The Good Society Episode 3: The Person at the Center of the Economy


When we hear the term
economics, we tend to picture charts,
graphs and equations. Now the idea that economics is
about math is understandable. The news talks about GDP and
employment numbers; economists and policymakers talk like astronomers describing the planets, or physicists charting
the interaction of atoms; or sadly, engineers
optimizing cogs and gears to get machines to operate
more efficiently. But an economy is not
made of machines; it’s made of human beings: Human beings living in families,
communities, and cultures. At its core, economics is the
study of human action. Specifically, how people make
choices about goods, services, and time, and how they operate in the
marketplace with others. The word economics comes from
two Greek words: Oikos, meaning family or household, and Nomos, meaning law; household law or
household management. Economics is about figuring out how to make a
household run well. Now mathematics has a place in
economic activity. But human action can’t be reduced to mathematical equations alone. Too often we forget this, which can lead to
dehumanization: treating people as mere resources or objects to be manipulated. As history has demonstrated,
economics should never be separated from the human person. Humans are not gears in a machine to be socially engineered
for greater efficiency. People are not merely human
resources or human capital, to be arranged for higher
productivity and output. If we want to think clearly
about economics, we need to have a good
understanding of its central focus: the human person. The human person is
unique and unrepeatable, created with reason and freedom, with hopes, and dreams, and fears, born into a family,
a member of a community, and part of a culture. Humans are not simply means to
an end, but ends in themselves. We are not objects
to be manipulated, but subjects to
be respected. So before we do anything else, let’s take a moment to think about what it means to be a human being. Let’s take a step back
and re-humanize our understanding of the
human. First, human beings are
rational. We can analyze situations, we
can solve problems, we can invent new things. It’s important to remember that rationality is not just limited to the empirical
or technological; reason permeates all we are
and all we do. It gives us the capacity to
reflect and discover meaning. It gives us the capacity to
love, to show mercy, and to create beautiful music
and art. Second, human persons are free. While we are influenced
profoundly by our culture and environment, we are not
determined by it. We can make free choices for good, for truth, for serving others, or for evil. Freedom and reason
give us the capacity to work together to
create and build things. They also make us moral agents
responsible for our actions. It’s also important to note that freedom is not simply
the raw exercise of our will. If someone purposely banged his
head against a wall, we wouldn’t say “wow, he’s free!” because an irrational will is
not a free will. Authentic freedom must always
be informed by reason. A third characteristic of
being human is that we’re social beings. Each of us is a free, unique, and unrepeatable person,
with dignity and purpose. But this does not mean we are
lone rangers. We’re born into families and cultures, into languages and traditions. We weren’t created to be
radical individuals or or cogs in a machine, but as distinct persons made
to flourish in relationships. The fourth characteristic is
that we are embodied persons. Because we are persons, we are
not simply material. Yet neither is our personhood
radically separate from our material bodies. We don’t drive around in our bodies
like we drive around in our cars. Similarly, if I punch you,
I wouldn’t say “sorry, my body hit you.” No; we’re integrated beings—
embodied persons. A proper understanding of our
embodiment helps us understand every
human interaction, from marriage and family
relationships, to political to political and
social relationships. And of course, because we’re
embodied persons living in a material world, economic relationships
always come into play. The fifth characteristic is that
we are good but imperfect. The human being is good, and
capable of great nobility. But we are also capable of
profound evil. We can easily use our reason
and freedom to steal, to satisfy our desire
for power, money, and pleasure. And our greed can lead us to
exploit and use people. As Lord Acton put it, power
tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Recognizing this truth helps us understand
a number of things, from the role of incentives in economics, to the need for justice,
and the rule of law. It also helps us resist utopian
political or economic systems that promise to
make everything right. The sixth characteristic is
that we have an eternal destiny. This world is good and we are
made to flourish in it. But it is not our final end. We have a spiritual,
transcendent destiny that goes beyond the material world. As C.S. Lewis reminds us,
we’ve never met a mere mortal. Our lives on this earth are
just the beginning, like a dot on a timeline that never ends. Now we want to make the dot
the best it can be, yet we don’t want to live
merely for the dot. All of our decisions—including
our economic ones— need to keep this eternal
destiny in mind. So to recap, the human person is: Rational, free, social, embodied, good but imperfect, and with an eternal destiny. Now each of these
characteristics is complex and even mysterious. So what do they have to do with
economics? Since the primary subject of
economics is the human person, well, everything! The fundamental problem with
modern economics is that it often forgets about the complex nature
of the human person. Many economic theories reduce
man to one element: homo economicus—
economic man. Indeed, man is economic. But that’s only part of our nature. Our economic dimension can’t be
detached from our personal dimension, our social dimension,
or our moral dimension. Economics separated from
the human disciplines, such as theology,
philosophy, sociology, psychology, and ethics
just doesn’t work. Humans are the ultimate reason
for economic activity. We are not merely objects or
means to some other end. Human persons are the subjects,
the protagonists at the center the entire economic story. In the end, all economic systems are based on a particular vision
of the human person. If we get the person wrong, we get economics wrong. Now this doesn’t mean
economics is easy. In fact, our relationship with
the material world is difficult, and we make
errors all the time. But when we understand the
human person as a protagonist, created by God, with
capacity and dignity and a moral agent with
a free and creative nature, it changes the way we think about trade, business,
profit, and economics.

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