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Wealth of Persons: Economics with a Human Face

Wealth of Persons: Economics with a Human Face. John McNerney. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016.


There is need of a deep and saving counsel, like a diver’s,

descending to the depth, with keen eye and not too much perturbed,

to make the end without disaster for us and for the city.

—Aeschylus, Supplicants, 66c[1]


We speak of “the economy” as though we know what we are talking about, but do we know?  What is the economy, or an economy—is it a mechanism, process, or otherwise?  Of what does it consist, and what moves its parts, and how many such things must be accounted for?  Is it sufficiently delineated as to have form that reflection can grasp its nature, or that of its participants?  One would imagine the science of economics thinks as much, yet economics today rarely feels the need to genuinely think so, taking for granted as it does that there are economies, best examined through models based on unquestioned assumptions, not least regarding the nature of its human participants.  For all the talk of homo economicus, nary an economist could admit to encountering this species in its pure, or strict, sense.  Thus, much of contemporary economics is an abstraction of an abstraction, for the purpose of measuring and predicting the outcomes of systems.  So much is what we now call “econometrics,” where the instruments of measurement become obstacles to genuine thinking.

To be sure, sometimes the models are correct—in the marketplace of competing economic models, there are winners and losers.  Having gathered and organized a collection of facts, certain models provide limited explanations of what has happened in a given economic context.  But fewer economists today consider the aforementioned questions, even while all economic theory rests on some kind of anthropological perspective or another.  Every model of human behaviour contains an “idea of man,” whether explicit or not.  And in failing to adequately consider the anthropological horizon of economic activity, economics risks dehumanizing economic actors—economics, and even possibly the free economy itself, stands to lose its “human face.”

John McNerney argues that the recent Great Recession exemplified just such an eclipsing of the human dimension in the operation of the market, and the crisis in economic theory and practice serves as the impetus for his thoughtful work, Wealth of Persons: Economics with a Human Face.  As readers of Voegelin View well know, periods of crisis—moments of disorder—provide an opportunity for the human mind to rediscover fundamental sources of order.  McNerney therefore sets out to address the impoverishment of contemporary economic thought, and to rectify what he evocatively calls its “anthropological anorexia,” or “anthropological agnosticism.”  Thus, he follows Voegelin’s insight that philosophical anthropology ought to be the focal point of human sciences.  In bringing “a person-centered focus” to economic reflection, he illustrates how “personalistic principles” are not at odds with the free market process, but are in fact presupposed by the very operation of human economic activity—a less than self-evident claim when the climate of opinion so readily assumes that “capitalism” is inherently flawed and inimical to human well-being.  It is a great achievement of McNerney’s work to provide an anthropological defense of the free market that rises to the level of a moral defense.  In so doing, McNerney goes beyond the false dichotomy manifest in our daily economic debates, such as those concerned with inequality, often pitted as a battle between distributivists and libertarians.  As David Walsh notes in concluding the work’s Foreword: “It is not inequality that demands a response, but the fundamental equality of persons who cannot be valued in purely economic terms.”

In seeking to explain the “personcentric” roots of the free economy, McNerney argues “methodological humility” is required to broaden the standard tools and approaches of economics.  He draws on the insights of Bernard Lonergan throughout in moving toward an emergent “universal viewpoint” in the study of economic reality.  This “higher viewpoint” approaches free market processes as a category of human activity that is rich with meaning in the drama of humanity, and is therefore not reducible to matters of efficiency, cost and benefit calculation, or self-interest actualization.  Consequently, McNerney discusses an impressive number of thinkers and a great deal of scholarship from economics, but also from philosophy, history, literature, social sciences, psychology, and theology, thereby displaying the breadth he suggests is necessary for proper thinking.

One of the starting points for McNerney is the work of “the Austrian school,” particularly because of the attentiveness to human agency, and their significant development of the subjective theory of value in contrast to the labor theory of value of Adam Smith and Karl Marx.  McNerney finds wisdom in the “praxeological” approach to economics of the Austrians, whereby economics is considered part of a general theory of human action, for as he underlines, only human persons act.  From this vantage, McNerney fleshes out how an economic order is not reducible to the problem of scarce resource allocation amidst competing interests and ends.  Rather, “It involves us in the drama of the application of knowledge in the unfolding story of human survival and flourishing.  It is about the ‘good of order’ in society and not only the ‘good of desire.’”  Thus, McNerney does highlight limits to the Austrian approach insofar as they risk collapsing into “rugged individualism” due to the lack of a comprehensive treatment of “other-directedness.”  An elaboration of personhood, properly speaking, may mitigate this collapse.  In the conclusion of his work, McNerney discusses the fascinating scholarship of the Bologna school of economics—a valuable service in itself, as very little is yet translated from the Italian—and introduces their effort to revive the notion of “intersubjectivity” based on a Trinitarian model.  The Bologna school theorists, according to McNerney, best meet “the ultimate measure against which the economics of a free economy can be valued,” namely, “whether it amply measures up to the truth of the transcendent and mysterious reality of the acting person.”

At the heart of McNerney’s work is a compelling elaboration of how economic activity represents a fundamentally human mode of being, for it expresses the unique creative capacity of the human person—creativity is an essential, and distinguishing mark of persons, and is manifest in the “entrepreneurial act,” broadly speaking.  Thus, the four central chapters of The Wealth of Persons each offer an “Entrepreneurial Perspective,” with the ultimate intent of providing a comprehensive explanation of how creativity and personhood are connected, what constitutes the personality of the entrepreneur, and what motivates such activity, as well as how economic theory has otherwise addressed the concept of the entrepreneur.  With good reason, Joseph Schumpeter features as a key figure in these central chapters and beyond, given his critique of the classical and English thinkers since Adam Smith for their failure to adequately account for the elements of dynamism, initiative, and vision originating in the human person—that is, of the entrepreneur, per se.  The succeeding eighth chapter adds concreteness by way of a case study in Anges Morrogh-Bernard—the founder of Foxford Mills in the Irish village of Mayo in the late years of the nineteenth century—who truly, nay personally, illustrates how “it is in the creativity of entrepreneurship that we see the real enlargement of the human person occurring.”  Overall, for McNerney, it is in properly understanding the entrepreneur and the entrepreneurial act that we come to grasp how “the free economy is not a static machine which can be controlled simply by adjusting different levers, but it is essentially a human process of continual discovery.”

That said, insofar as creativity is the other side of discovery, McNerney does not address how human dynamism can take us into areas that may otherwise be destructive of human persons, or down pathways that bring the limits of human creativity into question.  To the extent that the Great Recession is related to an absence of reflection on the fundaments of human creative power, it is nevertheless something of a product of human cunning—that is, a form of human ingenuity that is creative without being productive, or a matter of investment with little prospect for genuine human flourishing.  Moreover, one is tempted to ask how anthropological wisdom might mitigate the logic of technique, or the technological imperative, which bears within it the possibility for great catastrophe (literally: “a overturning; a trampling; a sudden end”).  To be sure, a great deal of human energy and ingenuity is presently focused on developing artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, and so on, thereby enhancing non-human modes of production and work, in some cases with so-called ‘trans-human’ aspirations.  And while this makes the question of the person all the more apt—and a comprehensive ethics of personhood could certainly follow from the anthropology McNerney details—the great challenge remains in descending from a higher, universal viewpoint like the one McNerney provides to the concrete level of particular, individual human beings, those in an otherwise tumultuous economy that has become ever less dynamic, with falling rates of productivity and prosperity for years now.[2]  Very few of us are an Anges Morrogh-Bernard, or for that matter modern tech gurus.  Certainly, every person has the potential to create, but the troubling characteristic of potential is that it is not always, or is even perhaps rarely, actualized; arguably least of all in a context where the creep of statism only further undermines potentiality.

The challenges thoughtful economists face today are by no means adequately addressed with mere assumptions that large-scale retraining efforts will rectify matters, or that leisure will ultimately become universally more abundant and enjoyable, minimizing the concerns regarding less work.  Such optimism is doubly misplaced when one grasps the value and meaning of work for human persons—indeed, the “wealth of persons”—and yet men’s usefulness in the workforce has reached unprecedented lows, with fewer than ever working or looking for work—falling adrift, rather than drawing upon their internal wealth.[3]  Furthermore, (to paraphrase Peter Thiel) the development of 140 characters—in the absence of the promised flying cars—has so far failed to contribute to the necessary uptick in the West’s capacity for innovation-led productivity, with measures lately plummeting to near zero levels, while a new tech oligarchy is nonetheless entrenched.[4]  In fact, we may be experiencing a significant change in the underlying patterns of incentives and rewards in the economy if there is credence to the analyses claiming we have entered the “managerial economy,” or “money-manager capitalism.”[5]  For all the fine rhetoric in both Canada and the United States about the need for innovation, concern that capitalism has become a “safe space” for firms shielding against risk, creative destruction, and competition that is otherwise required for economic opportunity to grow is not without reason.[6]  If anthropological wisdom is required to confront this confluence of technology, rationalism, and complacency, is it powerful enough to do so?  What hope is there that insights into personhood will reinvigorate the creativity of persons?  The problem appears reminiscent of the unlikely marriage of wisdom and power in the philosopher-king; only in this case the king is armed with (or tempted by?) all the fruits of modern natural science and technology.

On that note, McNerney generally evades the political problem by turning his focus to action as an economic problem, and one is left wondering about how questions of ruling, authority, sovereignty, and action of a political nature fit into the larger picture, or possibly require consideration to illuminate the larger problem.  The philosopher gazing from the “higher viewpoint,” after all, of necessity must return to the city.  Perhaps then what is ultimately required is statesmanship, of a variety well informed no doubt by anthropology.  That said, McNerney does highlight the importance of citizenship, or at least some of the knowledge for citizenship, not least by twice quoting from Ludwig von Mises’ work, Human Action: “Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that economics cannot remain an esoteric branch of knowledge accessible only to small groups of scholars and specialists.  Economics deals with society’s fundamental problems; it concerns everyone and belongs to all.  It is the main and proper study of every citizen.”  Verily, like the Aeschylusian diver, McNerney has descended to the depths of things to shed light on the anthropological horizon underlying genuine economic thinking, reminding all of us of our own responsibility to participate in the search for “deep and saving counsel…for us,” if not “for the city” as well.



[1] Quoted in McNerney, The Wealth of Persons, 55.

[2] See, for example, Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[3] Eli Lehrer and Catherine Moyer, “Putting Men Back to Work,” National Affairs, No. 33 (Fall, 2017): 16-31.

[4] Joel Kotkin, The New Class Conflict (Candor: Telos Press Publishing, 2014).

[5] See, James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1972); Frederik Erixon and Björn Weigel, The Innovation Illusion: How So Little Is Created By So Many Working So Hard (Yale University Press, 2016);

[6] Frederik Erixon and Bjorn Weigel, “Capitalism without Capitalists,” in American Affairs, Vo. 1, No. 3 (Fall, 2017): 3-16; cf. Tyler Cowen, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for The American Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

Trevor Shelley

Trevor Shelley teaches at St. Mary's University in Calgary and is the author of Globalism and Liberalism: An Essay on Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Manent (St. Augustine's, 2017).

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