Monday, February 11, 2008

A Moral Economy?

There is a student-blogger at Georgetown who seems to hold a particular fascination with, and irritation at, my musings. The student claims to concentrate in the study of economics, and based on the postings, gives all appearances of having learned well the lessons of that "science." He or she - anonymous, to be clear, which is the only reason that I permit myself to single out any student here - is particularly irked at my postings about the American economy, insisting over and over again that my concerns are "moral, not economic."

This is a fascinating, disturbing, but unsurprising claim. Modern economics is taught as a "science," namely the science of acquisition, growth, efficiency and money-making. It is the most mathematically-based of the modern social sciences, the one that can claim the greatest rigor (and hence is the envy of the other social sciences, who crave to base themselves on economic approaches), and seems to have the greatest relevance to the "real world." Like the natural sciences, it claims to be an amoral science, solely concerned with generating valid conclusions (the "is") without any legitimate concern for the moral consequences or implications (the "ought"). Having looked at the requirements and course offerings of the Georgetown Economics Department, it can be said with confidence that it evinces no fundamental or distinctive difference from pretty much any other mainstream Economics department in the country. In particular, there is no visible aspect of the Georgetown Economics Department that would mark out a distinctively Catholic dimension. There is no course offering in the History of Economics, no course in Economics in the Catholic Tradition (e.g., Aquinas, encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum, books like Roepke's The Humane Economy, the distributivism of Chesterton and Belloc, etc.), no course on economics and nature. Little wonder, then, that a student majoring in this field at Georgetown would be able to make such a profoundly stunted and blinkered pronouncement that one must distinguish "economics" from "morality."

Indeed, the very fact that this claim could be made at all points to the essential grounds for the promotion of actual Catholic education - and not the pale and pathetic shadow that passes for Catholic education at Georgetown and most contemporary Catholic institutions. Very little integration between and among the disciplines takes place at modern Catholic universities, which model themselves more upon the basis of Adam Smith's theory of the "invisible hand" than Newman's "Idea of the University." That is, the modern university is conceived as a discrete set of undertakings and research agendas that have no obvious connection to one another, but which together all contribute to the "creation" of new knowledge and the growing prosperity of society without any intention or effort to draw connections between the various disciplines. The faculty and administration increasingly deny that there can be any overarching end or good of education, that an integrated human being ought to be the purpose of our instruction, that requirements in philosophy, theology, and other humanities ought to inform all of the various disciplines. Our natural sciences altogether resemble the natural science disciplines of any other secular university, and our social sciences - with few exceptions - are uncognizant of conceptions of the good society and the aim of the flourishing human life that ought rightly to guide our investigations. We are guided, above all, by the secular vision of Francis Bacon who, inaugurating the modern scientific enterprise, argued that "knowledge is power" and that its aim was "the relief of the human estate" by means of the "conquest of nature."

The student rightly notes that I am influenced and guided by the arguments of Aristotle, who in turn guided the theology of Aquinas. With ample progressive spirit - undoubtedly informed by his economics training - this student rather glibly dismisses out of hand that an Aristotelian and Thomistic worldview has any relevance for a modern age. If it's old, it must be dated and superseded. This well-worn argument typically asserts that, since Aristotle's scientific theories have been shown to be false, then the whole of his philosophy must also fall. Putting aside for the moment the former claim - that Aristotle's natural science has tout court been proven false, which is itself a problematic claim - the attendant claim that Aristotelian teleology, along with its concomitant insistence upon the primacy of politics (that is, political philosophy) as the "architectonic" science by which all other sciences are ordered in a society, cannot be so readily dismissed. If there is a good for humans - if we flourish under certain conditions and not others - then it is the proper place of a political science to seek a political ordering that best ensures that flourishing.

This is, by definition, a moral undertaking: if there is a good to which human life aims, then necessarily there are non-good or even vicious forms of life. By extension, such an understanding of a good human life would implicate all the other human sciences - including, centrally so - economics. As Aristotle writes in Book I, Chapter 8 of the Politics, an economics that aims solely at acquisition without limit for the sake of acquisition alone would constitute "living, but not living well." He objects as well to "usury" for the reason that its aim is to employ money to make more money. Productive investment is justified, but a "credit" economy is necessarily one that inclines toward "mere life," the pursuit of acquisition for the sake of unlimited acquisition.

Aristotle points to a conception of the good, and thereby "the common good," that necessarily guides and influences all human activity. "Moral" activity cannot be separated to some distinct realm (indeed, if our economic life is not to be guided by morality, what is?). Whether in our political dealings, our economic relations, our family lives, our neighborhoods and communities, a moral conception of the human good ought to serve as a guiding principle. Questions we must ask ourselves in the economic realm cannot be limited to "what is efficient" or "what will result in the most profit," but also "are our actions responsible," "is this an appropriate use of limited resources," "are we living within our means," "are our economic relations and transactions contributing to the good of our community," "does our economy support good families," "are we ensuring for the good lives of our children and future generations?" These are moral questions, yes, but they are also economic questions - the two cannot be divorced.

Many of our contemporary problems are rooted in particular in this belief that we can divide such moral considerations from economics (or any other sphere of life). What this student takes to be "economic" questions are, ironically enough, amoral considerations that are increasingly invading all aspects of our lives. As we begin to think of our economic life in such amoral terms, those very amoral terms have a way of infiltrating all aspects of our society, to the point that we ask whether our marriages are personally satisfying regardless of the effect of that calculation on our children, whether goods can bought more cheaply at places without any investment in our communities, whether how we live ensures privacy and convenience at the price of "non-economic" considerations like stable and mutually supportive communities, whether "growth" ought rightly to be the sole acknowledged and undisputed aim of politics.

This student advises me to stick to political theory and leave economics to the economists. But herein lies the very problem we face: economists largely are incapable of thinking in these essential terms - they are some of our prime culprits in teaching that morality ought not to be mixed with the economic. Indeed, for all the accusations against the self-certainty of religious believers, it is our economists who constitute the true "faith-based" community of our age. Economics Departments are comprised of a cadre of "true believers," an order who faithfully defend the Free Market and worship at the altar of Efficiency and Profit. There is virtually no discussion or debate about the terms upon which economics is based; indeed, in contrast to nearly every other discipline in the humanities and social sciences, our economists brook no deviation from the orthodoxy of Mainline Libertarianism. When I'm told by colleagues that our aim ought to be "critical thinking," I cringe and wonder whether that critical thinking will extend to the self-certainties of Economics and the Natural Sciences, and further, whether we as an intellectual community will be willing to think critically about the Baconian reasons for our current activities and organizing principle - to expand human power and dominion over nature and increasingly ourselves.

In short, not only do I refuse to leave economics to the Economists, but I deny the legitimacy of any such separation. Indeed, following Aristotle, if political philosophy is "architectonike," then I have a positive duty to concern myself with areas of knowledge and inquiry that have been separated and relegated to "experts." It is my positive duty to resist such separation and to draw more closely together fields of inquiry in an effort to show their close and necessary connections when thinking about the human good. I must avoid "minding my own business" and seek to remind students and colleagues that what constitutes our "business" is today too narrowly defined and falsely confined. If our Economics Departments actually taught classes in the history of Economics - that is, how the discipline was formed and what arguments have led us to the point we are now, including arguments that may not have carried the day but may not be false - this student would have learned that many, if not most, of our greatest early modern economic thinkers were also political philosophers (e.g., Smith, Hutcheson, Locke, Mill, Hegel, Marx, Hayek, etc.). It is only in very recent times that the exclusive and excluding claims of scientific "expertise" have permitted this discipline to exclude important considerations that are now considered to be "non-economic."

Lastly, this student rightly asks - and challenges me - to make the moral case and eschew my penchant for "doomsday scenarios." This is a serious question and challenge, and rightly deserves a response. My first inclination is to point out that I am being asked to do something that our libertarian economists are themselves not willing to do - that is, they eagerly point to our material prosperity and assume that past performance is a certain guarantee of future results. By contrast, I point to substantial counter-evidence to suggest that we are gathering a large set of debts and costs that are increasingly unavoidable and constitute a serious challenge to how we now live. Those in the "faith-based" community are inclined to believe that we can invent and innovate our way out of any potential challenges, no matter how severe. I am an actual conservative - unlike the label that is so falsely attributed to our libertarians - who insists that we be cognizant of that one true law of politics, the law of unintended consequences. It is not proper to run a civilization based upon the belief that our children will figure out a way to rescue themselves from our profligacy. Moreover, I insist upon a true accounting of costs, one that does not "externalize" our indulgences to future generations. When we begin such a true accounting, we find that we are not quite so wealthy as we now believe, but rather we are living off what was once called a patrimony and betraying the duty of what was once regarded as trusteeship.

My second inclination is to point out that, if an Aristotelian conception of human flourishing based upon the fulfillment of our nature as human creatures is correct, then in the absence of such flourishing we will expect to see the deformation of our character and the abuse of our nature and the natural world we occupy. I see this evidence all around us, and it is a central and necessary part such a conception of nature and the good to make clear those deformations. I see them simultaneously in the abuses and ill-ordering of our human relations - manifest in so much of the disordering of our family lives, our "popular culture," the abuses of our economy, the profligacy and irresponsibility of our government, and the selfishness of our citizens - just as it is also manifested (and ultimately connected) to our abuse and disordered relationship to the natural world, that entity that we call "the environment" as if it were something separate and distinct from ourselves. If I have a tendency to seek to extrapolate some of those consequences to their possible negative and dire conclusions, I will acknowledge that it is perhaps a manifestation of a "Cassandra" syndrome, but I regard it as irresponsible to remain silent if the gathering clouds seem to suggest a growing likelihood of very bad times. As one who is privileged with a some amount of leisure and a soap-box of sorts, I have a special duty to resist the optimistic techno-faith of the prevailing culture - a faith that is especially evinced by its High Priests and Priestesses who surround me in our Universities. I should make clear - in case there is any doubt - that I do not wish for any of these worst-case scenarios to take place. I write about them with a view to hoping that I can contibute to their prevention, or at least the avoidance of the worst consequences. To do so will require an immediate change in behavior on a large scale, a scenario I regard as highly unlikely but nevertheless worthy of commending. Even small changes may help in unexpectedly large ways; all one can do is point out the trajectory of our present course and hope we can avoid the rocks.

But lastly, this student is right to demand from me a fuller explication of what constitutes the human good on its own terms. Those terms cannot finally be wholly separated from a depiction of alternative bad consequences and bad ways of living, but I have emphasized the latter at the expense of a more positive depiction. To quote a much greater mind, St. Augustine explains in his preface to "The City of God" that "lest someone should reproach us with only criticizing others without offering any solution of our own, the second part of this work does just that, although whenever necessary we state our own views even in the [negative part] and refute our adversaries even in the [positive part]." Much of the negative serves as a necessary prolegomena to the positive (as it did for Augustine), inasmuch as - so often - the positive case is viewed almost automatically as a negative depiction in light of modern presuppositions. The case for a well-ordered community of citizens who rule and are ruled in turn, living in moderation within the means permitted by relatively local economies, with widespread family ownership of property and production that puts us closely in touch with generating the fruits for life, subject to widely acknowledged laws of nature and God that govern our public and private lives, sharing in communion and community and relatively more limited in our private spheres than we could now conceive - is simply rejected as out of keeping with our modern lives and what we now regard by default as human good - namely thoroughgoing liberty and the absence of constraint. So, one can state and restate a positive conception of the good life, but in the face of a contemporary society that persists under the illusion that such limits have been superseded (much as it is concluded without argument that Aristotle has been superseded), one inevitably returns to arguments that preconditions for our contemporary faith is a fantasy that has been fueled by a one-time energy blow-out and has led to the deformation of the natural world, including our own natures. So, in the end, it comes back to an argument about what we are doing, and whether we are living well, for our own sakes and for the sakes of our children and their children yet unborn.


Matthew said...

Outstanding. What we need is an articulated political philosophy, such as expressed by your post and so many other sympathetic "conservatives" (in the MacIntyrean, and not liberal, sense), that provides a coherent and indeed architectonic view for rational discourse about contemporary politics (i.e. it's problematic nature). Catholic Social Teaching as it is usually understood seems to haphazard and scattered to me in order to do this. Not that it isn't right. But prolixity does not equal clear demonstration.

brierrabbit said...

"Modern Economics" sometimes reminds me of the Ferengi, a people who inhabit the world of Star Trek. The are total capitalists, who' s "Rules of Acquisition" rule their world, like the Ten commandments rule ours, {or used to, anyway}. Several bemusing episodes showing what happens when economics totally trump everything else, were shown on "Deep Space 9". The Libertarian impulse to make everything about "Me and My Stuff" as one commentator grimly put it, is always just below the surface of human nature. I think of Libertarianism as just selfishness, given a fancy name, and suit. It's all about what I want. And I don't want to be bothered by my community, and its failings.

Anonymous said...

First, I agree with the bulk of your post. As said above, outstanding.

I do disagree with this piece, however: By contrast, I point to substantial counter-evidence to suggest that we are gathering a large set of debts and costs that are increasingly unavoidable and constitute a serious challenge to how we now live. Those in the "faith-based" community are inclined to believe that we can invent and innovate our way out of any potential challenges, no matter how severe. I am an actual conservative

The actual conservative notes that the world has seen steady economic growth for millions of years, since the first invented toolsets primates started fooling around with.

So scientific progress - first through trial and error, next using natural laws, has continuously has produced economic growth. The world simply has become richer due to "inventing" and "innovating." This ain't faith. It's history.

So the true conservative knows he isn't smart enough (hey, we can't all be Deneen) to ferret out how this economic growth is going to happen (it's the future). The conservative merely says, well, it happened for millions of years, so it most likely will continue. This isn't deep faith, but simple common sense, like the loinclothed native who knows nothing of astrophysics nevertheless predicting the sun will rise the next day. It always has.

You, on the other hand, make steady predictions of doom in direct contrast to the past evidence. Personally, I would have guessed "doom" from the Reformation onward based upon seeming social instability. We certainly deserve it! Yet it never has happened, and growth has simply exploded. Who could have guessed smelting metal in the stone age would change everything? Then Newcomen's engine? Oil? Fission? Nobody did, so they made a mockery of all the doomers, and we eat better and work less than ever before today. God luvs us, I guess.

Bottom line: you might be right about future economic doom (social decay for sure, which might lead to economic collapse like what happened in Russia) but your steady drumbeat of mere economic doom due to overconsumption of resources (like peak oil) is simply Not Conservative At All, because who could predict it? It doesn't fit past data.

Bob said...


Beyond a doubt your finest expository effort. The classical Greeks, Sts. Augustine and Aquinas, now all we need is a little Schall, Balthazar, Berry, and Voegelin and the Matrix begins to make sense.

Anonymous said...

I was a little pressed for time, so I can't read the entire post, but it looks good.

I had to note, however, after that first distinction that the student is making between "moral concerns" and "economics concerns" that since morality deals with human action and economics is about various types of action, how could economic decisions not be morally considered? To put it another way, is there an entire sphere of actions that are simply non-moral?!

Anonymous said...

m_david said:
Personally, I would have guessed "doom" from the Reformation onward based upon seeming social instability. We certainly deserve it! Yet it never has happened, and growth has simply exploded. Who could have guessed smelting metal in the stone age would change everything? Then Newcomen's engine? Oil? Fission? Nobody did, so they made a mockery of all the doomers, and we eat better and work less than ever before today.

I'm a new (two months or so) reader here, but isn't one of Patrick's points that we've been living off the unleashing of basically limitless energy since, oh, the Reformation or so and now we're seeing the end of those days?

And you're right, taking the really long view, from the Stone Age to now, we have always experienced growth. But it seems like we might want to avoid something similar to the thousand years or so between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

Anonymous said...

occasus, isn't one of Patrick's points that we've been living off the unleashing of basically limitless energy since, oh, the Reformation or so and now we're seeing the end of those days?

Yes, that's his point. My point is that it's a mighty bold NON-conservative guess, that peak-oil-resource-consumption will lead to economic collapse. Hasn't yet, and we had massive economic growth before oil. We simply don't know what's out there, so caution, not panic, is the Conservative position. Deenen's out there.

But it seems like we might want to avoid something similar to the thousand years or so between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

Hey, I think the social development of those years is built the fundamental culture allowing science to really find a home. I see those years as part and parcel of the Renaissance, something that all the other cultures of the day (China/Asia/Greek/Roman) couldn't pull off. Social structure and science go together.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Deneen,

The situation is even worse than you describe: the choice model of neoclassical economics is incapable of handling the notion of moral choice. There are associations of Christian economists in both the U.S. and the U.K., but their critique does not focus on the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Some distinguished mainstream economists have asserted, qua economists, that we have no obligation to posterity -- much as some of them have argued that our inability to sell ourselves into slavery is an inefficient and unwarranted constraint on our individual freedom.

Under such circumstances, your student may perhaps be forgiven for believing that between morality and economics, there is a great gulf fixed -- notwithstanding the mysterious tendency of what is traditionally viewed as "right" to prove to be efficient in the long run. How inefficient notions of right and wrong could survive in long-run competition is a question perhaps too seldom asked.

With respect to institutions, neoclassical economists generally seem quite prepared to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds (save insofar as states introduce evil) because our markets are perfectly competitive. But even to consider the notion of competition among cultural elements like moralities, or the implications of such competition for such concepts as "tradition," simply is not done. To try to internalize such traditional cultural elements into the analytical framework of economics is not even contemplated.

Mark - "Ferengi" is the Arabic term for "Westerner," derived from "Frank." The Star Trek episode you cite invites us to see ourselves as others see us.