Economism and the National Prospect (Part II)

By John Attarian
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 10, Number 2 (Winter 1999-2000)
Issue theme: "Ober borders: gateways for criminals and terrorists"


Our terrible predicament is that our national life is grounded squarely in allegiance to a belief system that is lethally wrongheaded and is driving America to national ruin. As long as economism's death grip on the American mind remains unchallenged and unbroken, globalization will continue to ravage America. As long as we embrace economism's ends, we are condemned to embrace its means.

We will be unable to deal with free trade or the shifting of production and jobs overseas as long as we subscribe to the idea that the object of life is pleasure through consumption and that the cheaper the consumer goods we crave so much, the better off we are.

Likewise, we will be unable to halt the immigration flood as long as we deem economic concerns more important than anything else (therefore immigration's purported economic gains outweigh America's Balkanization, the dissolution of our identity and culture, and the prospect of whites becoming a persecuted minority in their own land); regard people as economic animals who matter only in terms of economic performance (therefore it makes no difference where they come from, just so they get the job done); and seek our fulfillment in entertainment and consumption and regard drudgery as a curse (therefore immigrants are desirable because they do the dirty work we deem beneath us).

And we will be unable to check globalization so long as we permit economism's beliefs, practitioners and beneficiaries to dominate our politics.

Clearly, repudiating economism is vital for our survival. Yet economism will be terribly difficult to uproot. For one thing, as Samuel Francis shrewdly observed

Ideas do have consequences, but some ideas have more consequences than others, and which consequences ensue from which ideas is settled not simply because the ideas serve human reason through their logical implications but also because some ideas serve human interests and emotions through their attachment to drives for political, economic, and social power, while other ideas do not.(23)

Economism clearly serves the agendas of the corporations and other powerful interests which run this country, and they are not about to let it go. Corporations' profits depend squarely on expanding their market shares, which means expanding exports, and on driving down their costs, which means using cheaper imported inputs; using low-wage foreign labor as a bludgeon to beat down American labor costs; transferring production to foreign sources; and employing cheap immigrants rather than Americans.

The mainstream news and opinion media are owned by these selfsame corporations, hence generally favor globalization. Most think tanks, colleges and universities are dependent upon corporate contributions, hence are unlikely to generate any serious criticisms of globalization and economism.

And the American people live in the house that economism built, and apparently like its amenities too much to leave it. And quitting economism's house will be hard, because it will mean uprooting a generations-old orientation to consumption and entertainment putting curbs on our appetites, repudiating corporate-supplied affluence, cultivating our own characters and inner resources and drawing upon them, rather than possessions and commercial entertainments, for our sense of life's goodness and of our identity, significance and worth. In short, liberating ourselves from economism will require the secular equivalent of a religious conversion, and a corollary transformation of our lives. But since this will entail much short-term discomfort, in the forms of austerity, a more laborious lifestyle and self-cultivation, it will be highly traumatic for a decadent population, and perhaps impossible. True, individuals may still extract themselves from economism's clutches, ŕ la Wendell Berry, but this will not improve the national prospect unless it occurs on a large scale.

The Devil pays well in the short run. But the long run is now. In our infatuation with economism, we have trapped ourselves. The drug of economism will kill us unless we give it up, but doing so will be terribly hard. Our predicament is Macbeth's

...I am in blood

Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o'er.


(1) These are the standard assumptions of economic theory.

(2) Richard Cobden, 'Speech in Manchester, January 15, 1846,' in Richard Cobden, Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P., ed. John Bright and James E. ThoroId Rogers (London Macmillan and Co., 1880), p.187.

(3) Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1962), p.109.

(4) David Boaz, Libertarianism A Primer (New' York The Free Press, 1997), p.18.

(5) Lester G. Crocker, An Age of Crisis Man and World in Eighteenth-Century French Thought (Baltimore, MD Johns Hopkins Press, 1959), p. 11; and Lester G. Crocker, Nature and Culture Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment (Baltimore, MD Johns Hopkins Press, 1963), pp.398- 399.

(6) The Marquis de Sade, Juliette, tr. Austryn Wainhouse (New York Grove Weidenfeld, 1968), pp.43, 49-50, 267-268, 277-278 et al.

(7) See, e.g., 'The Psychology of Economic Man,' in Jeremy Bentham, Jeremy Bentham's Economic Writings, ed. Werner Stark (London George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1954), III 421-450; John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, in Mill, Utilitarianism with Critical Essays, ed. Samuel Gorovitz (Indianapolis Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), pp.17-21.

(8) Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought 1860-1915 (Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945); for business embrace of Darwinism, see pp.30-32.

(9) Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York HarperCollins, 1998), p.551.

(10) Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven Progress and its Critics (New York W. W. Norton, 1991), p.519.

(11) George Garrett, 'When Lorena Bobbitt Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbing Along,' Chronicles, April 1994, p.22.

(12) Aldous Huxley, 'Introduction,' in Laura Archera Huxley, You Are Not the Target (New York Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1963), p.xi.

(13) Jasper Ridley, Lord Palmerston (London Panther Books, 1972), p.791.

(14) David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa, vol. 1, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 1953), p.390.

(15) Edward Luttwak, Turbo-capitalism Winners and Losers in the Global Economy (New York HarperCollins, 1999), pp.44-46, 77, 82-83.

(16) Quoted in Robert G. L. Waite, The Psychopathic God Adolf Hitler (New York New American Library, Mentor Books, 1977), p.307.

(17) Robert 1. Bartley, 'Is America on the Way Down? No,' Commentary, March 1992, p.23.

(18) William T. Wilson, 'Man's moral state is better than author believes,' The Detroit News, July 23, 1997, 11A.

(19) See, e.g., Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land Further Essays Cultural and Historical (San Francisco North Point Press, 1981), pp.114-119, 132-133.

(20) Boaz, Libertarianism, p.170.

(21) S.J. Cicero, 'A Closer Look at ‘Dumping',' in Burton J. Folsom, Jr., ed., The Industrial Revolution and Free Trade (Irvington, NY Foundation for Economic Education, 1996), p.166-167.

(22) Linda Chavez, 'Could today's immigrants truly transform America?' The Detroit News, June 7, 1995, 15A.

(23) Samuel Francis, Beautiful Losers Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism (Columbia, MO University of Missouri Press, 1993), p.3.

About the author

John Attarian, Ph.D., with a doctorate in economics from the University of Michigan, is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor.

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