People as producers

About a year ago, Joel shared a post by Mark Horne that asked “Is there such a thing as Christian economics?” He began provocatively:

Where to start?

Why don’t we start with people?

Are they a good idea or a bad idea? Are they valuable or a drain?

I was looking at the content for the “new” version of Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and I noticed that, despite a great deal of backtracking about claims as to what will happen, he still refuses to let go of the myth of the population explosion. We are supposed to help other people, and that means making sure that no more come into existence to eat “our” pie. I assume Evangelicals for Social Action (or whatever organization fulfills its functions now) is pretty much against immigration laws (and they should be!). But the most draconian immigration control is the one guarding married couples from having (“too many”) children.

He contrasts this with Psalm 127’s declaration of children as a blessing and Genesis 1’s injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.” Take a look at his whole post for his reasoning.

I recalled Horne’s approach this spring when I read a couple of different things. One was a World Bank or IMF report that I read for a course on Middle Eastern Political Economy (I don’t recall the institution or specific report). The report talked about improvements in the fertility rate, which of course meant that the fertility rate had dropped off. Orwellian language, to say the least.

Secondly, an installment in Walter Russell Mead’s ongoing analysis of the waves buffeting the New Deal/Great Society model reminded me of Horne’s thesis:

One of the realizations that helped me accept the need to move on was the corrosive effect of one of blue model America’s most unattractive features: the emphasis on consumption rather than production as the defining characteristic of the good life. As I reflected on the corrosive consequences of this shift, and also began to see that a post-blue society might reverse this priority, I began to think more positively about what could come next. Frank Fukuyama wrote about the appearance of Nietzsche’s Last Man at the end of history; that Last Man is more or less Homer Simpson come to life, a mostly passive, consumption-focused individual whose life is all episode with no plot. But if the blue model isn’t the end of history, and if we are moving to something new — there is hope. Bart and Lisa just might grow up into a bigger world that would stretch their capacities and make them something more than Homer and Marge.

Under the blue model, Americans increasingly defined themselves by what they bought rather than what they did, and this shift of emphasis proved deeply damaging over time. The transformation to a new and higher kind of political economy will require us to put production and accomplishment back at the center of our value system. Both on the left and on the right this is something that should be welcome to a lot of thoughtful people.

Mead believes that the changes roiling the nation’s political economy could help to de-compartmentalize the worlds of family, work, and education that used to be much more mixed together before the 20th century. I’d recommend the whole thing, but here’s an important point from his analysis:

You were also increasingly a consumer rather than a producer of government. In the 19th century, American communities were small and generally self-managed. Most Americans lived in small towns or in rural areas where government really was something people did for themselves. The “state” scarcely existed; outside port inspectors and postal officials, the federal government was largely invisible. And even at the state level, local communities were much more autonomous than they generally are now. Local mayors and selectmen had very few mandates coming down from on high; people managed their own schools and roads and other elements of their common life by their own lights.

In the 20th century Americans became more politically passive as the state grew. The citizen was less involved in making government and more involved in watching it, commenting on it, and picking candidates who were sold the way other consumer goods are marketed: you voted for which party and candidates you supported, but more and more of the business of government was carried on by permanent civil servants acting under expert guidance. Government did much more to you, and you did less of it yourself.

A re-emergence of the value of production, as described by Mead, would be friendlier to the model of Christian economics described by Horne.

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3 comments

  1. I generally agree with Horne, but his argument could also justify requiring couples to have children. Is that licensed by “Be fruitful and multiply.”? In my opinion, the primary outrage is the government’s coercion regarding population, not which side is chosen.

    I enjoyed Mead’s narrative. It’s fascinating how he weaves the chaos of history into a logical narrative. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I agree with him. 🙂 e.g. I appreciated Mead’s description of family in the old model — I’d like to work with my wife and family.

    It’s funny that he used to see the social welfare state as Exhibit A of the West’s wealth and justice. He sure turned a corner there.

    The only thing that subtly concerns me is that Mead focuses on side-effects. They are important, but I wonder if he would try to manipulate those side-effects directly rather than letting them develop naturally from first principles of liberty and responsibility.

    For example, maybe if we can make people more proud of their production rather than their consumption, things will be better. Or maybe give tax breaks to encourage families to work together, or businesses to automate. Such strategies would be silly in my mind relative to first principles, but they are the common political approach.

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