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: 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.

Public Orthodoxy: Orthodox Theology and Economic Morality

Today at Public Orthodoxy, the blog of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, I have an essay on the need for Orthodox theology to more seriously engage modern economic science. The argument would likely apply in some degree to other theological traditions as well.

I write,

Personal relationships and the monastic life have different norms than impersonal markets. This does not mean that markets have no norms, nor that the norms of markets should overrule any other concerns. But it does mean that if we wish for our economies to be more moral, whether we hail from the political right or left (or somewhere outside of that simplistic binary), we must first understand what they are and how they function.

Read my full essay here.

Faith & Economics: Toward a Kuyperian Political Economy

This week, my article on Abraham Kuyper and the relationship between ethics and economics was published in Faith & Economics. The abstract is below. The issue also includes two other articles and two response articles. So be sure to order a copy or subscribe!

Modern economics is generally considered an entirely positive field of study, and the role of ethics and normative analysis is found to be irrelevant in contrast to facts and data. However, economics was once considered a portion of the broader field of political economy that evolved from the study of moral theology, and this origin is significant in understanding the extent to which normative analysis is appropriate in economics. Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper emphasizes the use of sphere sovereignty to explain the relationship between different academic disciplines, and his perspective is applicable to the discussion of the role of normative analysis in economics. Kuyper found that while each sphere of study is distinct, each sphere is essentially related to the spheres that it evolves from. This paper applies the theological perspective of Kuyper to the field of economics and compares and contrasts this point of view with modern scholarly opinion on the subject.

Read the whole article here.

PowerBlog: Pokémon GO and the Success of Failure

Last week at Acton, I examined the economic (and spiritual) insights of Pokemon GO:

What Nintendo does is a microcosm of what successful markets in general do: They fail all the time. And they are able to fail all the time because they have sufficiently diversified their product offering without overextending themselves. So if one product, despite huge investments of time and money, fails, Nintendo still has two or three other big ideas just waiting to explode. And all they need is for one to catch on to completely make up for the losses inherent to the innovative process.

Read the whole post here.

Acton Commentary: Economics and the Orthodox Council

Today for Acton’s weekly Acton Commentary op-ed, I critique the economics (or lack thereof) behind the economic ethics of the recent statement approved by the Orthodox council in Crete, “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World.” I write:

The document begins strong by claiming that the word of the Church, “addressed to the world, has as its aim first of all not to judge and condemn the world … but to offer it as guidance the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.” This is wonderful. However, in seeking to tease out the social implications of the Gospel, it at times comes frightfully close to judging and condemning virtually all of human civilization.

Read the full essay here.

PowerBlog: Spiritual and Economic Lessons from the N64

Today at Acton, I tease out some economic and — by way of analogy — spiritual lessons from the success of the Japanese company Nintendo, in honor of the Nintendo 64 gaming system’s 20th birthday:

Nintendo is an example of capitalism at its best. And its success (and failures) ought to remind us of what the spiritual life requires of us. Praying a prayer every now and then or reading one’s Bible from time to time may be enough. But a plurality (to the point of redundancy) of spiritual practices makes a person far better prepared for the unpredictable challenges of real life.

By contrast, cronyistic and protectionist measures seek to preserve a company’s or market’s current state, rather than being open to development. It may work for a while, but eventually creative destruction will displace a company or industry ill-equipped to adapt. Similarly, an over-confident spirituality sets one up to fall into unexpected temptation or to be unable to bear unexpected tragedy.

Read the whole post here.

Powerblog: Millennials, Entrepreneurship, and Hope

Today at the Acton PowerBlog, I note a recent article at FEE by Zachary Slayback (who I will give my 2016 award for most badass last name) on the decline in entrepreneurship among those under 30, emphasizing the importance of Christian hope:

Slayback argues that our education system discourages this sort of thinking. I don’t disagree, but I would add the benefit of Christian hope to the need for education reform. Indeed, while I’m sometimes skeptical of the claim, many say that Millennials are less religious and less Christian as a generation, a decline that would correlate with the decline in entrepreneurship among the young as well.

Whether that is due to a common factor is an open question, of course. But if, despite such anti-entrepreneurial education, a person truly believes that Jesus Christ overcame death by his death and created the Church out of a bunch of quarrelsome fishermen — a big risk! — then perhaps she would be more likely to imagine that the risks of enterprise are not too much for her and that earthly failures are not the end of a truly heavenly life.

Read the whole post here.