Economic Theory and Violence in Society

This issue of El Ignaciano has focused on the problem of violence in America.  In this article, I would like to comment on how economic theory, especially the ideas of Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, have contributed to a devaluation of human life and a depreciation of respect for human dignity and therefore to violence.  Which is to say, once a greater value is afforded to the products of labor than to the laborer, to the intrinsic dignity of the human person, violence awaits like a prowling lion in the darkness


I would agree with Graham Patterson on this score: “To some extent Adam Smith is like the Darwin of capitalism, the “market,” whatever that is, determines the survival of the fittest. He was also the believer in “the invisible hand” in that if you look after yourself and do the best you can, you indirectly help others – or something along those lines.”1 However, markets exist to serve human beings, not human beings to bolster markets.  As such, there must be some rules about the way they operate, and as soon as we talk about rules we need to consider what should happen if the rules aren’t followed. What Adam Smith seemed to ignore was the need for a society to provide the infrastructure for capitalism to survive. That infrastructure needs to be planned in a way that it ultimately serves the whole of the society and not just the “industrialists” and entrepreneurs. Then of course, there is the issue of how commercial intercourse can operate in the best interests of the society.  Smith seems to have completely missed this simple fact: There is absolutely no point in producing anything at all, whether it is a product or a service, unless it ultimately serves the common good.


To be fair to Smith, we must realize that he was not an a-moralist in these matters.  He followed David Hume and was a sentimentalist when it came to morality.  He believed that society would order itself morally due to the fact that sentiments would, in some way ensure the common good of all.  The “invisible hand of the market” would reign in avarice and unbridled greed.  However, and here is the crux of the problem: sentiments are a weak hedge against human propensity for selfish aggrandizement.  Consider!  If I am told I can make 25 million dollars by cheating a few people, I could easily rationalize that I can do far more good with that money than the harm I will cause by my transgression. Hence, the relative weakness of sentiments in the face of cold, hard cash.  Moreover, once the nineteenth and twentieth century theorists of capitalism abandoned the strictures of moral sentimentalism to be found in David Hume and Adam Smith, all that is left is the ravenous and inexorable logic of the market-place, which sees labor as a pure commodity, the poor as lazy, aspiration-less louts and the common good as nothing but selfishness writ large.  Then, with Gordon Geckko of Wall Street and Money Never Sleeps, “Greed is good.”


The problem comes down to this, and it is, ultimately, ontological in nature: when the human being is understood as worth no more than his or her monetary value or ability to produce capital, goods or services, the human being is degraded beyond all recognition as a human being.  As Gabriel Marcel would say, “We witness the triumph of the less than human over the more than human.”  This tendency reduces human beings to mere objects of desire, to be used and consumed by those in power.  Power becomes “das Ding”, a sort of sacrosanct god.  For the sake of acquiring power or, conversely, railing against a lack of power, the shooting up of a few classrooms does not seem so immoral or unthinkable as it actually is.


I would say that the remedy is to be found in a return to a Christian view of work and the human dignity that attends it.  No better reflection on this can be found than John Paul II’s encyclical, Laborem exercens.  Keeping this encyclical in mind I preached a homily at my Dad’s funeral. Allow me to quote from it:



His whole life, my father worked very hard.  He was a plumber, painter, carpenter and air-conditioner repairman.  Truth be told, I think he could fix anything.  At his memorial service, I made reference to John Paul II’s encyclical, Laborem Exercens.  In that letter, the pope uses a metaphor, which I have always found particularly beautiful because of my Dad.  He says that Creation is the great workbench and we stand side by side with God, working at the bench.  Thus, human work has an essential dignity.  By our work, we co-create with God and, hence, the work of our hands is sacred.  My father, in the maintenance shed behind the rectory, had a workbench.  It was always messy, covered with tools and nails and half-fixed stuff.  It was messy but it was magical.  My Dad could fix anything.  There was genius in his hands.  I think he was always a bit mystified that he produced two sons, one a doctor of medicine and the other a doctor of philosophy who could barely nail two boards together.  When I see my father again, he will be smiling, crying and tap-dancing and behind gloriously messy work bench.”



We live in a world of “degraded mysteries,” to quote Gabriel Marcel.  Work should not be a commodity to be bought and sold.  Human Beings are worth infinitely more than what they produce or how much they have in the bank.  Until we restore the essential sense of the dignity of the human person, no number of gun laws or improvement of mental health delivery will solve the problem of school violence in particular or societal violence in general.  Violence is born in a cold gaze, as Emmanuel Levinas might say.  Violence will cease when we look into the face of a human being and see not objectifications but sacred human beings whose very humanity demands respect, care and love.  On my view, it is surpassingly odd: We tell our children that money, power and status are all that matters, that they and their classmates only matter if they are producers and consumers, then, we are shocked and angry when they attach little value to human life.

Moreover, at least here in Florida, we live in a state where if a man shoves me, I can “stand my ground” by shooting him!  Even in the wild, wild West, it was considered wrong to shoot an unarmed man!  But I suppose that is for another article by someone who can even begin to understand how such a Draconian law makes the least bit of common or legal sense – that person would not be myself.

By Fr. Robert M. Vallee

Ph.D. Is Associate Professor and chairperson of the Philosophy

Department of St. John Vianney College Seminary.

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