The Economics of Flourishing

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Mass Flourishing by Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps is a phenomenal book about the essence of modern capitalism.  At its core, Mass Flourishing argues that the ability of a nation’s economy to deliver on its promises of employment, wages, and job satisfaction is based on its economic culture.  For Phelps, only a culture of vitalism, characterized by a humanist vision of "the good life", will supply the creativity required for home-grown innovation that consistently improves the quality of life for everyone.

Phelps’ approach to economics echoes that of modern theologians and Christian writers of the Faith and Work Movement; these view the economy as one system that interacts with both the political and, more importantly, the cultural sphere of life. These writers see the separation between sacred and secular as a false dichotomy, and their writing aims to close the unfortunate separation between spiritual life and earthly work.  While we should be very excited that a renowned economist is building economic models and arguments based on a robust vision of flourishing, we should also be wary of Phelps’ prescription for “the good life.”

A Holistic Way to Measure Economic Success: Dynamism and Flourishing

Phelps begins with a tour of nineteenth-century Britain, France, Germany, and America—a time of revolutionary change in those countries.  In addition to economic measures, he uses cultural examples from literature and art to argue that for the first time in history young men and women could seek careers that provided personal growth and meaning; Dickens’ hero David Copperfield and Brontë’s heroine Jane Eyre are young adults who can “get on in society.”  Phelps maintains that because the human experience is so much more than material, we must do away with the classical economic way of viewing the world through the alienating notion of material growth. Instead, we should measure the strength of a country on its dynamism, or “the drive to change things, the talent for it, and the receptivity to new things… the willingness and capacity to innovate” (Ch 1, p20).

An oft-mentioned but rarely understood concept, innovation is “a new method or new product that becomes a new practice somewhere in the world” (Ch 1, p20).  Working together, it is managers, laborers, investors, and consumers—with their practical knowledge, talent, and insight—who bring about endemic innovation year after year after year; this is how mass flourishing is created.  But what enables dynamism and creativity?  Phelps believes that the humanist view of self-fulfillment unleashed the modern economy.  Citing Aristotle, Voltaire, and Nietzsche, Phelps argues that people are most alive when taking charge of their own life through the processes of self-actualization and personal fulfillment. 

Modern Capitalism and True Flourishing

If Phelps is correct and economics is about providing bountiful and meaningful work, this carries implications for the movers and shakers of economy, politics, and culture.  Classical policies that focus on stimulating demand or supply miss the point that giving people wealth does not necessarily lead to flourishing.  In fact, the money culture in America appears to seek short-term wealth at the cost of long-term innovation.  To distinguish his system of dynamism and innovation from classical conceptions of capitalism, which limit free market goals to wealth-seeking, Phelps adds the qualifier of “modern” to capitalism.  This definition echoes the term “democratic capitalism” coined by Catholic scholar Michael Novak. Both authors stress the cultural spirit of the economy, but it is on the spirit of the culture that a Christian conception of flourishing departs from Phelps’ view.

The vocabulary Phelps uses to discuss work is tantalizing: dynamism, creativity, and flourishing.  As Christians we are given a robust view of flourishing throughout Scripture, where we see a creative and generous God fashion the earth and charge humans to cultivate it.  Unfortunately, Phelps sees “a life of duty to God” to be at strict odds with “a life of value to oneself”; he argues that because succumbing to a life of service for others removes the possibility of living the good life for yourself.  He cites domestic housework as an example, suggesting that a parent who sacrifices their opportunities in the economy outside the home is not living a full life.

This mutually exclusive dichotomy of sacrifice and self-fulfillment in no way reflects the beliefs and teachings of Christianity.  The gospel fundamentally replies that a life of duty to God is a life of value to oneself.  “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10 NIV) The Protestant Reformers (whom Phelps mentions only in passing) provided strong preaching on vocation, teaching us that God works out the flourishing of the earth through our acts of service to others—none of which we can accomplish on our own.  Consequently, living a life through the Spirit is the good life.  “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:25 NASV) Self-actualization is not found inside of us, but outside, in the finished work of Christ, whose identity we take on as adopted heirs into God’s Kingdom—which is surely an economy of mass flourishing. 

Nathan Trulsen is a management consultant at Accenture and graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.  The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of his employer, Accenture.