John Ikerd, Emeritus agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, observes that “to most economists, if the economy is growing, if it is getting bigger, then the economy is getting better, regardless of the consequences for social equity and environmental integrity.” In other words what so often determines the defining feature of first-world nation, one that you would want to move to and live in, would be the status of the economy. Without being overly reductive, even within the United States itself, many of us will chose to move and live where we do because it is a place that has a “good economy.”
As you might have guessed, I think we need to look closer at this issue, because all men have to deal with the reality of “economy”. The problem with much of our disorienting public discourse regarding the economy is that money and wealth have become the predominant lens through which we understand ourselves and the world in which we live. Alexis de Tocqueville’s judgment about American life in the 19th century reveals the trajectory of such an understanding of “the economy:”
In fact, Americans see in their freedom the best instrument and the greatest guarantee of their well-being. They love these two things for each other. They therefore do not think that meddling in the public is not their affair; they believe, on the contrary, that their principle affair is to secure by themselves a government that permits them to acquire the goods they desire and that does not prevent them from enjoying in peace those they have acquired (Democracy in America, 517. Emphasis mine).
Perhaps we could say, following Tocqueville’s assessment, that this is precisely the dominant narrative that informs much of the reason behind our voting habits. We want leaders who will do precisely what Tocqueville describes. Additionally, is this not precisely what all of our debates about tax reform hover over, the capacity to which our government returns more money or value in benefits to its citizens? We must not forget that the image given by Tocqueville is that of the modern social contract, whereby citizens make a contract with the ruling body to give up a certain level of freedom in exchange for other freedoms. And in this context, our notion of “democratic freedom” almost appears univocal with Tocqueville’s understanding above.
The issue requiring further reflection is not whether commerce and wealth are good. They are, I would add, necessary for society. However, the circular debates between communism, socialism, and capitalism too often revolve around seeing this as the primary question that needs to be answered. Certainly, such debates can be helpful, but they are not my concern here. Rather, what concerns us should be a deeper consideration why citizens of modern liberal democracies are prone to view the status of the economy as the standard for a decent society. And it will be in this light that we can then grasp an initial resolution that answers the question “what should we do?”
According to Tocqueville’s analysis, there is a fervent restlessness that surrounds the pursuit of well-being as the penultimate principle in life, and which seems to aptly characterizes democratic societies:
It is a thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it (511).
In reference to pursuing the goods of this world, Tocqueville goes on to say that democratic citizens rush “precipitately to grasp those that pass within his reach that one would say he fears at each instant he will cease to live before he has enjoyed them.” To understand the sociological, and even anthropological, import of such restless pursuit, Tocqueville begins to allude to what appears to be a more remote cause of American restlessness and the drive for well-being:
In the United States, a man carefully builds a dwelling in which to pass his declining years, and he sells it while the roof is being laid; he plants a garden and he rents it out just as he was going to taste its fruits… He embraces a profession and quits it. He settles in a place from which he departs soon after so as to take his changing desires elsewhere.
In aristocratic societies, citizens are imbedded within a set of associations and intermediate groups that provide meaning and stability to their lives. We could say that aristocratic societies are predominantly characterized by having a variety of economies. In contrast, democratic societies are understood as lacking such associational forms of life. There is a real sense in which an existential vacuum is present as a result of the social disconnections that permeate democratic nations. We can wonder, then, what will fill this void? Tocqueville foresaw that it would be a singular economy of commerce that would provide citizens with a supposed existential depth.
At this point, let us return to Tocqueville’s concern above regarding well-being and our concern for public life: the principle affair is to secure by themselves a government that permits them to acquire the goods they desire and that does not prevent them from enjoying in peace those they have acquired. He goes on to say that in “democratic centuries, men rarely devote themselves to another.” The perennial threat, if you will, in our times will be to cut ourselves off from others and dwell in an empty sphere of isolation. The more alone we are, the greater the susceptibility to want to be cared for by a “distant other.” My concern is that this is the context in which we have come to understand “the economy.”
Let’s be clear. This is an error. To live without the rootedness is causing us great pain, and is not a human virtue.
How can we bring it nearer to virtue? Through developing the habits of association. And this can only begin by recovering the more ancient meaning of the Greek word oikonomia. The word oikos means “home,” and nomos means “law,” but can also be translated as “place.” Our disconnections from home and being “placed”, as Tocqueville mentions, inclines towards an exhaustive experience of restlessness. The oikos, the home, is our first place where we learn the art of association. It is here that the foundation of this vital energy is sprung outward towards the various other associations of human life, especially the neighborhood and other local communities. The economies of commerce, trust, family, neighborhood, friendship, loyalty, and even love, can perhaps be viewed more holistically. These various kinds of economies draw us outside of ourselves, especially by bringing us into personal communion with other people. This is a daunting task, but it is the only soil from which a decent and healthy economy can grow.