the imaginative conservative logo

Wilhelm RöpkeWhat constitutes a well-ordered house from the national perspective? How do we know what order it is in? According to the conventional wisdom we need the statistics of aggregate income, spending and output. We need, in other words, the GNP approach whose figures bombard us whenever we read something about the national economy on particular policies and certainly during election time when productivity, inflation, and employment figure prominently in the debated issues.

Representative of this approach might be the statement of Clayton and Giesbrecht on the matter. They liken the gathering of national accounting information to getting information on your health like blood tests and X-rays. “But sometimes we need more information about the overall health of the economy than we can generate by ourselves.” (A Guide to Everyday Economic Statistics, 1990, p. 2) In which case we need economic statistics. Yet it is very revealing that they also claim that in their choice of statistics they reflect what is actually given attention not what ought to be given attention because they have a “positive philosophy” (p. 4). But surely looking at the wrong information will not give us good health. We would strongly object to a physician who reported on the number of freckles on our faces when what we really needed was a blood-pressure reading. And this is the crux of the matter: are the commonly reported statistics telling us what we really need to know? If not, why do we keep using them?

But these authors do reflect a healthy skepticism toward such data. They urge that: “…we should never become so blinded by the apparent numerical precision and the ‘scientific,’ ‘theoretical,’ or ‘official’ nature of these economic indicators that we ignore our own sensitivity to economic and business conditions” (p. 13). At the end of their short book they repeat this warning that beyond statistics “our own eyes and ears are our best sources of information…” (p. 129) Traffic patterns, congestion, and shopping activity in stores and malls are recommended as additional sources of information as well as things like property maintenance (p. 130). (Does your house need painting? Are property taxes too high?) Let us then take these authors seriously and consider how well-ordered the house is.

Consider, for example, the information on “output per worker per hour.” It is generally taken as a good sign when this increases: each worker, on average, is producing more goods and services in the economy. A current graph of this would show that this productivity has grown steadily though slowly over the past few decades. Overall, this suggests we are all getting more out of the economy for what we put into it than we were before and therefore, and here is the twist, life is better than it was.

But clearly, this is not true. While the output of those goods and services that can be measured may be increased in this way, there remains the output of those non-measurable aspects of economic life that humanize economic activity.

The Small Qualities

It was the great British economist Alfred Marshall who said that economics deals with people in the ordinary business of life. Very well. Let’s forget the big numbers and look at the small qualities which, taken together, make up the “ordinary life,” the small things that make daily life pleasant or painful.

Has not the quality of personal service at the retail level declined? That customers and sales clerks have surely become ruder is evident to anyone who has a long enough memory to recall what polite, full service used to mean. In gas stations you may pay about the same price as in 1973 but you must do everything yourself from pumping to cleaning the windshield. Of course, fast food restaurants have suffered from this disease so long they are almost invisible as an example of lowering of service and politeness to increase the number of burgers sold per hour.

Yet we are told that worker output per hour has increased and that we are all better off. But very often this increase is passed onto the customer in some way other than in money-costs: it is the customer who must find the merchandise himself or bag it himself, etc. It is the customer who bears the cost of longer waiting time in grocery stores whose cashiers must enter lengthy lists of inventory data before servicing the customer. (The next step, apparently still in an experimental stage, is to have customers scan their groceries themselves.) It is the customer who also pays when, very possibly in an effort to prevent overstocking of inventories through computerization, stores understock: he must come back later, go elsewhere, or do without. It is the customer who must wait on the telephone listening to lengthy menus of options, most of which are irrelevant to his needs. And after making a selection (press 2), he simply has to listen through another lengthy set of mostly useless options. After making a final selection one must either wait and be compelled to listen to some obnoxious music, news program or commercials or after the final menu, the party he needs to speak with isn’t there and he must leave a recorded message. Wasn’t it better when a receptionist answered the phone, you stated your business and were immediately connected with the right party? In public services, libraries have become dungeons for the dissemination of trivial factoids and video cassettes – not temples of glorious literature for the contemplation of the learned. (They have also become noisier – whatever happened to silence in the library?)

Such data don’t tell us the “structure” of the economy. We need to know not simply that there is more but that there is more of what? We need to have some standard to know whether we are getting more of the right things. It is not enough to know that man is eating more; we need to know that he is eating enough of the right foods. We also need to know when we have enough, for without limit there can be no balance. We would not think much of a country whose primary national effort was to see that each individual’s waistline increased more every year, no matter what. Why then should we be enamored with infinitely increasing per capita consumption of GNP?

In the real economy, for example, how do we evaluate in national accounting that worker productivity increases in the auto industry, heroically assuming these are not absorbed as auto worker pay increases, when automobiles are used increasingly to help commuters travel 3-4 hours round trip to their jobs. The GNP goes up but the quality of life goes down. Or, hypothetically at least, if television sets in day-care centers are used to take care of a greater number of other people’s children, the day-care worker’s productivity goes up, but it isn’t the right kind of productivity. The quality of family life goes down, as does that of society as a whole, even if the GNP goes up. In fact, it is worse than this: we give our children over to strangers to raise but the sun-deck at the back of the house we make ourselves. This is not simply disordered, it is upside down.

Aside from this subtle and involuntary “do-it-yourself” effect, there is the more explicit kind. Rising prices of some types of labor encourage many to do it themselves around the house or car. But unless it is your intention to increase household production, a laudable aim, the do-it-yourself approach is a drudgery.  National accounting does not take any of this into consideration. It is as though in order to flatter ourselves that productivity is increasing and the economy is doing well we keep changing the definition of productivity, neglecting what we used to be able to take for granted.

The loss of these small qualities in the economic household isn’t the fault of any one firm or customer. It is systemic. It is partly market competition which compels conformity, partly government policy which shapes economics in many ways, and partly the ideology which claims we must accept all forms and applications of technology uncritically. We must surrender our intelligence and our humanity if we wish to be “progressive.” Centuries ago we had the Luddities, the smashers of machines; today we have the Luddites of culture, those who undermine the house of the humane.

Social Boredom

But frustrations of this type are not the only symptoms of disorder. Another symptom exists which is not mentioned in public policy discussions, no longer mentioned even among conservatives. It is “boredom.” Russell Kirk and others have long ago agreed with Roepke when he said, “Boredom is the true curse of our epoch….” Modern, chronic boredom is caused by mass society, mechanization and “technolatry” (the idolizing of technology), those same ingredients that keep boosting the GNP statistics.

Patterns of life that are too uniform and alienated from nature rob people of the vital satisfaction of their daily activities. Mechanized work robs one of satisfaction in production and mechanized consumption (e.g. passivity-inducing television) robs one of personal satisfaction even in our moments of relaxation. The creative element is undermined at both ends. The result is that the apologists of technolatry keep recommending more of the same: more technology to increase productivity to increase real wages to increase consumption. This, of course, only increases boredom – once the glitz of the latest gew-gaw wears thin.

Roepke, summarizing the points of another study by Ernest van den Haag, writes: “People are divested of their natural individuality, both as producers, turning out mass products by more and more mechanized methods, and as consumers, because mass products cannot cater to individual tastes and because, at the same time, the class of people wealthy enough to buy custom-made goods is dwindling fast, thanks to invidious taxation imposed by the crushing majority of consumers with ‘shared tastes.’ Impersonal work has its counterpart in impersonal consumption; the standardization of objects demands and eventually enforces the standardization of persons.”

Not only does this commitment to “mass” society increase, as Roepke argues, mental and physical health problems, but serious moral problems occur as well. With the rise of the homosexual movement and increasing pressure for legislation to promote homosexual rights, it is fair to ask if there is any relation between homosexuality and modern technology. Our society’s long-standing “obsessive sexuality” in general and the more recent emphasis on homosexuality leads one to contemplate this relationship. Roepke refers to the now notorious Kinsey Report of several decades ago with its focus on promiscuous and perverted sex, including homosexuality, as evidence of “erotic degradation” derived from boredom, driven by the search for something meaningful to do in life. One is reminded of the relationship between boredom and sexual perversion in such popular forms as Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, portions of which were later turned into a Broadway play and a film. In the film, Cabaret, the bored and listless heroine Sally Bowles flashes her green-painted fingernails and refers to them as “divine decadence.”

In A Program for Conservatives, Russell Kirk is very explicit on the connection between social boredom and sexual depravity. Referring also to the Kinsey study, and despite its many errors, Kirk concludes that it still shows that “something is dreadfully wrong with modern society.” He explains: “I know of no more convincing body of evidence that boredom is near to stifling our civilization. For sexual promiscuity and perversion is one of the most immediate and common consequences of boredom.” Kirk rightly understood that Kinsey and other scientists were themselves becoming bored and their search for relief was the destruction of traditional moral standards. “What better relief from boredom could there be than the demolition of the moral codes of the ages? What work more gratifying to the ego?” Today, we have not only the Rockefeller Foundation which sponsored the Kinsey Report, we have the entire Federal Government working toward this end. Like Roepke, Kirk also cites excessive mechanization of industrial life as a major reason for this boredom.

Blinded by the Light?

When we are asked not to be blinded by the official sounding nature of economic statistics, it is a little like asking us not to be blinded by the magician’s hand movements which trick the eye. Unless we’re experts at this, that will mean for most of us not to watch him at all! The magical quality of official statistics gathering has not gone unnoticed. As Clayton and Giesbrecht write about abusing statistics: “Perhaps at the root of these many troubles is that numbers often have a mystique about them. They are easily given more credibility than is their due.” (p. 125) What is more than their due may well be the belief that they are necessary or helpful. After all, we had healthy economies before the national accounting techniques of the 1940’s. Can we not have them again? At the time of his writing A Humane Economy,Roepke indicates that there was no positive connection between collecting these national numbers and the quality of the economy. This data collection enthusiasm, he writes, may “…be damped by the sobering reflection that the countries with the soundest economic and currency policies are those which do not go in for national accounting, while the countries in which this method is at its apogee have sickly economies and unusually strong inflationary pressure…” (p. 253). He suggests that it is precisely this system of economic statistics that contributes to bad economies by tempting governments to control the economy and that usually means making bad policy interventions. Their thinking is deflected by the numbers, they themselves are blinded by the hands of the magician. After all, it was in large measure due to the thinking of Keynes that we started collecting such data to begin with.

Perhaps when conditions of living have become too impersonal, too large, too anonymous we resort to the prestidigitation of numbers to try to answer what we can’t otherwise get. But in the small and the local we know how well we are doing.

The danger here has been that these methods are used to centralize the economy still more and to place it increasingly under the influence of the national government. Information from the national accounts helps the Government in its countercyclical policy. Government (deficit) spending has increased over the past several decades and yet this is hailed by some as a major reason the economy’s boom-and-bust business cycle has been more moderate since the end of World War II. Economic stability arises from expanding government. But if true, is the price worth it? The shape of the instability merely changes from the business cycle in economics to instability in society and politics. The next step with this type of thinking is to stabilize the international economy by means of more international government control and we find ourselves right in the middle of present controversies regarding NAFTA, GATT and the World Trade Organization as well as the European Economic Community.

All this should not come as a surprise when the habit of thinking in terms of nationally aggregated data entices us to see the national and international economy as a vast pumping and sucking system – to use Roepke’s metaphor – that is blind to the necessary social structures, like the family, private property, local communities and tradition. Statistics of National Accounting are for Government the tools of mass production, that is, the production of “enmassement,” to centralize economic life more and more by “deconstructing” it. For “quanto-maniacs,” to use British economist E. J. Mishan’s term, it matters not what is getting pumped so long as the GNP gets bigger. And this, sadly, is a blindness found in much of the “conservative” literature.

Sadly, too, government addiction to big numbers and statistics is often matched by private businesses.

Getting a Different Picture

In the gathering of data such as in a census or in a consumer survey, we should remember that this used to be considered an assault upon personal liberty. In the case of King David it also was considered a lack of faith in the Providence of God. Today, we are not disturbed either by considerations of Providence or of personal liberty – and so, willingly submit. We are a nation of sheep.

But if we are compelled to gather data, what should we look for? We might try to see the following:

– stability of employment in same job,

– stability of same residence,

– number of miles and time spent going to and from work,

– size of family,

– number of times married,

– number of artisans, craftsmen, and truly small entrepreneurs left,

– size and duration of firms,

– how many fathers pass their profession, economic and social status onto their sons,

– how often is wealth, especially land, passed from father to son,

– what is the equity level in home ownership and how often are homes sold,

– type and amount of work done in the home,

– size of town lived in,

– re-examination of the economic “efficiency” of certain production methods and inventions.

Undoubtedly some of these statistics already exist but they do not replace the present national accounting system or even play a significant role in economic policy. The above alternative national account could be used to estimate our distance from the ideal of the humane economy: the small, the local, and the (partially) self-sufficient household.

Indeed, the “household” is the ideal for the economy, for within a household we seek to give each one his due not only with respect to production and consumption but with respect to him as a whole person including his spiritual needs. “Household” conveys a sense of balance and limits. This is simply another name for justice.

But the unlimited and uncritical application of modern technology to increase indefinitely individual consumption, as suggested in the statistics of the GNP and related data, is harmful. Let us be blunt: the commitment to unlimited increases in individual consumption is exactly equal to denying our spiritual nature and its needs. It crowds them out. The result: a weakened culture and economy, with productivity losses not measurable by the GNP such as courtesy, neighborliness, warm personal relations in the market, and cancerous growths such as social boredom and sexual perversion. Data don’t substitute for duties and discipline which come only from the belief in and the practice of higher values.

The remedy is obvious. We need to re-affirm spiritual values, to return to what Kirk calls “prescriptive ends” which transcend material ones. A beginning can be made in political economy by rejecting conventional statistics and replacing them with better ones, or perhaps rejecting efforts at statistical “measures” of economic health and order altogether. This will help restore order in a true “oiko-nomia.”

Books referenced in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[This essay appeared in The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy by Ralph Ancil. Copyright held by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute and reprinted by permission. Read the series introductory essay here.]

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. Implementing Mr. Ancil's idealized economy would require forms of social and governmental control unacceptable to most citizens.

  2. Anonymous–the inverse is true. To implement these changes the government has to become irrelevant. This is a ground up process–a natural process. My fear is we are too far gone–this requires courage and a love of genuine freedom–Americans largely are too craven and willing to exchange private perversion for the virtues required for genuine freedom.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: