Economics is one of the necessary tools that call forth the creativity and cooperation in us—aspects of our being made in the image of God. The science of the economic sphere is most interesting to the imaginative conservative when its methods and truths are applied not as ends in themselves, but as means toward the building up of society.
It is a “fearful thing,” the book of Hebrews tells us, “to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). It is also a fearful thing to fall into an agreement to write a regular column for any publication. Brad Birzer and Winston Elliott have asked me if I would begin to write regularly for The Imaginative Conservative, and to focus my essays on topics of economics. This burden, which I take up with this essay, I do with fear and trembling.
Writing is something many people who do not do it professionally often think a sort of enjoyable thing like playing pool or crocheting. “I wonder,” said James Boswell to Samuel Johnson, “that you have not more pleasure in writing.” “Sir,” Johnson replied, “you may wonder.” It was not just Johnson. Many of the greatest writers have felt the terror of the blank page (now most often a screen). The legendary sports writer Red Smith once observed that writing is easy: “All you have to do is open up a vein and bleed.” Dr. Johnson himself, some of whose greatest works were his Rambler columns, observed in the last one that the journalist who has to write a regular column (his were twice a week) and “compose on a stated day, will often bring to his task an attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed . . . a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease.”
The successful regular writer will sometimes strike out on one topic and find that it just won’t do. The successful writer will also find it necessary to write on a variety of topics; disappointingly for many of us, we often find that if we are not intellectual one-hit wonders, neither are we Beethovens. “Write what you know” sounds like a great thing, but in comparison to the teen years when he knew everything, the writer in middle age (as I am) is all too aware that this writer’s platitude means a lot more mental legwork than before if he is to write something worth reading. Especially, one might add, when one’s task is to write about a subject not one’s professional specialty.
Though he was more learned about such matters than most, Dr. Johnson himself never felt himself spiritually worthy or capable of writing directly on matters theological in his own name, though he ghostwrote many sermons for clerical friends. Even his legendary Rambler columns, though not directly theological but still filled with rich moral reflection, were written anonymously. As I type out my name at the top of this essay, my mind’s eye is uncomfortably fixed on Tom Wolfe, the late, dapper Southern gentleman, dressed like Mark Twain, who is gesturing toward Noam Chomsky while wryly observing, “An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others.”
I am not a professional economist. Nor have I played one on TV. My own academic background is in literature, philosophy, and then theology, where I earned my doctorate writing about soon-to-be-saint John Henry Newman and the threat of Hell. My knowledge of economics has come out of interest and necessity. My interest is because my own liberal education, no matter how flawed it may have been or dilatory I was in study, convinced me that all knowledge is one, and that to truly have a view of the world, one must have a sense of the importance and place of all subjects. Though economists have often overstated the importance of their discipline, I have nevertheless been impressed with the ways in which economists, though often dismissed with Macaulay’s gibe about being a “dismal science,” have often come, as William McGurn has observed, to the same practical conclusions about freedom and human dignity that theologians and moral philosophers have.
The necessity in my interest in economics is because I am married and have seven children. Though the sums needed to raise them are often overstated, my experience is that they do cost money. “Economy” comes from two Greek words, oikos (home) and nomos (rule). While many of us tend to think of economics as involving titans of industry, IPOs, international deals, and world-scale decisions and players, economics in its original sense is all home economics.
This too makes me nervous. Johnson’s anonymity in the Rambler was also, according to his biographer W. Jackson Bate, because “he wished the purity of the work to be accepted objectively, without the personal comparison people are naturally eager to make between the writings of a moralist and his own life.” In writing regularly on economic matters, I suppose I open myself up to the question of whether my own finances are solvent. On that score, while I do not have any debts right now except for my mortgage, I am neither the billionaire nor the millionaire next door. That is no doubt due to financial mistakes my wife and I have made, but also to decisions we have made without regret in establishing the nomos of our oikos. We have never both worked full time (thus we have not spent money on full-time daycare for any of our children). While we were able to educate our children without tuition in a fine public charter classical academy for many years, its sudden awakening a few years ago forced us to begin paying out what is now the equivalent of a second mortgage to a very fine and seriously Catholic school. It has been worth it.
What the foregoing amounts to is that I will not write purely and simply about economics as what Newman called it in The Idea of a University, “the science, I suppose, of wealth” whose task it is “to give rules for gaining wealth and disposing of wealth.” While I will certainly talk about the hows of gaining and disposing of wealth, what I hope to focus on is economics as one of the tools for navigating life in a world in which money and trade are necessities. While some think of them as necessary evils, I think of them as necessities that give rise to great evils, certainly, but also call forth the creativity and cooperation in us that are aspects of our being made in the image of God. It all depends on the choices of persons and the context in which trading takes place.
My essays will assume Michael Novak’s understanding of a society with three interconnected spheres: the economic, the legal-juridical, and the cultural. For Novak the cultural was the most important, and the heart of the cultural is “cult”: worship, ultimate loves. The science of the economic sphere—gaining and disposing of wealth—is most interesting to the imaginative conservative when its methods and truths are applied not as ends in themselves, but as means toward the building up of society as a whole as well as the little platoons that are the strength of any society. Sound economics need virtue and a rich vision to make ultimate good on their promise.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Calling of Saint Matthew” (c. 1600) by Caravaggio (1571-1610), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.