John Ikerd, emeritus agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, observes that “to most economists, if the economy is growing, if it is getting bigger, then the economy is getting better, regardless of the consequences for social equity and environmental integrity.” In other words what so often determines the defining feature of a first-world nation, one that you would want to move to and live in, is the status of the economy. Without being overly reductive, even within the United States itself, many of us choose to move and live where we do because it is a place that has a “good economy.”
Ikerd’s judgment is certainly correct in one sense, but there is some nuance that is absent. To see the world, and our lives, merely in terms of money or wealth, would be to foster a real form of anthropological reductionism. However, searching for a place to set down roots that is embedded within a good economy is, taken in itself, not a bad thing. As Abby McCloskey rightly contends, “A healthy economy is a growing one. Each generation cannot have greater economic success than the one that preceded it unless the economy is increasing in size. If the economy stays the same…the most connected and skilled individuals usually win.” Similarly, as Robert T. Miller has demonstrated, the American economy is one that has, since the 1980s, continued to experience regulatory increases and a serious decline in freedom.
The issue requiring further reflection is not whether or not commerce and wealth are good. They are necessary for society. However, the circular debates between increased economic opportunity and increased GDP are too often seen as the primary question that needs to be answered. While such debates can be helpful, they are not my concern here. Rather, I think there should be a deeper consideration of why many citizens of modern liberal democracies are so prone to view the status of the economy as the standard for a decent society. In this light we can then form an initial resolution answering the question “What should we do?”
According to the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (first published in 1835), there can be a fervent restlessness surrounding the pursuit of well-being as the penultimate principle in life, and which seems to aptly characterize democratic societies:
It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it.
In reference to pursuing the goods of this world, Tocqueville goes on to say that democratic citizens rush “precipitately to grasp those that pass within his reach that one would say he fears at each instant he will cease to live before he has enjoyed them.” To understand the sociological, and even anthropological, import of such restless pursuit, Tocqueville alludes to what appears to be a more remote cause of American restlessness and the drive for well-being:
In the United States, a man carefully builds a dwelling in which to pass his declining years, and he sells it while the roof is being laid; he plants a garden and he rents it out just as he was going to taste its fruits… He embraces a profession and quits it. He settles in a place from which he departs soon after so as to take his changing desires elsewhere.
In aristocratic societies, citizens are embedded within a set of associations and intermediate groups that provide meaning and stability to their lives. We could say that aristocratic societies are predominantly characterized by having a variety of economies. In contrast, Tocqueville’s notion of democracy entails that citizens are socially born into a world wherein such associational forms of life are not presupposed.
This judgment does not mean that real community is entirely absent in democratic life. In fact, Robert Putnam’s lesser-known work, Making Democracy Work (Princeton, 1993), is one of the most persuasive books demonstrating the real potential for social life and human flourishing in democracies. Rather, the claim relates to the historical origins of modern democracy, wherein the once-given forms of human connectedness have gradually dissolved. There is a real sense in which an existential vacuum is present as a result of the social and existential disconnections that can permeate democratic nations.
Tocqueville goes on to say that in “democratic centuries, men rarely devote themselves to another.” The perennial threat, if you will, in our times will be to cut ourselves off from others and dwell in an empty sphere of isolation. The more alone we are, the greater the susceptibility to want to be cared for by a “distant other.” My concern is that this so often results a flawed and unhealthy understanding of the economy. Increased GDP or economic opportunity too often is viewed from a lens that is grossly insufficient. Speaking critically to a rather common notion of health, D.C. Schindler has made the following observation:
The very notion of health in the modern world represents a fragmentation or break down of wholeness. And in this case the irony becomes a tragic one: this unhealthy understanding of health, insofar as it informs our actions and so also our ordering of society, in a certain sense performs what it represents. The understanding itself fragments. In a word, the reductive notion of health causes disorder, which means that the very energies devoted to the pursuit of this health may turn out to be a profound cause of disease (“The Healthy and the Holy”, Communio, Fall 2014: 549)
An unhealthy account of the economy is one that fosters fragmentation. Following Schindler’s logic, we could rightly say that a reductive view of the economy “may turn out to be a profound cause of disease.”
The question we must address is how we are to understand the economy from a broader perspective that is rooted in health. This begins by recovering the more ancient meaning of the Greek word oikonomia. The word oikos means “home,” and nomos means “law,” but can also, as Mark Shiffman has noted, be translated as “place.” Our disconnections from home and being “placed”, as Tocqueville mentions, inclines toward an exhaustive experience of restlessness. This is perhaps most visibly witnessed in the rural communities of the Rust Belt, where social and familial disintegration has led to widespread increases in drug addiction, crime, and “deaths of despair”.
What these Rust Belt towns and cities increasingly lack is what Dr. Gabor Mate, an expert on addiction, considers to be the foundational drive of human nature, namely, connection. The family and home is where we first learn the art of association, for it is our first “economy.” It is from here that this vital energy is sprung outwards toward the various other associations of human life, especially the neighborhood, and other local communities. The economies of commerce, trust, family, neighborhood, friendship, loyalty, and even love, can perhaps be viewed more holistically.
The various kinds of economies draw us outside of ourselves, especially by bringing us into personal communion with other people. This is a daunting task, but it is the only soil from which a decent and healthy economy can grow.
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