Monday, August 31, 2015

Civil Society Man, Not Economic Man

If idle hands are the Devil's workshop, the Protestant work ethic would seem to naturally emerge from Christian theology. Of course, one can work as well as a serf under a lord for as for oneself, so this is hardly a sufficient condition for the emergence of wealth-generating free market capitalism, even if such willingness to work long and hard is one of its many necessary conditions.

Even so, the emphasis on work does not necessarily imply a concern with economic conditions. Neither, too, does the emphasis on innovation, as discussed by Deirdre McCloskey in The Bourgeois Virtues, imply this, not certainly does the emphasis on scientific discovery. Even Adam Smith's investigation into The Wealth of Nations was an exercise in moral philosophy first and foremost, an accompanying piece to A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Indeed, most philosophers throughout most of Western history were primarily concerned with ethics and political philosophy, and any economic concerns were at best footnotes to that political philosophy. Why, then, the extreme emphasis on economic conditions in the 20th century and now?

If you read the great thinkers prior to the rise of Marx, economic materialism wasn't a primary concern. Political philosophy was. After the rise of Marxist thinking, especially in the 20th century, the concentration was increasingly on economic conditions and materialism. This so permeated the culture that even anti Marxists have ended up thinking in Marxian categories. Marxism is not and never really was an economic theory. It was a political theory. The fact we get that wrong underscores the degree to which Marx's materialism and making economic conditions primary has affected even our thinking about Marx. He was no economist, and he certainly never thought of himself as one. He was a political philosopher.
The fact that the West is obsessed with economic conditions rather than ethics or political philosophy can be traced to Marx. In fact, it's amazing the degree to which our thoughts have been influenced by Marx's materialism. If you see economics as the explanation of everything, you're in some fundamental sense a Marxist. Opposition to immigration can't be due to racism; it's because of concerns about the economy. Terrorism can't be due to religious beliefs; it's because of economic conditions. Nobody likes your art? Must be due to the dominance of the market economy. Crime? Can't be cultural or subcultural; must be due to economic conditions.

None of this is to say that the economy isn't a factor in people's lives -- in all people's lives -- but rather that for the vast majority of people, it's hardly the primary concern. Or even a secondary one. Economics is not the driving force in most people's lives. It is something we can use to meet certain needs for many other ends. I suspect it's almost exclusively anti-market leftists who are the most obsessed with the economy and materialism. Almost nobody else (other than those libertarians who think everything can be explained using economics) does.

Yet, our major thinkers and secondhand dealers in idea all treat economics as primary. And most of those people are leftists. It is they who think of humans as Economic Man. But Economic Man is but a small part of being human. What we need to revive is Civil Society Man. That is, people who are involved in the moral order, the artistic orders, the religious order, the economic orders, the scientific order, the philosophical order, the philanthropic order, etc. Not just political man, not just economic man, but civil society man is who we need to model, discuss, and think about. 

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