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Beyond Young Men and Mayhem Hester Koch's Scarlet Letter

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Agreed, Holy Father, That Human Dignity Needs Work. Then What?

by Christopher Chantrill
March 25, 2014 at 12:00 am


THE HOLY FATHER visited an Italian steelworks last week and declared that human dignity needs a job. In the current mess the unemployed risk being marginalized, “victims of social exclusion,” he said.

What does “the very serious problem of unemployment” tell us, he asked?

It is the consequence of an economic system that is no longer able to create work, because it has placed at its centre the idol of money. Therefore, the various political, social and economic actors are called upon to promote a different approach, based on justice and solidarity, to ensure the possibility of dignified work for all.

I know you were just trying to cheer up union workers that were afraid for their jobs, Holy Father. But when I read a paragraph like that, I experience a worthy pontiff and his clueless advisors that are completely missing the point. Let’s just start with the first sentence.

Whaddya mean “economic system?” The only economic systems around are the failed economic fantasies of political elites, from socialism to fascism. The world economy is not a “system;” it is something else, a something that wise heads know they barely begin to grasp.

The whole point of the 20th century revolution in knowledge is that you can’t treat the universe or society or the economy like a system or a machine. It is an “emergent phenomenon,” meaning, per Wikipedia, that

emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.

Further down, Wiki says that:

Money, insofar as being a medium of exchange and of deferred payment, is also an example of an emergent phenomenon between market participators.

See what I mean? So let’s forget system, even in “complex systems.” “System” is old school, Holy Father. We be new school. (H/T Rachel Jeantel).

If you are talking about a economic “system” and money as an “idol,” you are missing the central fact of the modern economy. It was in the pre-classical era of Mercantilism that “various political, social and economic actors” made an idol of money, of national gold accumulation.

Today’s idol is the notion of an educated evolved elite directing wise administrators sitting at the top of a bureaucratic hierarchy trying “different approaches” at running an affordable health care system or a compassionate welfare system. That system is the one “no longer able to create work.”

The Catholic Catechism sensibly talks instead about “Equality and the Differences Among Men,” where God’s plan wills that the differences between men “encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods[.]”

In what way do our modern bureaucratic state systems encourage or oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing?

Let’s talk new school and tell a short story about emergence and the modern world. According to John C. Goodman, “For almost all of the history of human existence, there was no [economic] growth at all.” But then it all changed. Goodman quotes Stephen Landsberg:

Then, in the late eighteenth century — just a couple of hundred years ago, maybe ten generations — something happened. People started getting richer. And richer and richer still.

They weren’t building a system, or making an idol of money; they were just inventing new ways of making things for people and then executing on their ideas for cheap cotton textiles, steam railways and ocean transportation, sanitation, food refrigeration, and on and on. Then they invented modern philanthropy and started giving it all away, practicing generosity, kindness and sharing.

That is the story of the modern world, the emergent phenomenon of simple inventions interacting into great complex social organisms that has given prosperity, justice and dignity to ordinary people.

Against that is the idol of government and the worship of system that strips work of its dignity, society of its justice and ordinary people of their solidarity.

The chap that coined the word “emergent” was the Briton G.H. Lewes. He was something of a polymath, writing on everything from Goethe to Aristotle, and he was the life partner of that astonishing phenomenon Mary Ann Evans, who we know as George Eliot.

It was Eliot who wrote at the end of Middlemarch of her heroine Dorothea Brooke that

the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Never mind about silly systems and foolish idols, Holy Father, or of strutting “political, social, and economic actors.” Imagine an emergent phenomenon like Mary Ann Evans and dignity she obtained from her work, and the dignity of the unhistoric acts of millions of ordinary people.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990

Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State

Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures

German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh

Living Law

The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital

presented by Christopher Chantrill

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