Economics for the Human Person: REDISCOVERING THE HUMAN FACE OF COMMERCE

Economics for the Human Person: REDISCOVERING THE HUMAN FACE OF COMMERCE

[Book review] by James V. Schall
New Oxford Review
November 2017

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Among his many books are The Order of Things, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, The Modern Age, The Mind That Is Catholic, and, most recently, The Satisfied Crocodile: Essays on G.K. Chesterton. Fr. Schall’s last lecture at Georgetown, “A Final Gladness,” can be viewed on YouTube.

“There is always a presupposed worldview and an understanding of the human person. Philosophy and economics are not therefore as popular opinion would suggest ‘uncommon bedfellows.’” — John McNerney, Wealth of Persons

“The reorientation of economics toward the ‘human subject’ need not end up in ‘methodological individualism’ but actually pushes us toward regaining an ‘anthropological and relational view’ of economic life. Economics can thus have a realism about it that is helpful to any philosophy based on what is.” — John McNerney, Wealth of Persons

The relation between man and this earth has been pondered by men in every age. The making and trading of goods has been with us throughout recorded history. The men who try to explain what we do, and must do, to transform what the planet has provided into useful goods are called economists. Economics is said to be about the allocation of scarce goods. The Greek origin of the word means house, or home, and, by extension, all the things needed to prosper in this home. Ultimately, its meaning expanded to include all the things needed, desired, or imagined by men for the fullness of their human lives. Aristotle held that what is uniquely human begins only when the economic problem is basically met. Yet, the material life of man is good and part of his very being, over which he bears peculiar responsibility.

Before he can do anything else, however, man must stay alive. Indeed, he needs to prosper somewhat before he can accomplish much else. The highest things for man begin with the more humble things of everyday life. Man is different from the animals, Aristotle also taught us. Nature did not endow him with instinct, claws, and hides. He has hands and reason, with which he is to provide for himself by virtue of his own genius and actions. Not everything is given to him from the beginning. If it were, it would be difficult for him to do much of anything for himself. Evidently, man was created with a task to accomplish. This is for his own good and that of others. If he wants something, he must figure out how to bring it about and make it available to others.

If we look at the history of economic thought, it becomes clear that something rather unusual is going on. Many political and social disasters have resulted from bad economics. Most “bad” economic theories have been postulated to redress a previously flawed economic theory or situation. John Maynard Keynes is famous, among other things, for having remarked that someone who thinks he has no economic presuppositions will discover, on investigation, that he is really following some obscure writer who lived several centuries before he did.

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Fr. John McNerney’s book Wealth of Persons: Economics with a Human Face (2016) bears a title clearly derived from what is considered the first “modern” economics text, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776). The key figure in McNerney’s book is not Adam Smith, though he is acknowledged. Rather, McNerney’s book follows the gradual development of the discipline of economics. He is clearly influenced, among the philosophers, by Bernard Lonergan, Karol Wojtyla, Eric Voegelin, and David Walsh. Their basic Thomistic orientation sought first to state clearly the arguments on all sides of some issue, then to account for what was good and what was lacking in the theory. With this fine book (along with Jennifer Roback Morse’s Love & Economics and John Mueller’s Redeeming Economics), we can come to a good understanding of economic history.

McNerney is an Irish priest, quite learned in continental economic theories, and familiar with American writers as well. Economics is a discipline that stands within a complete anthropology of what it means to be a human being. To understand it, we must recall what Plato, Aristotle, the Romans, the Medievals, the Spanish scholastics, the Scots, the Germans, the French, the English, the Italians, and many others have contributed. McNerney cites in an articulate way everyone who is anybody in the history of economics, including a few we do not usually see. If there is a central theme to his book, it is that the economic problem cannot be understood apart from the human problem. But this book is in no way a denial of the relative autonomy of economics. Indeed, it recognizes that insight into how to solve economic questions leads to further insight into what the human problem is, how to understand it, and, indeed, how to meet it in its own sphere.

McNerney is an acute analyst of what it is that ultimately causes wealth. He recognizes that we cannot, though many do, talk about poverty without talking of how to produce wealth to meet it. Wealth and abundance are not caused by land, labor, capital, profits, or interest, though they each belong to the whole of the discipline. It is caused by nothing less than the human mind and will. It is caused by the capacity of man to innovate, to be an entrepreneur in exchange with the ongoing pursuits and products of others. That is, wealth is caused and spread by human action. Without this human impetus, there is neither economics nor wealth.

What is also presupposed and needs articulation is that it is a good thing that human beings exist precisely as human beings on this earth. If we believe that all is determined or that God does everything apart from human secondary causality, we will never understand economics or human nature. On such suppositions, we will never be anything but poor. The creation of an abundant well-being for human beings is itself a good thing, even if such goods can be abused by various human vices. The answer to vice is not to make everyone poor but to promote virtue. Human beings bring about their own well-being by themselves. Their very Creator expects this of them. They have to learn how to do so from scratch. This is what the history of economics is about. Wealth production is a corporate project of mankind that depends on individual initiatives. Economics has no substantial reality apart from real human persons who act in relation to one another.

The first requirement, though it may be the last to be identified, is a proper understanding of what the acting person is about in his economic actions. We learn this not just from economics. McNerney finds a place for the economic consequences of actions that are not simply economic — things like self-sacrifice and gift-giving, things that are more than economic but have economic consequences. The place of economics in the overall philosophic understanding of man is one of the keys to solving the economic problem of the production and distribution of goods, a subject Mueller developed in Redeeming Economics. Roback Morris’s Love & Economics deals brilliantly with the question, “Why does the classical economist, on the basis of his own presuppositions about self-interest, not understand the family?” Within the family, the kind of exchange and atmosphere that occurs and should occur within it is not solely based on maximizing self-interest. Wealth of Persons illuminates the truths that remind us that we have, especially in the family, but not there alone, actions that arise from love, generosity, sacrifice, and gift.

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McNerney dwells on Adam Smith’s second insight (the first being entrepreneurship itself) — namely, that of creative destruction. This is a paradoxical phrase that stresses the truth that, if many things are to be improved, other things must pass away. This passing away is itself part of the economic process. This is why we have used-car dealers, junkyards, auctions, flea markets, second-hand stores, and St. Vincent de Paul societies. These latter entities are themselves innovative in character. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the concept of creative destruction. Religiously inspired people, with their attention mainly on preservation and distribution in existing systems, as well as socialist-oriented governments, often, in the name of justice, preserve obsolete systems. Keeping alive what ought to pass away minimizes the possibility of growth, employment, and fulfillment of the human needs of everyone.

Creative destruction means that new products, methods, or ideas freely come into the market cycle from the innovations of other human beings. It is a sign that the old way is no longer profitable. Profit is not a surplus but the recompense for creating something that works. We need not be limited to what we have.

It is good for everyone, including the old entrepreneur, that new things come into the cycles of exchange. With everyone free to enter an ordered market, it means that constant change is taking place. This change includes an examination of existing products and human needs and wants. Price and purchase indicate whether other people recognize the value of the new product. In a free market, they do not have to take only what is offered. Value is the estimate that we give to a product by purchasing or not purchasing it. Some things are just not needed or wanted. Other needed things do not yet exist. This approach leaves the dynamism of the market in the hands of the consumer, not the government or the entrepreneur.

Briefly, what McNerney recounts is the metaphysical, theological, epistemological, and ethical background in which all economic action takes place. Man is not simply a being who always acts to maximize his own self-interests. He has things he is required by his nature to attend to. It would be wrong for him not to do so, or not to seek the best ways to do so. But he is interested, inquisitive, and, in many ways, curious. He looks out for himself and those around him. But he is about many other things that are beyond necessity but not beyond his desire for the truth about all things, including himself and the origins of the world in which he finds himself. Self-interest alone was said to be the building assumption of much of classical economics. But it was a narrow basis. All human action is for a purpose. It is not simply a reaction to immediate desires but to a lifetime of wondering about what is. This latter takes place in what Aristotle called leisure — a leisure that good economics, in part, helps make possible.

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The distinction between virtuous and unvirtuous actions remains and shapes what is produced and how it is made available to and used by others. Virtue and vice affect economics but are not formally constituted by it. We must acknowledge that, say, pornography and drugs are innovative industries that make lots of money for the wrong people. We are responsible for our good and evil desires and actions in the area of economics also. All human action exists amid other human beings likewise acting. The interactions of people create differing relations among them. These relations need order. The order is spontaneous, though it depends on trust, virtue, law, and private property. It is a system that recognizes that growth is needed for meeting human needs, not simply a redistribution of what already exists.

This approach runs into the more recent problems of no-growth theories and practices that arise from population or ecological theories. It is here that economics often finds itself to be the most optimistic of the sciences. It is generally skeptical of no-growth limits of questionable population theories. McNerney is less concerned with these latter issues than with understanding the integrity of the economic process and how its success also depends on issues that are not directly economic. In this sense, he recognizes that human action is personal and purposive. Persons ground reality. They are unique, unrepeatable beings whose completion depends on others as well as their own knowledge and initiatives. They are social and political beings, as Aristotle said.

McNerney also recognizes that all purposive activity, including economic activity, reaches beyond itself. When some needs are met, others arise. Human happiness includes both the awareness and accomplishment of what can be done in light of a transcendent sense that human action reaches beyond itself. Plato was acutely aware of justice and injustice in ordinary human affairs. He held that we could not rest if we thought that our crimes and abuses met with no ultimate judgment. If we look at the economic order in this light, we realize that it is a place of great seriousness. What economics leaves us with is the sense that the failure to arrive at a viable understanding of how to provide what we need and legitimately want has enormous consequences for human lives. The keeping in existence of economic systems or enterprises that do not work is among the worst things we can do for mankind’s temporal well-being.

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In the last paragraph of this illuminating book, we read the following lines: “When we think about it, it’s the reality of limitation that’s actually the source and dynamic that gives rise to the inventions, creativity, and changes in direction of economic action. So we can actually hold on ‘to the slender thread of transcendence’ in human economic activity by realizing the superiority of ‘what is to what is not.’” Such profound Platonic words make us realize what is at stake in not properly understanding economics. Economics incites man to fashion a world beginning with what he is given.

This world is not designed to be simply let alone, as if the humans living on it were somehow contrary to what the earth is. The earth is not what it should be until man is what he ought to be. To separate man from earth, as if his presence on it were an evil thing, is a terrible step. We do not first solve the economic problem then pass to the human problem. Rather, we deal with the human problem. It is out of this source that our capacity for and embrace of human action and its purpose will arise.

We live in a world of potential abundance, not one of paucity, unless we choose to do nothing or choose the wrong ways to develop it. More and more people are giving up on our capacity to develop and care for ourselves. Yet, with the riches with which the earth is endowed, riches that first include the human mind and its innovations, we realize that these words of McNerney are prophetic. It is the “reality of limits” that incites us to discover and fashion a world that meets man’s material needs. Man thus becomes free to explore those higher things for which he was ultimately created in the first place. Philosophy and economics belong together, as McNerney implies in the first citation at the beginning of these reflections. It would be strange to think that man’s well-being and his understanding of himself and the world were somehow antagonistic. But they can be. This is why the consideration of truth is something proper to both philosophy and economics.

McNerney points out in his reflections on the Trinity and economics that the word person already means a complete relation to someone else, as if to say we are not ourselves if we only deal with ourselves. In the Trinity, the Persons are differing “relations” whose very being is ad alium. With human beings, our relations to others are proper accidents, but no less important for that, as we too are related to others. The relation to other persons does not constitute a substantial being outside of what each of us is. Does this kind of consideration have anything to do with economics? McNerney thinks it does. And he is right. The “wealth of persons” includes not only our productive and economic relations to others, but the very orientation of our minds to what is, to what is not ourselves, especially to all other persons, both human and divine.

Let me repeat the last sentence of the second citation found at the beginning of this consideration of McNerney’s book: “Economics can have a realism about it that is helpful to any philosophy based on what is.” The fact that there are many philosophies, and hence many economic theories, not based on such a realism has provided the drama of the history of economics. Wealth of Persons tells us that there is at least one philosophy, and hence one economic understanding, that is indeed based on what is.

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