The concept of “substitution” is a familiar one in economics. Many products are used as substitutes for others such as margarine for butter and tea for coffee. If the price of one becomes too high the other product may be used even though it isn’t perfect. Economic substitution provides people with alternative options which make economic action smoother and more dependable. But beneath this perfectly legitimate concept lies another, expanded use which amounts to an ideology gravid with social and moral consequences. To distinguish between the legitimate use and the illegitimate ideology, another term is helpful: the ideology is called “succedaneanism” from the older word “succedaneum” which means simply substitutes.
Succedaneanism differs from the ordinary margarine-for-butter substitution in that it is an ideology whose goal is the remaking—really, the deconstruction—of society and morals. It glories in using the struggle against scarcity as justification for continuing radical social change, change which begins in the economy but is not limited there. Often, succedaneanism is an effort to replace the concrete and physical with the abstract. Consider Alan Greenspan’s statement when he enthuses that “…the creation of economic value has shifted increasingly toward conceptual and intangible values with decidedly less reliance on physical volumes…In recent years the explosive growth of information gathering and processing techniques has greatly extended our analytical capabilities of substituting ideas for physical volume” (pp. 309-310, emphasis added). These substitutions are supposedly “irreversible gains” and are “propelling the downsizing” of industry and contributing to “cross-border trade” which also is said to grow “irreversibly.” The enthusiasm of the free trade advocate for this kind of substitution is countered by the more sober assessment of certain protectionists who argue,
No matter how sophisticated and advanced American technology becomes, its foundation will still consist of the material ingredients of manufacturing, food and fibers. Despite the talk of an economy based on information, communications and software, none of these can provide the basics of food, shelter and clothing or the myriad of other material goods Americans crave. They are adjuncts to production, not replacements for production. (Harrigan & Hawkins, p. 96).
Some Christian authors also promote succedaneanism. Cal Beisner, for example, is in agreement with Greenspan and echoes Julian Simon in rejecting any acknowledgement of natural obstacles, or resource limitations because such a view “…ignores the importance of mind and of the application of knowledge to the material world. Not what we find in nature, but what we can make of it defines true resource availability. As knowledge grows and changes, so does what we can make of nature” (Beisner, pp. 108-9). Mind, concepts, “intellectual property” and “intangible values” supposedly replace matter and the physical creation, opening up for us a world of enlarged options, a world without limit and so without form, an abstraction. There is no such thing as resource scarcity, or environmental limits. According to Beisner even to protect the environment for its own sake instead of for what serves man’s desires is a form of nature worship and idolatry (pp. 165, 167).
The ideology of succadaneanism elevates the concept of substitution to the level of an all-embracing technique. Doing so, however, has had bad consequences in several areas of economic life including work, consumption, land and community, money, and economic theory. When substitutes are used without reference to their origin and other ends (a reference to their wholeness), it becomes the economist’s way of saying the end justifies the means, the main tool in the revolt against the finite. The following is a brief listing and description of some of these effects in order to show how pervasive and deleterious its effect has been.
In Work: It is often said that the important thing about charity in the sense of almsgiving is not what it does for the recipient but what it does for the giver. While the gift is important to its recipient, the effect on the character of the giver is also vital: the practice of self-denial and brotherly love. Similarly, there are two goals in work: the product for the consumer, and the effect of the work on the worker. However, the satisfaction the worker receives from his work is generally only paid lip service in mainstream economic thought. To produce a complete product, to have an intimate acquaintance with the materials he works with and with his customers is hardly considered in the modern scheme of work. Work becomes less personal as it becomes more abstract. Just as the machine substitutes for the labor, so also, increased wages are supposed to substitute for satisfaction from meaningful work. In lumbering, modern machines and efficiency strip the bark and slice up a tree in such an automated fashion that the men handling the equipment know little or nothing about trees. They have little opportunity to touch the wood, or become familiar with the grain and its different scents. The same is true for tailoring and knowledge of fabric and other materials. The joy of intimacy with our work is taken from us by excessive mechanization and by automation.
The ancient dictum of the mediaeval monks was that “laborare est orare:” to work is to pray or more loosely, work is worship. A wholesome form of work has some room for the proper exercise of the will, such that work and meaning are related. Richard Weaver (Ideas Have Consequences) explains this as the realization of the ideal in work, bringing the ideal in the task down to earth and making it a concrete reality. Mechanization threatens this proper exercise by making work automatic; the will is atrophied, the sense of discipline and submission to the ideal is replaced with a reliance on the mechanical, and the worker loses patience and thinks of the end of the day or the weekend and his paycheck only. Since all form implies limits and finiteness, the revolt against the finite is a revolt against form, and since the ideal is the highest or best form of an activity or product, it follows that revolt against the finite is a revolt against the ideal. Succedaneanism, which tries to substitute away from the ideal, also tries to substitute the infinite for the finite, the endless abstract process for the concrete thing. Every finiteness is seen as an obstacle to be overcome and substitutes are the key to overcoming them, hence the key to endless process. Ultimately, the goal is to do away with such work altogether and then supposedly we will be able to focus on social problems, to enjoy what Thomas Carlyle called “the voice of festive Lubberlands,” a mythical place of plenty and laziness.
In Consumption: The excessive specialization in production naturally leads to a specialization in consumption, though there are several senses in which this is true. An obvious one is that because work no longer provides satisfaction of itself but is increasingly undertaken for money payment only, the worker naturally tries to find satisfaction in consumption alone, that is, he substitutes the one for the other. A second sense, is that his consumption becomes increasingly specialized in the sense of being “disembedded” from the rest of his life or activities. For example, instead of healthy exercise as part of our work, we have to make exercise a separate activity; and because we eat according to nutrition facts—which Roepke, in referring to calorie charts of his day, describes as eating in “conscientious boredom” rather than according to taste—we often separate our foods into two groups: food for nutrition, such as high fiber breakfasts, and food for taste, such as fast food products; and because our work is unbalanced, we must have a special annual vacation to recuperate, a practice unknown and unneeded by our forefathers.
A third sense in which we specialize in consumption is what may be called a “consumptively imperative” which parallels the efficiency imperative in production. It is the mandate to increase the rate of consumption to match that of growing production. The goal of economic material growth is that each individual is to consume more this year than last in the belief that this adds to his welfare. Endless increases in individual consumption is taken as something self-evidently good, not as something to help attain another goal and which may have had a termination.
Fourthly, succedaneanism succeeds best when the proposed substitute is severed from its origin. In consumption this is seen in what some have called the “commercialization effect” or “commodity fetishism.” This is the tendency to define a product only in its most narrowly understood sense, some final consumable form, neglecting the process of how the commodity is produced even though this affects what the final commodity is, or in simple terms, “howness” affects “whatness.” There are several examples to illustrate this: one famous study of blood supply found that blood solicited for transfusions based on the payment of money was inferior to blood solicited on the basis of altruism: the quality was reduced because it was commercialized. Another example is that bought sex is not the same as given sex in legitimate marriage.(Hirsch, pp. 87, 94) The intentions and methods used to produce a product are not irrelevant to the consumer as subjectively experienced, nor to the nature of the product objectively considered.
It may be useful to compare this commodity fetishism with another instance of it in a different context, if the example isn’t too obtuse. C.S. Lewis rightly criticized the skeptics of his day for their too narrow definition of prayer. To see if prayer was effective they wanted to perform an experiment, praying for people in one hospital and not those of another. If prayer really works, there should be a statistically significant difference between the recovery rates of patients in the two hospitals. This chuckleheaded experiment would of course falter because prayer isn’t merely the recitation of words but words engaged by the heart and mind, by the will of the petitioner. Lewis writes: “You cannot pray for the recovery of the sick unless the end you have in view is their recovery. But you can have no motive for desiring the recovery of all the patients in one hospital and none of those in another. You are not doing it in order that suffering should be relieved; you are doing it to find out what happens. The real purpose and the nominal purpose of your prayers are at variance. In other words, whatever your tongue and teeth and knees may do, you are not praying. The experiment demands an impossibility” (p. 6). A true definition of prayer goes beyond what the tongue and teeth and knees are doing to include the will of the petitioner. Otherwise Lewis says properly trained parrots would do just as well. But parroting is no substitute for prayer. The separation of the final “commodity” from its origin in either method or intention, its howness from its whatness, renders the final product more abstract and autonomous, and so changes its whatness.
In Land and Community: Increasingly, abstract succedaneanism in the name of greater precision affects our most basic material aspect of land and its relation to community and the way we think about it. The traditional method of land surveying called “metes-and-bounds” relies on local landmarks and natural objects such as trees and streams and presumed communities with histories and a stable population that handed down stories and events which were commonly known so that such descriptions clearly identified the land in question. Land, history, and community went together. The surveying jobs got done but in a way that was personal and humane. The original metes-and-bounds description for George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, for example, from 1726 reads:
…a moiete or half of five thousand acres formerly Lay’d Out for Collo Nicholas Spencer and the father of Capt. Lawrence Washington. Bounded as follows Beginning by the River Side at the Mouth of Little Hunting Creek according to the several courses and meanders thereof nine hundred Eighty and Six Poles to a mark’d A Corner Tree standing on the West side of the South branch being the main branch of said Hunting Creek. From there by a line of Mark’d trees west eighteen Degrees South across a Woods to the Dividing Lyne as formerly Between Madam Francis Spencer and Captain Lawrence Washington and from there W[est] by the said Lyne to ye River and with the River and all the Courses and Meanders of the said River to the Mouth of the Creek afor’sd. (Barlowe, p. 34).
The geometry of measurement and coordination is balanced within easily recognizable natural forms: the river, its meanders and the trees, and reference to particular individuals.
The author of the above book asked two surveyors with wide experience what their most unusual metes-and-bounds descriptions were. One said a Kentucky description identified a property boundary as “south two hollers of a hound dog.” The other surveyor mentioned a Connecticut boundary as “north to the place where the boy killed a bear.” In contrast, the modern rectangular system describing a 20-acre parcel of land would read: “W1/2 of SW1/4 of Section 12 of T 2 N, R 3 W of the Sixth Principal Meridian.” (Barlowe, p. 35) Even this is replaceable with yet more abstract techniques including using latitude and longitude, state plane coordinates, and Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) ticks for national and global systems of site descriptions or computerized mass analysis. One can imagine still more abstract methods involving light wave measurement techniques and satellite technology. After a point, precision and personalism don’t mix.
In Money: Roepke speaks of the “anemia” of modern money and the tendency to “etherealize it” (Economics of the Free Society, pp. 93ff, 106f) by improper substitutes so that it has become increasingly abstract. Gold and other precious metals and stones have been replaced first with paper backed by gold and then with paper alone, and eventually will be replaced with mere digits on computers, the ultimate in abstract substitution. Ludwig von Mises likewise laments the process and calls for the restoration of gold as the only true money but with an emphasis on our intimate usage of it when he writes: “Gold must be in the cash holdings of everybody. Everybody must see gold coins changing hands, must be used to having gold coins in his pockets, to receiving gold coins when he cashes his paycheck, and to spending gold coins when he buys in a store” (p. 493). Intimacy with gold is essential to its proper function as a medium of exchange and is undoubtedly one of the reasons for its historical secular consensus in using it as such. Only in an age of increasing abstraction and depersonalization of life could we adhere to the present fiat system, where the substitution of the abstract for the concrete is hailed as progress.
In Economic Theory: The abstract method of analysis used in modern economic thinking is well known. Less well-known, but indicative of the economic way of thinking, is the penchant to replace simple, concrete definitions with more abstract ones. Just as Greenspan would have ideas replace physical volume in the economy, so in economic theory, and more subtly, definitions are used which violate our common conception of things. The concept of “a commodity” or “good” as a self-evident object in existence is replaced with the more abstract definition of something that is a bundle of characteristics and called “characteristics analysis.” Kelvin Lancaster in his paper “Goods Aren’t Goods” writes that “consumption is an activity in which goods, singly or in combination, are inputs and in which the output is a collection of characteristics” (Hirsch, p. 85; goods’ characteristics change or acquire additional features when used in combination with other goods, says Hirsch). This temptation is also seen in Mises’ conception of a commodity, where a product isn’t a “finished good” until it is physically in the possession of the user. A car just off the assembly line in Detroit isn’t really a car yet until it is brought to its ultimate user. Mises argues that commodities do not have the same nature if they are separated in physical space from their final user: “…what are supposed to be identical commodities really differ in an essential point; they are available for consumption in different places.”(p. 203) The same has happened with the concept of property which is merely seen as the right to trade or use a thing, but not the things themselves. We don’t own things, we own the rights to them; we don’t have goods, we have the utility or abstract qualities derived from them, a mere collection of characteristics, hence without integrity of being as a thing itself.
The ideology of succedaneanism becomes peculiarly evident when economists speak of price coordination. In place of a central directing office, they argue, prices coordinate economic activity and they do better than any intelligently planned action could do: the system [of prices] substitutes for intelligence. From here some go on to speak in Darwinian terms of the evolution of the economic and social systems, the evolution from chaos to order occurs without design. To borrow from the late Francis Schaeffer, the formula is: Time + chance = human personality, or in this case, economic order. To show that this is a wholly erroneous way to describe a market economy would take another paper. Suffice it to say this is one of two ultimate goals of succedaneanism. The other, which is particularly congenial to “conservative” market economists, is the substitution of vice for virtue: the system automatically transforms the former into the latter and the human will is reduced to merely what to consume, not how to do good. One could cite Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises as examples of this tendency. It is to Roepke’s credit that he recognized the fallacy of this thinking, which is one reason why he was severely critical of both libertarianism and Darwinism.
Summary and Conclusion. This list could be expanded, no doubt, but these points should be enough to show the meaning and the danger of “succedaneanism.” The temptation is an ancient one, going back to the first time man replaced God’s will with his own in the Garden of Eden. We see it again in Augustine’s Confessions when he complains that the literature of the pagan gods involved, in the terms of succedaneanism, a kind of double substitution in the ancient world: the “gods” were given the power of deities but the behavior of sinful man. The result was that people weren’t encouraged to treat this divine behavior as depraved, but rather to treat depraved behavior as divine, and imitate it accordingly. More recently, the use of sacks of flour (or of sugar, or dolls with computer chips to simulate infant sounds) in some public schools to teach students child care, arguably does not teach them how to treat sacks of flour as real babies, so much as it encourages them to treat real babies as sacks of flour. It’s easy to see how the ideology of succedaneanism involves a latent egalitarianism, for interchangeability of parts implies equality. The feminist movement may be seen as a broad subset of this category in which men and women are believed to be able to substitute for each other’s roles: men are supposed to stay home with the babies (or sacks of flour) and women are supposed to play soldier, or be the primary breadwinner. Organ transplants are yet another example of misguided substitutionism not only in the deleterious medical problems they raise but also in their morally dubious character. In the economy it seeks to replace one market form for another: a wage-dependent market for an independent property-based market form. The overall result of all these instances of wrong-headed substitution is the breakdown of social structures and morality. The ideology of succedaneanism disintegrates man morally, psychically, physically, and economically, all in a veritable orgy of impiety with impunity. This is not surprising since long ago, the most bald expression of succedaneanism was the substitution of vice for virtue. Only by keeping a vision of the principles of a humane economy rigorously in mind can we be saved from this tragedy of succedaneanism.
This essay appeared in The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy by Ralph Ancil. Reprinted with the gracious permission of the Wilhelm Roepke Institute.
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References and Notes:
Raleigh Barlowe, Land Resource Economics, 4th ed., Prentice-Hall, Engle-Wood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1986. Community is further “etherialized” by attempts to redefine it as any form of interactive interests such as “communities of interest that exist, say, only on the internet. See Joseph Kruth, “Sustainable Communities, Globalization and Increasing Complexity,” in Futures Research Quarterly, Summer 1998, pp. 23-41.
E. Calvin Beisner, Prospects for Growth, Crossway Books, Westchester, Illinois, 1990.
Alan Greenspan, “Overview: Central Bank Perspectives,” in Monetary Policy Issues in the 1990s, a symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, 1989.
Anthony Harrigan and William R. Hawkins, American Economic Pre-Eminence, USIC Educational Foundation, Washington, DC, 1989.
Fred Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1976. The original article is titled, “A New Approach to Consumer Theory,” in the Journal of Political Economy, 74 (1966) 132-157.
C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1960.
Ludwig von Mises, Theory of Money and Credit, Liberty Classics, Indianapolis, 1980.
Wilhelm Roepke, Economics of the Free Society, Libertarian Press, Inc., Grove City, Pennsylvania, 1994.