Ideologues see diagrams, not human beings

Kevin O’Brien writes:

On a recent blog post, I said, “The economy was made for man, not man for the economy.” Reader Manny replied,

“The economy is not made for man … If you find it flawed, then fix mankind.”

Virtually every monstrous evil inflicted on the human race in the past century was committed by people who thought “This diagram is not made for man, but man for the diagram”.

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  • Actually, if you look, it’s more like: “Current man must be sacrificed so that the glorious future man may be born”. I feel pretty sure that no Communist, Nazi or Islamist would ever accept that they hate people. They just hate people as they are, but love the idea of people as they like to imagine they could be.

  • Again with the diagrams!

    Why do you hate babies, Mark? (At least the ones who will grow up to be visual learners.)

    • ivan_the_mad

      Ha! Well done, sir.

  • Dead right, Mark. No matter how it plays, no matter which of its schools of thought you belong to, economics is a religion of ravening wolves. The sooner it’s ditched as a way of doing things, the better.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Economics itself is just fine, much like any other systematic treatment of a subject. It’s when you make the test of the market, i.e. economic efficiency, the highest good that you have problems. Economics is a tool, nothing more.

      • Clare Krishan

        Indeed “Economics is a tool, nothing more.” in the hands of men, ergo “If you find it flawed, then fix mankind.” (in other words change the hearts and minds of the acting persons engaging in the commercial communio personarum that is unbalanced or has no traingulation point ( a ‘balance’ or scale requires an additional point of reference to the two sides of a transaction, the crux of the matter one might say if not to be too flippant).

        Austrian theories in economics defend man’s free will to determine subjective value, and are often scoffed at for not being “objective” enough, but here the key is: ‘what is being hung in the balance?
        Mere ontological goods or goods of transcendent value? Too few Roman Catholics are familiar enough with right thinking to parse the material and determine ‘true’ (ie objective from the POV of Almighty God who is Truth) value, each one of us acts as flawed subjects in determining what economic sacrifices (ie ‘prices’), the means we are willing to use to achieve our ultimate ends. We all pimp ourselves (ad-ultery) in some fashion or other – those who submit to planned-pimping courtesy of the public purse (debt-fuelled consumption of services rendered but as yet unpaid for) may be excused from the full force of their sins by some charitable moral calculus, but it won’t reconcile the books, either here below or in heaven above. Their sins still cry to Heaven.
        Any time a calculus is transferred from present time value to some future anticipated outcome (out of our control dependant on the will of God – Inshallah ie why Moslems don’t care to do it unless persuaded that its in the Koran) neither the economy nor the man were ‘fixed’: the illusion of a fix was applied instead. This is the prime fallcy of social central planning, a monumental error popularized with the anecdote “I pencil”
        (even if you don’t like my thesis, do watch – it leads with GK Chesteron quote!)

  • The Deuce

    The actual truth that’s getting lost here is that man didn’t make the economy. Man IS the economy. The “economy” is just an abstraction we’ve come up with to describe humans, and the collective choices they make with the resources they have. All attempts to fix the economy are therefore attempts to fix human behavior in some way.

    • You have a point. But you miss that man did make the science of economics, the particular mathematically quantified and statistically analyzed approach to studying aggregate human behavior. Further, man invented the idea that economics could be used prescriptively as defining an ideal that should be, rather than descriptively as aiding understanding and insight into what exists.

      Those who exalt economics above all overlook two things: 1) human behavior is not limited to the quantifiable; 2) every science, in and of itself, is descriptive and is incapable of prescribing moral behaviors.

      Morality and ethics are what guide us toward ideals and admonish us to change behavior, whether individually or as a community. Economics is one among many tools at the service of morality.

      • The Deuce

        Further, man invented the idea that economics could be used prescriptively as defining an ideal that should be, rather than descriptively as aiding understanding and insight into what exists.

        Specifically, socialists (and here I include Keynesians) invented that idea.

        Anyhow, I agree with everything you said here. My point was simply that the two perspectives presented here (“The economy was made for man, not man for the economy [and therefore we can and should meddle with the economy for the good of man]” vs “The economy is not made for man … If you find it flawed, then fix mankind.”) actually present a false dichotomy.

        They seem to be opposites, but in reality both are largely expressing the same idea (that man needs to be “fixed” by men for the good of man) because they both fail to take into account the fact that man is the economy. So whether you take the obviously tyrannical route of saying outright that man must be fixed on behalf of the economy, or the seemingly benign route of abstracting the economy away from man himself and then suggesting that it be fixed on his behalf, you are in reality doing the same thing.

  • Bryan

    I always wonder how the word “economy” in modern conversation came to be so inseparable from the definite article, as in “the economy.” The word is also used as an adjective but we’ve somehow come to always be discussing this Thing called The Economy.

    It always seemed to me that talking about “the economy” of the nation (or state or town) makes as much sense as talking about “the psychology” of the nation. You can say that such a thing exists, but it’s far a more abstract and intangible Thing than we seem willing to admit. Indeed, one could make a case that The Economy is not really a Thing at all. It can’t be made or perform tasks. It refers to the efficiency of resource usage, but even the word “efficient” does not–or should not–carry intrinsic, morally “good” connotations. High efficiency of bad processes is not good.

    Despite the use of raw statistics in economic studies, the definition of “a good economy” is quite subjective and philosophical. Truly, one man’s good economy is another man’s bad economy. For example, I’m sure unemployment is quite low in, say, North Korea, but I wouldn’t say that North Koreans are making the most efficient use of their resources, or that their economy is better for having “full” employment.

    One must ask why modern thought has been so inculcated to think of “The Economy” as a Thing that actually exists independently and can be measured as objectively and honestly as height or weight. What purpose is achieved by such thinking? It seems like a really great way to subtly persuade people to adopt a very particular philosophy and moral worldview, without any pesky critical thinking about what that philosophy is and to where that particular moral view of the world leads.

    • The Deuce

      You’re absolutely right about this. The reason “the economy” has been abstracted away as a thing in and of itself, separate from the people that constitute it, is that it serves the interests of power-hungry politicians to do so. If a politician ran for office saying that he was going to “fix” everyone and make them behave more efficiently, most would realize how threatening that was, and they wouldn’t elect him. But if you abstract economics away from the people who actually constitute it, and describe the economy as some sort of concrete, inanimate object like a car, and promise to “fix” it and “get it running” again, suddenly the exact same promise doesn’t sound so threatening.

      • Jon W

        It’s not quite as dramatic as all that. The reason “the economy” has been abstracted and highlighted is that it provides a non-moral way of talking about everybody’s choices and interactions. Western society maintains as a matter of principle that people’s individual choices are a-moral, so we need a way of talking about them without using our usual metaphysical language of “good” and “bad”. When you strip away any judgment about the morality of human interaction, all you have left is the velocity of resources. So that’s what we talk about. We call it “the economy”.

        • The Deuce

          It’s both/and rather than either/or. It allows politicians and economists to veil threatening promises to “fix” people beneath nice-sounding promises to fix “the economy,” and abstracts peoples’ choices away from them in such a way that it allows politicians to talk about fixing them without seeming to pass any moral judgement on them. We go along with it because that’s exactly what we want to hear.

          It’s a perfect example of how sin enslaves you and makes you stupid. Our craven desire to have smart men “fix” everything for us without requiring any effort or self-control on our part, and to avoid being confronted in any way with our moral failings, drives us to invite tyranny and oppression upon ourselves.

        • Bryan

          But attempting to omit the moral dimension from discussions of economic activity is itself a moral decision, and the result of moral judgment. Referring to The Economy does not actually refer to “everybody’s choices and interactions,” it refers to an aggregate–and often inaccurate–representation of those interactions; but to speak of it as a Thing in and of itself, those interactions must first be oversimplified, dehumanized, de-individuated, and indeed, fraught with questionable moral presuppositions.

          If a 60-year old retiree wakes up, walks their dog, eats a couple meals, watches some TV and goes to bed, that is “bad” for The Economy as we speak of it. But if that same retiree has a heart attack or gets cancer and goes on life support, that is “good” for The Economy, because it creates jobs and stimulates “Economic Activity.” Shovel-ready jobs, even (forgive me, I just couldn’t resist.)

          Neither of the two scenarios actually has anything to do with efficient use of resources. In fact, if anything, the first scenario is more (small ‘e’) economic. But if sickness (or crime, for that matter) were to disappear it would actually be reflected in statistics deemed “bad” for The Economy. So there is most definitely a moral dimension still contained in discussions of The Economy. They are simply obfuscated and sublimated in a rather insidious way, so as to preclude particular viewpoints.

      • Will

        And now, the American people are convinced that the condition of “The Economy” depends solely on who is sitting in the Oval Office, as he is omnipotent.

        • Clare Krishan

          Well the ignorant amongst them may be, those of us commercially-engaged will be lapping up the interesting factoids to glean a little wisdom on their stewardship skills of the world’s wealthiest 100 people:

          for example BMW heirs have never sold a share of the firm, rather like why Christian real estate is never ‘for sale’ in the Holy Land, such property is priceless to those who value the proper ends for which they manage the means
          Notable how many Roman Catholics feature and their rather odd ranking: UK’s richest private citizen and heavily poll-taxed aristocratic peer is worth less than a nouveau-riche scion of a small Central American state from Columbia’s second-ranking wealthiest family. South America is haunted by its legacy of encomienda feudalism/anticlerical enlightenment statism – and yet a Maronite immigrant (Slim is a contraction of Shaloom) tops the list of our mercantile betters.

          Pray for them all. The temptations of putting such vast resources to inappropriate use may be more oppressive than we can imagine…

  • Matthew

    I once heard a priest say, “If you ever meet someone who says they love humanity, run fast in the other direction.” This is the genius of the Church ( or one of them) that it deals with individuals as individuals and not as groups, classes , races or parties.

    • “I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth.” — Jonathan Swift, Letter to Alexander Pope

  • sbark

    I think that the biggest issues in economics are all caused by human imperfections. If humans were perfect then nobody would lack the material goods that an economy can provide. Others would give them those goods. Also, if humans were perfect then it would also remove the freeloader issue where people who could work didn’t. In fact, communism as defined by Marx would work fine in that type of world.

    Instead, we live in a world where a system has to provide for those who can’t provide for themselves but still provides the incentives to work so that the system won’t collapse. These systems are run by fallible human beings. Many of the politicians will make the decisions on the rules of the system based on what helps them the most, not based on what’s best for the system. Other times legislators have set up systems with very good intentions but terrible results. For example, when they set up the Great Society programs, the created major economic incentives for unmarried women who get pregnant to avoid marriage. That has been one of the larger reasons for the huge population of poor children growing up without a father.

    I think the worst aspect of the whole issue is that people who disagree about what set of rules will provide the most helpful system often accuse the other side of taking a side because of bad motives. If one person has good intentions and has a proposal, it doesn’t mean that someone with a different view has bad intentions. It can just mean that the two disagree.

    • ivan_the_mad

      “In fact, communism as defined by Marx would work fine in that type of world.” No. Socialism is an error condemned by the Church on grounds intrinsic rather than impracticable or deriving from an imperfect mankind. See Rerum Novarum for the explanation.

      • sbark

        My point is that any economic system would work the same if man was perfect. In fact, no economic system would be needed at all because everyone would work to improve everyone’s lives and nobody would take more from the system than was just. Generally, if man were perfect, we would not need any structure to civilization at all. That’s not the world we live in and any economic system has to take into account for the imperfections of man.

        • ivan_the_mad

          That’s quite a dull point.

  • What a terrific discussion! All I want to contribute now is a small demurrer to “communism as defined by Marx”- communism, famously, wasn’t defined by Marx in any proper sense. He put forward some remarks about it, most notably that there is no class struggle and the collectivity owns the means of production, and here and there, most obviously in the closing bits of The Communist Manifesto, proposes steps that are supposed to lead to it, but the closer he gets to the goal the vaguer he becomes. That’s quite striking, compared with the thorough explicitness with which he explains what he is against. He isn’t as bad as Lenin, who in writings like “What Is To Be Done?” goes on and on about the violence and killing he will demand, but still he is far more involved with what he is against than with what he is for.

    • “joe”

      this is important. marxism, communism, and bolshevism are different things, but many confuse the terms, or like to confuse the terms for polemical purposes.

      and it’s no criticism of marx to say that he was clearer about what he was against. as a self-identified communist once asserted to me, there is no marxist economics: Capital is a critique of political economy (as they called it then). it’s a study of how capitalism works. other works (such as Value, Price, and Profit) have some words about how workers can shuck capitalism, but marx never (so far as i know, which isn’t very far) prescribed what he though the future would or should look like. others did do that, but we shouldn’t retroject.

      • Mark Shea

        Marx prescribed terror and violence to achieve his ends. He was an evil man who stands at the root of the most evil and deadly heresy of the past century. Don’t whitewash him. The blood of millions is on his hands.

        • “joe”

          i’m unfamiliar with the passage in which marx prescribes terror and violence to achieve his ends. can i get a citation?

  • Marthe Lépine

    I have a problem: The link given in the quote leads to Kevin’s blog, which I did find very interesting and spent at least an hour reading. However I did not find the actual post referred to in Mark’s post, and I would really like to read it since it would help me make sense of the comments. Could someone help me there, please?

    • It’s down in the comments to this post:

      What the dishonest ellipses are hiding this time is the following bit of wisdom:
      ” it’s an outgrowth of men in relationship with each other”

      That statement is actually true and congratulations that you’re going to be one of the 1% that chases the statement down and finds out what a wrongheaded post this actually is. What the statement is actually saying is that economies are flawed in that men are flawed in their actions towards one another. In other words, they sin. Economic distortion via government action is a distributed modern version of the pinch of incense burned to Caesar.

      • The Deuce

        Wow, thanks TMLutas! That missing part really does make a whole world of difference. In fact, it turns his point into almost the exact opposite of how he’s been portrayed here! He was countering Kevin O Brian’s argument that the economy is made by man, and can be rearranged and “fixed” as we see fit, by pointing out that the economy wasn’t made for man, but rather *is* man, and thus that “fixing” the economy actually means “fixing” man himself. Kevin rather uncharitably (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that this was a sincere misinterpretation caused by unfamiliarity with the argument being presented, though his removal of a crucial part of the quote makes that harder to do) interpreted this as an actual call to “fix” man, when in reality it is he who is unknowingly closer to proposing that we “fix” man.

      • The error here is that economics are somehow morally neutral. If you also read the comments in that post it is also clear that Manny fails to distinguish between what Aristotle defined as “natural” and “unnatural” economies. Its hard to think clearly when you limit yourself to only the last 500 years of “economists.” Mark’s post is accurate and he selectively quotes the most succinct way of pointing out the anti-person ideas at play here.

        • The rules of resource allocation are morally neutral *at best* because the information required to make them better than morally neutral simply is not available and enforcement of such rules would make Orwell’s 1984 look like Galt’s Gulch. After 100 million plus dead, I am disinclined to trust yet another “have faith” system that will break apart quickly on the rocks of reality or morph into another totalitarian nightmare so no thanks to distributism.

          Mark’s post is deceptive in that he gave a general link, implying backup, but did not point to the actual article he’s talking about. The number of people who will follow through to the right article is low because of his deception.

          And on the natural/unnatural scale where does Bill Gates’ commitment on malaria eradication and thorium reactor technology land? And does it bother you one little bit the length of time between the gathering of the resource and the commitment to the projects would make what Gates is doing impossible under distributism?

          • ivan_the_mad

            “Mark’s post is deceptive in that he gave a general link, implying backup, but did not point to the actual article he’s talking about.” Because a copy/paste error in the quoted selection is entirely beyond possibility, so clearly it was part of some dark design. You’re such a laughably ridiculous ass.

            • Mark Shea

              “Deceptive”? No. Just intended to get people to Kevin’s blog so they can poke around and read more than just the referenced piece. It’s called “helping direct traffic to a friend’s blog.” Yes, an asinine charge, TMLutas.

              • I’d have passed on it without notice but for the ellipses that changed the character of the quote. I originally checked just to do a “belt and suspenders” pro forma because I trusted you not to go along with something that dodgy. When I found the quote was bogus, the link practice became suspicious. I accept your explanation for it and apologize for jumping too far in my upset.

                Your friend is currently reduced to slandering me in the follow on thread. He somehow seems to think that I’m an objectivist, a randian, and a libertarian without showing any signs that he understands that these are three separate categories or how at least one of them is compatible with the Church.

  • Poor Manny. I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.

  • What the Deuce? And TMLutas, the ellipses were not dishonest. Manny and Deuce are making the same point, with or without ellipses, and they’re both wrong. I blog anew about that here – .

    • I’m sorry if my characterization bothers you. If I see an ellipses in a quote, too much of the time it ends up that dishonesty is involved. To test, I have the following procedure which I applied in this case.
      1. read the quote and make an interpretation
      2. track down the full quote
      3. read the full quote with all the words in it and make an interpretation of what that means
      4. compare the interpretations in step 1 and step 3. If they are the same, ellipses were used properly and honestly. If they are not the same, they were used improperly and probably dishonestly.

      Steps 1 and 3 had two very different interpretations coming out of them so the construction gets the label I applied. It’s nothing personal.

    • The Deuce

      BS, Kevin. I don’t care if you disagree with me, I don’t care if the fault is mostly your’s or Marks, and I don’t care if the deception was intentional or not. The fact is, a statement arguing that we *shouldn’t* engage in totalitarian attempts to “fix” man was transmuted into one saying we should, with essential context stripped out. Nobody would’ve guessed that Manny meant the same thing as me from the way his statement was presented here. They would’ve thought he was advocating some sort of Nazi totalitarianism.

      At this point, any intellectually honest person ought to acknowledge the misdirection and own up before doing anything else, and not immediately double up on it.

      • ivan_the_mad

        “The fact is, a statement arguing that we *shouldn’t* engage in totalitarian attempts to “fix” man was transmuted into one saying we should, with essential context stripped out.”

        “They would’ve thought he was advocating some sort of Nazi totalitarianism.”

        Hmm, no. Upon reading Mark’s post, I came away with the notion that placing primacy on abstractions is less than good and was the root of much suffering in the past century – still is, by the way. And now that I’ve read the comments exchange in question at Kevin’s blog, that’s confirmed for me.

        But regarding your comment … quotes with essential context please, since we wouldn’t want you to transmute what Mark or Kevin into something else entirely, now would we? We wouldn’t want to suspect you of intellectual dishonesty, misdirection, or deception, now would we?

        • You may want to visit the follow on thread where it is being made perfectly clear that what is going on is a case of dueling abstractions, public vs private regulation and Mark’s friend is being quite intemperate about defending his favorite abstraction.

          • ivan_the_mad

            No citations.

            Not serious.

        • The Deuce

          TMLutas already linked it in this thread up above. Go read it for yourself.

          • I also just tried to provide full linkage here (missed the request earlier) and I seem to be stuck in moderation at present. Maybe our host would be kind enough to get me out of it.