Published Humanitas, Volume XXV, Nos. 1 and 2, 2012


Contributing to the multi-faceted crisis Americans now face is the loss of those values and principles that are essential to a healthy economy. We could mention the incestuous relationships between business and politics, the avarice of large banking institutions, misguided Federal Reserve policy, the irrationality of Wall Street investors, and the Gordon Gekko motto that greed is good. In the face of these problems, average Americans have indeed been hurt and made subject to the predations of those whose lives are truly driven by greed and fear. Or, as Robert Kuttner has recently written, Americans have been made subject to the rentier class, the powerful and unscrupulous creditors of the financial world. But a more subtle form of depredation is robbing us in an even more fundamental way. No effort at restoring America’s foundations can be complete, no battle for her soul can be successful, without our being reminded of this need. I am speaking of our perspective on the nature and quality of business and work necessary for a humane economy to oppose the ravages wrought by its opposite, economism.

By “economism” I mean a false view of economy and business that either (1) denigrates these pursuits as related merely to material needs and not intimately connected with man’s higher purposes, or (2) elevates the material means sought by business and commerce to the status of man’s only end. In both cases economic activity is associated exclusively with base human motives. In the former, economic pursuits are belittled, and in the latter they are given the highest praise. While there are many ways to engage this theme, I will here contrast the ancient and modern forms of economism with the alternative of a humane economy.

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