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The root of economics is no dismal science
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The root of economics is no dismal science

'Economics' once meant 'household management.' And don’t forget: Home is the first place where we learn to be human.

One of my favorite rhetorical techniques is when speakers get to the bottom of an idea through etymology. At a wedding I attended over the weekend, the priest explained the meaning of “sincerity.” During the Renaissance, Spanish sculptors who made mistakes while carving expensive marble often patched their flaws with “cera,” wax. A statue that had no flaws and required no patching was hailed as a sculpture “sine cera” — a sculpture "without wax.” The phrase eventually came to mean anything honest or true.

Sine cera. Sincerity.

The other morning, I was reading the transcript of Erika Bachiochi’s incisive remarks for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Economic Forum, when it struck me that economics, a field that historically has dealt heavily in abstraction, could use this kind of clarity. The word "economy" is derived from the ancient Greek word oikonomos: οἰκο- “house” and -νόμος “rule, law.” In short, the word once meant "household management."

Bachiochi writes:

That our economics and politics will reap the “dividends” of “investing” in social “capital” gives the impression that human sociality is merely instrumental to econometric or democratic ends. ... But that framing doesn’t get human nature quite right, it seems to me. And the question of nature is an essential starting place for conservatives; for though we certainly aren’t looking, as progressives are, to create out of whole cloth the ideal regime, we do want to orient our politics and economics toward the real goods of human flourishing

Too often, policymakers think in terms of the individual, the market, and the state. And even if “mediating” institutions are remembered, as with [Robert] Putnam, it’s not the work of nurture and care in the family that is given pride of place in our political imagination; no, that work, that work of the “private sphere,” has been far too often taken for granted. But if human beings really are to flourish, then … the health of our families where infants are nurtured — and both children and their parents are formed — must be at the very center of our politics and economics.

The bitterly ironic heartbreak of mothers everywhere is that the places and people in life we most easily take for granted are also the formative ones. In order to be formed in a space, by another person, in a certain sense, the space and the person must be taken for granted. That is the nature of a foundation. To support without credit. To provide the stability and permanence that make higher-minded activities possible.

Homo economicus does not emerge ex nihilo as a rational being. He was a child who sprang from a womb and was formed by a family. In the words of Katrine Marcal, “Adam Smith got his dinner because his mother made sure it was on the table every evening.”

One cannot demand gratitude from children for the things they do not yet understand. But just as a parent’s duty is to support their children until they understand, it is an adult child’s duty to remember his father and mother.

I think excessive abstraction in political discourse comes from, but also reinforces and enables, a failure to remember. All forms and technologies of abstraction — from offshoring and globalization to the internet — have the same flattening effect on the memory. We forget how things are made from the ground up. We forget the mundane exercises and habits that form good things, good friendships, and a good society: excellence! The home is the first place where we learn to be human. It is also a place where memories are formed, stored, and recalled. I think these have something to do with one another.

Despite the promise (sometimes fulfilled) of sublime clarity, unbounded abstraction ultimately confuses us about who we are. Bachiochi implores conservatives to remember the mothers à la Abigail Adams. If conservatives cannot be motivated by what may resonate as a feminist position, maybe they can remember that patriotism itself springs from the same piety that impels adherence to the fifth commandment.

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