Towards A Catholic Economic Anthropology (2) : Man As Economic Co-Creator

Towards A Catholic Economic Anthropology (2) : Man As Economic Co-Creator April 24, 2014

A good, properly Catholic theology of the economy must start with a good anthropology. A good anthropology must have a healthy understanding of original sin. As we saw in the previous column, in the economic realm, a healthy understanding of original sin leads us to prefer markets as a mode of economic organization, since markets work by and through human limitation.

What else does Scriptural anthropology tell us about human nature ?

In the Genesis creation accounts which form the bedrock of Catholic anthropology we are told two fundamental things about human nature : the taint of sin, yes, but also that we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Along with original sin, the Imago Dei is the other foundation stone of our understanding of human nature. A part of the Imago Dei which has certainly received a lot of attention, incommensurably rightly so, from Catholic tradition, is our rational nature, which is shared with the God who is also logos (Jn 1:1).

But another way in which we are in the image of God is that we are creators. The Catechism puts it well (§307) : “To human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence by entrusting them with the responsibility of ‘subduing’ the earth and having dominion over it (Gen 1:26-28). God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors. (…) They then fully become ‘God’s fellow workers’ and co-workers for his kingdom (1 Cor 3:9; 1 Thess 3:2; Col 4:11).” This Biblical duty and privilege of man to be co-creator embedded in the Genesis account is similarly understood by Jewish tradition, and is reflected in a particular way by the traditional Catholic emphasis on the necessity of human cooperation with divine Grace.

We are co-workers, both with each other and with God, engaged in the work of Creation; of Creation, Holy Tradition teaches us that it was not a discrete event at a point in time, but a continuous will by which God ceaselessly creates and sustains the world, a creative act in which, in His wisdom and generosity, God has invited us to participate as co-workers. That man’s creativity is a deep part of his very nature, and that God blesses human creativity, should be self-evident to all Christians, and the history of the Church provides a testimony to the best of man’s creativity in the domains of art, science, philosophy, and many more.

The implications for economic doctrine are both obvious and radical : a just economic system must privilege man’s creativity. An economic system faithful to our human nature and its Imago Dei must not only be judged by criteria such as the distribution of resources. This creative element of the economic life is too often silenced in popular retellings of Catholic social doctrine, even though it has been emphasized in the social magisterium of Saint John Paul II, who wrote in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (§32), “the role of disciplined and creative human work and, as an essential part of that work, initiative and entrepreneurial ability becomes increasingly evident and decisive.”

For there is such a thing as creativity in the economic realm. It is typically known as innovation.

In a culture where the word keeps popping up in the mouths of politicians and pundits, it’s easy to wonder whether economic innovation has any theological content, but it would be a mistake. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has shown, innovation was the spark that lit the Industrial Revolution. We tend to think of free markets as superior because they produce better cars, or more cars, or cheaper cars. But the real reason why free markets are superior is because they made cars possible to begin with.

And again, there is this business of our duty to be fellow-workers with God. Since creating is what we are called to do, work that is an avenue to creation is ordered towards God’s will, and we find that market economies are much more creative, in every sense of that term, than other economies. In a certain Christian sense, that is perhaps even more important than the prosperity they create. One thinks of course of the figure of the entrepreneur, whose importance we can recognize without giving in to a boasting romanticism, but much more important is the everyday creativity of work life: the creativity of the lawyer, the engineer, the designer, the craftsman, the gardener…the carpenter. As we will investigate later in more detail, the economist Amar Bhidé has shown that innovation in a creative economy is much more the product of the decentralized, cooperative work of people inside and outside the firm, rather than something that springs fully formed from the thigh of the entrepreneurs our society tends to want to deify.

Creativity is at the heart of what makes a market economy function. It’s also at the heart of our nature, placed there by God as an icon of His transcendent creativity. Catholic economic theology must start from there.

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  • There is one other thing I’ve noticed about original sin, and it’s where large scale markets are doomed to failure: People are more likely to sin in an anonymous relationship than in a personal relationship, and the chance of sin goes up with the number of relational links in the transaction chain. Anonymous relationships yield creativity quite well- but of a very dark sort, because the fraudulent or forceful transaction will always be more profitable in the short run than the loving gift between friends.

    In other words, two neighbors or family members that have to live with one another have a very low probability of force or fraud entering into a transaction. Two strangers meeting in a local marketplace, is still extremely low, because they might have family or friends in common, living locally to where they were born.

    A large scale city that attracts immigration, the probability of force or fraud being used in a transaction goes up, in relation to the anonymity and separation of the participants in the transaction.

    Trade between states within a country’s borders gets harder, because one has to appeal to the national government to resolve disputes, and because the chance of being able to affect the life of somebody committing fraud or force in a transaction is extremely small.

    International trade gets very complex very quickly, and there is no jurisdiction or control over the marketplace at all. Laws stop mattering, and the chance of somebody who wants to commit force or fraud being punished for it is very small indeed.

    The knowledge of this is almost instinctual- and is the reason why if you track actual money usage through transactions, natural autarkies appear rather quickly:

    Thus a large, unregulated market has a tendency to reward force and fraud, for the simple reason that there’s nobody watching to prevent it.

  • BTP

    When I was a young man (and I was, despite my saint, here), I was a window cleaner. We did two types of work: outside, where we rappelled to get to the windows, and inside where we went in offices exactly like a janitor.

    We all preferred the outside for a number of reasons. Chief among these was the creativity we employed in the job. Believe it or not, there was a great deal of innovation concerning anchor points, equipment, sequence, etc. I agree it was creativity at a very low level, but it was there. And in comparison with doing the same actual job on the inside, well…

    So, you can find creativity in unexpected places, I guess. What nostalgia I still have for that very difficult job is precisely because of this self-direction and creativity.

  • 90Lew90

    There was me thinking competition was what made market economies function. Competition and all that it entails, such as necessary losers. And, there was me thinking that the Christian economic formula was basically communistic, per: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32–35 ESV). And as has been shown to have been the early Christian lifestyle by scholars such as Geza Vermes among others.

  • James White

    I like where you are heading.

    I tend to think the problem with modern economics and the resulting policy decisions are a function of the materialist heresy: what can’t be seen and touched is of little value. This mistaken view of the world was the Siren call post the global financial crisis: if only we made things, if only we ran a trade surplus, if only we had a manufacturing industry.

    This, in turn, comes from the fallacy of a lumpen mass of labour. The view, incorrect, that argues for labour’s lack of intelligence. It’s most often advocated by people in ivory towers who, in misguided sympathy, demand policies aimed at full employment via the factory floor. As though that’s all most labour is capable of doing.

    This leads to the mistaken belief that market failures are common and must be corrected by central authorities. So, we have, for instance, the wish to weaken the US dollar as a central plank of US monetary policy. While doing little for actual manufacturing employment, it does a lot to make life less affordable for those who are poorest. In turn, this poverty stops the market from creating the jobs that would further enrich all people.

    In such a regard, I have to disagree with Ted. Free trade that creates the lowest priced commodities is extraordinarily valuable in enabling the type of commerce that I believe Ted would think best, the commerce between people within a community.

    Economic development is one long income and substitution effect. As things we need (most often manufactured or produced commodities) fall in price, we substitute more consumption of needs for wants (most often services). Our end goal in our economic lives is the creation of time; either more time, or more enjoyable time. This process creates jobs and most often jobs in our own community as it is those who are closest to us who are best able to help us in this regard. (The whole business process outsourcing industry in India, in 2010, employed around 1.5mn people. Services are delivered locally. )

    In this regard, I agree with Ted and BTP. Service work has a greater value to the soul than manufacturing. As Ted has said, there is a remoteness to the international trade that dominates manufacturing. By contrast, as BTP argues, service jobs, even at the most basic can allow us to shine as individuals. Manufacturing doesn’t work that way, creativity gets in the way of efficiency. By contrast, being in service to another allows us to show our inherent creativity but also our love for others in the way we treat them.

    The “problem” with a service economy is the changed role for capital. Ultimately, in service delivery, capital has a smaller, and smaller role to play. In the end, what the customer wants is the person not the machine. Capital still drives economic policy. The state’s role becomes as provider of the platform for the economy, providing the infrastructure that makes life cheaper and more efficient.

    Anyway, that’s enough for the moment. Thanks again.