Thursday, August 06, 2009

Economies of Gift

Charity in truth is more than a virtue. It is the very Person of the Son of God Who is the prototype of the human person. As trinitarian Person, the Son is constitutively relational in the sense that He is pure Gift of obedience and glorification to the Father.

We are made in His image. Hence, our development and fulfillment as persons can only take place by imaging this Relationality that is giftedness: self-giftedness. We are not individualized robots whose interaction is reducible to the mechanical.

Let me offer three “takes” on the need to inflate the dimensions of the human person to square with reality in the economic:

1) Benedict XVI: “Caritas in Veritate.”

A casual selection from the recent encyclical reads: “Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension” (#34). The pope goes on: “The unity of the human race, a fraternal communion transcending every barrier, is called into being by the word of God-who-is-Love. In addressing this key question, we must make it clear, on the one hand, that the logic of gift does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without; on the other hand, economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity” (#34).

2) Adrian Walker: Economies of Gift

Associate editor of Communio: International Catholic Review, Adrian Walker makes the case that the mechanism of the market (supply and demand) is a “structure of contractual exchange indifferent to the objective good of the person” which functions on the basis of raw egalitarian quid pro quo. His thesis is the following: “When liberalism uses the words ‘free market,’ what it is actually saying is that contractual exchange among self-interested individuals, seen as indifferent in its structure to the objective good of the person, is the primary, if not exclusive, paradigm of economic life. It is this understanding of the free market, not the idea of ‘free economic exchange,’ that I will set out to critique.” Walker goes on: “At the same time, I will be arguing that the best, most central paradigm for understanding free economic exchange is not contract among self-interested strangers, but gift-giving among neighbors. Since current market economies are largely illiberal, the paradigm shift that I am recommending would entail a profound rethinking of many familiar economic practices and structures that we commonly take for granted. Although this rethinking would call into question many comfortable certainties, it is not necessarily violent or utopian. On the contrary, the gift-giving paradigm can contain all that is of value in the liberal understanding of the market, even while reconfiguring the latter’s logic in a profound way within a nonliberal context. This reconfiguration is necessary both to protect human freedom and to secure economic good sense – a double desideratum that liberal economics, if consistently applied, cannot fulfill.”[1]

3) Robert Skidelsky: “How to Rebuild a Shamed Subject:” The Financial Times, Thursday August 6, 2009, 11.

What leaps off page 11 is the following:

“Most of those unversed in New Classical economics assume that John Maynard Keynes exploded these fallacies 70 years ago. Their re-emergence is not just the result of the failure of Keynesian macroeconomic policy to anticipate or deal with ‘stagflation’ in the 1970s. It reflects a persistent bias in economics towards an idealized account of human behaviour; what Josephs Schumpeter called ‘Ricardian Vice’ of excessive abstraction. It is only by imagining a mechanical world or interacting robots that economics has gained its status as a hard, predictive science. Burt how much do its mechanical constructions, with their roots in Newtonian physics, tell us about the springs of human behaviour.

“One of the most interesting contributions to the debate was the argument that, after Keynes, economists should have aligned their discipline with other social sciences concerned with human behaviour. Keynes opened the way to political economy; but economists opted for a regressive research programme, disguised by sophisticated mathematics, that set it apart. The present crisis gives us an opportunity to try again.

“The reconstruction of economics needs to start with the universities. First, degrees in the subject should be broadly based. They would take as their motto Keynes’s dictum that ‘economics is a moral and not a natural science.’ They should contain not just the standard course in elementary microeconomics and macroeconomics but economic and political history, the history of economic thought, moral and political philosophy, and sociology. Though some specialization would be allowed in the final year, the mathematical component in the weighting of the degree should be sharply reduced. This is a return to the tradition of the Oxford Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) degree and Cambridge Moral Sciences….

“The obvious aim of such a reconstruction is to protect macroeconomics from the encroachment of the methods and habits of the mathematician. Only through some such broadening can we hope to provide a proper education for those whose usefulness to society will lie as much in their philosophical and political literacy as in their mathematical efficiency.”

Consider again the determination of the pope to move the Church and the world to a broadening of reason that could serve as the context of the existing positivist reason that obtains globally, or perhaps better, “westernly” and imposed globally. I am thinking of his 6 major addresses from 2004-2006: Regensburg, La Sapienza, European Professors I and II. The narrow constraint of reason to the positivistic restriction of the mathematically measurable obviates any capacity of the mind to transcend the visibly contingent, and thus leaves it incapable of reaching the absolute and the transcendent. It stands as a cultural prohibition stranding us in epistemological atheism, and hence in a sub-humanism. The first visible unraveling now is the economic.

For starters, we should read or re-read John Maynard Keynes, perhaps with the help of “Lord Skidelsky’s Keynes: The Return of the Master.”

[1] Adrian Walker, “The Poverty of Liberal Economics” Wealth, Povert y and Human Destiny, ISI (2003) 23-24.

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