Our Perverse Economics

Not so very long ago – really less than a century ago – the Roman Catholic Church denounced market capitalism as a “perversion.” Their denunciation of market capitalism followed naturally from the authority they accorded the fifth century Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle had famously distinguished perverse from natural ways of creating wealth. People who create wealth naturally do not contemplate creating something from nothing. They recognize that all things in nature have specific, limited, and identifiable collections of purposes or uses. Even interest on money that is loaned can be natural since it is variously a measurement of time or lost use. Those who create wealth perversely, by contrast, do dream of creating something from nothing. And they imagine that they have hit upon a substance that is general, unlimited, and universal. They believe that they have hit upon something near divine, Capital. Thus the Roman Church’s historical argument against market capitalism.

Clearly, however, one need not be a Roman Catholic to appreciate Aristotle’s argument. His argument is not that we can not aim for the limitless accumulation of wealth. Indeed, we can. His argument is that – because the goal of unlimited accumulation cannot possibly be achieved – this aim is perverse, which is to say unnatural. More than this, however, if we aim for this goal, we destroy every other goal in the process.

This, of course, is very different from classical or neo-classical economists’ view. In their view, all other goals are achieved on the way to achieving unlimited wealth because as we aim for unlimited wealth we have, by necessity, to attend to the wants and desires of all of those upon whose consumption and work reaching our goal depends. Since we must attend to other’s wants and desires, we have no alternative but to fulfill them on our way to achieving our own goal.

Aristotle had already deconstructed this argument in the fifth century BCE. To do so, he asks us to compare a limited goal – building a house, planting seed, cooking food, training a horse – with a goal that must endure no such limits, the goal of making money, the universal equivalent and, hence, the means to satisfy all other limited goals. Which should one choose? Obviously, since money gets me everything else and, in theory, gets me everything else without limit, I should choose the goal of making money over the goals of making a house, planting seed, cooking food, training a horse, etc. Indeed, I should in fact place these other goals to one side until I have accumulated enough wealth.

But then Aristotle asks: how much wealth is enough? When will you know that you have enough wealth? For example, I know that I have too many pairs of shoes when my closet is full. I know I have too many houses, when I cannot live in all or even any of them. I know I have enough health when I am, well, healthy. And so on. Because these goals have natural limits, I know when I have met them. But what, then, is the natural limit of this perverse goal?

Herein consists its perversion; it has no limit. And so it will pull all other merely limited goals into its orbit. Here is how Aristotle himself put it:

1257b40  The reason why some people get this notion into their heads may be that they are eager for life but not for the good life; so, desire for life being unlimited, they desire also an unlimited amount of what enables it to go on. Others again, while aiming at the good life, seek what is conducive to the pleasure of the body. So, as this too appears to depend on the possession of property, their whole activity centres on business, and the second mode of acquiring goods owes its existence to this. For where enjoyment consists in excess, men look for that skill which produces the excess that is enjoyed. And if they cannot procure it through money-making, they try to get it by some other means, using all their faculties for this purpose, which is contrary to nature: courage, for example, is to produce confidence, not goods; nor yet is it the job of military leadership and medicine to produce goods, but victory and health. But these people turn all skills into skills of acquiring goods, as though that were the end and everything had to serve that end (Aristotle (1981-09-17). The Politics (Classics) (Kindle Locations 1312-1320). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition).

The question is: does Aristotle’s view of wealth have any application today?

Well, yes, it does because it so happens that Aristotle’s view of wealth and wealth-making was shared by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, whose views on money and wealth-making the framers placed second only to Aristotle’s own teacher Plato (and well above the views of another emerging authority on the subject, Adam Smith, who places fourteenth).

It so happens that when the framers of the U.S. Constitution thought about res publica, the wealth we hold in common, they always had in mind the specific ends to which this wealth would be put and not the endless, unlimited, generation of wealth; not the perverse understanding of wealth-making.

Which gives me an idea. Why don’t we call our Republican friends to account? Why don’t we invite them to return to the “strict construction” of the Constitution? And, while we are at it, why don’t we call our Roman Catholic friends to account as well? Do they still rely on Aristotle’s understanding of natural and perverse wealth, as Saint Thomas did? And are they therefore ready to stand by us in supporting a return to a more natural, limited, sustainable understanding of wealth and wealth-making?

But, it gets better. For it turns out that Karl Marx also relied upon Aristotle’s understanding of wealth and wealth-making. How about we invite our friends in labor to shift their focus from endless expanding production and consumption back to Aristotle’s more sustainable, limited, but also more humane notion of wealth and wealth-making?

Or, we can continue down the insane, perverse road we are on.

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