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Economics and the social nature of the person

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At the center of the economy are human persons.

Economics must first be a human discipline before it can be a technical one.  One of the essential characteristics of the human person is that we are social beings.

While each of us is a subject and a unique and unrepeatable person, we achieve human flourishing and moral perfection in relationship with others. We cannot do this alone. We are neither radical individuals, nor are we indistinct parts of a collective.  We are social beings.

We are individual substances, yet we are also in relationship with and dependent upon others right from the beginning or our existence.  We are born into a family and into a society, and a culture.  But we don’t exist solely for the family or the society.  We are as the late Jesuit philosopher, Norris Clarke describes in his book Person and Being,substance-in-relationship”

This is complex and requires thoughtful reflection.  Because we like things simple, we tend to stress one side or the other. At the social extreme we see the person as merely part of a collective who exists for the good of society or the state.  We can see this in ancient civilizations and modern totalitarianism.   The individualist extreme is to see ourselves as radically autonomous individuals with no nature who can invent and create ourselves according to our desires.  This is a common mistake today.

Neither of these does justice to the subjective and social dimensions of the person.  And while the idea of radical autonomy appears to affirm individuality, the rejection of any nature or purpose creates the conditions for social engineering and ultimately totalitarianism.  If the person has no nature, then whose to say that the social engineers can’t try to manipulate it as C.S. Lewis explains well in the Abolition of Man.

But the Jewish and Christian tradition gives us a more nuanced understanding of the person, and one that reflects our lived experience.  We are neither radical individuals nor simple part of a collective. We are both unique subjects and we have a social nature.

We see this social nature in Genesis when after Adam names all the animals and yet is unsatisfied.  God says “it is not good for man to be alone.”  He then puts Adam in to a deep sleep and from his rib creates Eve.  When Adam sees Eve he says  “at last” and “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”  Man is meant to be in deep relationship with God and others. Each person is subject and flourishes in intersubjective relationships.

The individual and social nature of the person has profound consequences for how we understand the deepest human relationships and experiences from love, joy, mercy, and forgiveness to marriage, family, and all the way up to the largest political and economic questions.

Economics and the Social Nature of the Person

So how  does the social nature of the person relate to the study of economics?  Nineteenth-century developed the idea of the person as an autonomous individual, homo-economicus. While this can help in helping to understanding the role of incentives, utility-maximization and human action, it has its limits, as many economists will readily affirm.

Behavioral economics has shown some of the weaknesses of this method.  Yet behavioral economics has its weaknesses as well. It does not have a robust enough concept of reason.  While behavioral economics can correct some of the excesses of the focus on homo-economicus, they too have relied on a constricted vision of the person. .

A better starting point is the person as substance-in-relationship—an embodied person, an individual subject with a  social nature. This helps us understand the relationship of man to the nature and to other people.  It also highlights the social nature of markets and economic exchange.  We can often think of markets as an inanimate force. This is understandable in a global economy.  And even more so since we are plagued by cronyism and managerial capitalism where the economy is often rigged in favor of the rich and well connected.

Yet, markets are not simply inanimate forces.  They are networks of human relationships where people get together to trade and buy and sell to meet human needs and wants.

In this short video from Acton’s The Good Society series we discuss the issues of work, creativity, and exchange and how markets are a reflection of our social nature. Man is an embodied person endowed with reason and free will and called to work.  Man cooperates with nature and transforms it. An example in the series is how fruit trees require cultivation to last for years.  Without cultivation fruit trees will overproduce and die within several years.   Men and women also cooperate and interact with other men and women to help satisfy their needs and the needs of others.  We cannot survive on our own and division of labor, trade, and markets are the primary way that we cooperate with one another to build civilization

Economics is very complex and there are no simple answers to the problems that face us.  There is no perfect technical solution to the problems of scarcity, human desire, poverty, and wealth.  But a beginning is to think about economics within the context of our social nature

 

 

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Michael Matheson Miller Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute

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