America presents the disheartening spectacle of a nation seemingly hell bent on committing suicide through free trade and immigration. One of the main causes is a world view that may be called ”economism,” which dominates American life and thought. In order to understand our predicament and deal with it, it is necessary accurately to understand economism and its lethal errors.
ESSENTIALS OF ECONOMISM
Economism presupposes that man is a rational animal, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, who pursues gratification of appetites, which are by assumption insatiable.(1) One’s life project is attaining affluence, so as to maximize access to consumer goods, hence maximize pleasure. Therefore the most important aspect of one’s life is performance of economic activity â€” production, exchange and consumption. Since a society’s ability to achieve affluence rests on efficient production, resource allocation and exchange, economic efficiency is prized highly. So is technology, which is deemed the key to mankind’s mastery of nature and generation of affluence.
A corollary is that noneconomic phenomena, such as national sovereignty, autonomy, identity, cultural continuity, or even simply maintaining one’s way of life undisturbed, are far less importantâ€” or even nefarious. More affluence therefore not only compensates for loss of noneconomic values, but makes one better off. Those who dominate our economy and politics treat the noneconomic values of others as expendable, and the consent of those whose noneconomic values suffer as purchasable with economic betterment. ”That’s progress,” meaning economic progress, covers a multitude of sins, especially against noneconomic priorities. For example, the ruin by agribusiness of small farmers, who are supposedly better off for having urban jobs and amenities, or the devastation of farms and neighborhoods by highway construction and urban renewal.
Another implication is that affluence is the universal solvent of problems and grievances. Give people enough jobs, money, goods, services and entertainment, and they will be happy and peaceable. Trade will make nations economically dependent on one another, therefore make war counterproductive, and eventually eliminate it. Nineteenth-century free trader Richard Cobden declared that he saw free trade as a powerful moral force, ”drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.”(2)
This presupposes that people are essentially economic agents whose noneconomic characteristics do not matter â€” interchangeable parts in mechanisms of production, exchange and consumption. This presupposition also informs free marketeers’ perennial brag that capitalism is the best cure for discrimination. Milton Friedman, who made this argument, observed that ”a free market separates economic efficiency from irrelevant characteristics”; since anybody, regardless of these ”irrelevant characteristics,” can act in the capacity of producer or consumer of a good or service, one’s race, gender, ethnicity, politics, immigrant status, etc. doesn’t matter.(3) When others perceive that these things don’t matter for the one thing that really matters â€” economics â€” discrimination, like war, will wither away as economically costly, hence self-evidently silly.
This reductive assumption of interchangeability also underlies economism’s advocacy of immigration and willful obliviousness to its noneconomic problems. Our increasingly insupportable way of life â€” itself economism’s child, with its high taxes, demise of family farms and businesses, and consumer debt to support gluttonous lifestyles â€” has transformed children from economic assets to economic liabilities. For this reason and others, such as feminism, the fertility of American women, especially middle and upper class European-descended women, has been below replacement rate for decades. This will eventually mean the biological obliteration of European-Americans, an outcome a sane national policy would dread and try to reverse. Yet our economism-dominated politics responds not by lightening American middle class tax burdens and striving to keep people on small farms, which would injure the money- dominated agendas of left and right, but by pursuing massive Third World immigration, which serves them. Economism is indifferent to the disappearance of European-Americans. After all, it makes no difference for economic purposes if an ”American” is a Christian or Jew descended from the colonists or other thoroughly assimilated Europeans, and steeped in America’s history, or a newly-arrived immigrant who belongs to the Santeria cult, is hostile to native-born citizens, and could not care less about the original intent of the Constitution’s framers or American history.
Economism also argues that a natural harmony of interests exists among free people, and that while one person’s plans may force others to change theirs, there are, as libertarian David Boaz writes, ”no necessary conflicts between farmers and merchants, manufacturers and importers.”(4)
That economism dominates America is obvious. For almost everybody, education is about ”training” (the substitution of ”training” for ”education” is itself telling) for the ”job market,” to get a ”good” (meaning lucrative) job, so as to attain affluence. Most Americans measure themselves, and each other, by their occupations, incomes, and standards of living. Not even in the dictionary half a century ago, ”lifestyle” is now an obsession. Most women, and more and more men, are blatantly mercenary in choosing spouses. Prospective spouses protect their wealth with prenuptial agreements, a telling indicator of the ascendancy of cold-blooded economic calculation in American life and the concomitant atrophy of trust and love. The growing mania for gambling and state lotteries witnesses powerfully for our increasing engrossment in the dreams of avarice.
Our public policy universe is equally steeped in economism. It is shallow and naive to regard leftism and liberalism as economism’s enemies. Economic conservatives’ and libertarians’ free market, liberals’ welfare state and Keynesianism, and radicals’ socialism and communism all presuppose that the good life is one of gratification through consumption. They differ only in their methods, in who is entrusted with bringing affluence about, and in how the consumption pie is divided. Economic issues â€” taxes, entitlements, trade â€” dominate politics; social issues such as abortion and education seldom receive much beyond lip service. (Affirmative action, remember, is about access to jobs and careerist ”training.”) Libertarian and ”conservative” immigration advocacy always invokes economics, touting the immigrants’ work ethic and economic contributions.
ROOTS OF ECONOMISM
How did this philosophy arise, and how did it acquire such a hold on us?
Economism is a child of secularization. One of the forces driving the Enlightenment was growing criticism of and skepticism about religion, often culminating in atheism, and a wellspring of modern secularization. A corollary strain was philosophical materialism, which argues that there is no transcendent reality, that only that which is perceived by the senses is real, and that only matter exists. Julien Offray de LaMettrie argued famously that man is a machine. His disciple, the Marquis de Sade, who (as Lester Crocker admitted) merely took the philosophical arguments of the Enlightenment to their ultimate logical conclusion,(5) attributed everything, including thoughts and emotions, to material causes.(6) With the evaporation of religion and the ascendancy of materialism came the rise of determinism, especially economic determinism (e.g., Marxism).
Another, closely related, major belief in modern thought is that the individual, not God or the community, is the measure of all things and the center of existence, and that the world is his oyster, to be opened, stewed and eaten. Science and technology therefore received â€” and retain â€” enormous prestige as the means to mastery over the world. So too did economics, since production and distribution of goods and services translates that mastery into gratification.
Secularization necessarily implies that man can find happiness only with the material. Materialism necessarily implies that the good consists of pleasant sensations. And utilitarianism, another child of the Enlightenment and closely tied to 19th Century classical free-market economics, asserted that man is a utility-maximizing calculator, seeking pleasure and shunning pain, and propounded utility maximization as the ethical goal.(7) From all these perspectives, man’s proper course is to manipulate matter, services and the money needed to acquire them so as to maximize this ”good.” That which seems to produce pleasure, comfort, and convenience is prized accordingly.
A necessary implication of materialism is that that which is not material is chimerical. Loyalties to one’s blood kin, local community, place, ethnic group, race, nation, religion, culture, neighborhood or way of life are fictions; they spring not from the really real, matter, but from myth and sentiment, without basis in reality. Being fictive, they are expendable. Those who cling to them, and resist social engineering, efficiency, immigration, or new technology, are invariably accused of irrationality, backwardness, Luddism, atavistic nativism, obstructing progress, and so on.
Darwinian evolution also contributed to the rise of economism. It provides a handy rationalization of economic ruthlessness it’s a tough world; only the tough and adaptive survive; competition is good because it prunes away the weak and incompetent. Small wonder that beliefs in Darwinian evolution and free markets were conflated in the ”social Darwinism” of Herbert Spencer and many leading capitalists, who seized upon Spencer’s phrase ”survival of the fittest” to defend their practices.(8)
Another root of economism lies in America’s history and national character. Americans have always given high priority to material advancement. Our national myths notwithstanding, America is not about religious freedom and was not settled only due to yearning for religious liberty. England’s exploration and colonization of America were authorized and supported by the Crown to increase England’s wealth and power. Only in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where settled, respectively, the Puritans and the Quakers, was religion uppermost. The vast majority of people, British and non-British, who came here did so to get a bigger, better piece of the action than they had in the old country. And the vaunted American Dream is about attaining affluence, not noneconomic values.
America’s prosperity has created a presumption in favor of economism; its fruits are, after all, sweet and plentiful. ”Capitalism,” Andrew Carnegie observed, ”is about turning luxuries into necessities.”(9) Creature comforts and conveniences are powerfully, insidiously appealing to the all-too-human desire for following the line of least resistance, and therefore highly addictive. Once one has started using such convenient but superfluous gadgets as television, VCR, microwave oven or air conditioner, one quickly becomes used to them and wonders how one got along without them. Giving them up becomes unthinkable. Acquiring ever more of them easily becomes a priority. After all, they make life easier and more comfortable, and free up time for fun. Thus for many Americans, their standard of living becomes a powerful propaganda organ for economism.
Another is advertising, which, Christopher Lasch argued, ”makes the consumer an addict, unable to live without increasingly sizeable doses of externally provided stimulation.”(10) For obvious reasons, business saturates our lives with advertising. The true purpose of children’s television shows is to recruit new drafts of consumers by exposure to toy and other advertisements; the true purpose of sitcoms and soap operas is to keep the pressure to consume on for life. As a TV producer told one of his writers in the Fifties ”If you think television has anything to do with art, you’re crazy. If you think it’s entertainment, you are naive and misinformed. Television is purely and simply an advertising medium. Your job is purely and simply to write stuff to fill in the time and space between the ads.”(11) It is virtually impossible to open a newspaper or magazine, drive, ride a bus, walk down the street, or listen to the radio without being bombarded with advertising. The mails are thrombotic with promotions, and at suppertime telemarketing stalks its prey.
Movies and TV shows are auxiliary advertising for economism. Very often, they depict characters in opulent dwellings and glamorous white-collar or professional occupations such as law or medicine, with unlimited spending money, leisure, and access to the sexual favors of attractive specimens. This childish fantasy fodder works powerfully to shape Americans’ notion of the good life as one of opulent living standards, easy money and endless fun.
Moreover, countervailing forces are withering away. One antidote to engrossment in economic life, obviously, is religion, but American religion has largely become trivial, secularized and political. A rich, vivid interior life arising from a well-stocked, well- cultivated mind is another strong defense; one who keenly appreciates art, music, poetry, history, philosophy and literature is unlikely to believe that only matter matters. Unfortunately, careerist ”training” has displaced liberal education, and the latter’s undemanding, politicized successor is a ghastly flop at cultivating the mind. A culture that prized self-restraint and loyalty to high standards and presented heroes for emulation has been replaced by a commercially fabricated ”culture” of entertainment which does economism’s work. Through decades of religious, educational and cultural decadence, Americans have undergone a cumulative exteriorization, with each generation shallower than the last restless, trifling, easily bored, with sparsely furnished minds, easily seduced by consumption and entertainment to fill the void within themselves â€” mental and spiritual cripples with nowhere else to go but into economism’s clutches.
Importantly, economism’s advocacy has profound psychological appeal. The argument that free trade makes people peaceable plays on most people’s desire for an undisturbed life. The buoyant rhetoric of endless growth, opportunity and prosperity chimes with the American character, which is optimistic, expansive, contemptuous of limits, and forward-looking. Economism prevails partly because it tells us what most of us want to hear.
Finally, a compelling practical consideration must be stressed. Americans have made a Faustian swap of autonomy for affluence. Virtually all of us are enmeshed in, and dependent upon, a complex corporate economy. To survive in it, we must participate in it, which means living on its terms. Urbanization and our refined division of labor have made most people helpless, unable to acquire the food, goods and services they need except by buying them, mostly with money obtained by employment. Many of us depend heavily on the transfer payments of economism’s welfare state. Almost nobody practices subsistence farming on his own land, and is thereby able to thumb his nose at economism. Under such circumstances, one either assigns a high priority to money and material things, or sees most of life’s possibilities disappear, perhaps even goes to the wall. Americans march to economism’s drummer in large part because economism’s practitioners, who dominate our way of life and engineered it to suit themselves, have so arranged it as to leave most of us no choice.
ECONOMISM’S LETHAL ERRORS
Yet this outlook which has gained such a terrible grip on the American mind is fatally flawed.
Its notions of reality and human nature are reductive and false. As any awareness above the merely sensate knows, matter does not exhaust reality. Art, music, literature, philosophy, romantic love, imagination, all the play of the mind make nonsense of economic determinism and point to the existence of a spiritual reality beyond that perceptible to the senses.
It necessarily follows that people cannot be reduced to producing and consuming ciphers. We are, as Aldous Huxley observed, ”multiple amphibians, living simultaneously in half a dozen radically dissimilar universes”(12) â€” public and private, material and spiritual, emotional and rational, sexual, and so on. Our nature is such that noneconomic things do matter, some of them far more than economics. People ruin themselves over love and sex; get caught up in causes; squander their lives over adventurers like Bonaparte; murder and make war over religion or ethnic hatred. Rational pleasure-pain calculators governed by economic incentives don’t act like that. So much for the shallow myth of Economic Man.
It follows that the only accurate perspective on life and policy is a comprehensive one. Any reductive approach is bound to be wrong, perhaps disastrously so.
One might retort that economism is a vulgar reduction of economics, which allows for noneconomic phenomena and priorities. Indeed; but the version of a theory that matters is the one that affects events in the real world, where academic nuances have a way of getting ignored. And even academic economics makes precious little room for the noneconomic.
In a letter to Cobden, Lord Palmerston, the most realistic and tough-minded of Victorian British statesman, nailed the unrealism of economism’s presuppositions about human nature
It would be very delightful if your Utopia could be realized, and if the nations of the world would think of nothing but peace and commerce, and would give up quarrelling and fighting altogether. But unfortunately man is a fighting and quarrelling animal; and that this is human nature is proved by the fact that republics, where the masses govern, are far more quarrelsome, and more addicted to fighting, than monarchies, which are governed by comparatively few persons.(13)
Can any honest person doubt that Palmerston was right? Squeeze the pages of history, and blood runs out. Governments never, pace the old antiwar poster, ”gave a war and nobody came.”
Moreover, economism’s premises vitiate its promise of peaceableness. Economism assumes that human beings are self-interested, appetite-driven, pleasure seeking and competitive â€” yet argues that competitive striving to gratify insatiable appetites will transmogrify them into peaceable consumers. As if that staggering non sequitur were not enough, consider this If economics is all-important, then striving to acquire resources will be intense. Resources are scarce, many non-renewable; and two parties cannot consume the same unit of a resource. It must follow that this striving will generate conflict, not harmony. Economism’s flippant shills have forgotten the Anglo-French wars over the Ohio River valley’s furs and the Caribbean sugar islands; the cattle wars of the Old West; the ”scramble for Africa” which intensified animosities between European nations and helped cause World War I; the gold rush that brought on the Boer War; and the need for living space and resources that prompted Japanese aggression against China and European colonial empires in Asia.
Economism’s presumed harmony of interests does not always obtain. Sale of strategic technology to hostile countries is a gain for the businessmen involved, but a loss for their countrymen, who are now at greater risk from the hostiles. Free trade makes cheaper imports available, but threatens workers and businesses in import-sensitive industries, our footwear industry for example. Immigration has clearly harmed many segments of our labor force. As for introduction of labor-saving technology, which is supposedly self-evidently good, classical economist David Ricardo had the honesty to acknowledge that under some circumstances, it ”will be injurious to the labouring classes, as some of their number will be thrown out of employment, and population will become redundant.”(14) The experience of the last two decades, in which computers destroyed hundreds of thousands of clerical and managerial jobs and displaced many workers to poorer jobs, confirms this.(15)
Having got the nature of man and reality wrong, economism unsurprisingly has its priorities wrong. As embodied souls, with both spiritual and biological natures, our most important priorities are the proper ordering and salvation of our souls, and the propagation of our species â€” put another way, life and love. They find apt expression and fulfillment in marriage and the formation and rearing of a family. The family, with its mutual love and mutual obligations, is society’s foundation and microcosm. Society’s true priority, then, is to provide a safe, wholesome environment favorable to forming and supporting families. The bedrock purpose of economic activity is to support human survival and reproduction. Moreover, human survival requires the perpetuation of civilization, which is grounded in the formation of civilized human beings through rearing and soulcraft, and ordinarily the mother is the person best suited for this, especially in the child’s early years. Consumption and appetite gratification are hopelessly beside the point.
It follows from all this that the best economic system is one which provides widespread opportunity for men to support families, enabling mothers to stay home, rear the children, supervise their activities, and see to their soulcraft. An organic, humane-scale, decentralized economy along the lines envisioned by the Southern Agrarians, Wendell Berry, Wilhelm Roepke and the Catholic Distributists, with broad distribution of private ownership of the means of production, multitudes of family farms and small businesses, is admirably suited for this purpose. True, few would get fantastically rich or pursue gluttonous lifestyles this way â€” but just about everybody could form a family and support it decently, and nobody would be the helpless dependent of either corporations or the welfare state.
Such an economy is in stark contrast to the corporate economy we have now, engineered by economism to serve not life and love but greed, gluttony and self-assertion, and therefore driven to maximize profits and efficiency and hang the consequences to the social fabric or even the population’s ability to reproduce. Indeed, economism’s fanatical pursuit of its goals is making it increasingly difficult for all but a few highly-placed persons to form stable, flourishing families. ”Prussia,” Mirabeau quipped, ”is not a country that has an army; it is an army that has a country.”(16) America, likewise, is not a country that has an economy, but an economy that has a country â€” run for the benefit of those who control the economy, who do not seem to care what happens to the country or posterity.
All this is lost on economism’s purblind devotees, because they think like economists abstracting from messy, flesh-and-blood realities; ignorant of history; confusing their reductive models with all of reality; engrossed in economic variables and ignoring the long-term noneconomic ramifications of economic acts. Economism is therefore a disastrous guide to understanding reality and shaping policy. Fixated on economic phenomena, economism’s devotees such as Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley brush off anxiety about American decline and social disintegration with brags about our widespread car, TV, VCR and computer ownership and housing size.(17) In economism’s lunatic funhouse mirror, social pathologies look good. Our high divorce rate, wrote Comerica Bank economist William Wilson, ”helps demonstrate a positive trend, too Decades ago, women didn’t have the economic autonomy to leave a marriage that wasn’t working. Many do today.”(18) The collapse of America’s farmer population, which appalls Wendell Berry, who realizes that soil conservation requires attentive, labor-intensive farming,(19) draws from David Boaz only a glib ”That’s good news; it means all those people can produce something else, making themselves and all the rest of us richer.”(20) Economism applauds import dumping; after all, its cheap goods make American consumers better off, and consumption is what economic activity is all about.(21) And Linda Chavez responded to Peter Brimelow’s anti-immigration warning that ”race and ethnicity are destiny in American politics” with an exercise in sheer economism trotting out statistics on the economic success and education of Asian immigrants and the labor force participation of ”Hispanics” â€” an obtuse, reductive construal of assimilation which utterly, perhaps deliberately, missed Brimelow’s point.(22)
Yet noneconomic concerns matter far more than the purported economic gains from free trade and immigration. What will it profit America to consume cheap imports and have cheap immigrant labor doing everything from trash collection to computer programming, if Americans cannot afford to start families? If fathers are unemployed, forced into lower-paying jobs or earn stagnant incomes, and mothers are driven into the labor force to make ends meet, and their unparented children drift into teenage pregnancy, drug use, crime and violence? If public schools become a multicultural, polyglot mess driven by anti-white, anti-American agendas? If our politics are Balkanized and militant Mexicans disrupt the Southwest to pursue reconquista? Affluence, efficiency and profit maximization cannot compensate for these horrors. No sane society can allow them to happen. Yet our economism-obsessed ruling groups act as if these problems do not exist, or do not matter. Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat! â€” ”those whom God would destroy, He first makes mad!”
[The Social Contract, Winter 1999]