Economism And The Poverty Of Our Political Discourse

I-181-0415Our politicians and our media spend a lot of time talking about money, budgets, and deficits. Subsequently, our political discourse has gotten quite poor. We’ve succumbed to the trap that is economism.

Economism is the belief that economics is the most important element of human society – that the production and consumption of material goods and the acquisition of wealth are not just means to greater ends – but are themselves the purpose  and the ends for which we are striving as a culture.

We have grown obsessed with measures of material wealth such as the Dow Jones and the GDP. When those numbers are up, we feel good about ourselves as a society. When those numbers drop, we feel like a collective failure. We even practice economism on a personal level, determining an individual’s "net worth" by their financial assets and their level of career success by the size of their salary.

As a result, when we consider political issues, we focus too much on economics. We neglect to consider the ways in which legislation and government programs can promote the social good beyond measures of dollars and cents.

Take the health care debate, for example. We put the cart before the horse. Instead of saying that what is most important is to provide care for all of our citizens, and then working to figure out the economics to accomplish this; we began by talking about what was financially sound and then working to figure how many people that could cover and how much care it could provide. We approached the issue as if finances were what was most important to us, not saving people’s lives.

Economism is affecting many other issues before our country as well, such as energy, climate change, net neutrality, and the general fight against corporate control in Washington. Just yesterday on The Seminal, there was a vigorous discussion on net neutrality, but it never got beyond economics. It never got past considerations of telecom investment and profits, and how that affects the cost of access for consumers. It never got to higher considerations of how equal access to the Internet, like equal access to public education, provides numerous benefits for individuals and society that transcend mere financial figures.

From both sides of the aisle, the debates seem to begin and end with dollars and cents. And it’s not that finances don’t matter. They are very important. But they’re not the reason we are here. We are meant to be more than wage earners, investors, producers, and consumers. We are meant for greater things such as art, literature, music, intellect, faith, love, passion, justice, and true community with one another. Our political discourse desperately needs to reflect those things.

Social critic Albert Jay Nock aptly sums up the danger we are facing:

I have sometimes thought that here may be the rock on which Western civilization will finally shatter itself. Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savor and depth, and which exercises the irresistible power of attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored of its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.

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