01 September, 2016

What is the purpose of our economic activity?

Based on a talk given at
The American Chesterton Society Conference
5 August, 2016

When we look at the economic conduct of mankind and ask ourselves why the human race engages in such activities, I suppose that everyone would admit that we do so in order to produce goods and services for our use. So far, so good. But I submit there are two contrasting ways of looking at this activity and the products that result from it. This contrast can become clear if I juxtapose two quotations that exhibit two very different attitudes toward the economic activity of mankind. The first is from St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that "...the appetite of natural riches is not infinite, because according to a set measure they satisfy nature; but the appetite of artificial riches is infinite, because it serves inordinate concupiscence...." (1) St. Thomas was here contrasting real economic goods - "natural riches" - with "artificial riches" - money and other surrogates for real wealth. The former serve us, they "satisfy nature," and we desire only enough of them as we can reasonably use, for there is only so much stuff which any person can actually use, and if we acquire more than that, we must resort to devices such as renting storage bins in order to keep our extra and unnecessary possessions, something which in St. Thomas' time happily did not exist. But even in the thirteenth century it was easier to store up money than actual physical things, and today this is incomparably easier, since bank statements and stock certificates take up very little space. But these sorts of goods can serve "inordinate concupiscence," for there is a constant temptation to acquire and retain more than we really need or that can possibly serve any genuine human need.

My second quote is from the late Paul Samuelson, winner of a Nobel prize in economics, who wrote
An objective observer would have to agree that, even after two centuries of rapid economic growth, production in the United States is simply not high enough to meet everyone's desires. If you add up all the wants, you quickly find that there are simply not enough goods and services to satisfy even a small fraction of everyone's consumption desires. Our national output would have to be many times larger before the average American could live at the level of the average doctor or big-league baseball player. (2)
Here we have two opposed conceptions of the purpose of economic activity, one which is focused primarily on what is natural to humanity, which fulfills human needs, and the second which deliberately abstains from any moral consideration of human desires. If someone wants something, that's all that matters. The economy exists to satisfy any and all desires.

Now I should note that Aquinas is not asserting that it's only our basic needs for food or shelter or clothing that are natural. The purposes for which we need material goods can be broadly divided into two parts: first, the absolutely necessary goods, sufficient food, water, shelter, to keep the human race alive. But if we stopped there we would be like ants or bees. They also engage in work to provide for themselves these necessities of life. Human beings, however, are rational animals, that is, our capacities surpass the merely material level, and hence for us a proper human life is not limited simply to survival. We need objects of beauty, music, books, even, in some measure, devices and inventions that make life easier or save time and effort. Without these a properly human life is impossible or difficult. But all the same, St. Thomas sets up human nature as the standard against which man's economic activity must be measured, whereas Samuelson simply takes each and every demand for a good or service as a given.

I trust I don't need to belabor which of these two attitudes toward economic activity and material things ought to characterize a Christian, whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. Holy Scripture itself is quite clear on this point:
...if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (I Tim. 6:8-10)
In Centesimus Annus St. John Paul II speaks of "the right to possess the things necessary for one's personal development and the development of one's family" (no. 6). And in the same encyclical he writes in another passage (no. 36),
It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward "having" rather than "being," which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.
Now I realize that it's not always easy to say how much is "necessary for one's personal development and the development of one's family." In fact, there is apt to be disagreement about what is a reasonable standard that satisfies nature. And to some extent such disagreement is to be expected, for it's impossible to calculate such a standard with mathematical exactness. But the important thing, and certainly the first thing to do, is to recognize that mankind's economic activity and the products that result therefrom do have a purpose, to "satisfy nature," and not to satisfy simply any and every desire prompted by the wish "to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself," so that everyone can live in the manner of a major-league baseball player. At some point, any sensible person will have to admit that the needs of nature have been satisfied, and that anything beyond that is simply excess.

Now, If we accept what I have said so far, what logically follows? We can apply the teaching of St. Paul and St. Thomas and St. John Paul not only to individuals and families, but also to societies.  I am aware that many individuals and families do seek in some degree to acquire and use material goods according to these stipulations and warnings. In a society such as ours this is not easy to do, and, as I just said, it's often very difficult to decide what is a reasonable standard of living that will satisfy nature, especially since American society can make it difficult to live a countercultural life. In this regard I will note only two things.

First, as Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (no. 37), "every economic decision has a moral consequence." Since the kinds of stores we patronize, the kinds of products we buy and use, have consequences that are both economic and environmental, therefore they have both moral and spiritual consequences for each of us. Someone who desires to "live at the level of the average doctor or big-league baseball player" is making decisions which not only have moral consequences but unavoidably shape that person's soul according to a particular pattern. A lifetime of our economic decisions will determine whether we have shaped ourselves according to the image of Samuelson's economic man or to the opposite pattern suggested by Holy Scripture and the writings of the saints.

Secondly, just as it's very difficult for someone raised in a society saturated by pornography and sexual promiscuity to realize what a sane and healthy sexuality is, so it's hard for us who were raised in a commercial society, a society which more or less makes riches and material goods an idol, to realize what a sane attitude toward work and material goods is. In both cases we have to strive, using all the means of grace available, to form sound judgments. But now I want to turn our attention to the question of society as a whole, that is, about how a society that seeks to orient its productive activity toward satisfying nature might conduct itself.

The following is a description, from Richard Tawney's seminal book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, of the outlook of Medieval Europe toward work and material goods.
Material riches are necessary; they have a secondary importance, since without them men cannot support themselves and help one another; the wise ruler, as St. Thomas said, will consider in founding his State the natural resources of the country. But economic motives are suspect. Because they are powerful appetites, men fear them, but they are not mean enough to applaud them. Like other strong passions, what they need, it is thought, is not a clear field, but repression. There is no place in medieval theory for economic activity which is not related to a moral end, and to found a science of society upon the assumption that the appetite for economic gain is a constant and measurable force, to be accepted, like other natural forces, as an inevitable and self-evident datum would have appeared to the medieval thinker as hardly less irrational or less immoral than to make the premise of social philosophy the unrestrained operation of such necessary human attributes as pugnacity or the sexual instinct.
And he continues with his description of medieval economic ethics:
At every turn, therefore, there are limits, restrictions, warnings, against allowing economic interests to interfere with serious affairs. It is right for a man to seek such wealth as is necessary for a livelihood in his station. To seek more is not enterprise, but avarice, and avarice is a deadly sin. Trade is legitimate; the different resources of different countries show that it was intended by Providence. But it is a dangerous business. A man must be sure that he carries it on for the public benefit, and that the profits which he takes are no more than the wages of his labor. (3)
And another historian wrote along similar lines,
We can, therefore, lay down as the first principle of mediaeval economics that there was a limit to money-making imposed by the purpose for which the money was made. Each worker had to keep in front of himself the aim of his life and consider the acquiring of money as a means only to an end, which at one and the same time justified and limited him. When, therefore, sufficiency had been obtained there could be no reason for continuing further efforts at getting rich,...except in order to help others. (4)
The questions I'd like to consider now concern how a truly Christian society would implement these ideals. Many people, certainly most Americans, would think that adherence to such standards must be something purely voluntary. At most, the Church would seek to persuade people of its desirability via her preaching and catechesis. And certainly that is the first thing to be done, to create a social consciousness that the pursuit of riches beyond what one needs is both criminal and stupid. Criminal because it helps create a society that upholds false ideals and corrupts all of our souls, stupid because it detracts from what life in this world is about, and above all, because it makes more difficult our attainment of eternal life. I am not asserting that it is a sin simply to be rich, but I do assert that riches are almost always a near occasion of sin, and therefore we'd better be pretty sure we have a genuine justification for our riches. And especially do we need a very good justification for seeking more riches if we already have enough so that the demands of nature are satisfied.

But there is more. You'll notice what Tawney said in the passage I just quoted, "At every turn, therefore, there are limits, restrictions, warnings, against allowing economic interests to interfere with serious affairs." A Christian society will not be content to simply use moral persuasion in order to correctly orient out attitude toward work and material goods. If nothing else, such a society will make it rather hard for someone to get rich. It will certainly do nothing to facilitate such acquisition of riches, and it will try to structure its laws, tax code and general economic arrangements so that it is easy to earn enough to support one's family, but hard to do more.

Many are familiar with the taxation scheme suggested by Hilaire Belloc in his 1936 book, The Restoration of Property, according to which any enterprise which exceeded a certain size would be taxed at such a high rate that no one would expand his business beyond a modest size. I know that many people have an instinctive violent reaction against such proposals, but those who do should ask themselves a couple questions. How is this an unjust restriction? How is anyone's true good harmed by such laws? Until recently we as a society in the United States saw this clearly with regard to that other great human appetite, sexual satisfaction. Within the lifetime of many of us divorce was in most states difficult to obtain, pornography was strictly regulated or even prohibited, homosexual activity illegal. And laws on the books even forbade adultery, even if they were rarely enforced. Even today prostitution is illegal in nearly every state.  We justified these restrictions by saying that such activity was contrary to both the natural law and the revealed law of God, harmful to individuals and to the social order, and that therefore the free choices and desires of individuals could justly be limited in such matters.

If we are serious about conforming our lives to the norms of morality with regard to money and property, the same argument applies: "those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction." The disordered striving after riches is as hurtful to the common good as is the disordered striving after sexual pleasure.  Both material wealth and sexual pleasure are true goods, but they are goods only in their rightful places. No one's genuine freedom or legitimate rights are infringed upon if the pursuit of wealth is hindered and directed toward legitimate channels, even by use of state power, just as no one's genuine freedom or legitimate rights are infringed upon by legal restrictions on disordered sexual behavior.

There is a wonderful quote from G. K. Chesterton in What's Wrong With the World that juxtaposes so well these two areas of human behavior.
I am well aware that the word "property" has been defiled in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property; because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land; but other people's.... It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem. (5)
If it is proper to prevent the Duke of Sutherland from obtaining all of our women as his wives, why is it not proper to prevent him from obtaining all the property as his own?

Let me go one step further, or one level deeper, in our exploration of this topic. Most people who would object to what I just said about the use of social or legal power to restrict our acquisitive appetites, would object, I think, because, usually unknowingly, they hold an idea about social or political authority which is grounded not in classical philosophy or Holy Scripture, but in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, most notably in the writings of John Locke. Government, according to this notion, is merely a necessary evil, necessary because of mankind's tendencies toward anti-social conduct. "If men were angels," wrote James Madison in Federalist no. 51, "no government would be necessary." Implicit in such a notion is the idea that man's natural state is a-social, and that every restriction we accept as part of living in society is a restriction on our natural freedom, justified usually by the benefits which sociey brings, but still, something essentially unnatural, something which inhibits our natural freedom. Most political discourse in the United States, of both liberals and conservatives, simply assumes such an understanding of freedom and society.

Here again, though, we find Thomas Aquinas teaching a different view. In the Summa Theologiae (I, q 96, art 4) he asks whether there would have been subordination of man to man in the state of innocence, i.e., without Adam's fall into sin. And he answers his question clearly, saying Yes.  Although there would not have been the domination (dominium) characteristic of the slave (servus), who is "ordered to another," there would still have been the kind of subjection proper to the free man, when someone directs him to his own good or to the common good. And the primary reason given by Aquinas for this is because man is "naturally a social animal" and "social life cannot exist unless someone presides who aims at the common good." In other words, according to Aquinas, even if our first parents had never sinned and lost the state of original justice, we still would have required a sort of government, a government that would not have needed to punish anyone, but was still there to coordinate and direct our efforts toward the common good.

I submit that this difference between St. Thomas and Locke manifests the fundamental error of almost all political discourse in the Anglo-Saxon world, especially the United States. But Locke is simply wrong: man is by nature a political animal, our natural state is one of community, with all the necessary restrictions that such community requires and implies. This is not to justify tyranny or to deny that personal political freedom is a good, but it is to insist that such political freedom is far from the highest political virtue.  Justice is more important than freedom, and in fact, any understanding of freedom which regards it as primarily the right to do anything which one pleases, is a disordered understanding. Just as marriage vows do not limit our true sexual freedom, but actually allow for human sexuality to flourish in proper freedom, so society, including government, is not a restriction on man's legitimate freedom, but the precondition for a true flourishing of such freedom. We do not trade a certain amount of freedom for a certain amount of security, as in the Lockean myth of the social contract, but we are placed by God and nature into society, without which freedom would be a meaningless exercise in randomness.

As a result, then, if a society attempts to channel its economic activity toward the common good, it in no way infringes on real economic freedom. Rather it provides the necessary means by which economic activity can attain its true end: not the goods and services that satisfy everyone's consumption desires, but the appetite for natural riches which according to a set measure satisfy nature. This is true Christian wisdom, this is the teaching of the Church, the command of Holy Scripture, and the sure way toward our eternal salvation.

(1) Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 2, a. 1 ad 3.

(2) Microeconomics, 17th ed., 2001 p. 4.

(3) Richard H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, New York, 1926, pp. 31-32.

(4) Bede Jarrett, Social Theories of the Middle Ages, pp. 157-158.

(5) Part I, chapter 6.

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