Opinion: Identity politics veers into identity economics

Jordan J. Ballor

When the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette this week, the decision sparked a harsh reaction from some of its members, including Founders Brewing Co. and a number of restaurants and bars. These companies took to social media to lambaste the Chamber and withdrew or suspended their affiliation. But the reason for this corporate pushback had nothing directly to do with economic concerns.

Rather, this is about Schuette’s perceived lack of support for LGBTQ-friendly policies. Those who criticized the Schuette endorsement cited the attorney general’s skepticism about the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s decision to prohibit sexual orientation as a basis for discrimination.

The Grand Rapids Pride Center has led the charge to oppose Schuette and punish the GR Chamber. Founders Brewing, for instance, retweeted the center’s letter and noted that “We stand with our LGBTQ community,” while requesting the GR Chamber’s political action committee withdraw its endorsement. The Chamber has been quick to defend its championing of LGBTQ issues. In a statement, Chamber President and CEO Rick Baker said that the Chamber “remains committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” even while its decision to endorse Schuette was the result of a “robust and member driven process,” focused on advancing the interests of business.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette announces he has selected Lisa Posthumus Lyons as his running mate during an event at Kent County Republican Headquarters in Grand Rapids Wednesday.

Whether the Chamber, or its constituent members, should embrace LGBTQ issues – or for that matter any other social agenda – is of course a matter for such organizations and their membership to decide for themselves. The Chamber’s mistake was to think that business issues could be separated from ideologically driven politics in today’s environment.

So-called identity politics can be both an authentic form of personal expression as well as a force for division and enmity. As identity politics increasingly manifests in our economic life, we encounter the danger of identity economics, where we only agree to economic transactions with those who agree with us on an ever-growing list of moral or even political shibboleths. Anyone who works at a business of any size understands how corporations can embrace identity politics, often with heavy handed mandates to employees, suppliers, and customers.

The actions of GR Chamber members to remove their support out of presumably deeply held moral convictions is laudable – and dangerous. By showing that their businesses are not simply about profits, the bottom line, or pro-business public policy, companies like Founders demonstrate that economic action is fundamentally moral.

Yet, there are those who would have our economic life mirror a secular ideal of political life. Both our marketplaces and our public squares would be “naked,” scrubbed of religious principles or transcendent moral values and devoid of anything that seems to violate a secular, hegemonic discourse. By acting authentically and in accord with their moral convictions, businesses show that markets have always been (and always will be) deeply infused with religious and moral values of one kind or another. This is both necessary and praiseworthy.

The dangers arise when values are in discord or even outright conflict. The extent to which our moral and political judgments ought to inform our economic decisions is a complex and fraught question. Some would appeal simply to the market price as the final arbiter. But even a modicum of moral reflection shows that while prices are precious and irreplaceable sources of information, they do not always and inevitably include all the morally relevant data.

There are legitimate moral concerns that ought to inform our decisions throughout the economy, questions of production and consumption as well as of exchange and distribution. It is entirely appropriate for a customer to inquire, for example, whether slave labor has been used in the production of a good that is for sale in the marketplace.

There are, however, practical and prudential limits to such moralization of the marketplace. We cannot personally know or investigate every relationship or exchange in the supply chains of a globalized marketplace. Trust and accountability, as well as liberty and justice, must therefore permeate the entire economic system. There are also prudential reasons to limit the extent to which we identify our economic choices with our own visions of social desirability.

The deleterious effects of limiting our economic and social interactions on the basis of visible characteristics like ethnicity or gender are obvious. The negative consequences of limiting these same interactions on the basis of other considerations, such as adherence to a political agenda or a particular worldview or religion, may be less obvious but for that reason perhaps even more insidious. If we only associate with, and even buy from and sell to, people who think and live like we do, we deprive ourselves and others of opportunities to learn, grow, and love. In doing so we make ourselves more isolated and more fragile. We become poorer, in both material as well as spiritual terms. In its extreme forms, identity politics and identity economics create apartheid systems, in which injustice is endemic and hopelessness abounds.

Ballor writes: "To allow identity politics to become identity economics is to sow enmity and discord, and we will all reap poverty as a consequence."

The best guide for our economic activity, as well as for our social life more broadly, is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. This means that we must live authentic and morally everywhere, including the marketplace. But it also means that we must extend charity and grace to those who differ and disagree with us. To echo Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, we must not be enemies.

To allow identity politics to become identity economics is to sow enmity and discord, and we will all reap poverty and misery as a consequence. If we absolutize our politics and thereby weaponize our economic power against others, a peaceful and prosperous marketplace will be the next casualty of our ongoing culture wars. And the loss of a peaceful and prosperous society cannot be far behind.

Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a postdoctoral researcher with the Moral Markets project at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.