The Saturday Essay: Goods Costlier than Money

There are two contemporary conversations about feminism. One, simply put, deals with the question of whether or not men and women are essentially the same or have inherent differences between them. The other asks how we are to ensure that men and women have a fair chance to realize their interests and aspirations, particularly in the economic sphere. The first is probably the more interesting, but I write here on the second question. In a sense, however, I may fail even this second duty, as I hope to question the presuppositions behind the way this topic is typically approached. Whatever you think about equality of outcome or equality of opportunity, each enlists similar ideas about the kinds of human action that are worthwhile and profitable. I will argue here that it is our very emphasis on economic success and what it facilitates that leads to the debate about inequality. In order to move beyond the intractability of such a debate, I posit, will demand a reprioritization of the way we classify human goods.  

Like many artifices of human ingenuity, money on its own serves no material purpose. Its purchasing power comes not from anything intrinsic to the physical makeup of a Ben Franklin or an English two-pence, but rather its value is imbued by the tacit agreement of society. We collectively agree to endow currency with the ability to represent things we value. Adam Smith has the idea that “labour was the first price—the original purchase” in order to cement the concrete origin of money. Goods too, seem to stand at the basis of what is now purely abstraction. For example, cash can now stand in to represent, even if unconsciously, the value that we associate with our four-bedroom house or else the number of hours we worked over the course of a week. In other words, we value certain material things for their utility to us and labor hours for the effort and time they cost us, a valuation to which money simply sticks a price. Innovations such as credit cards, bitcoin, and platforms such as Paypal and Venmo have only made more evident the preexisting abstractness of money. While a silver dollar is more visceral than a mere exchange of numbers over the Internet, each serves the same function. It is in virtue of what money represents, and not on account of itself, that we accord money value.

In order to make room for what is a much more developed interpretation of a commodious and fair economic system, it is necessary first to dispel the myth that money is somehow the absolute basis of human fulfillment. There are two main reasons we ought to question such a picture. Firstly, money is no more than an instrumental good. Because it is a pure abstraction representing things that we actually value for themselves, money cannot be an end on its own. St. Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle in arguing that the miser is misled about the purpose of money. He states in his Summa Theologiae; “Now it is evident that man’s happiness cannot consist in natural wealth. For wealth of this kind is sought for the sake of something else, [namely] as a support of human nature: consequently it cannot be man’s last end.” “Human nature” here can be understood in the broadest sense as encapsulating all the desires and aspirations of a given person. In his view, money is not the content of human happiness because it is always the weigh station to some actual human good, but not the good itself. On this analysis money, as abstraction, is a good only inasmuch as it is used for a concrete good things. But considered in itself apart from such concreteness, it is useless.

Secondly, worthwhile human activity is not coextensive with those activities that merit economic compensation. We know such a viewpoint to be false in the general sense, but ulterior concerns can cause to underplay and diminish this central truth. Consider, for example, the merits of robbing a bank or of doing the dishes after a meal. Each task may take the same amount of time, require a similar amount of physical effort, yet one yields $500,000 in cash and one is absolutely uncompensated. But no one on this basis concludes that robbing the bank is a better course of action. Instead, we analyze various actions by also comparing their relative convenience, fruitfulness, practicality, time-commitment, realizability, alignment with our strengths, justifications, and morality.

In 1948 his book, Leisure as the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper argues that the contemporary economic system has blinded our ability to see value in certain kinds of activities. Because economic gain has become such a powerful motivator, it has eclipsed our ability to discern those goods which do not merit economic compensation. As a result, play, worship, and most of all leisure are relegated beyond the domain of productive human enterprise. It is important to note that for Pieper, leisure is not to be understood as laziness, but rather as intentional immersion into culture and conversation. As he expresses the danger of our times, “the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.” One cannot help to discern the prescience of his argument written as Google and other tech giants boast of offering their employees access to onsite gyms and dining options. With food and exercise supplied, all our basic necessities are met. What else does one need?

Since the workplace itself may be part of the problem, assessing gender equality in the economic domain remains a subsidiarity concern. If critics such as Pieper are on the right track, then our obsession with work is the more essential disease. The concept of the Protestant work ethic as articulated by Max Weber in the early twentieth century is one possible explanation for American commitment to efficiency in the workplace. According to his view laid out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that the Protestant work ethic developed from believers’ self-understanding of Calvinist theology. Since Calvin taught that the elect are saved by faith alone, a believer had no direct way to prove his salvation. In order to demonstrate it, therefore, the believer attempts to exhibit characteristics of the elect—such as frugality and disciplined labor—in order to confirm election. Weber contends that the result of this theological motivation for the dedicated application of the individual believer contributes to the overall growth of modern capitalist societies. Even if this exact theory fails to encompass the full impetus for contemporary obsession with work, it draws an important link between such labor and its monetary reward.

On a first examination, then, to fight for the further involvement of more people in the current economic system is to fight for something that compromises the ability of such individuals to enjoy the full range of human activities. In essence, full subscription to the work-a-day culture, to steal a term from Pieper, is to deny openness to a whole range of activities we typically take to contribute to a well-lived life. As Wendell Berry puts this idea, “I am more and more impressed by the generality of the assumption that human lives are properly to be invented by an academic-corporate-government elite and then either sold to their passive and choiceless recipients or doled out to them in the manner of welfare.” The rhetoric is of course bombastic, but he resists the basic presuppositions we take for granted about the way that the system inevitably must work. He satirizes the prevalence of economic totality and determinism: “if you wish to be among the beautiful, then you must buy the right fashions (there are no cheap fashions) and the right automobile (not cheap either). If you want to be counted as one of the intelligent, then you must shop for the right education (not cheap but also not so difficult).” Or, finally, “Anything that cannot be weighted, measured, or counted does not exist.” The corporate economy of today, Berry contends, is not conducive to flourishing for anyone.

The headline of a recent BBC article reads “Gender Pay Gap Grows at Hundreds of Big Firms.” The article goes on to explain that across a number of sectors, the wage gap averages 8.35%, meaning that for every $100 made by a man, a woman takes in less than $92. The article reminded me of a long piece in The Atlantic I read a couple of years ago entitled “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” That article offered a careful study of the difficulties facing women in the tech industry—particularly as they fall prey to the misogynistic behavior of men. In each case, and innumerable others, the focus is on the inequality present in the workplace. On the standard of economic earnings or respect from the opposite sex, such inequality is present. But two considerations, one associated with the thrust of each of the two disparate arguments, prevents me from being able to be in full concord with the normal interpretive conclusion that we ought to expend tireless effort in order to equalize the playing field. In the first case, I question the standard that leads us to consider economic value the preeminent good. A man or woman who spends time or energy or capacity on reading books, enjoying nature, or cultivating close relationships with children, parents, and spouse chooses activities of invaluable intrinsic merit. Barring for a moment the question of basic economic subsistence, more money is not always better. In the second case, I think The Atlantic article and similar pieces, serve to reveal a symptom of our current work-a-day culture as opposed to a totally unrelated phenomenon whose elimination heralds a perfected system. Berry has much to say about this topic as well, “there is also the nakedness in advertising, in the worst kinds of fashionable or commercial art. This is the nakedness of free-market sexuality, the nakedness that is possible only in a society in which price is the only index of worth.” In other words, the very limitations introduced by our exclusively economic outlook have themselves created the conditions for an endemic objectification of women in business. In each case, the solution is not a simple equalizing of figures, but instead requires a deeper examination of the methods we have allowed to dominate us.

The beginning of a solution to inequality in the workplace, then, is a re-imagination of the workplace itself. So long as we believe that “anything that cannot be weighted, measured, or counted does not exist” we enchain ourselves to a system essentially and not accidentally exploitative of humans. The human goods articulated by Pieper become subjugated to the limited categories we do admit: capital, efficiency, productivity, utility, and the rest. In this system, there are no winners. The millionaire CEO has no time for his family and less for God. Anything we might call “intangible” becomes nonexistent, with the result that deep human aspiration is first compromised and then destroyed.

Even accepting such a viewpoint, however, a prominent nagging question remains. If people are to support themselves, to have the basic necessities, how are they to act in a system which does not deal with them fairly? More precisely, how can highfalutin language about human values compensate for women and many men who cannot support their family’s essential needs? First, this dire result of the economic system applies to both many men and many women. If one group is more subject to this injurious situation than the other, an effective solution will still solve the problem for both. In his 1931 encyclical Quadrigesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI offers a succinct counter to those who diminish the necessity of this basic need, “in the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family.” He explains some of the reasoning: “for man’s productive effort cannot yield its fruits unless a truly social and organic body exists, unless a social and juridical order watches over the exercise of work, unless the various occupations, being interdependent, cooperate with and mutually complete one another, and, what is still more important, unless mind, material things, and work combine and form as it were a single whole.” In other words, the sophisticated nature of human activity requires that the employer take into account many more considerations than simply compensating the atomic individual for labor. He goes even further, stating that, “social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.”

Thus, I argue five things. First, money is not a universal good. Second, our current economic system, and we by extension, think that it is. Third, such a condition compromises a plethora of human goods. Fourth, that men and women would do well to recognize the capitalist economy’s limitations. Finally, that, despite the limitations of what our economy currently has on offer, both men and women require a society willing to support their basic needs. In the end I didn’t really write about feminism. And I believe that to be the case because the issues dealt with here, often couched in feminist terms, are not ultimately about the dominance of one sex over the other. Instead they are about both sexes being dominated by a dehumanizing false anthropology, saliently present in our current economic system.

Will Nolan’s piece is part of the Tory’s Saturday Essay series, selected for the spotlight by Editor-in-Chief Jeff Zymeri. Follow the Tory on Facebook and Twitter to start your weekend with the best of our content.