What is the proper end of a nation’s economy? Many if not most of us assume we know the answer to this question, but we’re rarely called on to articulate it. The answer matters because the only way you can properly judge whether a thing or system is doing its job effectively is if you know its telos, its final cause or purpose. The Catholic Church teaches (I over-simplify) that the economy creates wealth to be shared, not hoarded. Others tend to believe the economy doesn’t have a purpose as such but is something that simply is.
If the latter is true, all economic systems “work” by definition. You can’t even say one is more efficient than another — that’s a value judgment — since neither has a task to be more efficient at, let alone a moral duty to be more efficient. More and more Americans and Europeans, however, believe the economy has a job it isn’t doing effectively because they themselves are worse off than they were five, 10, and 20 years ago. And they may be right.
A Warning About Populism
In his first monologue of the year (January 2), Tucker Carlson, a popular American host on the conservative-oriented FOX News network, admitted, “Questioning markets feels like apostasy.” For a disturbing number of Americans on both the left and the right, questioning free-market economics doesn’t simply “feel like” apostasy. It’s a pernicious heresy that must be either studiously ignored or condemned from every pulpit. Democrats can manage the former by simply dismissing the ideologically impure source with an eye-roll. Republicans, like David French of National Review, must go a little further: shoot the messenger and dismiss the message as “victimhood populism.”
Yet apostatize is precisely what Carlson did: He delivered a withering indictment of the present American economic system that caught his conservative/libertarian fan base off-guard. While his monologue began with former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), the indictment grew to embrace both Republicans and Democrats alike. Carlson blamed the rise of populism on economic policies and changes which not only have impoverished the working and middle classes but have wrecked the social institutions many of the elite claims to revere.
But to dismiss Carlson’s analysis as populism of any variety is not only to do injustice to Carlson himself but to miss the point altogether. To paraphrase Kirk Jing of The Federalist, it isn’t populism to point out that the working classes are restive and discontented. Rather, the populist takes advantage of that discontent to further their own ends, such as achieving Congress or the White House. Nor can you argue that dissatisfaction into submission. You can write off working-class resentment with a catchy label like “the politics of envy”, but explaining it away won’t make it go away.
Economics and Value Judgments
Moreover, such defenders often misunderstand the very discipline they claim underlies their dogmatic faith in market capitalism. Economics doesn’t merely study how societies grow rich or poor; it also studies how the economy affects the growth, development, and stability of the society it studies. We can lay aside, for now, the question of whether economics in its present state works as well as many think it does. The essential point, as Carlson himself insists, is that the effect of economic activity goes far beyond our wallets and investment schedules, and we would do well to remember that.
Now, let’s return to the question with which we began: What is the purpose, the telos, of a nation’s economy? We could try to duck the question by claiming that economics, being a science and therefore “values-free”, can’t answer it. “Economics studies how economies do work, not how they ought to work!” We may not even intend to equivocate on work “operate” and work “produce the best results;” we’d simply mean the question “What system produces the best results?” is beyond economists’ purview.
But if it isn’t a lie, such a response is at least a long-standing and pernicious error. A scientific discipline can’t even define itself, let alone justify itself, without its founders making and incorporating a host of value judgments. French analyst Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry observes that not only do economists import their largely egalitarian and cosmopolitan (read: social libertarian/progressive) values into their work, many if not most are untroubled by its potential analytical bias. For instance, economists recognize the correlation between economic growth and population growth, but most would never even think of boosting population growth as a policy recommendation.
The Family and the Economy
Furthermore, economists’ value judgments are informed by the anthropological assumptions of classical liberalism and its tributary ideologies: specifically, that Man is by nature autonomous and self-interested, and that social relationships with their bonds and obligations — especially those of family — are at best a necessary evil, at worst an enslavement. For instance, John C. Médaille points out that neoclassical economics treats labor as a commodity, but has no explanation for how that “commodity” is produced, maintained, or depreciated. “Therefore, labor — and the family — does not even gain the dignity of a bar of pig iron in modern economic theory” (Toward a Truly Free Market, 40-41).
Given that families play no role in economic theory, it follows that women have no productive value as housekeeping mothers and only gain such value once they “enter” the economy as labor. Since economics doesn’t know and doesn’t care how families produce labor, we need not optimize them to produce the best workers possible. Workers need not marry; marriage needs be neither permanent nor oriented towards childrearing; family roles can be changed, replaced, or dispensed with as you please. So long as we have workers to work and consumers to consume, who cares where they come from?
If classical liberalism and its tributary ideologies didn’t implicitly assume that social relationships are ad-hoc, utilitarian, and extrinsic to the human person, not only would economists have an economic theory of the family. Indeed, the capital class would invest heavily in laws, policies, and interventions which would strengthen and fine-tune the family, not to mention all the other social institutions and organizations in which we find communio. Instead, they spend their efforts on social experiments and economic policies which “enhance liberty” at the expense of strong families and social institutions.
For not only do we have a “right to be left alone,” it is the consummation the liberal tradition supposes we should devoutly wish.
Growth and Over-Concentration of Wealth
Again, what is the telos of the economy? Even Gobry, a Catholic who has argued we should (trigger alert!) pay attention to Pope Francis on economic issues, seems to treat the matter as if the economy’s telos were merely to grow. That is, we’re doing fine if we Americans make and consume 2.5% – 3% more beer and shampoo than we did this time last year, and great if we make and sell more beer and shampoo per capita than any other country. So long as the economy is growing faster than the population, many assume, everyone is doing better.
And if anyone’s not doing better, well, that’s their fault. Many of the system’s defenders are very adept at victim-blaming. For the most part, though, the victim-blamers live not in the real world but in an Ayn Rand novel, in which anarcho-capitalism is a blind dispenser of economic justice and the elite rule in their own interests because they deserve everything they get. It’s a mindset that, if left uncorrected, can lead a ruling elite to the guillotine or the firing squad.
We have plenty of historical and economic testimony that over-concentration of a nation’s wealth is counterproductive, that it leads to instability, socioeconomic collapse, and/or repressive social systems. It does no good to insist that people have a right to be obscenely rich or to demand we hang empirical values on over-concentration and excessive wealth. All that’s necessary is for people to believe they’re robbed and oppressed by an economy that benefits a very few people out of all reasonable proportion. That’s how socialism gains popularity, in the most literal sense of the word.
And Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is the young and attractive face of that old enemy — a socialism that’s multicultural (nay, intersectional!) and has plenty of time to develop a power base. Even the Democrat elite fears her potential because she’s not “one of us.”
It isn’t enough, I conclude, merely to challenge the conservative orthodoxy on free-market capitalism. We must also challenge the classical liberal assumptions that we exist solely for ourselves, that we have no natural relationships or obligations to one another, and that the meaning of freedom is to live unconstrained by rules. Not only must economists reassess their ideas of what a healthy economy looks like; to do so, I submit, they must disabuse themselves of the “science is values-free” myth and consider what values underpin a healthy economy.
Above all, we must also stop treating the economy as something that exists only to grow larger and start treating it as something that has a proper telos. That telos, the Catholic Church insists, can be found in the social principles of the common good and the universal destination of goods, neither of which is intrinsically opposed to well-ordered capitalism. What is opposed to well-ordered capitalism is the “looking out for Number One” mentality which permeates and agonizes our public square, and which renders the ruling elite deaf to the cry of the poor and the worker.
One day, according to Proverbs, the ruling elite themselves will cry out to the Lord and not be heard. Probably as they’re being led to the guillotine or the firing squad.