July 10, 2009

What Does Economic Theory Have to Do with the Development of the Human Person?

By Dr. William Luckey *

Many Catholics, including Popes, have contrasted economic development with personal development.  They are at pains to point out that mere economic development does not necessarily lead to the development of persons or culture per se. They seem to harp on this as if everyone would be ignorant of this obvious truth, or as if the free market economic system automatically deflects one from development of their personhood. I think that some Catholics make their careers stating and restating this.


While to some extent this point is very true, in many ways, especially factually, it does not play out. The constant harping on this point is based on a faulty view of human nature itself. In a paper one time I criticized a colleague who said that, first, man is by nature a social animal. True enough. Then he went on to reflect in his paper the common 1950s theory that we are becoming mass men; that society, especially urban society, is becoming like people on a train; that the social bond is being dissolved by our business and technological culture. This notion is still reflected in some of the students I deal with. My response was that if man is a social animal by nature, that means that he has a natural drive to be so, and that any appearance to the contrary in a free society is a false vision of the reality. Unlike most academics, I worked for a number of years in New York’s financial district. In that time I never met anyone fitting the description given by this professor. Everyone came from families that they loved and wanted to be with; everyone cooperated with their coworkers and those who were not team players were filtered out; at the end of the day, everyone went home to these same families. Even the people on the train were for the most part courteous, even though New Yorkers are known to be a bit cold. Sometimes something funny happened on the train, and everyone laughed, showing that they were human, and could share a common human experience. Sometimes bad things happened on the train, and everyone pulled together to help. One incident stands out in my mind, although it did not happen in my presence. My father, who also worked in the financial district, was on the train on the way home from work when a man right near him pulled a big knife and threatened to kill everyone. Instead of fleeing for their own lives, this subway car full of World War II combat veterans, my father included, all jumped the man and disarmed him. I have seen people get sick, I have seen children become separated from their parents, and tons of people cooperated to help those in need.


Now of course there are those people who are one-dimensional. They focus on one aspect of their lives and for them there is no other thing. The top student of my high school graduating class was a pure curmudgeon. He had a photographic memory, and did nothing but read and study. He had no friends because no one could get near him to make friends. The number two student in the class, whose grades were almost as good as those of the front-runner, was completely, different. He was charming, funny, kind and athletic. He was a good friend to all who knew him. So there are people whose job, education, wealth, batting average are all there is to life. But these are very few. Most people are well-rounded, and if they work hard, they do so because it is a duty, even if they enjoy it. 


In the case in point, the misunderstanding of human nature expresses itself in a similar way. It says that human beings are meant by God to be real persons. They are to be giving, loving, friendly, dedicated to the welfare of others, but for some reason, says this theory, when they begin to become materially comfortable, they veer away from their natural calling. They focus totally on wealth and the accumulation of it, to the neglect of everything else.


This is an extremely cynical view, and is not backed up by the facts. Just observing the people around one, one can see that most people, not all, of course, use their wealth to better their lives, beginning with their physical betterment, but going up from there. Firstly, one needs to provide for food, clothing and shelter for one and one’s family. When income increases, it is spent on things like medical care, better quality and healthier food, better clothing, education, travel. The data shows that as the wealth of a country increases, infant mortality declines, illness in general declines, life expectancy increases, education levels rise, and folks move to safer and nicer neighborhoods. In addition, charitable contributions increase. How many parents pay for the college and graduate education of their kids, help them get started in life, bail them out if they are in financial straits, pay for their grandchildren to go to school, or summer camps or trips, etc. Donations from individuals to charities totaled over $314 billion in 2008. It certainly would be more if our tax rates were lower. Note that this official figure does not count non-listed contributions like the ones I cited above—i.e., helping one’s families who need it and do not have a tax number. So the real amount is much higher. In addition to this, no matter what you think of social programs like social security, there are more of these programs in wealthier countries because, quite frankly, they can afford it. And they can afford it because the citizens create wealth, which, allegedly, makes people greedy.


Now there are some people who are materialists, and some who are consumerists, just like there are intellectual people who are curmudgeons, and there are workaholics, but to condemn wealth as a cause of greed and all the other problems of the world is very questionable. As one economist recently stated: “Greed is a constant.” This means that everyone is tempted by the capital sin of avarice. Interestingly, a recent survey of the seven deadly sins among people concluded that lust was the most common and greed the least. I rest my case! 

Dr. William Luckey is the former chairman of the department of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College, where he is currently a professor.  He holds advanced degrees in Business, Economics, Political Philosophy and Systematic Theology. He was married in 1971, has four children and 12 (soon to be 13) grandchildren, and is a Lay Dominican.

You can visit his blog entitled Catholic Truths on Economics at: http://www.drwilliamluckey.com/

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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