models of market behavior, and for economists studying religious markets, that the firm in question is a church adds little in the way of analytic import. Religious membership and religious belonging are similarly amenable to traditional economic analysis. The demand to belong to a particular religious community will surely be higher as the benefits of belonging increase. However, Iannaccone describes some peculiarities of these markets, beginning with their link to the supernatural, which disrupts certain feedback mechanisms that allow markets for more conventional goods to operate as efficiently as they do (Iannaccone 1992).

    1. Salvation and Communal Goods

      Outside of consumer and membership goods, the sorts of goods religious institutions provide begin to be oriented toward nonprice production and nonmarket exchange. Among Stolz's list of goods, personal and communal are perhaps the least amenable to market processes. These goods generally cannot be purchased, exchanged, divided, or even produced in a traditional sense. Among these salvation goods are the development of religious human capital; physical, psychic, and social well-being; the attainment virtue; and religious experiences (Stolz 2006). Further, Stolz offers a definition of salvation goods based on Weber's 1922 Wirtschaft und Gesellschafk "an end or a means to an end which is offered by a religion, embedded in a specific world-view and a system of life practices, and which may be aspired to or used by an individual or social group" (Stolz 2006, p. 19). These salvation goods can either be goals or the way those goals are achieved. The beatific vision--seeing God face to face--is a focal salvation good in the Christian religion. However, the sacraments or rituals provided in the context of the church, by which this exclusively afterworldly goal is achieved, are also salvation goods. Thus, these salvation goods consist of the identification of--and solution to--some perceived social ill as conceived of in a particular worldview. In part, these goods are resistant to market exchange because they tend not to be divisible or transferable. Religious human capital is context specific and tied not just to specific practices, but to certain belief systems. In addition, while membership with the group might be open to exchange on a market, salvation goods are separable from mere membership, which is neither necessary nor sufficient to obtain them.

      Communal goods are similarly situated, and function in large part to coordinate the behavior of group members. These goods arise out of social interaction inside a social group, and the fruit of the interaction is the end as well as the means. As Stolz puts it, "communal goods are a goal in themselves; their performance is the produce" (Stolz 2006). Because only...

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