There is an old Jesuit invitation to “see God in all things.” As a result of this belief in divine omnipotence, the sons of Ignatius of Loyola seem to have been interested in everything. There are Jesuit physicists and astronomers, Jesuit lawyers and doctors. For the greater glory of God, says the Jesuit slogan, and the salvation of man. This world and the next. It comes naturally, then, that one of the most important Jesuit intellectuals (indeed one of the most important thinkers of the modern age), a Canadian priest named Bernard Lonergan, became deeply interested in the mechanics of the economy. Lonergan’s work, which sought to correct the old circular flow model of the macroeconomy, remains among the most underappreciated and most cogent works of economic thought ever produced.
For Lonergan, “economic activity provides the material substratum for the cultural creations of human ingenuity and aspiration.” In other words, if we are to be “the better angels of our nature,” good economics necessarily would be the wind beneath our seraphic wings.
What did Lonergan think of the economy? One, he thought that economics is economics only because it serves some humanitarian or social goal, much like a chair is only a chair if you can sit on it. In a Catholic viewpoint, that purpose might be close to Irenaeus’s thoughts: the glory of God is a man fully alive. (Come to think of it, that is some restatement of the old Jesuit slogan.)
What is the look of a man fully alive in the context of the economy? My view is that it is not what some economists think it is. Man-fully-alive is not uninhibited production or unfettered consumption, for there is no deficit of meaninglessness and depression and desperation among the rich and the well-born. Neither is there an absence of good humor and good sense among the materially wanting. More possibly, a man fully alive involves enjoying what you work on and enjoying what you work for; it involves a condition of production and consumption relationships that allows us time and energy for the life-giving pursuits of affection and art and adventure.
This is, in other words, sufficiency in the material relations that intersect with our affective circles: a decent family dinner, a bottle of grain and grape among friends, a bough of flowers for a beloved. Lonergan calls this the “basic economy.”
Not that Lonergan was averse to growth. Indeed, his thoughts were that the basic economy is made more worthwhile by balanced growth with something called the surplus economy. The surplus economy is the set of material relationships required to produce the goods for the basic economy, much like the mill where your favorite neighborhood bakery sources its flour. For Lonergan, the total economy is only in harmony when there is balanced, sustainable growth between the basic economy and the surplus economy. The surplus economy serves the basic economy, not the other way around.
And yet, we belong to a world where the economy is valued by metrics related to the surplus economy: growth in aggregate production, the rise of stock market values, the rate of capital formation. We might be happier to look primarily after health and sanity of our children, the strength of our friendships (personal and national), and the quality of our days.
Lonergan is correct. If economics fixates so much on the surplus economy that it neglects the basic economy, it is not economics. Unless it serves the under-served, unless it helps makes happy the unhappy, it exists for nothing.