In our last article, we covered the fact that people make choices based on their values. The values are subjective to them. We stressed that this is not a denial of objective values, but it is a recognition that one must accept something as his own before he chooses it. Even green vegetables fall into this category. They are good for you, and you need their nutrients, but how many kids turn their nose up at them. In fact, even some adults reject them despite the fact that they know that they are part of a healthful diet. So, the truth is that people make choices based on what is in their heart, and it is not the job of the economist qua economist to comment on that.
Next, we have to realize that people’s values are ordinal, not cardinal. This means that they are not able to be ranked as 1, 2, 3, etc., but at 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so forth, and that this ranking changes over time, either long or short. Just before lunch, you may be hungry, and therefore, eating is ranked high on your value list. After lunch, eating has fallen to the bottom of the list, but will rise in rank as the day goes on. There are long- and short-term values. One might say that the most important thing I want to do in my life is to become a lawyer, but right now I have a paper due tomorrow and I have to get it done. Both of these values are ranked first, but in different time schemes. There are related in that the immediate problem, doing the paper, is a means to accomplish the long-term value.
When people act they not only act for an end, but they always act to improve their condition. From shifting your position in a chair so that you will feel more comfortable, to changing jobs because you see more room for advancement, no one acts if there is no chance for betterment. Acting, however, is based on the idea that the act is likely to improve one’s condition, so that a person must see an end and means to accomplish that end. If you are in prison and you would like to escape to regain your freedom, but the prison is so well sealed up that you cannot figure out a way out, you will not try to escape. Not to see any way to improve your lot in life, whether this perception is accurate or not, leads to despair. Persons who have a victim personality think that the whole world is against them and so they do not see any connection between their actions and their betterment. The result is that they stop trying. Those people who live in poverty-stricken countries, where there has been no economic improvement for a long time, despair of ever bettering their future. But these cases are usually caused by either dictatorship, where the ruler drains any wealth from his people, or by constant civil war. Political stability is necessary for economic improvement, because no one will try to fulfill their goals in the midst of serious uncertainty or danger.
What we usually call cost is called “opportunity cost” by economists. The cost of something is not the price one paid for it; it is the loss of the next best alternative, now made impossible by the choice of the first option. Years ago there was an ad on television of a guy drinking something, perhaps a soda. After finishing the drink, he hit himself on the forehead and said, “I could have had a V8,” referring to vegetable juice. Since he bought and drank the soda, he cannot have the V8, and the way the ad was set up, the opportunity cost of not having the vegetable juice was higher than the benefit of having the soda.
Notice that the idea of money was not brought up so far. Since economics is a science of human action, it is necessary to see the patterns of human action, prior to introducing money into the situation. This leads us to consider things that go into benefit. True, money or income might be the motivation for someone to do something, but part of considering the cost of the action might be what are called “psychic benefits.” Blessed Mother Teresa, knowing that she was pleasing God by showing his love to the least in his kingdom, did not make money taking care of the poorest of the poor, but received a psychic benefit greater than the very high cost to her in doing what she did. She started by herself, in the very poorest part of Calcutta, living with the squalor in which these unfortunates lived, taking care of those who were dying, smelled bad, had diseases, could not feed themselves, were incontinent, and in the midst of all this she was persecuted by Hindu authorities and citizens who accused her of not allowing these people to find their Karma.
This example aside, we are not disembodied souls, and the provisions for the body and those of the family are a necessary part of life. In addition, there is nothing in our faith that prohibits us from having labor-saving devices, or conveniences, such as air conditioners, which no one I knew had when I was a kid, or cars and such. (We are not all capable of becoming Mother Teresa.) The moral problem with this is not in the things themselves, being inanimate, but in the heart of the person. As Blessed Pope John Paul II said, the problem is in a person’s defining himself by “having,” not “being.”
Having said this, it is now time to go on to more of what makes a free market work: our next installment.
This is going to be a series of articles to help Catholics understand economics. Because of the serious deficit in the comprehension of economics by Catholics, this will be a daunting task, but the author will do his best.
In order to understand this subject, there is a need to distinguish between the actions of human beings and the way those actions are perceived by those who study them. The value of any writer’s thought is whether it jibes with actual human experience. Note, it is not your personal experience, but the general experience of humanity that counts. This means that the economic system of a country and the writings of those who study it may or may not jibe, depending upon how schooled in technique and objective the observer is. It is a commonplace that witnesses to a crime, even if it is staged crime in a law school class, will differ widely in their descriptions of what occurred. This means that no evaluation of how an economy works is valid when done by observers not trained in what to look for, nor trained to analyze what they have observed, not to mention the fact that their experience may be limited to their own neighborhood or their personal experience, or one event. Sadly, most people see themselves as experts on economics and political science, without having read or studied any serious work on these subjects. Happily, this is not true of surgery. Very few people try to instruct physicians on how to take out a gall bladder, but everyone “knows” about politics and economics, such that the layman considers his view of these subjects as good as, or better than, those who have studied for years.
Everyone must remember that the economic system is a given, and it is extremely complex. There are billions of transactions of every kind (not just business transactions) that occur continually each and every day. No human being or group of human beings or computer can ever monitor even some of those transactions. This is because a transaction is not a transaction until someone acts and another responds. One would have to be there to know the transaction; and who could ever do that? What we get are statistics that are nothing more than past history, a digest of what occurred a week or a month or two ago, by the time they are gathered. While analyzing statistics can be helpful in telling one what happened, it is useless in informing us as to why it happened. But a true science is not based on what, but on why, on cause and effect. And the best way to understand economics as a science is to understand man, not data.
Economics begins with the “action axiom,” i.e., man acts. There is no question that this is true, because even to argue with this you are required to act. It is true that man also thinks, but we cannot know what he is thinking unless he acts. So if a person says to himself that he going skiing tomorrow, it means nothing if he does not actually do it. If I come up with a great theory of the nature of the universe, it is useless unless I act—in this case, tell someone either verbally or on paper. We know about Einstein’s fruitful “thought experiments” only because he wrote about them. Blessed Pope John Paul II tells us in The Acting Person that those who only have ideas live in a dream world. Thinking about doing good does not make one good. Thinking about going to France does not get you there. Dreaming about a machine that you would like to invent that would be a great boon to mankind does not help mankind at all.
But admitting that man acts does not explain how man acts. Economics does not delve into the psychological tangles of the mind to explain why each man acts, but it does explain his actions to a great degree. Aristotle correctly informs us that all men act for an end or goal. In other words, people do not act for nothing. Your mother may have asked you at one time, “What are you doing?” You may have responded, “Nothing.” But was that really true? Chances are that you were playing, chilling, thinking about what to do on Saturday, or brooding, or stalling so that you did not have to do your homework or chores, etc. Even an act as innocuous as going to bed has a purpose to the person who does it. He knows that if he does not get sleep he will be miserable the next day, if not dysfunctional.
So, all men act for an end. In addition, all men act for the good. You may object to this, pointing out correctly that the prisons are full of people who did not act for the good. But as Aristotle says, men act for either a real good or a perceived good. In other words, whether the action is aimed at an objective good or not, even the bad acts seemed good to the perception of the actor at the time of the action. Think of the bank robber. No one goes through all that trouble because he was bored (of course, the ending of boredom is a end), but because it is seen as a solution to the robber’s money problems. Later on, when he sees his picture on television and he has to go on the run, he might come to the realization that it was not really a good choice, and turn himself in. But in this case, “good” again does not mean objectively good, but that the trouble he is in, and the inconvenience he caused himself, was not worth the money, which is slowly dwindling.
Here is presented to us another basic element of human action—all human acts are based on “subjective valuation.” If an economist had a nickel for every time some well-meaning Catholic misunderstood or intentionally misinterpreted that term, he could retire. Subjective valuation means that a person’s actions are based on things that HE thinks are of value. This in no way denies the existence of objective values. It just means that if a person has not subjectivized those values, he will not act on them. If a guy thinks ballet is for sissies, he will never go to one. If I fail to see the value of Catholicism, I will never become a Catholic. So everyone acts on his values. Examine yourself. Ask yourself why you do not do certain things, even things that are perfectly moral and objectively good. It is because YOU do not value them, while still insisting that they are objectively good.
PUBLIC CHOICE I—THE MEDIAN VOTER RULE
During the election season, many Catholics wonder why so many Catholic politicians do not vote according to their professed beliefs. It is disheartening to have one famous Catholic politician say publicly that he takes his faith very seriously and a woman’s right to choose abortion very seriously as well. The answer can be found in a relatively new school of economics called Public Choice. Since economics studies the actions of people in general, the laws of economics, logically, apply to the actions of persons in public office as anywhere else. In this case, we will study what is called the “median voter rule.”
A normal statistical curve looks somewhat like a camel’s hump with a line straight up the middle. That middle line is the average. Assuming that this is a curve of voters, 68.2% of all the voters fall within one standard deviation of either side of this average voter. This is the majority. Now, the United States, not being a Catholic country, cannot boast of the average voter agreeing with the most of the tenets of the Church on moral-political issues. So unless the candidate is from a state or district where the mean (or median) voter agrees with the Church on public issues, he will not be able to get majority support. This is why, at times, a candidate will speak to religious groups and assure them that he agrees with them, and then, if he happens to get elected, votes inconsistently—if he wants to keep his job. This politician might have gotten elected the first time by avoiding any controversial stands, so that even the median voter liked him. But in office, a stand must be taken on issues that appear in legislation. This becomes public record, and that is when we see a movement to the “center,” i.e., waffling on serious issues. After all, who wants to come home and tell his wife that after moving all the way to Washington, they now have to go back home and he has to get a real job?
PUBLIC CHOICE II—PUBLIC SERVICE
Now let us talk about the notion of public service—the idea that governmental people are in their jobs only to help others.
One of the basic premises of economic theory is that people generally act in their own interest. Contrary to what you may have heard, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If we did not act in our own interest, we would not be able to put food on the table, or go to the doctor when ill, or go to school, or marry the person with whom we are in love. The world would be topsy-turvy. We would work for no pay and starve to death; we would die of a curable illness, and our married life would be a living hell. This does not preclude working for others—as any legitimate occupation is automatically done for others, or no one would pay you for it.
But things change when it comes to working for the government, and especially on the margins. Self-interest leads men to produce products and services their customers need or want. In government, self-interest produces programs that some people want at the expense of others, with one main beneficiary being the one who administers the program for pay. In the market, when a product or service is no longer wanted or needed, people stop purchasing it, and the business fails, or produces another one that people are willing to buy. In government, if a program no longer works, it does not go away, but continues year after year, wasting more and more of peoples’ hard-earned money, and, in some cases, such as welfare dependency, ruining peoples’ lives. On the margin refers to when a politician gets stuck in a dilemma. Suppose a politician takes a strong stand in favor of issue A. Suppose then his district changes its views and generally opposes issue A. If he continues his strong stand, he will get voted out. This means he will have to change if he wants to stay in office, or he will have to waffle on it to make his stand acceptable to the new demographic in some way. This will lead him to make distinctions, subtleties, etc., which will make him seem to support both sides. His new stand will depend on how you read his remarks.
Why, then, do so many Catholics look to government as the solution for social problems? The answer seems to be that they have fallen for the “racket.” Politicians would not get elected if they admitted what they were up to, so they must persuade the population that they are out for the public interest. Since most of the people have never studied these things in any serious fashion, they believe the propaganda. This is not to say that there are not any sincere politicians out there, but, again, on the margin, they will be exposed.
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God have mercy on me, a sinner." I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." — Luke 18: 10-14.
A good question one might ask oneself is: When I thank God on Thanksgiving, what exactly am I thanking God for? Pride is the most insidious flaw in our nature, and many of us have not learned to identify it and control it. The reason I bring this up is that many people are obsessed with morality when it comes to business and economics.
Early on in the 1800s the Church had this notion that anyone who went into business was by nature ruthless and materialist, and therefore, like a spoiled child, business had to be reminded constantly, if not forced by the state, to be moral. A conversation with a student last week reminded me that this attitude is alive and well in Catholic circles. I even had an undergraduate professor who was convinced that business people were evil until they entered politics. Then they became saintly. Hence, it made sense to him that government had to ride business, because government was essentially better morally, even if it were composed of former businessmen.
But why this obsession with morality? I argue that business people are no more or less fallen creatures than any other human beings. In fact, studies have shown that business people and those in the military are the most frequent churchgoers in our society. Well, I think there are a couple of reasons for this obsession that can be readily divulged. Firstly, there is the ideological component, which I just wrote about above. Then there is the neglect to realize that people in business, as well as in every other field, are not infallible. They, like all of us, make mistakes: they miscalculate; they fail to predict changes in the market or the economy; like most of us they seek security, as when they push governments to impose tariffs or to give them bailouts. We all have done similar things in our life. Why do we expect that business people be perfect? We aren't!
Lastly, and this takes us back to the quotation given in the beginning of this essay, I think it is possible that Catholics get infected with a holier-than-thou attitude (as displayed by the Pharisee the Gospel passage quoted above). This happens from envy (whether detectable or undetected) of those who are more financially successful, work harder, or have original ideas and are reimbursed for those ideas. In this case, Catholics who are not in business might feel justified in looking down on Catholics in business, and thus feel better about themselves. Think of your childhood. We all knew kids who did this, or remember doing this ourselves. If a kid got rewarded for doing something cool, there was always someone there who would ridicule that kid, or minimize what he or she did. They could never feel happy for the one rewarded.
This can also be a result of not adequately admitting that we are sinners, which can give us license to project our sinfulness onto others. The big targets, like business people, are the most available, since it couldn't be government people, because the ideology says that sinfulness in a politician is an aberration.
The remedy for this problem has been given by Our Lord—don't judge another person. It is perfectly alright morally to play Monday-morning-quarterback and say, "Well he should have done such-and-so," but to sit there in all one's glory and say that these people are just immoral is unacceptable.
So what are you really thankful for? Think about it. St. Paul writes: "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" Perhaps we should all court the blessings given to each of us, and refrain from counting the faults of others.
This title sounds like I am going to write about money. Well, I am, but not directly. It doesn’t say “principals.”
A theologian colleague of mine a while ago gave me these words of wisdom: “You can never effectively oppose an interest with a principle.” The truth of this statement is verified by the basics of both economics and political philosophy, and the subject of this entry is the recent election.
Why, when there are so many moral problems with Catholics voting for Obama, most seriously his outright support of all forms of abortion, but even his questionable dedication to fighting terrorism, did so many Catholics vote for him? The answer is in the economy. Economics teaches that people make decisions based on their values, but their values are constantly shifting. It would be more accurate to say that their decisions are based on their values “at the moment.” This is why they say not to go to the food store when you are hungry. A person who does this will buy things that they will never eat at home, but which looked good at the time of hunger, or they will buy fattening food which they will consume on the way home and not have room for an actual dinner.
In this election, the state of the economy suddenly took center stage. But there is a difference between how economists approach the problem (see my entry on the subject) and the way the ordinary American approaches it. The economist analyzes it from principle; the ordinary American, and you can’t blame them for this, analyzes it from the position of their economic security. If your income and therefore your duty to your family might be in jeopardy, principle can go by the boards. Here is where interest trumps principle. I do not believe that most Americans are socialists or statists in principle, but when their income is in jeopardy, they will vote this way. When the media and politicians hyped this economic situation (some conservative pundits were clearly angry, one in particular because his stocks went down in value), they made it seem as though the world was ending. This was very similar to the Y2K situation where some were saying that we would be in the dark and the cold when not a light bulb went out around the world. According to these people, and some actually said it, this would be like the Great Depression. Just last night some bozo on TV was saying that there is no money to lend even with the stimulus package. Companies are using the money to “fix their balance sheets,” whatever they mean by that, and give CEOs more big bonuses. This person said that even ordinary people cannot get loans. This becomes interesting when my bank had an ad on the radio today saying, “Come in, we have millions to lend!” What a great way to sell newspapers or get viewers: ratchet the effects of a situation so that every one reads about it or watches the news show because they want to see if they are going to be in the poor house next week!
Bertrand de Jouvenel, the famous French political and economic philosopher, has some great insights into this process. He saw exactly how this operated in the years leading up to World War II. While the crises at the time, such as the German hyper-inflation and the world-wide depression, were greater than anything we have now, at least in the West, there are parallels. Jouvenel argues that what he calls “social insecurity” leads to statism. When the population is afraid, they will sacrifice principle to call for protection from the slings and arrows of social forces that might disrupt their lives. The problem with this is that they are then stuck with the statism forever! Government never gives up a power once given to it. The mechanism behind this, according to Jouvenel, is this: for the state to protect you from a perceived problem, you must give something in return—power. That’s exactly what Americans did in this election. You can verify this by looking at how government has grown since the beginning of World War II. We had that war, the Korean War, the Cold War, the War on Poverty, etc.
This is the first election in which I heard the accusation of socialism widely used in public political discourse since the 1972 election campaign between Nixon and George McGovern. McGovern wanted to guarantee everyone a certain annual income, and also, as I recall, send everyone in the country a check for $1,000 right off the bat. ($1,000 had more purchasing power in 1972 than now.) This was called socialism by many, and Nixon wound up winning in a landslide.
Here we had a similar situation, but in this case, the people had deteriorated significantly since 1972, and went for the socialist solution. And Catholics, to their disgrace and despite the very vocal campaign carried out by the bishops about the sanctity of human life and the vote, tended toward the pro-abortion Obama! Bill Clinton was right. He is reported to say, in response to his beating George H. W. Bush, “It’s the economy, stupid!” And now we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.
You might want to look at two websites related to this:
According to a report from the Zenit News Service, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, recently insisted that the “logic” of the market be changed. He said that the logic “was till (sic) now that of maximum gain, and therefore the most investments possible directed toward obtaining maximum benefit. And this, according to the social doctrine of the Church, is immoral.” This is because, according to the Cardinal, the market “should be able to benefit not just those who invest capital, but those who participate in the step of making it grow, that is, those who work.”
Aside for the fact that some of the terms he used are too vague to make any judgment about, like “maximum benefit,” the economics in his statement would be more appropriate of a kid, rather than a Cardinal. So, let’s learn some economics.
Firstly, money has alternative uses. If I have some excess wealth, I am going to invest it in the things which give me the highest return. Why would I do this? Because, those projects which promise the highest return, taking risk into account, will produce the things that people want most, and hence will give me more “bang for the buck.” For example, would you invest your money in a carpentry business run by me? I wouldn’t—because I can’t hammer a nail. No wants a carpenter who does not know what he is doing. But would you invest in McDonald’s? Sure. Most everyone eats at McDonald’s, and kids especially love the place. And what do the people who patronize McDonald’s get out of it? They get a food for which they willingly and freely exchange money, and feel the better off for doing so, or they would not do it. And who supplies the food? The workers, in exchange for their discounted marginal revenue product. In other words, they exchange their time for the money equivalent of what they produce. Why are people paid different wages? They get different wages because their output is different. The work of the person who sweeps up, while necessary or he would not have been hired, is worth less than the work of the person who puts the burgers together. The burger guy’s work is not worth as much as the trained manager who is responsible for coordinating the whole operation. None of this would be possible without the people who ponied up the money in the first place expecting a high return for the money the usage of which they were willing to forego. If this is immoral and against the social doctrine of the Church, then I am Santa Claus. If fact, to have an economy worthy of the name at all without this investment process would be worthy only of a figure like Santa Claus.
I have long argued in my writings that churchmen who have no real economic training or understanding prescind from making remarks like this which mislead the faithful, and portray the sui generis (self-generating) free market economy as an operation run from the top by a few greedy people constantly plotting to withhold wealth from the ordinary folks.
Lastly, the Cardinal remarks, “All of us should collaborate in the good of all.” This is exactly what the market does, except for those who are not able or refuse to participate in it, much of which is caused by political interference with the process, such as governments who punish provinces in Africa which are in rebellion and refuse to allow food supplies to reach the people in those provinces, or Western politicians who, in exchange for votes, have created generations of people addicted to government checks, rather than productive work and advancement.
I wonder what His Eminence thinks of government-imposed protective tariffs the purpose of which is to keep the goods of foreign workers from competing with domestic goods, in return for support from corporations and unions in the domestic industry. This prevents globalization—it prevents the wealth of the United States and other well-off countries from going to them for the products they work to produce.
Gee, Cardinal Martino, get a clue.
The famous Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, despaired for the future of the free market system. The reason for this despair was that the excess wealth of the system would create educated folks who would turn on the very system that created them. Their education would make them into anti-capitalist ideologues, who would then kill the goose that laid the golden egg. He did not think that those who participated in the creation of such enormous wealth would be in any position to fight back, and this for two reasons: firstly, business people do not tend to be men of letters, so they are unable to mount arguments defending the system; secondly, the job of the business executive is the survival of the company, and thus, he will concentrate on those things required to weather the storm, not be controversial.
The man who is probably the most famous Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, despaired for the future of the free market system due to envy. Various sectors of society, academic, non-productive, uneducated, etc., would envy the wealth of the producers in society, and end up by finding means to take away that wealth and give it to the lesser productive people, despite the fact that they did not earn it, and therefore, are not entitled to it.
Our present political situation has a combination of both of these views. Both presidential candidates are in favor of redistribution of wealth, albeit one is more open about it. And very few business people are saying “no!” to any of it with a few exceptions, such as the president of BB&T Bank, who wrote an open letter to Congress asking why his totally solvent bank should be punished for the stupidity of the others.
But there is another culprit in this maelstrom. This culprit is the business person. Why? With tongue-in-cheek apologies to neo-classical (mathematical) economic theory, the purpose of a company is not to make a profit. As John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, a profit is a sign of the health of a company, and therefore is good and necessary. But anyone who has taken a management course knows that the purpose of the company, aside from producing what the customers want, is to increase the wealth of the stockholders. This is different than making a profit, although profit is an integral part of it. Wealth is different than profit. Profit is a short run measurement of the short run health of the company. Wealth by its very nature is long run. Profit appears on the financial statements of a company in mere money terms, and the accountants who produce those statements do not even take inflation into account. So a company could have an increase in profit, but not an increase in items sold, merely because they had to raise prices to accommodate the fall in the value of the dollar. But executives today are a slave to the profit line in the financial statements. They have a need to impress their boards and stockholders now by sacrificing the long term growth of the enterprise.
In order to avoid this misguided notion that one can sacrifice long run growth for short term profits, the executive must have something that is very lacking in our society—moral courage—the courage to do what the executive learned in business school, as opposed to going for short term profits and the ever-popular golden parachute when the guy takes too much risk and trashes the company, or makes a short run profit, but neglects product development and retires early, takes his millions, before it hits the fan.
What effect does this have on the free market? The other night, a news crew found the recently dismissed CEO of what used to be a great firm, Merrill-Lynch, walking down the street in a baseball cap with a cup of coffee. This dude bought risky mortgages from Fannie and Freddie, the company got in trouble, but he walked away with millions. When the news crew asked him if he could justify himself—he said nothing; he just kept walking as if they were not even there.
Let’s analyze this. If the former CEO thought that what he did was right, one would think he would try to explain the whole thing. But he did not utter one peep. Of course, we cannot read his mind or judge the state of his soul. But take myself, for instance. [Take my wife—please!] I have a reason for everything I do. Even if I misjudge the situation, I can explain what my thinking was. This is called taking responsibility for one’s actions. As the last few articles on this blog demonstrated, one’s actions reveal one’s character—one’s words do not. Talk is cheap. We see the actions of these CEO’s, but they can’t or won’t explain them. Could this imply that their character flaws are showing? Could this mean that they did not have the moral courage to reject the short-term profit that might have been produced if these risky mortgages actually paid off, in favor of saving the company, the wealth of the investors? Did they trade this fiduciary responsibility for a cut and run golden parachute?
The outrage over all this might end up producing the socialism predicted by Schumpeter. I appeal to all executives—your actions affect not only yourselves and your firms, but the whole way ordinary people look at the economy. Lenin once said, “We [communists] will sell the capitalists the rope with which they will hang themselves!” Every time one of you reneges on his moral responsibility, you are putting a down-payment on that rope! Remember, under socialism everyone is equal—equally poor! Is that what you want?
So far, Karol Wojtyla has shown that human beings should have self-possession and self-governance. Without self-possession, a person is prey to every emotion, event or person coming his way. Without self-governance, he can not control his own actions and responses. If one has self-possession and self-governance, he then has self-determination. The individual can control his choices and there fore his destiny. The proper use of the will is decisive here. The person says, “I will do this or refrain from that. . . ,” or can distinguish among things the he “might or might not do” and those he “need not do.” The decisions made by the person are rational; they are related to the end he has in view, and the person is required to think about the hierarchy of ends, thus distinguishing between the necessary and important and arranging his choices according to the hierarchy. The self-possessed, self-governed decision maker does not confuse the lower ends, like food, clothing and shelter with higher ones like development of the intellect, and personal relations or real love (αγαπε—agape).
The other side of this coin, however, is that people are then responsible for their actions, and the development of their character. A person without these characteristics, i. e., self-possession, self-governance, determines his life and character in a helter-skelter way. The things he chooses are not linked to any particular hierarchy of ends, so his life is confused. When we perform actions, we reveal our inner character, and the world is objectively changed, for good or ill, by what we do. So the person is objectified by each of his actions. So, in economic actions, the person chooses from his subjective valuation of the good in question. Over time, the person reveals his values, and hence his character, in his choices.
The same is true with a society. This is why those who blame the free market system for the materialism of the west miss Wojtyla’s point. The market will not provide what the people generally won’t choose. It provides these things because people are demanding (thus the law of demand) the good or service be available in sufficient numbers that it is worthwhile for someone to provide it. In a materialistic society, the problem is not always what people demand be produced, it is really the amount they want to possess. So much of what we buy does not show self-possession or self-governance, but is controlled by emotion, desire to have and not to be, and a spiritual vacuum in the life of the person who tries to fill it with “stuff.” As so many of us allow our lives to be determined by mere emoting, we determine ourselves away from our higher ends. We replace the important with the necessary, and give the society that character, because the individuals in the society reveal their character in that way—by the choices they make, by the actions they take.
The lowest level to which this sinks is, according to Wojtyla, is when we not only focus on things instead of persons and relations with them, but we actually begin treating people as things. All things are meant for our usage to accomplish higher existential ends. People, however, must be valued for themselves. Now before the reader points out that we legitimately use people all the time, look closer. We do not use the medical doctor when we are sick—we use his services. The actual doctor must be loved and appreciated for himself. In business it is the same. If we call up the supplier of some part we are using to make a machine, we are not using him; we are using his offer to sell us the parts. This is also the same with employees. But it is in our interpersonal relations that the problem occurs. To mistreat the physician or the supplier of parts is different than using their services that they freely supply. We must always remember that all human beings are created in the image of God, and thus are ontologically equal to us, regardless of the difference of skills among us. Hence, there is never a reason for berating anyone, even a criminal, beyond what might be necessary to subdue such criminal, or get his attention.
Examine the so-called sexual revolution. So many men and women are saying to each other, “It’s OK for me to use you for gratification and for you to use me for the same.” If we look at this on a smaller scale, we can see the devastating consequences of such usage of persons. Suppose I had a friend. The friend was very nice to me but all of a sudden he grew cold. Then I found out that he was just pretending to be my friend in order to get introduced to another friend of mine who was rich. Once the introduction was made, this so-called friend no longer needed me and dropped me. The reader would say that that was horrible behavior and would sympathize with the pain I felt when this fellow ripped himself from my heart. Well, the same is true in sexual relations, but to a greater degree. There is nothing greater that one can give to another than the intimacy of the sexual act. This is why the Church and natural law clearly teach that it is for use in a permanent relationship that is marriage. But if I give myself in this way to someone on a date, or to many people on many dates, I am creating a special bond with those folks, due to the special thing that sex is. This bond is immediately broken, and therefore intimacy has no meaning. Thought of in this way, illicit sexual relations are barbaric acts. Is it any wonder that the character of the whole of western society has slipped? Reflect on how this shows up in what we buy, in our politics and in our growing crime rates. We have refused to be self-determining because we no longer have self-possession or self governance. The decisions of so many are based on whim, emotion and pleasure. The economy reflects this as our actions become history.
In the last entry, we wrote of self-possession, which meant that the fully human person expresses his character through his own actions, and that these actions ought to proceed from the authority he has over himself. Hence, the person is responsible for his own actions. It was also pointed out that talk, as opposed to action, does not reveal the person’s character, because many people say one thing and do another.
Now let us consider the quality of self-governance. If a person has self possession, they have self-governance. Not only are they responsible for their own actions, but they are responsible for the quality of their own actions. It is destructive to the person merely to take responsibility for robbing a bank. While that is a good thing after-the-fact, self-governance means that the person controls his actions. And refuses to rob the bank. To what end? To the end of human flourishing. Self-governance is the quality that directs our free acts to the existential ends that God placed in our nature, so that we can live a truly human life as the imago Dei.
Each of these existential ends has an end or purpose, and can be divided into the least necessary all the way up to the more important. The necessary are those things which make life possible, but can never be desired just for themselves, for the very reason that the are not important to our full flourishing, but are only basic to it. So, food, clothing, shelter and the like are necessary, but the person who desires them for their own sake stunts his development. These make it possible for us to go to higher and higher levels, or from the necessary to the important. So Karol Wojtyla considers the relations between persons, especially from the heart, as the most important feature in developing full humanity. We can say that the persons of the Trinity itself are known by their relations among each other, where each person is completely self-giving to the other two.
Other important existential ends are the desire to know people and things outside of ones own geographic area; the desire to learn, the desire for love and family; the desire to contribute something to society. Lastly is the desire to be on good terms with the Creator.
But these ends cannot be reached unless and until the self-possessed person is self-governing, that is, until he controls and directs his actions to the ends. Every day one is confronted with a myriad of choices. Not all of those choices are moral/immoral or life and death choices. But they are choices which either enhance human flourishing or detract from it. People who live impulsively are not self-governing. They allow their emotions, their mere likes and dislikes, to control what actions they take. Self-governance means that they have control over their passions and desires. They consciously choose the better path; they accept grace and the good because the have a notion about how the existential ends can be accomplished and reject those things which lead away from them.
Take marriage for example. Think of the person who goes to Las Vegas, meets someone, and after one day heads to the Elvis Chapel to get married—heads to the Elvis Chapel to promise a person they just met that they are ready to commit to love this person in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, until the end of life. These are two people who have no self-governance. They have thrown away an opportunity to make a choice to develop their character to accomplish an important existential end. Is it any wonder that the divorce rate is so high. This is an extreme example, but is it not true that many, if not most, people live their lives this way, doing things on impulse, spur-of-the-moment, no thought required?
Now we should ask ourselves what life would be like if the famous people in the past or even the present lived like this. Thomas Edison would have never invented the light bulb, because he might have enjoyed fishing instead. Great authors would have never written their books, because it was too hard, required too much thinking or research. No one would have ever set up a business because the risk was too much to handle. And why should emergency room physicians and paramedics put up with so much blood, gore and suffering in others, when they could be doing something less stressful? All these people do this because they are self-possessed and self-governing. The overcome their aversion to the difficult and their natural desire to pleasure and relaxation to accomplish a good, both for themselves and for the flourishing of society.
Therefore, we can conclude that the less self-possession and self-governance the people in a society have, the more the society will languish, and the more the individuals in that society will fail to reach their full potential.
There is an old expression, “Talk is cheap.” Coupled with another old expression, “Actions speak louder than words,” we are introduced to a profound philosophical insight brought by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) in his The Acting Person. That insight is that people are understood through their actions, not their words. Metaphysically, that is, in the nature of every man, we say that man is a rational animal; he is an animal that can think, know and know that he knows. But in a sense, this truth is much too vague. Even though we all share this nature, each of us is very different in many respects. Wojtyla’s book is a phenomenological reflection on the actual lived experience of real human beings.
In human life we experience not only sense impressions (the British empiricists would agree) but also things and people (so many philosophers from Descartes onward would actually quibble with this.) The things and people make up two different aspects of the world. The very fact that we developed language demonstrates that we are meant to disclose or share our experiences, thoughts and feelings with others. We, i. e., the human person, is the subject of action. We reflect on our own experiences and what we actually do, but also we act as an objective monitor of our own actions, which means that man is the object of his own cognition. This means that we have the ability to judge the rightness, wrongness and even the prudence of our actions, given the amount of understanding we have accumulated during our lives. The implications of this is earth-shaking: we and no one else is responsible for our own actions.
This responsibility comes from that fact that God has given us three qualities that flow from our participation in His likeness:
a) Self-possession—the person’s actions flow from the point of authority over himself;
b) Self-governance—the quality that allow a person to order his actions to fulfill his “existential ends,” that is, to fulfill what he was created to be;
c) Self-determination—the outcome of self-possession and self-governance is that we determine how our personhood develops in the real world, and not in some theoretical construct.
For the sake of this article, let us examine self-possession more deeply. Wojtyla points out the origin of the word possession as coming from the Latin potus, meaning, to be able and sedere, to sit. In property terms, I sit on my own property. This demonstrates that it is mine, and I am responsible for its upkeep and output. Since a person is in possession of himself, his actions flow from his own authority over himself. Therefore, Wojtyla says that flights of fancy, imaginary utopias or living in the past or the future, inoculates a person against self possession. “Not living in the real world” means to abandon one’s responsibility over one’s actions, which do not accord with reality—the very definition of truth. Catholics today are especially prone to this tendency. There are many Catholics who imagine that they can remedy the ills of society by returning to a more primitive lifestyle, where all work is done by hand and there are only simple machines and no companies. Not only do those who fall for these utopian schemes wish to have everyone live in squalor and work themselves to death, but they say that this is what the Church teaches. They forget that sin comes not from social institutions, but from the very heart of man, and no tweaking of a system will make that evil disappear. Ultimately, all of these well-meaning Catholics are, as Wojtyla says, inoculating themselves against self-possession.
Examine life in the West today. So many people see themselves as victims. While some are truly victims, most of those folks, are really abrogators of self possession. Even the real victim of say, crime or hurricane, must face that reality in a self-possessed manner, and go on as best they can. They, while not responsible for the crisis in their lives, are responsible for dealing with it to the extent possible, and then turning to God and neighbor for assistance. But anger, revenge, self pity, and the like are losses of self-possession. The constant running to the government to legislate everything, is also a loss of self-possession—a common practice of our diocesan “Peace and Justice Committees.” We feel no responsibility for our brothers and sisters in trouble, and we turn to the government for force others through taxes to do what we ourselves should be banding together to do.
The entrepreneur is a person self-possessed. He is willing to take risk, even with other people’s money that they loaned him because he inspired them with the vision of a concrete project. He fully understands that failure occurs because he did not take all circumstances into account, and that what most of us call failure is actually a learning experience for the future. The fact that he is working with other people’s money is an extra incentive to be diligent. He doesn’t say that they owed it to him. He sees the loans as a favor which he will repay with the earnings from the project.
This is true in other areas as well. College students are studying on other people’s funds. They need to be self-possessed and not waist that time and money goofing-off. The self-possessed student studies hard and gets the degree for which other people gave him the money. Having a job is a gift of God, for which He expects diligence. How many of us lack the self-possession to give an honest days work?
The Church has been pleading that we Catholics be self-possessed in our Faith, that we realize that many, many people have not come to our Faith because we did not take responsibility for its spread. We live a comfortable, middle-class, Catholicism, which focuses on our own spirituality to the neglect of our brothers and sisters. If the world is not Catholic, it is our (collective) fault. Just as God will not save us without our co-operation, he will not save our non-Catholic brothers and sisters without our co-operation. This requires self-possession.