A humane economy versus economism.

Author:Ancil, Ralph E.


Contributing to the multi-faceted crisis Americans now face is the loss of those values and principles that are essential to a healthy economy. We could mention the incestuous relationships between business and politics, the avarice of large banking institutions, misguided Federal Reserve policy, the irrationality of Wall Street investors, and the Gordon Gekko motto that greed is good. In the face of these problems, average Americans have indeed been hurt and made subject to the predations of those whose lives are truly driven by greed and fear. Or, as Robert Kuttner has recently written, Americans have been made subject to the rentier class, the powerful and unscrupulous creditors of the financial world. (1) But a more subtle form of depredation is robbing us in an even more fundamental way. No effort at restoring America's foundations can be complete, no battle for her soul can be successful, without our being reminded of this need. I am speaking of our perspective on the nature and quality of business and work necessary for a humane economy to oppose the ravages wrought by its opposite, economism.

By "economism" I mean a false view of economy and business that either (1) denigrates these pursuits as related merely to material needs and not intimately connected with man's higher purposes, or (2) elevates the material means sought by business and commerce to the status of man's only end. In both cases economic activity is associated exclusively with base human motives. In the former, economic pursuits are belittled, and in the latter they are given the highest praise. While there are many ways to engage this theme, I will here contrast the ancient and modern forms of economism with the alternative of a humane economy.

Ancient Economism: The Absence of Leisure

In the past, the emphasis was on the man of leisure who, acting as an independent or relatively self-sufficient individual, was able to spend time contemplating the higher aspects of life out of love for the good. He was able to do so because he did not have to work by the sweat of his brow to earn a living. The chief end of man was not seen as getting material wealth, and therefore trade and business were considered unworthy activities of the properly formed man, the man with the liberal education. This, of course, harkens back to Aristotle's Politics, where he writes that topics related to business matters, such as natural and unnatural methods of getting wealth, are not unworthy of philosophical discussion, but "to be engaged in them practically is illiberal and irksome." (2)

This perspective was subsequently reflected in the different social classes this view entailed because, after all, some people actually had to lower themselves to make, grow, and trade things. These were, in Roman as well as Greek society, the slaves or the serfs or the laborers. The education suitable for them was vocational training while for the leisure class it was education in the "liberal arts," a name derived from the liberi, or freemen, the sons of well-to-do Romans who had the leisure to study such topics as philosophy, languages, and history.

To understand the purpose of "liberal" education, it is helpful to look at three definitions. First, Jacques Barzun writes that "the academic humanities serve the arts, philosophy, and religion by bringing order into the heritage of civilization." (3) Secondly, John Gould Fletcher, speaking of higher education, has a different emphasis, claiming: "We employ our minds in order to achieve character, to be the balanced personalities, the 'superior men' of Confucius' text, the 'gentlemen' of the old South. We achieve character, personality, gentlemanliness in order to make our lives an art and bring our souls into relation with the whole scheme of things, which is the divine nature." (4) Thirdly, Richard Weaver writes of the medieval pursuit of knowledge: "Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path to self-depreciation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas. Thus knowledge for the medieval idealist prepared the way for self-effacement." (5)

We can summarize these goals as order, art, and humility.

The "gentleman" of English society is perhaps the most familiar illustration of this concept in practice. He was not one who would demean himself by engaging in commerce or the professions. He preferred to have an independent income and pursue liberal studies without thought of monetary reward. (Of course, it is an interesting sociological question how this independent income was first established and later maintained. That is another matter.) This older, genteel view reminds one of the attitude of Mr. Collins in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, who was worried that Mrs. Phillips's husband might be, well, might be engaged in--trade. He was dramatically relieved to find that Mr. Phillips was a solicitor, "a modest calling but respectable."

Without calling into question the enormous benefit to English society of the "spirit of the gentleman," as Burke calls it, the concept did do a disservice in one respect: by separating the higher ends of man from the way he earned his daily bread--that is, by failing to see the organic connection between the two--it relegated work to a lower social class, from whom little of an elevated nature was to be expected. This is one form of economism.

Economy, Business, and Work as Liberal Arts

Yet at the same time that Jane Austen was writing her novel, such views concerning work were already changing as the classes and society were being altered under the new industrial and commercial regime that began in the late eighteenth century. These changes were a mixture of good effects and bad, but among the former was a different perspective on the role of business. In this context Wilhelm Ropke writes:

[A] certain opprobrium was attached for many centuries to that middle level of ethics which is proper to any essentially free economy. It is the merit of eighteenth-century social and moral philosophy, which is the source of our own discipline of political economy, to...

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