I once sat on the honors orals of an economics major who had applied a standard mathematical model to immigration. The mathematics and data collection were well done, but the thesis was premised on the assumption we can understand immigration by analyzing a sufficiently large sample of economic data with a reputable mathematical model. Were there other factors in immigration besides economic ones? I asked. The question drew a bemused look from both student and faculty mentor. The short answer was, “Theoretically, perhaps, in random and statistically insignificant cases.” I mentioned the Pilgrims as a counterexample, but to them the Pilgrims were a prime example of “statistically insignificant.”
The dominance of economics is a fact of life today. For some that is a good thing. An editorial writer for the old Rocky Mountain News told me that politics was a bad way to settle public issues; economics was a better one. This vision, sometimes called economic reductionism or economism, unites free marketers and Marxists, although the Marxists I know dislike being called economic reductionists. They call it “vulgar Marxism.” I once mentioned this to a free marketer in the economics department at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I teach, who responded with a wide grin and the comment, “Well, I guess that makes me a ‘vulgar Marxist’!”
Wilhem Röpke waxes eloquent on this topic in his classic work, A Humane Economy:
When we say economism, . . . we mean the incorrigible mania of making the means the end, of thinking only of bread and never of those other things of which the Gospel speaks. . . . It is also economism to forget that people do not live by cheaper vacuum cleaners alone but by other and higher things which may wither in the shadow of giant industries and monopolies. To take one example among many, nowhere are the economies of scale larger than in the newspaper industry, and if only a few press lords survive, they can certainly sell a maximum of printed paper at a minimum of pennies or cents; but surely the question arises of what there is to read in these papers and what such an accumulation of power signifies for freedom and culture.
Since the publication of Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We?: The Challenge to America’s Identity (2004), it has become possible, although not respectable, to discuss openly the Protestant foundations of the United States. One important aspect of Protestantism is Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation. Fundamental to the Protestant worldview, it has had the good luck to be expounded clearly and winsomely by one of America’s most important conservative intellectuals, Gene Edward Veith, provost of Patrick Henry College. A good place to begin is his chapter on “Vocation” in his marvelous book The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals, which he expanded into a book of its own, God at Work.
According to this doctrine, everyone has a vocation. Theologically, it is the life of good works that follows justification by faith. Practically, it is what God has called you to do, which in most cases is what you are in fact doing: farmer, merchant, soldier, scholar; father, mother, child; teacher, student, and so on. These are all vocations, to be taken as seriously, practiced as devotedly and as productive of good works and blessings to you and those around you as a religious vocation. Veith tells of being asked for advice by someone who felt the urge to become a lawyer. How, he asked, could he distinguish between a true calling and a passing whim? Was he called to be a lawyer? Veith wrote back that he could think of one sign: Had the inquirer been accepted by a law school? It seems a good rule of thumb, but it has its limits.
Some activities, like praying and playing catch with your kids and falling in love, people need to do for themselves. These are not vocations in themselves but important aspects of real vocations: believer, parent, spouse.
Over time, the activities that are central to vocations may change. In Boulder healthy men beg at traffic stops. Some people give them money, though I do not. The Good Book says, “If any man will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). I remember being part of a group of academics who were chatting with the fine historian of American classical studies, Meyer Reinhold. The conversation turned to a classics department that was trying to hire a woman who had published several books. Someone commented that she would have no problem moving, since her husband was a freelance writer. Meyer’s head jerked up. “Freelance writer, my eye!” he exclaimed indignantly. “The man’s a bum. He has never worked a day in his life.”
Meyer was in many respects a conventional leftist, but he was also a middle-class American. His reaction led me to reflect on one of the great ages of Western civilization, the 13th century. If you passed by a perfectly healthy beggar at a crossroads in Paris back then, you might be walking past Thomas Aquinas. Much of the religious, artistic, and intellectual excitement of that age came from what we call the mendicant orders (in German Bettelordnungen, “beggars orders”). When Thomas or his teacher Albertus Magnus traveled to a new university post, he did not apply for a travel grant; he begged his way across Europe. The reactions of the families of Francis of Assisi and Thomas himself show that families had reservations about begging as a way of life back then, too. It is useful to remember that vocations take many forms.
What, however, if governmental actions diminish the opportunities for living vocations? A true example is the plight of the hero of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), when the Mexican government outlawed priests. There are less extreme cases. There used to be a lot more vocations in America. A century ago almost half of Americans lived on farms. About two percent do so now. After World War II about one third of the jobs in America were in factories. About ten percent are now. New jobs are often in the bottom half of the wage and prestige scale.
Personal prosperity is one criterion in evaluating work. Lower-end jobs in the service sector do not pay well. On the other hand, they are a good way to begin to participate in the workforce, to learn discipline and cooperation. We can also look at them from the point of view of vocation. Such jobs are rarely vocations. Part-time jobs, what the French call petits boulots, are by definition never vocations. Questions of personal and national prosperity are genuine and deserve respectful discussion, but so does the question of vocation, which is part of human fulfillment, of flourishing, of what the Greeks called eudaimonia, and the Romans called felicitas. This is what Thomas Jefferson meant by “happiness”—not hanging with your friends with a goofy grin on your face, but attaining human fulfillment. The pursuit of happiness, in this sense, is the opportunity to be fulfilled. If this is what Mr. Jefferson meant by a “right,” then I agree with him, while respectfully declining to use his vocabulary. We may and do complain that jobs, and even entire industries, have disappeared that might still exist, or exist in much greater numbers. It is not just a question of jobs, however; it is a question of careers, of vocations. The loss of these vocations is a personal tragedy for many Americans.
It may also be a national tragedy. Victor Davis Hanson has argued for the agricultural basis of Western civilization in several books, most importantly The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. Citizenship and philosophy, to mention only two important aspects of human fulfillment and social good, are the products of a society where the life and ideals of the farmer are central. This is an historical fact. The question then arises: If we reduce the percentage of our population who actually farm to about two percent, when do we lose touch with the way of life from which those ideals grew?
Naturally, there is no percentage of any occupation that will guarantee a perfect society; but if one third of our people lived on farms, and one third worked in manufacturing—these two statistics are not parallel, of course—we could retain the advantages of traditional republican institutions and modern technology. Nowadays, there are too few actual farmers to sustain the vision of farmer-citizen, and too few manufacturing jobs to produce the fruits of modern society. Our country once used tariffs to fund the federal government and defend both farming and industry. Before we address technical means, however, we need to decide what kind of society we want to live in, and then frame our economy to create and sustain that noneconomic vision, even if economic efficiency will sometimes be sacrificed to societal goods. It may also mean measuring our economy by what we produce and grow, not by the GDP.
In Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell explains the concept of comparative advantage. He argues that when Canada and the United States produce both chairs and TV sets, they produce fewer of each and are less prosperous than when one country (Canada) produces only chairs, and the other (USA) produces only TV sets. There are practical problems with this theoretically elegant formulation.
One involves what protectionists and economic nationalists call the Fallacy of Computer Chips and Potato Chips. In 1991, the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors told a group of businessmen, “It does not make any difference whether a country makes computer chips or potato chips.” From the perspective of econometric models, he was right. But, as Ross Perot liked to say, you get paid a lot more to make computer chips. One nationalist critic pointed out, “Patriot missiles won’t work with potato chips or chocolate chips or wood chips or buffalo chips.” Quality is a fact of life. When econometric models elide or marginalize quality, they have become too abstract for real working human beings and real productive societies.
Sowell’s example is moot anyhow, because the United States no longer makes television sets. That industry has disappeared from the land of the inventor of the television (Philo Farnsworth) and the developers of the television industry—a land that was once the world’s largest manufacturer of TV sets—because the U.S. government allowed the Japanese government to sponsor dumping by its manufacturers until the U.S. TV-manufacturing industry was driven out of business or abroad.
Dr. Sowell is scornful of the concept of dumping. His mathematical models show that it is always better to pay less for something, because consumers then have more money to spend. Unfortunately, a consumer who has lost his job when his company builds a factory overseas, or whose entire industry has been eliminated by dumping, does not have more money to spend. For decades, most people who have lost their jobs have not found better-paying ones. Even harder than finding a good-paying job, however, is finding one where you can practice your vocation. Why not make some goods cost a little more (and fund our government) by means of a tariff, so that more American industries can survive and Americans will have more vocations to practice? It may not even cost more. Lower prices come from competition. By protecting domestic competitors, the tariff encourages lower prices for consumers. Those consumers are also citizens, who will not be able to participate in the political life of their nation if they have no job or are exhausted working two of them. Citizenship is a vocation, too—an important one.
Globalization and free trade are not the last words to be spoken as the End of History descends upon the earth. Microcredit is an idea associated with Mohammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi Muslim with a Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt. In 1976 Yunus was head of the economics department at Chittagong University after Bangladesh’s successful war of secession. In the midst of developing mathematical models to understand his country’s poverty and government programs to alleviate it, Yunus did something economists rarely do: He talked to poor people—women who had taken out loans to buy bamboo to make furniture. Their business was profitable, but the profits went to moneylenders. Yunus’s first loan was $27 from his own pocket to 42 women. By 1983 his pilot project led to the creation of the Grameen (Village) Bank, which lends small amounts to poor people. To qualify, they must have a project and belong to “solidarity groups”: small, informal groups who serve as coguarantors of the loan and provide social and psychological support. By 2011 Grameen Bank had issued $11.35 billion in loans to 8.35 million borrowers. Imitators had sprung up all over the world. In Lakewood, Colorado, near Denver, for instance, Friendship Bridge gives small loans to women who belong to solidarity groups in Guatemala. Like Grameen Bank, their default level is low, about three percent. In 2006 Yunus and Grameen Bank received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Micro-credit is far from socialism. Citizens, not the government, own the means of production. Loans are made for projects, ideas, not for need. Micro-credit also functions differently from global free trade. Because the loans are small and the interest rates low, they foster cottage industries, not large factories. The requirement of belonging to solidarity groups discourages the individualism of traditional liberalism. Micro-credit does not try to make a few individuals fabulously wealthy, but gives members of communities the wherewithal to raise themselves out of poverty, if they have a good idea and are willing to work. It helps to build local economies all over the world through cottage industries based on community, ideas, and hard work.
In a famous passage in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke exclaimed, “The Age of Chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” An age of reverence for nobility of blood was indeed ending when Burke wrote. There were positive gains from that loss. After all, an age of citizenship was beginning. Before we let the sophisters, economists, and calculators put an end to the age of citizenship, we need to decide whether we want that result, and not have it imposed on us by the Market, or the Invisible Hand, or any other abstraction that may seem to be more than human, but in fact is less, far less.