The Economy Is Not a Poem

Last week I promised to explain in a few short columns the social science of economics — the discipline that describes how everything gets done among all the human beings on earth. It might sound like a daunting task, but I bring to it all my skills as a Catholic humor columnist and English professor, so I think we should be okay. Of course, too many of my colleagues at major colleges have made the opposite move, and ruined their English classes by steeping them in the old, discredited, dead economic ideas that Karl Marx left lying around the life of the mind like rusting Soviet tanks.

Literature departments really are where bad ideas go to die — or, rather, to walk the earth as poorly reanimated zombies, eating the brains of heedless young people. Marxism, conceived as a philosophy grounded in economics, failed utterly, everywhere it was tried, to do the things it promised: to increase prosperity and eliminate inequality. Likewise, Freudianism, which its founder promulgated as the strictest result of empirical science, claimed to describe the structure of every human mind based on the subjective hunches a single shrink collected from interviewing a narrow slice of high-strung, rich Viennese — the kind of people you see staring hollow-eyed out of Klimt and Schiele pictures. While Freud’s insights yielded some useful reflections on the effects of original sin on family dynamics, his theories are impossible to verify by experiment, and his treatment methods don’t seem to work. A classical Freudian analyst is becoming as hard to find as a good phrenologist.

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Feminism, which initially promised to make women happier and redress the injustices of family life, has instead (as Karl Stern warned it would in his classic The Flight from Woman) goaded women to imitate the worst attributes of vice-ridden secular men, striving for sterile sexual enjoyment and emotional “autonomy.” Indeed, every nation where feminism has taken root has seen its native birthrate plummet below replacement level, as women do the hedonistic math and decide to postpone forming and birthing families — and laws that protected family life are twisted instead to serve the atomized individual. A reproductive strategy that drives its practitioners toward extinction: What would biologists make of that?

However, in literature departments, the only empirical test of an intellectual construct is whether it can offer coherent readings of poems, novels, and plays: Let’s call this the Cleverness Standard. Can a clever person, using these premises (derived from very, very clever people such as Marx, Freud, and de Beauvoir) spin out an interpretation of Mansfield Park? Or, increasingly, action movies such as Thor, or video games like Second Life? If so, that person is on the track toward tenure. If I ever went to work at a “mainstream” college English department, I would drop my theological study of Walker Percy and write up instead a book-length Jungian reading of my favorite PC shoot-’em-up Medieval Total War. I’m sure I would meet and exceed the Cleverness Standard, and when the thing was published by the Lusitania State University Press (to be read by some 70 people), I’d be well on my way toward snagging that faculty Volvo I’ve always dreamed of.


If bad economics make for poor literary theory, the converse is also the case: A richly literary understanding of life makes a good starting point for economics. So that’s where we’ll start today, with a single insight: The economy is not like a poem, especially a lyric poem. The tightly controlled language, finely honed emotion, and disciplined progress of thoughts that we associate with lyrics by Keats or Milton are much more like the economic life inside a well-run monastery or convent — where everyone present has made a conscious decision to renounce his private pursuits and embrace the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Here, and only here, property is organized “to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability.” This arrangement works and is morally good because, and only because, it is voluntary. Each person has renounced the primary project of ordinary mammals — reproduction — and willingly surrendered the fruits of his labor to serve a common good, as determined by a superior whom he obeys (excepting sin) as the voice of God. This calling is sacred and comparatively rare. The Church does not expect, nor would she want, the vast majority of human beings to enter monastic life; for those who are not called to this radical inversion of natural human instincts, such a life would be a kind of hell. To force people into living the evangelical counsels is no more virtuous than forcing a young woman into marriage; it amounts, in the end, to rape. Just so, political attempts to organize society as if it were a monastery all end in brutal dictatorship.

As Pope Leo XIII and his successors recognized when they solemnly condemned every system of socialism, forcibly taking from people the property, fertility, and liberty that monks and nuns willingly give up indeed amounts to a diabolical parody of the good. I’d like to give those popes the credit for being prophets: Long before the gulag, and the famines and purges that decimated Russia, China, North Korea, and Cambodia, these theologically educated men predicted such disasters. But the popes relied on more than logic; they also had the lessons of history, in the form of the crackpot millenarian movements that erupted in late Medieval Europe, composed of outraged peasants and self-appointed messiahs, who began as penitents trying to ward off the plague by scourging themselves and ended as armed mobs that massacred Jews and merchants, creating short-lived tyrannies that tried to abolish liberty, property, and (frequently) the family. Norman Cohn’s classic The Pursuit of the Millennium paints vivid, if lurid, pictures of these revolutionary movements, which the author sees as the legitimate forefathers of socialism.

So if economic life is not the tightly organized, centrally directed movement we look for in a finely crafted poem, what is it really like? The closest literary metaphor is a staged production of Shakespeare. For one thing, Shakespeare’s plays are much more wild and wooly than a (good) short lyric poem. His characters are so richly imagined that they seem to take on lives of their own, making each production of his plays much more a unique event than (say) a different actor’s recitation of “Ode to a Nightingale.”

But the comparison carries further than that. Each actor has his own voice and unique humanity, and however tightly a director might try to control the various readings, the outcome will escape and exceed his intent. People flub their lines, they trip on scenery and have to make quick recoveries. Even the audience’s reaction can influence how the actors perform their parts. Economic life is not at heart poetic but dramatic — and it functions even without the guiding hand of an author. All its parts are improvised, all the actors are self-taught volunteers, yet somehow the play seems to work, and its outcome is infinitely richer than a dramatic monologue performed by a single, all-powerful player.


Here we come to the second great principle of economics (after scarcity, which is the fruit of the fall of man): the division of labor. It was this reality that offended Marx more deeply even than inequality. A many-faceted intellectual himself, he could not imagine himself reduced to the tedium of doing a single, repetitive job — and he was authentically outraged at how monotonous were the lives of factory workers (not to mention the farming peasants whom he consigned to the “idiocy of rural life”). So Marx imagined a Communist future

where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic. (The German Ideology [London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965], pp. 44-45)

As economist Gary North has pointed out, this central Marxist tenet is so fantastically utopian that it cannot be considered an economic or even philosophical goal; it is a superstitious dream, the fantasy Jerusalem of a “religion of revolution.” Philosopher Vincent Cook notes that the only societies on earth where this goal was seriously pursued were the China of Chairman Mao and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

For a much more benign and realistic view of the division of labor, let us look to Wilhelm Röpke, who invokes, with a sense of awe,

millions of factories in which thousands of different products are being manufactured; people sowing somewhere, somewhere reaping; a thousand boats and trains hauling to the four corners of the earth cargoes of fantastic variety; shepherds tending flocks in Australia and New Zealand; miners digging copper ore in the Congo or in the American far West and starting it on its way throughout the whole world; the Japanese spinning silk, the Javanese gathering tea — all swelling an unbroken stream of goods flooding across the land into warehouses and factories and from thence into millions of shops.

We would see a still finer network of little streams going from the shops into countless households, rivulets of food and clothing and all the other things required by an army of billions: laborers, office workers, clerks, businessmen, farmers — the very ones whose work has created the mighty river of goods. Simultaneously, we would see another current of goods (machines, tools, cement, and similar products not intended for direct consumption) supplying the factories in city and country — the auxiliary goods needed to keep the first stream of consumption goods flowing. And still the panorama would not be complete, for in every direction we would see a host of services being performed: a surgeon beginning an operation, a lawyer making a plea, an economist endeavoring to explain the economic system to a circle of unknown readers. And more than this: we would behold the bewildering moment-to-moment fluctuations of the money market and the securities market — phenomena which we sense are contributing in a mysterious fashion to the movement and progress of our economic system. Finally, our attention would be drawn to small and large ducts labeled “taxes” and “excises” debouching at all stages of the economic process and serving to divert part of the flow of goods to the state for the maintenance of the army, the administrative agencies of the government, the schools and the courts.

The sheer complexity of the system reminds each one of us of his own fragility; apart from the few of us who own both the land and the skills that would let us raise enough food to feed our families, none of us could survive for very long if this vast network were to collapse, or even be gravely disrupted. We are deeply intertwined with our fellow man, and the tendrils that nourish us reach far across the globe. The reality of the division of labor teaches us forcefully that no man is an island. The many choices we have been offered by the growth and increasing complexity of the economy at once enrich us and make us interdependent. (That cell phone you use to keep track of your kids at camp wouldn’t work without rare-earth minerals mined in China. The PC on which you’re reading this was probably built there.)

Realizing our dependency at once provokes both gratitude and anxiety. When my grandfather fished for his dinner in Austro-Hungarian Istria, he didn’t need to worry about the price of fossil fuels. The island where he lived would not have electricity till the 1970s. When he came to New York, he entered a new world of greater riches and duller work — and spent the rest of his life shoveling coal into furnaces on tugboats in New York harbor. Could he have gone back? Should he?

We as a world cannot return to the simpler life of self-reliance and economic independence. The billions of people whom modern economics have made us able to clothe and feed and vaccinate can only survive if the world economy continues to expand and employ its resources wisely. Only a massive die off, around the world, would permit us to live the “simple life” Mohandas Gandhi urged on Indians — who wisely ignored him and got busy with the Green Revolution.

But how does this vast, unthinkably complex mechanism we call the economy keep a kind of order amid its apparent chaos? The answer to that will be the burden of next week’s column on the Price System.


Image: The Fisher King


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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