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Reflections on the Revolution in Economics

Economics has been to me a curious discipline. I have been beaten overhead with models, turned red at the revelation of my collection of sunk cost decisions, retrained my common sense into an economic sense, and maximized my life for the utmost felicity. It has disciplined me, and efficiently at that. For economics has a sprawling disposition—an insatiable want to spread evermore. It cannot be localized to the economy; no, it must be aggrandized to choice itself. Since economics is the study of unlimited wants and limited resources, who says it must be bound by money? Are we not also spending time for the good of friendship? Do we not trade our lives for the life of another and call it matrimony? Even the decision between the apple and the orange breaks down into pro/con lists: “I have to peel the orange, but the apple leaves a core.” It is given more clinical terms like “Human Capital,” as Gary Becker deems it, yet the economical cogs lie beneath the humane veneer. For normal economic discourse today often neglects man’s normative calling.

The predicament, however, is that Becker is right; the models ring true. Modeling labor as a commodity—as if it were equivalent to objects like wood, oil, or microchips—yields veridical predictions. Putting criminals under economic scrutiny reveals them to be rational actors weighing the costs of the “score” versus the cellblock. And, consulting your own experience, do we not compute the utilitarian calculus each morning? “If I get up now, I can do such and such; if I stay in bed, I get more sleep.” We only rise when the marginal benefit of the upright life outweighs the marginal cost of the horizontal, i.e., when we must go to work. After all, it is western tradition that tells us that man is a “rational animal,” and is this not rational?

If by “rational” we mean “having an antecedent reason” such that the woman bit the apple because she valued the “knowledge of good and evil” and “equality with God” greater than obedience, then tradition rebukes us. For indeed, dolphins and apes understand the laws of cause and effect, inductive reasoning, and social dynamics, but they are assuredly not rational like humans. The separation, therefore, lies not in the ability to efficiently fulfill our wants, but the judgment of which wants to fulfill. A monkey must eat; a man may fast. The former is bound by his survival, the latter by his conscience. Modern economics takes our wants as a given, yet man has been given the ability to train his wants. This higher order of rationality, not neglecting the lower animalistic order, completes human anthropology for the economist. Positive economics, the study of what is, in the fullest sense includes normative economics, the study of what ought to be. For ultimately, the reality of man is this: what ought not to be is and what is ought not to be.

This completion is Dr. Mary Hirschfeld’s insight into the realm of theological economics. The models may be accurately describing man using his lower reason, but they ignore the realm of normativity—right and wrong. Of course there is more to her insight, but I will now turn to its application.

This summer I am interning with an urban non-profit that works directly within the project housing communities of DC. The average income of the families there is roughly twelve to thirteen thousand per year. They live across the road from million-dollar homes. Yet, their poverty cannot be described purely in monetary terms. The fences, in fact, show more than the statistics. For surrounding each location is twelve-foot black metal fences with curved points towards those outside—an outline of the community’s separation. They can be summarized thusly: those “poor in spirit… who mourn… are meek… who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The non-profit recognizes this and therefore operates ingeniously.

It was Aristotle who noted that laws instill morality in the polis; Dr. Hirschfeld—through Aquinas—applies this to economics: Amazon and modern computing trains us to be impatient; it is this non-profit that lives them out. For her critique on pure economic reason recognizes that felicity lies not in the maximization of one’s resources, but the perfection thereof. The former lies on an everlasting extension of more, whereas the latter rests on the intension of perfection in God. As such, life is a canvas we paint on with our resources, with the hope of begetting a beautiful picture. More paint does not equate to beauty, order does.

Therefore, the non-profit does not merely want the community to flourish materially, but communally and spiritually as well. Whether through race literacy classes with the surrounding community, employment opportunities, after-school programs, college readiness sessions, or food delivery, the organization is in, of, and for the community.

This leaves us to reckon with ourselves. Since this organization is faithful with little, how are we to be faithful with much? As wealthy Americans enjoying unequaled levels of ease, how are we to engage with inequality? To what end does the newest Tesla model add to the picture? If wealth, something material, is meant to lead to moral perfection, something immaterial, what are we to do with excess wealth? Dr. Hirschfeld’s Summer Honor’s class “Are Markets Moral? In Search of a Humane Economy” gave insights but—to use her words—ultimately gave us “the habit of seeing.” Therefore, let us submit ourselves to a new, more perfect discipline: Thomistic Economics.

Samuel Rule is a rising senior at Patrick Henry College. He was a participant in the 2021 Summer Honors Program course “Are Markets Moral? In Search of a Humane Economy,” taught by Dr. Mary Hirschfeld.