This guest post is by Sarah Estelle of econisforlovers.com, where this article originally appeared.
When I found my name was already taken for a web domain, Sara Aldworth, director of marketing at the Acton Institute, and economist Victor Claar, came to the rescue. Sara suggested I build my website’s theme off a signature lecture. Having (then) recently delivered for the first time my talk about “The Economic Ways of Loving,” a catchy and meaningful theme was clear. It was Victor, riffing off my grad school years in Virginia, who suggested “Econ is for lovers” as a moniker. Sometimes it gets a raised eyebrow (“what does that mean?”), but it’s memorable and expresses what is perhaps one of the best arguments for economic literacy.
Economics Really is for Lovers
The longer origin story is that, while economics is for everyone, it is especially for lovers! If you love someone, you need some econ in your life. Why?
Let’s consider briefly what we might mean by love. Thomas Aquinas, borrowing heavily from Aristotle, provides my favorite definition, that love is “to will the good of the other.” This idea should resonate with Christians (and is, in fact, instantiated in the Catholic catechism) for the fact that it is oriented toward the other, yes, but also for their good. Whereas the greatest good for a person is right relationship with God, this definition points to the transcendent. At the same time, willing the good – considering, discerning, and choosing good – is very practical here and now. And economics is nothing if not a set of practical tools for understanding our choices and behaviors including their consequences. Hence, one needn’t be a lover of economics, for itself, to find value in economics and its lessons for human flourishing.
Five Ways Economics Informs Loving
1. Economics is a study of human behavior
Economics isn’t about money, stocks, business practices; it’s really about people. Economics is, in fact, as broad as the scope of human behaviors and their consequences. If “the good” is more than just financial well-being, and it must be, the breadth of economics is of particular importance to lovers who would apply it to a full range of human behaviors and experiences.
2. Economics starts with a basic conception of a constrained reality
Scarcity, or the fact that our resources are limited relative to all the uses we might find for them, is a universal state. Rich or poor, greedy or selfless, we are limited as to what we can accomplish, even if it’s just by the 24-hours in a day. Because of scarcity, we have to make choices, and those choices incur costs. (Even though economics isn’t about money, we still care about “opportunities forgone” when we choose one use for our resources over others.)
Costs don’t mean something is a bad idea. Because of scarcity, costs are unavoidable. But when we’re choosing to use our resources (time, energy, effort, etc.) to love another, we should care that we’re doing so in a way that doesn’t impose more costs than necessary. This is clearest when we understand that the cost of loving someone in one way may very well be loving them better in another. Scarcity means we face trade-offs that are relevant to loving well.
3. Economics, as a way of thinking, focuses on consequences
Henry Hazlitt, a popularizer of the economic way of thinking, begins his famous book discussing the importance of consequences both seen and unseen. That there are likely consequences to our actions – perhaps for other people, or for another time, or even for the intended beneficiary but in an unexpected way – that we could easily overlook, should inspire some careful attention to our actions in practice, not just their intentions. Aquinas doesn’t suggest we “hope for” the good of the other; we must choose according to actual good. We need to consider costs and benefits, seen and unseen.
4. Economics recognizes that knowledge is “particular to time and place”
How can we know what will be to someone’s good? To start with, we should recognize that we can’t perfectly know. One of the real-world limitations all humans face is our finite knowledge. So often Christians, it seems, focus on our limited goodness and reasoning ability, which is both right and understandable. But we should also be humble in light of our limited knowledge.
The Nobel Laureate economist F.A. Hayek, popularly recognized for his counter-Keynes perspective on monetary policy, also made critical contributions to the economic understanding of the so-called “local knowledge problem.” It’s not important to dwell on it as a problem, per se, but it is an obvious characteristic of what Christians might describe as the created order. It’s just how things are. And so we should be honest about this limitation, and love accordingly.
5. So, economics suggests, love your neighbor
In fact, based on Aquinas’ definition, I’m not sure we can love anyone but a neighbor. As a proponent of open-access institutions, rule of law, property rights, and economic and political liberty, I think markets are pretty awesome. (As a Christian, I wonder if the awesome parts mightn’t be providential, in fact.) Still, markets aren’t love; they are only love-like. We can facilitate some good things for people we don’t know and therefore couldn’t possibly love, per se, by engaging in impersonal market exchange. International trade, even the much maligned globalization, has lifted billions out of poverty. This is good.
But love requires willing another’s good, which presumes knowing something about the other, and so is only feasible within our families, friend groups, churches, neighborhoods, and local communities. These are the microcosmos (small orders) that Hayek says we can rightfully call “societies” for the fact that they are fraternal, sharing not just knowledge but objectives and purposes as well. Hayek’s observation that knowledge is “essentially dispersed” combined with a Christian notion of love, should leave us just as excited about what we can do locally for our actual neighbors as we are for engaging in global efforts. As EconTalk‘s Russ Roberts has said most concisely, we should “love locally, trade globally.”
For more about Hayek’s observations on local knowledge, the “two sorts” of worlds (local and global) we all live in, and the implications for Christian love, please watch my lecture from last Valentine’s Day at the Acton Institute.
For a more wide-ranging discussion including applications, please listen to my conversation on the Libertarian Christian Institute podcast released earlier this week.