The Spirit of Economy

“One must go further, one must go further.” This impulse to go further is an ancient thing in the world. Heraclitus the obscure, who deposited his thoughts in his writings and his writings in the Temple of Diana (for his thoughts had been his armor during his life, and therefore he hung them up in the temple of the goddess), Heraclitus the obscure said, “One cannot pass twice through the same stream.” [Plato’s Cratyllus, § 402.] Heraclitus the obscure had a disciple who did not stop with that, he went further and added, “One cannot do it even once.” [Cf. Tennemann, Geschichte der Philosophie, I, p. 220.] Poor Heraclitus, to have such a disciple! By this amendment the thesis of Heraclitus was so improved that it became an Eleatic thesis which denies movement, and yet that disciple desired only to be a disciple of Heraclitus … and to go further– not back to the position Heraclitus had abandoned.

-Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Featured image is Market Scene, by Aertsen.

The spirit of social science is technocratic. Economics is especially so. Economists seek to understand commerce in terms of its moving parts. Everything recognizably human is stripped away as prejudicing; left behind are algorithms of choice to be studied in terms of how they interact within different systems of rules. And this method has proved quite useful in identifying the strengths and fault lines of such systems.

But they are rarely happy to leave it at that. After failing to find an all encompassing theory of human nature, they relegate what cannot be explained by their methods to a black box. Thus, spirit becomes ranked preferences, the content of which is considered out of the economist’s purview. In as much as this rule is violated, it is because some aspect of human nature has turned out to be tractable to economic mechanics. Thus Robert Frank and the economics of envy—sorry, of status competitions. Frank echoes Thorstein Veblen here, but Veblen was not nearly so mechanistic—though he suffered from other sins.

As economics continues to move in the direction of Frank and those like him, spirit is increasingly being eliminated entirely, rather than kept in a black box. And so economics has moved from inhuman models to becoming actively dehumanizing.

Albert Hirschman believed that this flight from humanity began with the idea that wild, destructive passions must be offset by interests, with successive generations of philosophers narrowing what counts as a person’s interests. Martin Heidegger believed that the problem began with the classical philosophical tradition as a whole, once it lost the original context in which Plato and Aristotle posed their questions.

In any case, the inhuman models, even before they became aggressive in their dehumanizing, rested on a narrow notion of reason that is severed from spirit. The business world is full of rules, choices made under conditions of scarcity, transaction and exchange—these sorts of things make for a great beginning in describing commerce. But they are a bad place to end.

A complete discussion of commerce needs to speak to its spirit, the spirit of business at some place and time. This spirit varies not only across nations or periods of history, but across industries and companies. See Joseph Heath on the criminality that characterizes specific industries.

Whether or not business can be characterized as exploiting the less fortunate or participating in their flourishing, myopically opportunistic or directed towards the common good, may be more a matter of the spirit of the enterprise than of its formal characteristics.

The great apologists for commerce in 18th century Scotland may have done more for the world by developing an ethos of public virtue through prudent dealings, than they did by midwifing the birth of economics as a discipline.

How unfortunate, then, to live in an age characterized largely by the eradication of what spirit we have—in business, in civil society, in government—without a corresponding drive to foster its replacement.

Provision and Use

When talking about the nature of business a couple of years back, fellow Sweet Talker David brought up a wonderful quote from the movie Sabrina:

Bogart: Making money isn’t the main point of business. Money is a by-product.
Holden: David -What’s the main objective? Power?
Bogart: Ah! That’s become a dirty word.
Holden: What’s the urge? You’re going into plastics. What will that prove?
Bogart: Prove? Nothing much. A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you’re in business. It’s coincidental that people who’ve never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed. What’s wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?

Emphasis added by me.

I wrote a piece about consumers, but it was received very badly by some, mostly (it seemed to me) because of what is implied by the very word “consumer”.

Let’s toss to the side those old notions of production and consumption, so tied to a mental model developed around manufacturing. Instead, let’s think about making use, and provisioning what is being used.

More importantly, let’s stop thinking of these as two separate things apart from one another, and try harder to talk about them like the unity they actually form.

In their home lives, parents may buy books, and educational video games, and Cable TV with cartoons, all for their children. If they’re the planning sort, they buy food for the week. If they’re not, they might find themselves ordering pizza one night. If they want some time away from the kids, they probably need a babysitter, and odds are they will go out to a restaurant, or a movie.

Every thing or service that they and their children use—books to read, games to play, TV to watch, food to eat, a babysitter to make sure their children are safe and taken care of, somewhere to spend time together away from typical routines—must be provisioned beforehand.

A large number of people are involved in provisioning a children’s book; we may think of the author, of course, and the people who work at the publisher, but complex supply chains bring countless hands into the process. All of these people, in turn, contribute to the provision of books like the ones our initial parents bought, so that they, too, may be able to buy books or games for their own children, or for themselves.

Meanwhile, the parents in the original example must contribute to the provision of some thing or service in order to be able to buy the very items mentioned above in the first place!

In this way, provision and use are processes which form a unity.

Today, a huge supermajority of what we use is provisioned through commerce. But not all of it, not by a long shot. Infrastructure is largely provisioned through tax-financed institutions, for example. Politically, countries like America long ago moved towards provisioning the great bulk of education through such institutions, as well.

Home provisioning, such as cleaning dishes and clothes, or having a vegetable garden, still accounts for a great deal of what we use as well. We may provision a car through commerce, but when we drive our child to school, we are opting to use ourselves as drivers rather than opting for a car service.

For most of human history, nearly everyone had to spend nearly every hour of the day working so that they could provision their own food. The shift from subsistence farming to nearly everyone in developed nations provisioning their food through commerce has been a tremendous gain.

In the 20th century, there were many attempts to provision everything through government administration. They went terribly. As I said above, this does not discredit any provisioning through government administration. But it has certainly made it clear that there are limitations we would do well to heed.

In a country like America, government provision largely takes the form of government participation in commerce. Tax-funds are the basis of the purchasing, and government officials oversee and make key decisions, but the materials must be bought from companies, and the labor is often done by contractors. And government officials go home and buy their children’s books and games just like everyone else—in our country, government provision forms a unity with private use, as well.

While maintaining the wisdom of making distinctions, I think we could stand to be a little less doctrinaire, less categorical. There are many ingredients that go into the making of the ordinary life; a great deal of those ingredients are provisioned through commerce.