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We went wrong when we replaced the pursuit of the Good Life with the pursuit of busy-ness, which, as “business,” is idolized as an end in itself; indeed, as the end in itself. We were not made to be busy; we were made to be good…

Editor’s Note: Joseph Pearce responds to questions from the members of the American Solidarity Party regarding his book Small is Still Beautiful.

American Solidarity Party: How can price distort value?

Joseph Pearce: I will allow G. K. Chesterton to answer this in the words he writes at the beginning of his wonderful short story, “The Shop of Ghosts:” “Nearly all the best and most precious things in the universe you can get for a halfpenny. I make an exception, of course, of the sun, the moon, the earth, people, stars, thunderstorms, and such trifles. You can get them for nothing.” Putting Chesterton’s words more prosaically, he is simply saying that the best things in life are priceless. Their intrinsic value cannot be measured in terms of affixing a monetary price to them. A prostitute sells herself for a price; a saintly virgin martyr of the early Church gives herself away, laying down her very life for God and her neighbor.

If we want to talk about “price” in non-monetary terms, in which case we should probably be talking about “cost” rather than “price,” we can say that the virgin martyr pays a high “price” in giving herself away, since it costs her the very life she lives. The prostitute, on the other hand, makes a profit in monetary terms but loses far more of value in the transaction than any money can buy. I am aware, of course, that the cynic would disagree, as, no doubt, would the prostitute, because the cynic, as Oscar Wilde reminds us, is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Having stated the high and overarching principle, I would refer you to chapter two of Small is Still Beautiful in which I discuss the ways in which price distorts value. Specifically, I refer to Schumacher’s insight that modern economists do not distinguish between the price of something, its so-called market value, and its true intrinsic and inherent value. He points out that economists fail to distinguish between the value of primary and secondary goods, or between renewable and non-renewable goods. I also refer to the insightful way in which the economist, Richard Douthwaite, illustrates the distortion of the true value of the economy in the price placed upon it in terms of the measurement of gross national product (GNP). Douthwaite shows that GNP, which is the price that economists place upon a national economy, is actually a measurement of economic activity and not a measurement of true economic health or wealth. It assigns the same price to economic activity which costs money, e.g. the cost of cancer treatment or crime prevention, as to that which makes money, all of which is incorporated without distinction in the price assigned to a national economy in terms of its GNP.

ASP: Explain how a “Person who economizes behaves uneconomically.”

JP: Again, I would refer you to my discussion of this in Small is Still Beautiful. In essence, however, it can be summarized in the following way: Modern economists, who measure economic health in terms of economic growth, will consider that someone who repairs his own car, instead of paying a mechanic to do it, is behaving uneconomically because he is not contributing to the growth in GNP. The economy would grow more, in terms of an increase in GNP, if he paid someone else to repair his car for him. It is in this way that a person who economizes behaves uneconomically—at least in the eyes of GNP and growth-obsessed economists.

ASP: Why are Globalism’s goals self-defeating?

JP: In Small is Still Beautiful I illustrate how the globalist dream of attaining first-world wealth for all people on earth is unsustainable ecologically, even were it to prove possible economically. Imagine everyone in the world owning at least one car, and possibly two? Imagine them all consuming exponentially more energy? Imagine the strain this would put on finite and non-renewable resources? I state that the globalist economist’s dream is the global ecologist’s nightmare. I argue, therefore, that globalism’s goals are self-defeating because they are ultimately unsustainable and therefore unattainable, at least in the longer term. I would add, however, that there are other reasons for opposing and resisting globalism, a part from these purely economic considerations. Globalism is inevitably, inexorably, and inextricably a political, as well as an economic phenomenon. It will continuously erode the power of sovereign states in order to achieve the goal of global government, to which entities such as the European Union are stepping stones. Such a government, should it come into being, will serve the global elites, such as the largest global corporations and international financial organizations, such as the World Bank and the IMF. It will be unanswerable in any meaningful sense to any electorate, leaving ordinary people utterly voiceless and powerless in the face of the globalist order’s tyrannical designs. Anyone interested in genuine democracy and genuine political freedom needs to resist globalism’s encroachment upon their individual liberties.

ASP: What is the Micawber Factor and how does it impact the loss of manufacturing jobs and environmental planning?

JP: The Micawber Factor is a term for the myopically optimistic nature of modern economics, which puts its blind trust in market mechanisms which are inherently short-sighted because they measure the present moment without any reference to the lessons of the past or rational projections about the future.

ASP: On global trade, what is “the hidden surcharge on cheap imported goods still to be paid?”

JP: Put simply, the long-term health of the domestic economy is compromised by the systematic exporting of our capital to parts of the world where labour is cheap in order to maximise the profits of global corporations. The “hidden surcharge on cheap imported goods” is the cost to our own economy of exporting our manufacturing industry to China and the Pacific Rim. This cost will have to be paid sooner or later. If the American worker is forced to compete with the cheap labour in China and the Pacific Rim, he will need to work for less money or he will lose his job. If we have less money as the price we pay for cheap imports, they are not so cheap as we think. This is the “hidden surcharge.”

ASP: How can Subsidiarity get a foothold when Globalism effectively controls the flow of information?

JP: The beauty of subsidiarity is that it works locally. It can operate without recourse to the globalist mechanism. Indeed, it works best and most efficiently when it simply bypasses, circumvents, or ignores these macro-mechanisms. This is not to say that subsidiarity cannot be served by the social networking, especially on a local basis, that the internet can provide. It can be served by it but it needn’t become a servant of it. If we work to build up our local communities and our local economies, we will be setting up a living and healthy alternative to globalism and its incessant and largely destructive flow of information.

ASP: In your closing chapter, you state, “The triumph of the Modern West means the stifling of the human spirit and, as we have seen, the destruction of the environment.” Can you explain?

JP: There are many people who will cite the so-called West as something which is under threat and something for which we should be prepared to fight to defend. This depends on what we mean by the West. If we mean by the West that civilization which grew from the meeting of Athens and Jerusalem, encompassing the philosophy of the former and the theology of the latter, I would agree that we should defend it. If, however, we mean the so-called civilization that has emerged in Europe and America since the Enlightenment and which is characterized by secularism in politics and relativism in philosophy, I would argue emphatically that such a West is not only unworthy of our support but that it demands our opposition. It is this latter understanding of the West to which I was referring in the final chapter of my book. It is this materialistic West which has been stifling the human spirit and destroying the environment. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn told me, when I interviewed him in 1998, there are “ills that are characteristic” to post-Enlightenment modernity:

The characteristics of modernity, the psychological illness of the twentieth century, is this hurriedness, hurrying, scurrying, this fitfulness—fitfulness and superficiality. Technological successes have been tremendous but without a spiritual component mankind will not only be unable to further develop but cannot even preserve itself. There is a belief in an eternal, an infinite progress which has practically become a religion. This is a mistake of the eighteenth century, of the Enlightenment era.

As Chesterton said, we went wrong when we forgot the Good Life and replaced it with the goods. Similarly, we went wrong when we replaced the pursuit of the Good Life with the pursuit of busy-ness, which, as “business,” is idolized as an end in itself; indeed, as the end in itself. We were not made to be busy; we were made to be good. My book was subtitled “economics as if families mattered” because families matter more than mere busy-ness. We need to rethink our priorities so that the goods serve the Good Life and do not destroy it. We need to ensure that busy-ness does not destroy our ability to raise our families well. We need to remember that the original meaning and purpose of economics was home-management (oikos meaning “house” and nomos meaning “manage”). If economics no longer serves the home, if it no longer serves the family, if indeed it is destructive of the family, it has gone woefully wrong. Such economics needs to be replaced by a true economics as if families mattered.

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2 replies to this post
  1. I very much wish I could unite fully with distributists. I think the world of G. K Chesterton, of Tolkien, of so many bright lights that Joseph Pearce, too, admires. But I cannot abide an alternative economic narrative that starts by misunderstanding the standard regnant model, what is called neoclassical economics.

    Just to take what is perhaps the most egregious instance in this interview, Mr. Pearce cites with apparent approval “Schumacher’s insight that modern economists do not distinguish between the price of something, its so-called market value, and its true intrinsic and inherent value. He points out that economists fail to distinguish between the value of primary and secondary goods, or between renewable and non-renewable goods.”

    Very simply, this is false. I spent years in graduate study of economics, and some of the most difficult hours were devoted to the mind-palsying problem of dealing with the difference between the market price of something and its real value to the consumer, or to the person who would consume it but for its price. Similarly for various sorts of goods. I had to study carefully how it is best to use depletable resources, for example, and how to account for future usefulness. We “modern economists” may come to wrong conclusions, but it is simply wrong to claim that we don’t even attend to the distinctions.

    As I say, I would delight in making common cause with distributists and with those who consider that small is in some sense better, but I cannot abide with those who dismiss a system of principles that has been remarkably successful in modeling the behaviors of people in the real world, without having anything like a defensible understanding of that system.

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