Around the turn of the century, England lost its only Catholic college dedicated to the exploration of social thought, economics, and politics (Plater College in Oxford). It seems remarkable not only that it was allowed to close, but that it had been the only institution of its kind. In the U.S., fortunately, there are several organizations and colleges, centers, and societies dedicated to this task. The history of intelligent Christian reflection on the social implications of the Gospel, and of brave attempts to do economic activity differently in the light of that Gospel, should be much better known than it is. This is a rich tradition. Even if we confine ourselves to the modern period, defined by the rise of various kinds of socialism and the response of Christian leaders and movements from 1891 to 1991, the work of Christian thinkers on economics has been exciting, varied, and often massively sane compared to the mainstream “establishment” economic tradition.
Edward Hadas is a major new voice in this important tradition. He is independent of all schools and parties; he is not the representative of a movement or the follower of an economic guru. Admirers both of G. K. Chesterton and of Michael Novak, though critical of each other, will find the book of interest to them. Hadas is not a “one-idea man.” He has the gift, not of simplifying, but of going back to the foundations of the discipline and rethinking it—intelligently—from the ground up. What he has tried to do in this book is nothing less than reinvent economics through a careful study of the nature of labor and of consumption. When you come across a section in a serious academic book that begins, “Economies produce stuff,” you know you are in the hands of an author who is not afraid of getting back to basics. (I would draw attention especially to his original typology of labor in chapter 15, which he feels offers a number of improvements over the standard models: “The priority given to labors of being and care; the respectful treatment given to women’s labor; the integration of reproduction into labor economics; the praise of indirect productive labor, especially of regulation; and the concept of instrumentally neutral labor.”)
One of the points he makes is that conventional economists have turned “Capital” into an impersonal force beyond our control. Hadas wants to humanize it.
Socialists think the entire force of the state is necessary to ensure that the monster Capital does not enslave the people. Capitalists count on “private ownership” (an odd description of the control mechanism for gigantic impersonal corporations), but consider the income from capital, profit, to be fundamentally different from the personal income of wages. Both socialists and capitalists make the same basic error. Capital is not a thing or a force or an impersonal and uncontrollable social construct; it is human—men knowing, sharing, trusting, and working together, and the tools built and operated by men. Any organization of capital—in a family business, a corporation, a government agency, a partnership—is an arbitrary human construction subject to the same moral and practical judgements—is it good? is it useful?—as any other human thing. (10)
In this way Hadas stands in the tradition of the “humane economy” and those personalist thinkers who sought to give priority to the human—such as E. F. Schumacher, with his “economics as though people mattered,” and, of course, Pope John Paul II. This is not just a moralistic point, but an ontological one: the human being is actually the ground and purpose of the economy. Any economic theory that does not accept this is merely unrealistic.
Hadas believes that conventional economists start out from the “wrong ontological place”:
Like many contemporary philosophers, they do not like to talk at all about the Good—the transcendental, mysterious, divine ultimate that should be at the center of economics. When economists talk about goods—consumption, production, final and intermediate goods—they have nothing moral in mind, just terms for different varieties of what I have been calling stuff. But such language games are not enough to free them from the moral orientation of human nature. (113)
He shows that “true goods,” and even the “transcendental” good, cannot be so easily eliminated from economics, simply by treating money as a measure or substitute for whatever it is that people want. He argues coherently against utilitarianism and other conventional theories stemming from the Enlightenment that reduce the good of economics to mere utility, prosperity, or the satisfaction of worldly desires. He argues for a hierarchy of goods, and in that sense for a moral cosmos a bit like that of the classical and medieval thinkers.
His aim, and he admits it is ambitious, daring, almost unprecedented, is “to combine economics with philosophy and theology,” bringing the latter down to earth and the former up to meet them. His aim is a truly “human economy,” taking into account the full scope and destiny of the human being. Like E. F. Schumacher (whose other, less famous book, A Guide for the Perplexed, was a defense of this principle), Hadas believes in levels of reality and a hierarchy of value reflected in the interior acts and judgments of the human person.
But at the same time, Hadas parts company with the “small is beautiful” brigade at many points. Nor can he be described as “antimodern,” as though modernity or the Enlightenment was for him merely a problem to overcome. He gives a ringing endorsement to many aspects of modern life and the globalized economy when he writes, for example:
The industrial economy does not need tremendous improvements. Unlike the academic discipline of conventional economics, which is something of a disaster area, the actual economy works quite well. Of course, adjustment to circumstances is constantly needed. Reforms are always needed for something—central banking, environmental protection, pension funding, and so forth. However, the necessary reforms in such matters do not require anything like a major economic reconfiguration. Indeed, the economic good is so well served that my first advice to would-be economic reformers is to turn to one of the many more deeply troubled aspects of modern society. (280)
Of course, he admits that there are problems, even if our industrial economy is not at the root of them.
Without a doubt, the modern economy is alienating. No one seems to care much about these soul-deadening patterns and trends. Worse, when attention is paid, for example in motivational campaigns by employers, the supposed cure often seems only to aggravate the disease. Still, economic alienation is among the least significant aspects of modern alienation. (279)
He locates the problem not in the economy, but in the conventional worldview, its antispiritual, indeed materialistic and reductionistic, attitude. To uproot that worldview and to turn things around will take the intellectual (and spiritual) equivalent of “deep ploughing.” What we end up with is an approach to economics that does more justice to reality—in all its heights and depths—than conventional economic theories dare to dream.
The world is too complicated for economism or any of its simplistic peers to be right. If an all-encompassing explanation is to be successful, it must work at a much higher level—the “divine comedy” of creation and redemption comes to mind. The economy is a mundane aspect of life, just one among many. It is neither autonomous nor able to encompass the others. One of the economist’s principle tasks is to put the economy in its proper place. (16)
Part of the necessary complexity of economics derives precisely from the fact that it is not an abstract, deductive science (or even, in any straightforward way, an “empirical” science). It is concerned with human beings and the way they act, the things they want, and the stuff they do. And here the Christian tradition gives us a very useful concept: original sin. As G. K. Chesterton says, this is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” An area of enormous concern, then, in this book is the whole question of consumerism and how to handle it. Hadas is a critic of the idea that economic growth is the real purpose of the economy, though he admits that it is difficult to subtract consumerism from contemporary industrial economies. (Personally, I wonder if this thought could eventually lead him to take a more jaundiced view of industrialization than the one he adopts here.) By wrestling with this issue, he takes us into areas where other promodern economic theorists hardly ever set foot.
I would not say I agree with everything he says, and you may feel the same, but the point about this book is that you don’t read it in order to have your ideas confirmed; you read it to have them challenged. The very clarity of Hadas’s thinking makes it easy to find points of disagreement: he does not bury his meaning in a cloud of obscure syntax or technical jargon. In the end, he can offer no simple, ideological solution to the world’s ills, but he has done something much more important than that: he has shown why such a solution would inevitably be a false one. He argues that our economy is fundamentally sound (this is where, if I knew enough, I might want to argue with him), but that this should not make us complacent: it can be improved in all sorts of ways that would make it better for us as human beings.
In the end, he comes down in favour of charity and service. That is a simple concept, I suppose, but not in the way an ideology is simple. Charity and service are simple words for a vast set of ideas about human nature and how it may attain happiness. “Those virtues,” he says, “offer solutions for most human problems, perhaps for all of them. With charity and service, men can accomplish great things, turn darkness into light, sorrow into joy. They are certainly applicable to economics, which should, after all, be something of a joyful science.”
“Human Goods, Economic Evils” as well as other books related to the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The preceding essay is Stratford Caledecott’s forward to Edward Hadas’s “Human Goods, Economic Evils” and is published here by permission.