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Aquinas and the Market:
Toward a Humane Economy

by mary l. hirschfeld
harvard, 288 pages, $45

Economists make a point of speaking in conditionals, not categoricals. They never just say: “Do this!” They say: “Do this, if you want that. If these are your ends, this is what you must do to secure them. As for those ends themselves, they’re up to you.” This modesty is, paradoxically, the source of the discipline’s immense cultural authority. Societies that can agree on little else can at least agree that they want to achieve whatever they want to achieve and are prepared to listen respectfully to those who can tell them how to go about it.

Thomistic theology appears to be the opposite of economics in all these respects. It claims to speak with authority on man’s ultimate end, God, and is not shy of issuing rules to help us attain this end. These rules are categorical, and cover all aspects of our worldly life: politics, sex and the family, trade and manufacture. The point of these rules is not just to enable us to satisfy our various desires, but to discipline those desires, to direct them to what reason tells us is truly desirable. If the economist says, “Do this, if you want that,” the Thomist says, “Do this, because you ought to want that.”

Given this vast disparity of outlook, what hopes are there for a “Thomistic economics?” The project does not look promising.

Mary L. Hirschfeld approaches her self-appointed task with the best possible qualifications. An engaging biographical preface tells us how she was trained as an economist at Harvard University in the 1980s, converted to Catholicism—like ­being “knocked off my horse” is all she will say about the event—and then retrained as a theologian at the University of Notre Dame in the 2000s. This unique education rendered her “bilingual,” as she puts it, capable of speaking and thinking in the ­languages of theology and ­economics. But can these two ­languages be made intelligible to each other?

Aquinas and the Market is an attempt to answer that question. It is an unusual addition to the “What’s wrong with economics?” genre in that Hirschfeld retains an insider’s knowledge of, and respect for, her discipline. She is therefore impatient of the bad-­tempered and often half-baked criticisms flung against it—that it is an apology for capitalism, that it promotes greed and egoism, that it assumes perfect rationality, and so forth. As Hirschfeld points out, economists have little difficulty in deflecting all these criticisms. Hirschfeld’s quarry lies deeper than this. She wants to show that the basic model of practical rationality underpinning mainstream ­economics—the homo economicus model—is not ethically and metaphysically neutral, as its proponents claim, but embodies a substantive, and questionable, vision of the human person. Yet we needn’t jettison this model altogether, she adds, because it remains a tolerably good representation of the behavior of most people in our sinful world. Hirschfeld’s goal is to preserve mainstream classical economics as an approximate special case of a broader theory of human behavior, valid under special circumstances. Economics is the science of fallen man.

Who is homo economicus, then, and what is the problem with him? Homo economicus finds himself assailed by a number of desires of varying degrees of urgency. These desires needn’t be materialistic. They needn’t even be selfish. (To suppose that they are materialistic and selfish is one of the crude errors committed by critics of economics, though as Hirschfeld points out, it is an error that economists themselves usually fall into once they descend from first principles to actual analysis.) The crucial point is that homo economicus possesses limited resources of time and money, and so cannot satisfy all of his many desires to the utmost. He must choose, must economize. To be precise, he must satisfy each of his various desires up to that point at which further satisfaction would afford him less pleasure than an equivalent expenditure of resources elsewhere. All this can be described mathematically. It is the bread and butter of microeconomics.

Economists take this picture of choice under constraint to be an uncontroversial description of the human predicament. We all want many things, some of which we cannot have. We all try to do as best we can with our limited resources. But when some familiar life choices are redescribed in this language, we cannot help feeling that something important has been left out of the equation. Here, for instance, is Gary Becker on the quandaries of divorce: “A married person terminates his (or her) marriage when the utility anticipated from becoming single or marrying someone else exceeds the loss in utility from separation, including losses due to physical separation from one’s children, division of joint assets, legal fees, and so forth.” Well, yes, in a sense, but . . . surely it is not just sentimentality to insist on a difference between the reasoning that underlies a decision to get divorced and the reasoning that underlies a decision to buy a new washing machine. But what is that difference, exactly?

Hirschfeld begins to answer that question by noting that pigeons and rats “respond to price and wealth shocks in a way that is consistent with the rational choice model.” This should not surprise us, since pigeons and rats are captive to their various desires in just the way homo economicus is. They go straight for the good things they perceive around them without pausing to ask if they are good. This way of making decisions is not confined to dumb beasts. Wandering through a supermarket (economists love to picture the world as a supermarket), it is reasonable to be swayed by the relative strength of your desire for certain foods. But where something serious is at stake, desires do not operate as mere pushes and pulls. They embody judgments about what is good and bad, judgments we can endorse or reject. Here, practical reasoning concerns not just the means to our various ends but those ends themselves. The person contemplating divorce has to decide not just whether the benefits outweigh the costs; he has to decide whether this is the kind of decision in which it is proper to weigh up costs and benefits. (And if he decides it is, he is probably well on the way to divorce.)

Another feature of the rational choice model follows from this first. Homo economicus satisfying his desires can seem rather like someone trapped inside a video game in which each successive level must be completed in order to “unlock” the one that follows. First, he sates his hunger. Then, he turns his mind to clothes. Then, he thinks about furniture. And so on, and so forth. Each desire, once satisfied, gives way immediately to a successor. There is no reason to suppose that this sequence has a final term. Insatiability, and hence scarcity, is built into the perspective of economics. This is why economists find it hard to envisage an end to growth. Given the infinitude of human desires, more income must always be better than less ­income.

There is something deeply dispiriting about this vision of the human situation. It turns life—in the mordant words of Thomas Hobbes, the founder of the rational choice tradition—into “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” The trouble with an infinite series is that, however far you travel along it, you remain infinitely far from the end, making all progress, in a sense, illusory. The “­transhumanist” philosopher Nick Bostrom fantasizes about a robotically enhanced future in which people enjoy music “that is to Mozart what Mozart is to bad Muzak.” He intends this as an exhilarating prospect. But it fills me with a kind of despair. For of course, the music which is to Mozart what Mozart is to bad Muzak will itself, at some further point in time, be revealed as bad Muzak, and so on indefinitely. I feel like saying: When we listen to Mozart, we touch the hem of heaven. There is nowhere further to go in that direction. Lose hold of that thought, and all our achievement becomes empty and vain.

So how do we free ourselves from the grip of this “bad infinity”? The trick, argues Hirschfeld, is to realize that our various desires, far from forming an arbitrary string, have a definite teleological structure. We want A in order to B, B in order to C, and so on. And a teleological sequence, unlike an arithmetic one, must have a final term, or it could never get off the ground to begin with. (For Hirschfeld, following Aquinas, that final term is God, but this claim is not integral to her general argument.) To think of the goods in our life as ordered to a final end is to impose a limit upon their accumulation. We don’t want as many aspirin as possible, but as many as we need in order to relieve our headache. Beyond this, aspirin are useless or even dangerous. Yet this logic, though clear enough in the case of aspirin, is ­seldom applied consistently across the board. Too often, we buy goods on a whim, or out of a vague sense that they are comme il faut, rather than any careful consideration of their place in “the overall pattern of our lives.” Our rubbish-filled cupboards and basements are witness to our ­ill-judged consumption choices, says Hirschfeld.

Hirschfeld’s diagnosis of our economic ills is keen and persuasive. But when it comes to remedies, a note of uncertainty creeps in. At times, it sounds as if she is simply admonishing us to take more care over what we buy. No doubt we should take more care. But as Hirschfeld herself recognizes, moral exhortations are hardly sufficient to overturn an economic system founded upon the imperative of growth. Even if we could free our hearts of covetousness, we would still be obliged, on pain of eccentricity, to keep pace with the general, politically orchestrated rise in the standard of living. (Just think of the difficulties involved in trying to go without a mobile telephone.) The problem is structural, not personal. But then, what is there to be done about it, short of converting the rulers of the world to the doctrines of the Angelic Doctor? Hirschfeld has no ready answers.

A similar uncertainty pervades Hirschfeld’s discussion of economic justice. She rightly rejects schemes of abstract equality, arguing with Aquinas that a just order is one in which all workers receive a “just wage.” But what is a just wage? Hirschfeld defines it as one sufficient to maintain its recipient at an “appropriate standard of living,” meaning a standard suitable to what Aquinas calls his “station.” But we need only put the point this way to make evident its utter archaism. Aquinas took for granted a world of fixed estates, each with its customary obligations and entitlements. That world came to an end in the seventeenth century, and there is no strong appetite for its revival. Even Hirschfeld concedes that we “would not want to go back to Aquinas’s day.” She just wants to start a “conversation” about “what it really takes to live becomingly.” Yet in the absence of broad agreement about the relative dignity of our various ways of life, of the sort secured by the medieval church, it is hard to see how such a “­conversation” could be anything more than a political slanging match. We might share Hirschfeld’s nostalgia for a world in which it was not seemly for bakers to wear purple cloaks, and so bakers, rather than spending their surplus funds on purple cloaks, gave them away to the poor. But that world is not our world, and is not likely to become such any time soon.

We needn’t despair altogether, however. Individual endeavors may be futile, and political reform ­unlikely, yet there remain those “little platoons” talked of by Burke: nurseries of “public affection” within which the economic virtues might be practiced in common. The monastic orders spring particularly to mind. With some creative thinking, these could become the ­nucleus of new communities of life, lay as well as celibate, dedicated to prudence and justice in the use of wealth. Here, Catholic and Orthodox churches are in a position of advantage. We don’t need to dress up as eco-­warriors, or jump on the bandwagon of “­de-growth.” We already have, in our midst, communities devoted to the renunciation of Mammon. We can at least hope that these will become the seedbeds of a broader reform. 

Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University.

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