Arguing with Success
(in four parts)
June 19, 2019 (2,521 words)
The economic discussion has gone stale. It has fallen into a bit of a rut. And the average successful American doesn’t generally give the subject much thought, beyond a perfunctory checking off of what they believe is the correct box, before continuing on with their happy lives.
The irony here is that for a people who pride themselves on individual freedom and personal autonomy, and who are committed to having “choice” in every aspect of their lives, the ideological options we have been given by modernity are very limited when it comes to the economic question. All discourse has been funneled in a binary impulse, forcing us into a reflexive, either/or response.
To do right by this subject, though, and be fair to all parties involved, we need to widen our field of reference and pay more attention.
an economic riddle we have only partially solved…
Developing an economics of justice and charity is a riddle we have only partially solved. Completing the puzzle will not be as simple as choosing between two opposing economic philosophies, each with their theoretical advantages and disadvantages.
A thumbnail sketch of these two opposing philosophies would be:
The hometown favorite: A dynamic form of free-market capitalism, unfettered by regulation of any kind, which creates a rising tide capable of lifting all boats. Versus an odious state-sponsored form of socialism that tightly controls the means of production, stifles creativity and innovation, and yields nothing but inefficiency and corruption.
But since neither of these systems functions entirely as advertised in every situation, neither one deserves unilateral support, or unreserved condemnation.
More to the point, as decent human beings our primary allegiance should not be to a particular economic system, but rather to the overarching, transcendent goal of promoting human dignity and human flourishing.
We know conservatives, who also generally identify as Christian, believe their preferred economic operating system is already accomplishing this lofty goal in spades. They point to the dramatic increase in household income throughout the industrialized world since 1800. And to the equally dramatic drop in poverty rates throughout the undeveloped world, just since 1970.
They seem to be saying, in effect, that you can’t argue with success.
And they have a point. Their data is accurate. But when confronting the levels of disparity and inequity that exists now, in 2019, both in the First World and the Majority World, it does us no good to rest on our economic laurels.
We should be giving more thought to how far we have to go, and not spend so much time patting ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come.
Since capitalism is the box we all affirmatively check, allow me a few words to dampen the praise.
The free market, they say, instinctively guides producers to provide goods and services that consumers really want. This is a proven strategy that has delivered a welcome increase in material well-being to a broad cross-section of the population.
Since an increase in material well-being is an unassailable good that can and should be pursued, we naturally assume that the more we can increase such well-being, the better. In other words, you can’t get too much of a good thing.
But this is where conservative Christian advocates of the free market, who assume one’s material advancement is somehow an expression of God’s will, have been led astray by their adherence to the American Gospel of Prosperity.
Before this new gospel took hold, material well-being was seen is a “limited good” that should be pursued only to the extent it helps us achieve a more important or “higher good.” That higher good was once believed to be living a life of virtue that contributes to our integrity as human beings, and eventually leads us to eternal salvation.
but who talks of virtue these days?…
Though we don’t hear much talk of virtue these days, it consists of a firm disposition toward doing the “good.” In performing said good acts, one naturally gives his best at all times. Practicing virtues such as temperance and prudence develops a “service to others” mentality, which we habitually pursue out of a love for God and the many gifts he has bestowed upon us.
We all have a right and a natural inclination to a certain level of comfort and ease. But once we have achieved our basic physical requirements of food, shelter, transportation, etc. continuing to feather our nest ad infinitum just opens us up to one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Those sins are, and will always be: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. We don’t hear too much about sin these days, either, as the very idea has gone out of style. But as even a casual perusal of the day’s headlines will attest, all seven of these bad boys are alive and well.
There needs to be a balance in our lives when it comes to improving our material circumstances. Crossing the line can upset our equilibrium, and throw the pendulum in our soul out of whack.
an insight from an old friend…
This insight belongs to our old friend Thomas Aquinas. But his understanding of human nature and human destiny has been cast aside by a slew of trendy Enlightenment thinkers, the first wave of which are now only remembered and referred to by poly-sci and philosophy majors.
But Adam Smith – a name most of us are still familiar with – came along and picked up the torch, just as the Industrial Revolution was being unleashed. That torch has been passed along and carried forward all the way to our very own Milton Freidman, and his many contemporary (and frequently Catholic) libertarian acolytes.
The classical (Catholic) viewpoint, which stands apart from both capitalism and socialism, sees economic development, though vitally important, as only one component in developing the human person to their full potential.
In order to aid a person in their pursuit of the “higher” good, a society must address not only the economic development of each person, but the social and spiritual development of that person, as well. Coincidentally, this is also the only way to build a just society and strengthen the common good.
So the Achilles heel of an idealized market being guided by consumer preference is this: What if consumers desire things they don’t need, or shouldn’t have because some things aren’t good for them? Or are detrimental to society as a whole? What happens then?
Through “an absence of obstacles” a free market economy encourages “strivers” to achieve great things, that much is true. But the very success of this no-holds-barred mentality has bred a mindset of excess that is now proving to be our cultural downfall.
By encouraging over-consumption on the part of the general population, the free market undermines the common good by leading people away from lives of virtue. How do those Catholics who claim our version of “Democratic Capitalism” is “inherently moral” reconcile their rose-colored view with reality?
Capitalism clearly ignores the spiritual component of human development. It wisely accepts fallen human nature as a given, but does not see it as a project to be improved upon. It relies instead on an adversarial system of “competing interests” to keep our worst instincts in check and thereby maintain civic equilibrium and promote social progress.
But too often now we see that things are just not working out according to plan.
We all know that diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are on the rise, and sugary drinks, salty snacks, and highly processed foods are mighty contributors to these negative health outcomes. But they taste good and we lack the will power to limit their consumption to the occasional treat.
We all agree we should be driving cars with lower emission rates and higher fuel mileage, in recognition of the negative impact their use has on the environment, and on the dwindling supply of the natural resources involved. Yet we continue to buy large SUVs and pick-up trucks, because they are roomy and fun to drive.
the greater good falling through the cracks…
We can all cite many similar examples of the greater good failing through the cracks in other areas of our economic life. The fact is our existing economic model actually works in direct opposition to the greater or common good in many instances. It also sometimes stifles the economic creativity and innovation it is supposed to inspire.
Consider how the development of electric cars has been impeded by the big automakers, and how solar energy has been held back by the major energy companies.
This is not to put the likes of Detroit or Exxon-Mobil “in the dock.” They are merely pursing their self-interest, according to the dictates of our adversarial system. And in their defense, they have been reliable providers of the transportation and comfort we have all enjoyed for quite some time.
But fashions change. So do modes of communication and transportation and doing business. And as recent history clearly shows, one generation’s industrial behemoth is the following generation’s White Elephant.
We all agree technology is the future, but the instinct toward self-preservation on the part of entrenched industries effectively eliminates the open competition that is supposed to be the life blood of a free market. Our ersatz version of a free market economy is actually preventing technology from leading us forward, in many cases.
more regulation is one way we could go….
One answer of course is more regulation. But governmental regulation deeply offends our American sense of rugged individualism. It violates the concepts of individual freedom and personal autonomy our country was founded on. Besides, such regulation is often doomed to failure, since it can never anticipate the resourcefulness of fallen human nature to find ways around all external attempts at restraint.
The real answer is to shed the adversarial model of competing interests, and replace it with a cooperative model. Business and government should be working toward the same goal: addressing and providing for the temporal needs of society in a way that promotes public virtue.
The idea that self-interest can be enlightened enough to save us from our worst instincts in a way that will maintain civic equilibrium while promoting social progress is obviously flawed.
In other words, we have to rethink our most cherished assumptions about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You’ve heard the old saying that the devil’s greatest (ongoing) accomplishment is convincing us he doesn’t exist? Well along those same lines, one of modernity’s greatest accomplishments is convincing otherwise intelligent and considerate people that economics has nothing whatsoever to do with morality.
Moral considerations have no place in the economic discussion, it is said, because economics is a “science” governed by “immutable laws.” And so hallowed concepts like supply-and-demand override the sense of right and wrong we are each born with.
That economic behavior has been allowed to flourish apart from any moral consideration represents a “great divorce.” This “Dividing of Christendom” will have to be reconciled if we are to make any real social progress, from this point on.
To say we should be developing “an economics of justice and charity” sounds foreign to our ears, even when those ears are attached to the head of a practicing Catholic. Because without realizing exactly how or when it happened, most American Catholics no longer think Catholic thoughts, at least not where economics are concerned.
Christianity should extend to economics…
We’ve completely forgotten that being a good Christian extends to our economic behavior, and fail to realize the way we currently practice capitalism is diametrically opposed to Catholic social teaching as it pertains to economics.
Now all this talk of virtue can be a little daunting, if not downright off-putting. Either we see ourselves as too flawed to be virtuous, or we are just too much in love with the things of this world. And hey, it happens. The world is full of wonderful stuff to enjoy. But here it should be noted that virtue doesn’t necessarily equate to total denial.
I mean, it can. A saint would probably go in for total denial. And we are all called to be saints. But let’s take this virtue thing one step at a time, shall we? Let’s start with trying to be decent human beings who care for our fellow man. In that case, we can start with moderation, rather than total denial.
The suggestion to apply prudence and temperance to our buying habits has already been mentioned. But this same “take what you need, and leave the rest” approach also applies to the compensation we seek in the workplace.
We can help restore balance and a sense of justice by not leveraging our skill set and experience to demand the most money possible in salary negotiations.
advice aimed only at the already successful…
(This assumes you are already making a respectable living, and are able to meet the needs of your family. This advice does NOT apply to those just starting out, who are struggling to buy a house, have kids, etc.)
This would allow the employer to distribute more of the company’s earnings among those on the lower rungs of the org chart.
Less compensation doled out to top talent and executive management teams would also allow a business to consider charging the public less for the goods and services being provided, so as to make their life-sustaining offerings (automobiles, communications, energy, medical care, etc.) more affordable to a wider swath of the population.
And if investors could ever be convinced to back off their insistent demand for the highest-possible return on investment, the entire economic food chain would gain some much needed breathing room. In addition to being able to raise wages and possibly also lower prices, it could afford companies the opportunity to engage in more long-range planning, more time spent innovating and improving.
Is this a lot to ask of a predatory, me-first system? Yes, it most certainly is. But we must each commit to being a witness and leading by example, to modeling the change we wish to see enacted in this scrappy, selfish world of ours.
What if nobody follows your lead? What if everybody else continues to charge ahead and jockey for whatever promotion they can get? Listen, passing on the really big bucks if and when that opportunity knocks is just about the most counter-cultural thing anyone can do. It ranks right up there with trying to be a practicing Catholic. So don’t expect a lot of company.
While your circle of influence may be smaller, and your name recognition not as great, being considerate of others at work will surely be noticed and appreciated by all the “humbles’ who are used to being routinely stepped on, and stepped over.
And remember what is written: The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. At least in the final analysis, where we are told it really counts.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
June 19, 2019