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

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



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.

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.

Religion & Liberty: Money Matters

In the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty, I explain why money matters:

Now imagine that Maggie has a cow in a monetary economy. She sells her cow for the best price she can find and receives that price in money. With that money, she can then go and buy all the things she needs and can afford. She isn’t stuck exchanging a lasso for some turnips with the hope that she can then exchange the turnips for something she actually wants and needs. Maggie can’t cut a chicken into parts and keep the gizzard with the expectation that someone will be willing to trade two apple pies for that gizzard later. But she can sell a chicken for some money and then use the money to buy any variety of things she wants or needs, whenever she needs them. Money serves a vital human need by helping economic exchange better serve other human needs.

Clearly my understanding of farming is unhealthily shaped by Western films, Little House on the Prairie, and that Oregon Trail computer game.

Read the whole article here.

Mere Orthodoxy: The Christian Statesman and the Gospel to the Poor

Today at Mere Orthodoxy, I argue that

the duty of the Christian statesman (or stateswoman) to the poor requires defending human rights, supplying urgent needs, reducing barriers to market entry, and guaranteeing access to the institutions of justice, seeking realistic, gradual reform as possible and prudent.

This essay will be the first in a series. As Jake Meador, editor of Mere O (as the kids call it), noted as a preface:

Over the next week we’ll be running pieces multiple pieces on political economics. The chief question we are addressing is “What duties a Christian magistrate has to the poor?” In today’s post, Dylan Pahman of the Acton Institute is giving a classical liberal answer to that question. Tomorrow we will be running a response to the same question written by a Christian socialist.

It is my understanding that we will then respond to each other’s essay and end with a statement of common ground.

So, if you ever wondered what hath Christian classical liberalism to do with Christian socialism? (other than “not much”), you can find out this week at Mere Orthodoxy.

Read the whole essay here.

PowerBlog: The Fruit of Toil

A recent comic at XKCD inspired me to reflect more on the toilsome aspect of work at the Acton PowerBlog today. Excerpt:

[E]verything we interact with is the fruit of the labor of others. It connects us to them and ought to inspire a deep gratitude for that fellowship.

But then there’s Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, for those who don’t know, forever pushes a boulder up a hill in Hades, only to have it roll back down on him, according to Greek mythology. He has thus historically served as a symbol of the toilsome aspect of life. I examine a variety of ways he’s been portrayed and what a Christian perspective on toil means for the interconnectedness of our economic lives in the full post here.

Public Discourse: No, Early Christians Did Not Think Wealth is Intrinsically Evil

Today at Public Discourse, I respond to a recent Commonweal article by Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart, in which he claims the New Testament and other early Christians believed wealth was intrinsically evil, that property is theft, and that Christ’s command to the rich young man to sell everything and possess nothing was meant to be applied to universally to all Christians.

I disagree. There is a lot more I could have said, but here is an excerpt:

As for what the desert fathers themselves taught, we may note the teaching of Abba Theodore, recorded in the Conferences of St. John Cassian: “Altogether there are three kinds of things in the world; viz., good, bad, and indifferent.” He identifies virtue as the only true good and sin as the only true evil. “But those things are indifferent,” he says, “which can be appropriated to either side according to the fancy or wish of their owner, as for instance riches…”

According to Hart, “it was … the Desert Fathers, who took the Gospel at its word.” Will he take Abba Theodore and St. John Cassian at their word? Or did they not understand the New Testament or ancient Christianity either?

Read the whole article here.

The Stream: Pope Calls Climate Change a Sin

Yesterday at the Stream, I responded to Pope Francis’s recent message on the Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, in which, citing Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, he called climate change a sin. I think climate change is real and that we should care about it. But climate change doesn’t give us warrant to ignore economic laws and history.

I write,

What seems to be lost on these hierarchs is what to do about the problem. The pope praises the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, but similar statements have not proven effective in combating climate change. What has proven effective? Industrialization and free markets. Really.

In the short run, of course, industrialization is the problem. A quick glance at a global pollution map reveals that newly-industrialized China and India are some of the worst offenders. However, so long as we truly care about the poor, we must not overlook the fact that these countries are where the greatest progress in overcoming poverty has happened since the 1970s. Hundreds of millions of people have escaped crushing poverty through the industrialization and increased liberalization of their economies.

So are we doomed to choose between the plight of the poor and the plight of the planet? Thankfully, no. As a recent study in the journal Nature on environmental care from 1993-2009 notes, “while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%.” Economic growth is compatible with care for creation.

Read the whole essay at the Stream here.