Book Excerpt: The Magic of Work

This week’s Acton Commentary features an excerpt from my book. Here is a snippet on the division of labor as economic cooperation:

Consider the production of a book. If you are reading the print version, the paper came from trees that were felled by bearded lumberjacks wearing red flannel and suspenders (or so I imagine), made into paper in factories, then shipped to a printer. Similarly, the ink for the words and the cover had to be manufactured too. And all of the factories involved used tools that had to be made somewhere else, by someone else, at some time before. All of the vehicles used to transport the capital that would become this book had to be made by people all over the world, working to provide for their families and, unknowingly, to provide this book for you. If you’re using an e-reader, well, there are far more people and resources involved.

Some may notice that this intentionally channels a little bit of Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil.” I would commend that little essay to anyone who wants to read more on the subject.

So far as I can tell, Marx and company did a great disservice to the common understanding of the division of labor by stigmatizing it as a means of oppression. Real economists of his time actually talked about it in terms of economic cooperation (i.e. teamwork!). And since Adam Smith they have known that it is quite the opposite.

Too often people (including those who support free economies) think of modern economies as driven by a twisted sort of selfish, competitive spirit. This involves a whole host of misunderstandings, many of which I try to dispel in my book. Words like “competition” and “self-interest” do not mean to economists what they mean to normal people.

So also, I think there is a lost opportunity to think of the division of labor in terms of cooperation, an opportunity within the history of the term in economics itself. Through the division of labor, people are empowered to better serve their neighbors. For that matter, they are empowered to serve many more neighbors, many neighbors they will never even meet! A pessimist may call that being a cog in a machine — and of course I’m not saying that exploitation never happens — but I prefer to think of the division of labor as being a vital member of a team, serving not only one’s teammates (coworkers, employers) but people far outside of one’s immediate context (consumers, business partners) all over the world.

Indeed, because of the division of labor, many millions of people have risen out of centuries of poverty, their children have had the opportunity for higher education, their homes have had heat, running water, and refrigeration. They have had access to modern health care. And so on. Teamwork isn’t just bourgeois, business-speak propaganda; over the last 200 or so years, it has been one of the major driving forces for the material benefit of people all over the world, including the poorest of the poor.

And at the minimum, what team doesn’t need at least one bearded lumberjack? 🙂

Read the whole excerpt here.

And buy the book here.

I Wrote a Book

Front CoverI’m delighted to announce the publication of my first book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society!

The back cover text written by my wonderful editor Kevin Schmiesing does a great job summing it up:

Creative, quirky, and always winsome, Dylan Pahman builds a systematic case for a positive relationship between a biblical understanding of the human person and the economic flourishing that freedom enables. His tour of scripture, philosophy, and economics mirrors the curriculum of the Acton Institute’s highly successful conferences. Free-market advocates will discover a sound theological groundwork and people of faith will learn how to speak “Economish” as they follow Pahman through this crash course in the principles of a free and virtuous society.

The table of contents is as follows:

FOREWORD by Samuel Gregg vii
INTRODUCTION xi

Part 1
Christian Anthropology
1. What Does It Mean to Be Human? 1
2. What Is Society? 25
3. What Is an Economy? 49

Part 2
What If?
4. Property and Prices 77
5. Inequality, Equality, and Freedom 107

CONCLUSION 135

APPENDIX: ACTON INSTITUTE’S CORE PRINCIPLES 139
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 143
ABOUT THE AUTHOR 145

At less than 150 pages, the book is designed to be an accessible crash course in a Christian approach to the intersection of faith and economics.

Pop references include: Back to the Future, Sliders, Choose Your Own Adventure, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Calvin and Hobbes, and many more!

Ever wonder how Sunday relates to Monday through Saturday? Ever wonder how to speak the language of economics? Ever wonder how to bring morality into the marketplace and more effectively alleviate poverty and seek social justice? Then my book is for you!

You can buy it on Amazon here.

Public Discourse: On the Importance of Incompetence

Today at Public Discourse, I have an essay on the importance of incompetence as a category of political analysis. I wrote it over a month ago, so I would likely have chosen different examples, but the basic point still comes through:

The French literary critic Émile Faguet is one of the few to attempt a theory in his book The Cult of Incompetence, now over a century old. Faguet wrote, “That society . . . stands highest in the scale, where the division of labour is greatest, where specialisation is most definite, and where the distribution of functions according to efficiency is most thoroughly carried out.” But, according to Faguet, democracies are a form of government particularly ill-suited to such efficiency. Incompetence is a failure of the division of labor, and democracies demand and seek out such failure.

How so? On the whole, a democracy is a group of people with no relevant qualifications or experience for government claiming political sovereignty for themselves. Rather than choosing the most competent persons for any given public position, they often elect people who reflect their passions and prejudices, and those people appoint others who will further their political careers. I think Mark Twain understood this when he wrote, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” This is not exactly a formula for competence.

Read the whole essay here.

Were the Church Fathers ‘Corrupted’ by Greek Philosophy?

That’s the question I ask and answer today at Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy. (Short answer: “No.”)

Excerpt:

[D]espite what some would like to claim, the extent of the Hellenization of Jewish life and thought by the first century AD should not be limited to the Diaspora (i.e., Jewish communities outside of Judea). In fact, some, such as historian Martin Hengel, have demonstrated the thorough infiltration of Hellenism into Palestine from the third century BC onward. By the first century AD, Greek language and culture had affected literally every level of Jewish society. Furthermore, we even find that in cases of the most extreme opposition to Hellenization, such as the Maccabees, 1 Enoch, and Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), there still exist elements of Greek language, culture, and thought, even in the midst of anti-Hellenist polemics.

Furthermore, the significant influence of Hellenism on the Jews of the Diaspora is well established since the attitude among such Jews towards Greek philosophy was much more favorable. As Harry Austryn Wolfson, a scholar of the works of the ancient Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, put it, “The Scripture-trained Jew unconsciously approached other gods with the attitude of a student of comparative religion.” None of this is meant to portray Second Temple Judaism (515 BC – 70 AD) as syncretistic but merely to demonstrate that Jews of this time period, whether consciously or unconsciously, acknowledged that the light of God’s truth had shone among the Greeks as well, albeit in a somewhat diminished form.

Additionally, we must consider the significant force of Jewish and other Semitic influence on Hellenistic culture, as well as the growing Greek fascination with “barbarian wisdom” in the centuries preceding the birth of the Christian Church. In fact, New Testament scholar Dale B. Martin has noted, “Most scholars nowadays agree… that all forms of Greek culture in the same period had been influenced by ‘oriental’ cultures, to ask whether something is Hellenistic or Jewish would seem to be a misleading question.”

Read the whole essay here.

Public Discourse: The BIG Problem with Technological Unemployment

Today at Public Discourse, I question the ability of proposals for a basic income guarantee (BIG) to solve the potential problem of massive unemployment due to automation in the future. I am skeptical on economic and spiritual grounds, but also hopeful that the future won’t be as gloomy as some predict.

On the economic problem, I write,

When income is procured through the threat system of taxation and redistribution, no wealth is created. Thus, when people who have contributed no wealth to an economy are given a grant from those who have, the money they spend is only the fruits of production being returned to the producers. The unproductive consumers are merely a conduit for funneling what was taken back to those who produced it in the first place. It is like trying to increase your bank account by writing yourself a check. And unless the receivers are required to spend 100 percent of the BIG, the result will not even be zero-sum. It will be negative-sum.

On the spiritual problem:

Labor puts us in a unique relation to our neighbors and the material world. It pulls us outside ourselves and situates us in society and the world around us. “Work,” wrote the Reformed theologian Lester DeKoster, “is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” Without work, we are left with a nagging sense of uselessness. According to Genesis, human beings were even made to work in Paradise—it is fundamental to who and what we are. As Arthur Brooks has pointed out, earned success is a key factor of happiness.

On why we can be hopeful for the future:

As time goes on, we will find that certain jobs are more resistant to automation than others. In something of a reversal of trends from the last decade or so, creative applications of the liberal arts may even increase demand for people with those skills. Furthermore, automation will create markets to serve its own needs. We will probably have a greater demand for mechanics and programmers, for example. No doubt, with our aging Baby Boomer population, we will see increased demand for elder care in the next twenty-five years as well. And who knows what markets may be created by future technology that few have yet imagined? Even if 47 percent of current jobs will be automated, new labor markets may be created to replace them.

Read the whole essay here.

Everyday Asceticism: Get Born

Today at Everyday Asceticism, I reflect on birth as an image of the spiritual life:

For the child in utero, the womb is her world. She catches glimpses of muted light from the world beyond, hears muffled voices, feels softened touches of her mother and father and brother. But she knows very little about that world. Not only is this due to her circumstances, it is also due to her limited cognitive capacity at such an early stage in human development.

To be born means leaving the only world she has ever known and entering one that is utterly alien. It is alien not only with regard to the external environment, but also due to her own heightened senses. Unimaginably more of life is revealed, while at the same time one has a sense of how very little one knows.

Read the whole post here.

St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly: A Theology of Asceticism

This week I received two copies of the most recent issue of the St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 60, no. 4 (2016), which contains an article by me offering a theological and philosophical analysis of Christian asceticism. In particular, my concern in this paper is asceticism and personal identity. A full philosophy or theology of asceticism should account for its social and communal dynamics as well (inter alia), which I have explored in other academic work.

Excerpt:

This paper examines the compatibility between ancient and modern, East and West, through a philosophical and theological analysis of asceticism. Drawing upon Hegel’s dialectic of self-consciousness, I bring together Vladimir Solovyov’s account of the ascetic principle in morality and Pavel Florensky’s dynamic, non-essentialist understanding of personhood to argue that the logic of asceticism follows a dialectic of awareness — denial — transformation or, in Christian theological terms, life — death — resurrection. This modern perspective is then compared to and supplemented by Patristic accounts of the nature and goal of asceticism that generally rest upon Stoic axiology, (broadly) Neoplatonic metaphysics, and the specifically Christian themes of self-denial and divine grace. This synthesis of modern philosophical and ancient Christian understandings of asceticism is offered as an example of how, in this instance, such narratives of incompatibility are both unfounded and unhelpful. In addition, this dialectic of asceticism is offered as a paradigm for further study of asceticism in both theology and philosophy.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the new issue and check out my article here.

Exterminating Weak Voice Ninjas #amrevising

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This ninja seems to be climbing a rope.

In my last update, I mentioned how I decided to take a break from querying to revise my manuscript from third person narrative past to third person narrative present. Happily, I’ve finished that revision, which required changing every verb in my manuscript, and while doing so I noticed something else: I had hidden a lot of weak voicing behind the word “seem.”

For example: “John seems uncomfortable.” As an editor, I had been conscious of trying to avoid too much  phrasing like “John is uncomfortable,” but I noticed this time that the former phrase doesn’t really say anything different. “Seem” is just a less certain way of saying “is,” and the narrator should not be uncertain.

To some degree, there may be an implied indirect object, e.g. “John seems uncertain to Barb.” (No, there is no John or Barb in my manuscript.) Now, it’s not as if “seem” has nothing more to offer than “is,” but still, there are stronger, more descriptive ways to say “John seems uncomfortable.”

For example: “John fidgets”; “John avoids eye contact”; “John attempts to lean against the wall but his arm slips, provoking him to attempt a sloppy recovery, brushing his hair back and putting his hands in his pockets.” Continue reading

Powerblog: Rogue One and Religious Diversity

Today at the Acton PowerBlog, I look at the unique depiction of the Force in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’:

We already know of two traditions of Force religion: the Jedi and the Sith. But shouldn’t we expect that an inter-galactic religion should have many divergent traditions? Global religions on Earth certainly do. And those differences matter. Think of how sociologist Max Weber argued that the “Protestant ethic” shaped the “spirit of capitalism.” Even those who have disagreed with Weber do not generally dispute that religious sub-traditions have important impacts on societies and economies — how much more so on galaxies?

While I don’t have high hopes for complex inter-religious relations in future Star Wars movies, I take Rogue One’s contradictory monistic depiction (as opposed to the light/dark dualism of the other films) to be a positive move toward a better portrayal of religious diversity in Star Wars beyond the antagonism between the Sith and the Jedi.

Read the whole post here.