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.