“That Which is Not Seen” (Part II)

This short essay finishes my present reflections on the role of the family in the realm of political economy. For Part I of this duo, inspired by Bastiat’s famous essay by the title, “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas,” I invite you to begin here. Otherwise, read on, dear reader!


I have been blessed with incredible professors who give me interesting things to read (if you think this might be you… yes, it’s you). I am also blessed with this thing called the Internet, which provides an unimaginably huge garden of information through which I can discover more interesting things to read. The following thoughts are largely based upon a few of these readings: North’s work on institutions, Hayek’s writings on knowledge, Dr. Morse’s book Love and Economics (thank you, Acton), and a healthy dash of Josef Pieper, Adam Smith, and C.S. Lewis (surprising, I’m sure).

Permit me to begin with a speedy lesson on institutional economics.

We go about our daily business within the framework of our society’s formal and informal institutions. One side is labeled formal, since it is embodied primarily in our rule of law. The complimentary side of institutions are called informal, and they refer to the cultural, religious, and societal norms that also shape our behaviors. These both can be thought of as the “rules of the game,” and one of the many things that they provide is the incentive structure for our actions. For example, you may be more willing to invest in experimentation and invention if you know that your idea can be protected by patent law, which enables you to reap the rewards from your successful risk-taking.

Who plays this game? You and I, to be sure, and mainly through the organizations we are a part of (think civil society). These organizations are the political (parties and councils), economic (firms and unions), and educational (schools and training) bodies that were founded in order to fulfill specific purposes within our community.

North (1993) writes, “It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance” (VII). Taking enforcement as given, is there a relationship between these formal rules and informal norms? North and many others (notably going back to Smith) acknowledge this fact: Formal institutions are underpinned by the informal institutions of a society. There is much accumulated evidence (see here and here) to show that these two must fit together, otherwise the desired rule of law (one that unleashes economic prosperity) will not “stick.” In the spirit of this casual stream of consciousness, it might be fun to consider everyday examples:

  • Just because it was legal for me to watch PG-13 movies at the age of 13 did not, in fact, mean that my mother’s rules were the same, and I had to abide by her rules or suffer dreadful consequences. (And now my bookishness is beginning to make sense…)
  •  Although it would be legal to host a business meeting in a tree-house, it simply isn’t done. (A terribly inconvenient truth.)
  • There are many “forbidden fruits” in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that are still legally and socially acceptable in our society. Nevertheless, myriads of religious individuals continue to submit to the restrictions placed by their beliefs.

If informal institutions are truly the underlying determinant of formal institutions, upon which rests the fate of economic prosperity, then it becomes important that some of us specialize in shifting our gaze toward the informal institutions of culture and religion. Religious belief and cultural norms are often accepted as givens in economic analysis, but today I propose that this is no longer a valid or necessary assumption.

Enter, family.

Just as the rule of law is the embodiment of our formal institutions, the family is the manifestation of our informal institutions since religious and cultural beliefs are passed down within the sacred space of the home. To wander this small kingdom is to indeed wade into rich and deep waters, so I just want to focus on one thing that the family–above all–safeguards throughout generations: human dignity.

In this, there is no substitute for the role of the family. Organizations and institutions can treat a human being with dignity, and of course the best ones do, but they cannot possibly nourish human beings with the deep knowledge of their inherent dignity, moment to moment, like our family members do. Love and Economics contains a passage in which Morse reminds us of this hidden teaching, glimpsing into the rich love of the mother for her little one:

“People do things they do not fully understand, acting upon knowledge they truly possess but cannot fully express… [The mother] might tell you she folded laundry and did dishes. But she probably will not remember that she rewarded every little noise her baby made, by smiling at the baby, or imitating the baby’s sound, or having an imaginary conversation with him. Far more is going on between a normal mother and child than we would ever imagine…” (17).

If you are familiar with Hayek at all, the first sentence may have reminded you of his “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His main idea there, loosely paralleling the religious doctrine of human dignity, is that every single human being possesses an unique, irreplaceable knowledge of our world, equipping each to identify the best choice in surrounding situations better than anyone else. Above all, the knowledge and perspective that each of us stewards–mental models as North refers to them–have been extraordinarily shaped by our family. The understanding of our dignity or worth, and consequently that of others, can only be fully instilled by a mother and father who take it upon themselves to live out the greatness of their dignity as husband and wife and mother and father each day. And we know that dignity is the basis of institutions that support economic freedom and prosperity.

What might this mean in our current situation, when the decline of the family is hard, cold fact? In his foreword to Leisure the Basis of Culture, Fr. James Schall pulls us in with a striking sentence: “When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are.” This is my next task.

Morse travels back to the pioneers of political economy and posits that Adam Smith, and the subsequent family tree of classical liberal thinkers, held the rational assumption of close familial relationships when describing the workings of the free market with terms like “the invisible hand” and “spontaneous order.” Such close quarters with our kin inevitably grows mutual sympathy, the term Adam Smith uses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe the way that we learn to test our perceptions against the imagined or real praise or blame of others, thus cultivating our moral sentiments. The strength and prosperity of the market operating under formal institutions was rooted in this shaping of virtue.

I invite you to read “The American Family Today” at Pew Research (or just look around) to see that tightly-knit families are no longer a safe assumption in the United States. The covenantal bonds of family are rapidly dissolving all around us.

Before proceeding, however, far be it from me to claim that families will ever be perfect. For, far be it from imperfect humans to bind ourselves perfectly in covenant. Fortunately love doesn’t need perfect. It just needs patience, kindness, and all the rest. Though imperfect, the family is the single institution within which human beings are freely bound together for the purpose of love. It is the only place in the world where “do this” equates almost directly to “this is truly in your best interest.”

If families are no longer in place to perform their fundamental role in shaping moral sentiments and religious and cultural beliefs, what will happen to our formal institutions? (Or better yet: What is happening?) Speaking from her experiences as an adoptive parent, Dr. Morse points out that we are seeing a growing number of children who have never learned of their inherent dignity (and that of others), whether parental neglect, over-spoiling, or attachment disorder is to blame. My good friend C.S. Lewis vividly paints this picture better than any other:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We taught at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst” (The Abolition of Man).

If we are left only to operate under our formal institutions, we are saying that there is no prior reality, in fact, we are shifting our identity from mother and father to worker and citizen. The agora can either serve as a strong force for building community or a vulgar replacement for it; without dignity, all the power lies in the “rules of the game.”

We inherently ache to covenant ourselves to one another because it will fulfill us, and in no small way, remind us that we are more than our production and consumption capabilities. Depending on our covenants, our contracts will either make or break us.

But, materialism only robs us of our joy if we give it permission, and a healthy family is the best counterbalance to the world of labor, scarce resources, and efficiency. As Chesterton reminds us:

“Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that the home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.”

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Running Without Arriving

“If one could run without getting tired, I don’t think one would often want to do anything else.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)

The weather gods have been good to little Omaha, Nebraska this week. We began with classes called off for two “ice-days” in a row and have closed up the weekend with three days that reached the high 40s. Spring broke the rules to speak to our sun-deprived faces. Do you ever sit back and wonder at the weather? Truly miraculous, I tell you.

So, there I was on my jog today, carried away in the game where I imagine where each person is going, and what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. Perhaps you’ve played it before as well. The sun began to set, and my exuberant thoughts turned to where I was inevitably going, formulating a vague gameplan for the evening. I didn’t get very far though, because as I explored the mental catalogue of potential delightful activities, I began to wonder at why I enjoy my hobbies so much. (And now you know why I’m so absentminded 90% of the time.)

What is it about running? What is it about writing? Why music? Why painting? Why reading?

Five strides later, the answer came to me as clear as day: at the end of it all, I never truly arrive anywhere. Whenever I lose myself in my hobbies (a welcome loss indeed), there is a lingering sense of “almost, but not yet.” That’s precisely why I always reach for more– one more beautiful jog, one more enlightening book. Prolonging the runner’s high is like begging that gloriously orange sun not to set, trying to escape the inevitable swallowing-up.  “For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinth. 7:31). All races, essays, songs, artworks, books, hours, years, and even lifetimes must come to an end.

Ernest Hemingway has said it thus: “For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.”

That is how I found myself bumping into yet another paradox of our humanity. Though I cannot (yet?) enjoy the perfect jog or write the perfect essay (and goodness knows every five-year-old is closer to the perfect painting than I am), the fire inside still urges me to pursue these things.  My hobbies cannot teach me perfection, but that can teach me about beauty and goodness. The higher builds upon the lower. As nearly always, St. John Paul II fulfills my reflection by guiding me to the things I knew that I was missing, but couldn’t see clearly enough to name:

“Saint Bonaventure, who in introducing his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum invites the reader to recognize the inadequacy of ‘reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God‘ ” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio)

In other words, I’m not running for nothing. I’m doing it so I can be a better gift.

Only a Stronger Love

There are three poems completely committed to my memory.

The first was academically imposed upon our grumbling class of Catholic middle schoolers, as we were not yet experienced enough to grasp the worth of an inner poetry treasure chest. I’m transported back to that tiny classroom every time the declaration, “Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare,” passes my lips. The second, “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, made its entrance into my life as required reading, but I surprised myself by wishing I could utter it while under the stars one night. A sucker for poetic moments, I worked to memorize the short piece and it has not left since (though nature’s beauty is hard to come by these days… oh frozen tundra of Omaha).

I met this final poem through a friend at Creighton (those eloquent Jesuits!), and it was pure love that led me to commit it to memory. It is a prayer written by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. As my activities become increasingly concrete and materially productive, the wisdom that was instilled as a child has crystallized as well. Love is power, literally. It is the sole force that completely flips our world up-side down (or right-side up as Chesterton would say) as that which was once counted as a cost becomes a benefit. Some folksy prophets (who I happen to know are spectacular in concert) once sang it like this: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”

I’m not very wise, but the fact is, I don’t want my eulogy to be about how much I loved buying dresses or how much I loved to lay in bed and read all day. Those are purposely lighthearted examples, but in the face of inner darkness the truth glows even brighter: only a stronger love, a passion more fierce, can pull me from the things that I love out of proportion. We do not empty ourselves of attachments to remain empty, but to make room for the better wine. To paraphrase Peter Kreeft, who perhaps said it best, the only true cure for an alcoholic is to fall in love with the beauty of a sober saint, and the way to conquer lust is to behold the bloody love of Christ crucified. There is high truth in that.

Entering the fresh year of 2017, renewing our conviction to shake off bad habits, perhaps the best way to go about it is by allowing ourselves to fall recklessly in love with something more good, more true, and more beautiful. The good life is not the boring life. And so we begin searching, and something tells me that none of us will have to go too far.

cs-lewis-quote-we-are-far-too-easily-pleased.jpg

It is good to be small

It is good to be small,
Sparrow declares in his morning hymn;

Dancing lightly on pink-blossomed twig.

It is good to be small,
Baby giggles as his mama

Scoops applesauce into his open mouth.

It is good to be small,
Priest teaches his sheep;

Pointing to the Father’s Love Crucified.

“It is good to be small,”
Wandering woman speaks in her heart,

As 99% of those papers loose
Their meaning
When exposed to
angelic heights.

Our Country ‘Tis of Thee

I have this (crazy) habit of sprinting the last leg of my morning run, which happens to be right in front of Omaha’s Central High. Over time, I’ve forged a sometimes-spoken bond with the certain cluster of students who typically gather around the sidewalk before the first bell rights.  They cheer, wave, and offer high-fives; I wink, offer a big smile, and sometimes flex my arms to make them laugh. There are no words to fully explain how this little ritual fills my heart, and I can only hope that they start their day off with a chuckle as their “Creighton lady who lives across the street” ungracefully and sweatily scampers by.

Friday morning, however, I reached the Dodge hill to find that the my high school friends had staged a full-fledged Trump protest in front of their school. There are just two things I’d like to say on the matter:

  1. To the little girl who was holding the “WE ARE ALL VALID” sign: Yes, yes you absolutely are “valid.” It breaks my heart that there are many legitimate reasons that many groups of people feel afraid, angry, and dismayed right now, and I absolutely believe that my success on this earth will be measured by how well I respect, protect, and love you. Each of us would do well to remember how undeservedly blessed we are just to be here. And lastly… I also remember how high school feels. So, in case you forgot a few important things when you woke up this morning, know that you are beautiful and made for great things. Go live out your beauty in this world– we desperately need it 🙂
  2. To the group of boys with the graffitied, X-ed out Trump sign: I understand and applaud the desire to protect yourself and your loved ones, but my short 21 years on this earth have convinced me that that’s not the answer. We don’t have to respect the person, but we do need to respect the office. Brave men will practice what they preach, and God knows we need more brave men.

To all who are adults–which includes you, college freshman– remember who each other is. Remember that Donald Trump is someone’s son, and Hillary Clinton is someone’s daughter. Remember that Trump supporters, Hillary supporters, and those who abstained from voting are all the little kid of some mom and dad out (or up) there.

But above all, remember your deepest identity:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

 

Adam Smith on Loveliness

Scottish philosopher Adam Smith is well-known and well-loved for founding the study of political economy with of his famous work, The Wealth of Nations. However, he had in fact authored another book before it that is foundational to that foundation. It’s called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and I would argue that it’s currently a more important read– especially as the culture of developed countries slumps towards moral relativism. Blatant evidence of the divorce of economics from its moral moorings is found in “the Adam Smith problem,” which encapsulates how economists (and experts alike) find it hard to understand that the same individual who wrote about becoming a good person and the origins of morality in a community was also fervently curious about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. For a man of his time, and a moral philosopher at that, the real question is how did he get so many things right about economics? The key is that he approached human behavior with an integral view of the human person. He understood the totality of visible and invisible incentives for our actions. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes in the second chapter:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely, or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise.

This is the crux of the intersection of economics and morality. Applied economics is a tool by which we achieve ends, and it is true that we do not necessarily need to judge those ends as worthy or unworthy of achievement when the models are used to determine whether they are achievable. From this it has been said that economics is an amoral science. Questions can clearly be formatted: Should Whole Foods make 300 more salads or 100 more cupcakes to increase profit? Should our family invest in real estate or bonds to save for our child’s college education? Should the federal government cut the income tax rate to raise revenue and increase growth?

But the interesting thing is that tool shapes not only outcomes but the craftsman himself.

With each fresh economic decision, we are also changed (the littlest bit) into someone either more lovely or more dreadful. The outcomes and outside standards of our life will determine whether we are praised, loved, and admired by our fellow man or not– but it is the inner, deep life and moment-to-moment orientation of our being that determines whether we are lovely to the core.

Thus, I would argue that economics is not merely amoral because the invisible moral reality underpinning our visible economic reality cannot be divorced from one another. The man who gives money at church is the same man who decides to pay private school tuition, is the same man who pays taxes and votes for officials. Later while describing vanity, Smith touches upon the problem that arises when they are. In contrast to doing things because they are inherently praiseworthy, oftentimes we act only for the praise and esteem of our fellow humans. The reality of “good choice” vs. “bad choice” are replaced with “makes-me-look-good choice” vs. “makes-me-look-bad choice.” Smith writes:

They look upon themselves, not in that light in which, they know, they ought to appear to their companions, but in that in which they believe their companions actually look upon them.

In the United States, this extensive phenomenon has been labeled with the highly technical term “keeping up with the Joneses” and can be observed in every neighborhood, office building, and church. If you ask around (college kids do that kind of thing) that kind of life seems to be unfulfilling and just plain boring after awhile.

The good news is that many people, from professors to Popes, are writing about this essential relationship between morality and economics again. In “Rethinking Morality,” Professor McRorie discusses a few key texts to highlight the strengthening link between morality and behavioral economics. EconTalk and Intelligence Squared (podcasts I just gleefully stumbled upon) wrestles with these topics in refreshingly open discourse. And of course, there seems to be no subject on which the light of St. Pope John Paul II the Great has not shone:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus).

Back to Adam Smith– a real trap of free market cultures seems to be the ability to look praiseworthy without becoming praiseworthy. And here’s the real rub: there will be choices that will not gain us love, praise, and admiration by our fellow human beings. In fact, truly praiseworthy choices may even earn us hatred, blame, and suffering.

We must choose them anyway.

Pope JPII on Economics

It is not wrong to to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life that is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than toward ‘being’, and which wants to have more not in order to be more, but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings, and investments. —Centesimus Annus 

 

John Donne on Religion

What a week! Though the frigid air swirls and chills the earth ever more, I’m tempted to argue that the cozy winter months bring out the warmest times amongst friends. Since such present living has left me with little time for reflective essays, this week’s passage will be a remarkable poem that never fails to leave quite the impression. No further words are needed:
By: John Donne
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.