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(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join John Willson as he examines an “economy” and what that really means. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)


M. Stanton Evans once said, in defense of free markets: “It all depends on how prosperous you want to be.” Prosperity, most of us would agree, is generally a good thing. The Western World has been quite good at it, although prosperity has often required that we compromise on the important things that got us prosperity in the first place. An “economy” meant in Greek and Roman terms (and Hebrew as well) the proper management of a household, which required the close cooperation of a husband and wife, and usually members of the extended family. To survive and prosper, our ancestors had to grow things, make things, and fix things. This is still the rule of an ordered economy, and we must recapture its moral center in order to work our way back from the present distress. “The economy,” as we anthropomorphize it, is, of course, much more complicated than the trinity of grow, make, and fix. But just as central to a properly managed household as the trinity is work. In fact, there can be no meaningful economic activity without respect for work. From long before Xenophon’s Oeconomicus the ancients revered work as man’s purpose; Plato went so far as to equate justice with doing one’s own work and tending to one’s own business. Interpreting Plato nearly twenty-five centuries later, Irving Babbitt remarked that the only true freedom is the freedom to work. Among the Romans, Plutarch describes the elder Cato as dedicated to the work of his farm, the work of teaching his children and writing treatises on many aspects of agricultural life, the work of the law in helping neighbors, and the work of politics and war in service to the res publica; such was Cato’s definition of Roman virtue. The poet Vergil used the term labor to represent the dignity of work, without which the mission of Rome would have little to offer the republic or the world.

Western religions sacralized work from the beginning. Adam and Eve were supposed to tend the garden. Hebrew civilization was based on faithfully doing good work for God and man, according one’s calling. “Six days you shall work” precedes the day of rest in the fourth commandment. The Catholic tradition is that human work is “called to prolong the work of creation,” and is to “be exercised within the limits of the moral order” in the service of the whole man and the community. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.583) Our Puritan and Quaker ancestors in this country accepted–insisted upon–”an idea that every Christian had two callings…The first was a Christian’s duty to live a godly life in the world. The second was mainly his vocation.” (David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed, p.156). In trying to explain the origins of modern economic systems Max Weber should probably have called the cultural precursor the “Judeo-Christian Work Ethic.”

Pagans and Jews and Christians all knew, says Russell Kirk, “we must find our happiness in work, or not at all.” Or, as my mother-in-law is fond of saying, “What would we do if we didn’t have our work!” An economy does not produce happiness for either the person or the community. But work can make for happiness, and make a good economy. Again, the CCC: “Work is for man, not man for work.”

Picnic-at-The-RiverSome classical liberal economists argue that free markets (“the economy”) are the only real guarantors of strong families and communities. Many socialists contra-argue that only command economies can accomplish this same goal. Most of our best historians and poets, on the other hand, have always known that the best economies are driven by church, family, and community; that is, morally driven and nurtured. It is the person in the context of the natural and eternal structures of church, family, and community who is himself truly natural and whole. And, as members of the cult, those whole persons create economies (and for that matter, governments) that are best for them given increasingly complex circumstances over time. Culture is antecedent to economics; if the cult is not healthy, the economy, however much we try to abstract it or anthropomorphize it, will not be healthy for long.

Having made an extraordinary claim for historians and poets, let us take a brief look at the historical wisdom of Forrest McDonald and the poetic vision of Robert Frost to illustrate the point. First, a definition:

Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911)

Bierce, writing his wicked definitions in the midst of the period of greatest change in the history of the human race (roughly 1870-1920, the first fifty years of my grandparents’ lives), saw around him the real American Revolution: A fundamental alteration of our relation to nature, which, among other things, created prosperity unknown to any other generation since the Creation.

Much of Forrest McDonald’s The Phaeton Ride: The Crisis of American Success (1974) is about the corporation’s effects on that prosperity. The legal fiction “whereby an artificial ‘company’ of persons is vested with the legal status of a single natural person” touched off the “proximate beginnings of the present crisis.” McDonald borrows his title from Greek mythology, the story of Phaeton, son of the sun god Helios (Apollo to the Romans), who extracts a promise from his father to let him drive the chariot that lights up the earth across the skies for one day. The boy is unequal to the task, and as he loses control of the mighty horses pulling the chariot. Threatening to burn up the earth, Zeus is forced to kill him with a thunderbolt to save mankind. Phaeton’s grave marker says in part, He could not rule his father’s car of fire,/Yet it was much, so nobly to aspire.

The trope is clear: The legally protected corporate chariot, fueled by the fires of technological innovation, wartime emergencies, investment banking, and eventually government itself, soared to heavens of prosperity, but eventually became a threat to the very nature it tried to conquer. “It is easy enough to teach people to want things,” McDonald writes, “but far more difficult to teach them not to want things.” Furthermore, the “crisis of success” is at least partly a moral problem because it weakened the “work ethos,” which is “at the heart of the American system of morality.” We should add that the wild chariot ride after “stuff” at least indirectly threatens the church, the family and the community by emphasizing the individual’s desires over natural associations.

McDonald warns us to remember “THE SUMMER of seventy-three. [gas lines, the beginnings of astronomical interest rates and inflation, a stock market plummeting amidst incredible affluence, soon to be followed by wage and price controls] Remember it well, and cherish the memory, for things will never be that good again.” Perhaps the 80s and 90s were a respite, but overall, for ordinary Americans, so far he is a prophet.

us-history-great-depression-pictureThe Great Depression threatened the real economy for the opposite reason. People out of work cannot grow, make, or fix things, except on a level of barest subsistence. The great economic question of the 1930s was, “How much economic activity should be subsidized, regulated, or controlled by government?” The answer was, “a lot,” which was set in stone during World War II. Most American writers took up the cause of the “working man” and opted for one degree of socialism or another. Robert Frost did not. He won two Pulitzer Prizes in the 30s, but was also perhaps the most criticized writer of the decade (with Thornton Wilder, Booth Tarkington, and Willa Cather running close behind).

In “Build Soil,” published in 1936 and widely interpreted as an anti-New Deal poem–but actually written in 1932, well before the second Roosevelt was elected–Frost used the form of a Vergilian Eclogue to argue against what he called “pigging together.” “We’re always too much out or too much in,” he says.

My friends all know I’m interpersonal.
But long before I’m interpersonal,
Away ‘way down inside I’m personal.
Just so before we’re international,
We’re national and act as nationals.

Speaking through the farmer Tityrus, Frost says “I bid you a one-man revolution–/The only revolution that is coming,” a plea for a renewal of self reliance and self government, just as he insists that in tough times we should not rush to market despite that by our “brute snarling and lashing” we have been taught it.

Rather, “build soil,” plow under, store for later, give up five-year plans; go back to our roots, avoid the frenzied action the times seem to demand, “Keep off each other and keep each other off.” His argument is not for unfettered freedom: “Everyone asks freedom for himself/The man free love, the business man free trade,/The writer and talker free speech and free press.” But there is no love of mankind, “There’s only love of men and women, love/Of children, love of friends, of men, of God.”

The song says, Steal away and stay away.
Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States and join the family—
But not much in between unless a college.

agricultural-rev.“Build Soil” is a classical call for the Aristotelian mean, for temperance and self respect, interspersed with words from Christian hymns and agricultural imagery, and a warning against too much trust in either market forces or governmental solutions to timeless questions. An economy, by implication, is the ambition and ingenuity of real men and women who understand that good soil must be enriched and not stripped of its gifts. Greed and “isms” of every kind are its veriest enemies.

Just as the family is “the first and best teacher of the faith,” it is up to what Burke called the “little platoons” to restore the respect for work that alone can restore health to an economic order. It is a long road to travel, but no amount of economic “science” or political tinkering can make us really want to grow, build, and fix. A good start on going down the long road is to turn away from the Phaeton Ride and stop “pigging together” and to read carefully our historians and poets.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” originally was published here in December 2011. Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Much as I want to endorse this article, sadly it shows a lack of understanding of economics that leads to conclusions as irrational as those of the Romantics. Prosperity as we enjoy it today can only occur as a result of a thorough a division of labour. For example we have the computers at a reasonable price that we are using to communicate here as a result of this organisation of the economy. And to achieve this corporations are necessary to reduce the risks associated with investing to a point where advances can be achieved. Whilst it is attractive to invoke the shade of Cato the Elder, it is also important to point out that his vision failed to hold back the collapse of the Roman Republic into the arms of the Emperors.

    But thank you for making me think!

  2. Fantastic Dr. Willson! We are in desperate need of a recovery of an understanding of the full nature of an economy that returns our attention to the gold standard building block of civilization, the holy family.

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