What Is an Economy? Understanding Rome's Radical Call

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Photo Credit: Ed Lockett, Jr.
Petit Goave, Haiti

In human society, there are really only two alternatives: either a struggle for power, pitting miserable human beings against each other in a zero-sum game; or sincere cooperation rooted in a theory of justice. The first is a competition; the second is an economy.

Two events of the past week suggest a need for thinking carefully about what an economy is, and how it contributes to justice. The first is the birth of the seven billionth human being on the planet. The second is the release of a document by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP), "Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority." (I am hereby volunteering my services for the sake of coming up with more interesting titles.)

How is it possible to keep seven billion human beings from competing with each other? It's difficult to imagine our planet having limitless capacity for food and water access, so immediately there's a concern for sharing those resources. There are others, too, like energy and real estate and so on, not to mention human resources like labor and knowledge. At present we function on a macro level with a competition model: nations form alliances, rooted in shared values, to gather the resources they need to secure their way of life. Nations war with each other over resources; this has been the sad story of human history.

At the root of conflict are always two causes: desire for goods and fear of not having them. The archetypal Trojan War was fought over a woman, Helen, but Homer's depiction of the dissention in the ranks of the Greeks focused more on the jealous rage between two of its kings, Achilles and Agamemnon. In both cases the source of rage was a rivalry, a grasping for something that the enemy had and that the protagonist desired.

Today, the stakes are different, but the roots are still the same: desire (for land, for oil, for wealth, for access to water, for minerals, and so on), and the concomitant fear that the other's possession of them will deprive a group of its ability to flourish. Power is the desire par excellence: the power to secure perceived goods has been the objective of kings, emperors, and political parties. But the lust for power is still rooted in the same sinful pattern that gives rise to competition and war, and too often over history we've seen how that desire becomes corrupted and twisted toward selfish ends. Power tends to corrupt, observed Lord Acton, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps he had in mind the tyrants of the ancient Greek world, to whom Plato responded in the construction of his ideal Republic, by making the ruling class monk-like ascetics. Perhaps he had in mind the kings of Europe or the likes of Napoleon, or even the emperors of China or the Pharaohs of Egypt. The stories are all too familiar, because all involve human beings and their tendency towards sin.

Today, the story of financial greed run amok is different in scale, but its roots in disordered desire is no different from the past. The PCJP document observes that the errors have been both technical and ethical: "At every stage of the crisis, one might discover particular technical errors intertwined with certain ethical orientations."

In wanting the wrong things, human beings contrive vast financial mechanisms to secure them, and the consequence is breakdown. Further, it observes, there do not exist transnational controls as exist on smaller levels within states, and so problems were left unchecked. The document's call for a global authority over finance is a call for the rule of law where none currently exist to keep financial catastrophe in check.

What the document proposes is ultimately a global economy, rather than a global competition. An economy (Greek oikos nomos, "law of the house") is an agreement to corral individual desires (and their larger-scale versions: tribalism and nationalism) and order them toward a common good: "Recognizing the primacy of being over having and of ethics over the economy, the world's peoples ought to adopt an ethic of solidarity as the animating core of their action."