The Not Unreasonable Podcast

Mary Hirschfeld on Aquinas and the Market

July 02, 2020 David Wright Season 1 Episode 47
The Not Unreasonable Podcast
Mary Hirschfeld on Aquinas and the Market
Chapters
The Not Unreasonable Podcast
Mary Hirschfeld on Aquinas and the Market
Jul 02, 2020 Season 1 Episode 47
David Wright

My guest for this episode is Mary Hirschfeld, Associate Professor of Economics & Theology at Villanova University. Mary has a PhD in Economics from Harvard University and a PhD in Theology from Notre Dame. Her book, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, is the book we as a society need someone with that background to write. We talk about what an alternative universe of economics might look like if designed by the famed Catholic Theologian. 

The cheap reading of her book can sound just like another bunch of self-help moralizing about us needing to consume less and live better. In our conversation I even challenge her a bit and say this isn't particularly newsworthy, so why write the book? Mary's mission is deeper, though, she's out there to give us some new, more effective intellectual arguments for *why* our lives should be lived better. Even though we may already be looking for more fulfilling pursuits than the old rat race there is a surprising lack of intellectual underpinnings to this set of ideas, especially the economics of these ideas. Mary Hirschfeld to the rescue. Let me know how you think she does!

This show is part of an on-again / off-again series I'm recording about the philosophical and moral foundations of economics. See my episodes with Tyler Cowen on Stubborn Attachments and Agnes Callard on What Philosophy Feels Like!

Show Notes Transcript

My guest for this episode is Mary Hirschfeld, Associate Professor of Economics & Theology at Villanova University. Mary has a PhD in Economics from Harvard University and a PhD in Theology from Notre Dame. Her book, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, is the book we as a society need someone with that background to write. We talk about what an alternative universe of economics might look like if designed by the famed Catholic Theologian. 

The cheap reading of her book can sound just like another bunch of self-help moralizing about us needing to consume less and live better. In our conversation I even challenge her a bit and say this isn't particularly newsworthy, so why write the book? Mary's mission is deeper, though, she's out there to give us some new, more effective intellectual arguments for *why* our lives should be lived better. Even though we may already be looking for more fulfilling pursuits than the old rat race there is a surprising lack of intellectual underpinnings to this set of ideas, especially the economics of these ideas. Mary Hirschfeld to the rescue. Let me know how you think she does!

This show is part of an on-again / off-again series I'm recording about the philosophical and moral foundations of economics. See my episodes with Tyler Cowen on Stubborn Attachments and Agnes Callard on What Philosophy Feels Like!

David Wright :

My guest today is Mary Hirschfeld, associate professor of economics and theology at Villanova University. Mary has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and a PhD in theology from Notre Dame. Her book, Aquinas and the market towards a humane economy is the book we as a society, I think, need someone with this background to write. It's profound and fascinating work. And I'm really excited to discuss it today. Mary, welcome to the show.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Hi, it's great to be here.

David Wright :

So going into this little project for myself, my impression of Christian economic thought is it actually feels pretty socialist. There's a lot of emphasis on altruism and pleading or instructing people to act with certain higher motivations. Aquinas, surprisingly, to me seems to share more common ground with economists actually then I was expecting and I'm wondering first, you can feel free to dispute my premise there. But Where Where does Aquinas agree with mainstream economic thinking today?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Okay, um, so just to go to your premise in the main I can definitely see how you get that impression it's very often the impression that I get that a lot of Christian theologians thinking about economics do so from kind of a Yeah, let's all Let's all be nice, let's love each other and feel good and and all of that the Catholic tradition out of which I'm writing prides itself on finding a third path between socialism on the one hand and capitalism on the other. So it doesn't sound as socialist, at least in its depth of the teaching. It's not as socialist as a lot of Christian emphasis confound. Other people can take it that way fairly. So anyway, so your impression is sort of right, mostly right. The reason that I gravitate gravitated towards Aquinas for this project is exactly because for me as an economist, into theology, I was alarmed by the failure to understand the value of markets and private property or so on. And I loved Aquinas independently for his theological heft. But in pursuing a project on Aquinas on private property, I just I realized he had, he had exactly the right tools, he has space for understanding the value of markets. And he's any affirm, she positively affirms private properties as part of the good life. So that gives points of contact between Aquinas and economists. And yet he does so in a different framework, which allows room for some of the critiques of the people that the theologians trying to get at. So it allows you to bring in those critiques but in a way that is more aware of and responsive to the values of markets. So that's the heart of the book, and that's why I love Aquinas.

David Wright :

How much did he how much of I guess economic values if we can get into that again, of course, did he anticipate did he actually, you know, explicitly endorse or even, I guess implicitly endorse, you know, what was this exact signal you picked up on? In the book, you talked a bit about private property being an important piece. And I'm wondering kind of how closely did it map in the actual text?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Okay, so first of all, to be completely fair or clear. Aquinas is writing centuries before Adam Smith, he writes without an intended consequences. Yeah, he doesn't know that markets guide us towards relatively efficient outcomes or anything like that. But what happens in his defense of private property is he gives space for a lot of the intuitions that economists are going to develop later on, even though he himself doesn't do that. So he defends. His teaching on private property is more complicated when I'm about to say, but his narrow defense on why private property is listed in his terminology, why it's legal or permissible or maybe even downright good. for three reasons, and this all has to do with our ability to manage property well in order to, you know, generate a living out of it. So one is, if we didn't have private property, we would all Quarrel and fight with each other about who gets what. So that's that's an affirmation that would work if we were falling. But if we were all saints, then we wouldn't need private property. And that was the classic Christian position, which is, in a fallen world, we're too crappy to have private property have a communal property. So we need that private property. But the other two reasons are more ambiguous. And the second one, and this is the one that dovetails with economics, I think very well is, if we didn't have private property, we would just be disorganized. We wouldn't know who was supposed to do what or who was supposed to take care of what. So we could all have goodwill and get up in the morning and go out to say we're going to go work for the common good. But you know who takes care of the rhubarb she takes care of the radishes He's supposed to go water the orange trees like it's just not clear. So private property has the great virtue of allowing us to know what is our responsibility to take care of. And in that argument, I find plenty of room for the idea of specialization. it respects our it just it respects our finitude, it says something about, you know, I can take care of this plot of ground if it's mine, I know what crops grow best on it. I know what fertilizers work best on it. It just gives all sorts of room for that. And of course, then we're going to want to have the facility to trade and that's where markets would come in. So that's the space where I see lots of room for the engagement with economics. And then the third one is the more challenge is the interesting one. He says the third reason why we want to have private property is because we're more likely to work hard if we're procuring goods for ourselves. Something like that. And so as an economist, I'm like, okay, ding, ding, ding, he's got an idea about incentives. But that's also the place where his thought diverges from economists because the next thing he's going to say is, okay, private property is good for these three reasons, we really need to have it, it's actively good. But once once we've divided the world with private property, we should hold that private property as though it were common to it by being willing to share the goods with others. And so I have this big huge wrestling match in my head going, how does that square with that third reason for why private property is good? How is it that private property incentives incentivizes me to actually work hard, but then I'm supposed to turn around and give it all away? Right? How does that Yep. And that's what led me to the insight about the way Aquinas differs from economists and that is he thinks self interest is perfectly good. It's actually right for me to want to feed myself and my family first. And that's why private property channels properly my concern for myself into productive activity. But she has this idea that what I really want, if I really thought hard about it, what I want, economically is a bounded that is I only want I want to work hard so that I can feed myself shelter myself or so on. But that I have a fixed idea about what I need, such that if I had a bumper crop, I would meet all my needs, feed my family, maybe even take care of some friends and neighbors. But whatever was surplus to that whatever it was beyond that, with that what would be available to share to others freely in their need. So he has an idea about self interest, but unlike ours, it's a self interest that does not cash out as I want as much as I can get. It's I want as much as I need. This is the difference.

David Wright :

How, and we'll come back to that because that's an incredibly important point. Come back to that in probably more than for more than one direction, but I'm wondering how widely accepted this is because you make some points about how he's a very influential theologian and maybe influential and other way philosopher, as well. And this is this mainstream Catholic thought what you're saying there or does he diverge in any kind of way from from the thinking as it stands today and the Catholic Church?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Um, he's a doctor of the church. So Aquinas is the single most important theologian in the Catholic Church he's by no means the only one. But you can sort of play him as a trump card.

David Wright :

Okay. Interesting. Yeah.

Mary Hirschfeld :

I mean, people are going to disagree or whatever but if you if you say you know, if you said falling climates that people have to take you seriously. And the church itself when it when the church when the economy started to go towards the capitalist market order, the church belatedly around 1892 may get the exact date wrong, started putting out encyclicals To respond to this new economic order, and the first thing they took up was private property. And the defense there mostly follows Aquinas, although interestingly, it's got a little bit of john Locke in there also. But it comes down to saying private property is important, among other things, because it allows individuals to maintain their own dignity. So I think the idea in the church is widespread property ownership so that everybody has enough at stake. Right here

David Wright :

was another question about just just this his status is the source of his influence. Is it this line of thinking, or is he like, Is he a superstar in some theological, you know, topic, or several? And then this kind of comes along or so where's the source of his influence? So what was his real innovation or contribution? Was it this or something else?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, no, that's a great question. He's a superstar, and the source of his influences, is Summa theologica this monument Work, covering all of theology integrates philosophy and faith really systematically, deeply, profoundly. So Aquinas is here. Aquinas is hero in the philosophical world is Aristotle. And Aristotle was coming into the European world in Latin translation in the century, the 13th 13th century when Aquinas lived, and and the medievals just loved Aristotle, or a lot of them did. And so but the question was, how do you integrate this, this strong philosophical approach to things with faith with, you know, with revelation and Aquinas, you know, obviously loves revelation also. So he's just got this passionate love for both and and integrates them and shows how they fit together and actually support each other. And that's just foundational to the Catholic approach. So as recently as john paul the second in his fetus that rat to faith and reason, you know, he talks about philosophy and theology is two wings that need to fly together. And that's and that's Aquinas project. So,

David Wright :

in one one of the thought that I had just in your actual explanation there was in the book, you have an interesting way of dividing up the different ways in which the ology can influence economics. And I'd like to talk about those because it seems to me that one could probably pick any one ticket cornices thought and then pick any one of these strategies. Right? And, and, and use that to pursue it, but you adopted a very specific way of approaching this problem. And I wonder if you could talk about that for a second.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, no, and I do think I get that from Aquinas. Um, so. So the question is, we have two disciplines, we have economics on the one hand and theology on the other and we want to bring them into engagement. So on what basis would we do that? And the question is, which which of the disciplines has more weight like because Do they come in as equals? And if they come in as equals, what do we do when they have disparate propositions? How do we reconcile them? So? So strategy number one would be to say, well, economics is an actual science. So it's the one that has more weight. And so then the economic or the theological project would be to say, given that economists have taught us how markets work, how does that? How does that help us understand what the gospel is saying about economic life? And some do that sympathetically. I'm saying, you know, we can find a theological basis for the freedom that's inherent in markets, something like that. So you can get a market friendly, theological reading. Others take the opposite approach. They're like, well, mainstream economics is too greedy or whatever. So they instead pride themselves on a more Marxist kind of economic basis and then find theological resonance with the Marxist theology, Marxist economic approach. And but in both cases theology is being made to conform to whatever is the basic way of seeing the world that comes from the economics. And from my point of view, that's it's just not very helpful. I mean, why not just have the economic, you know, the economist by outfight, the Marxists, because what ends up happening is you have the, you know, the economic debates within mainstream economics in between mainstream economics and Marxism. And then you have basically a bunch of theologians picking aspects of theology to cheerlead for the side that they are rooting. Right, right. So anyway, the second approach, which is really quite common, and a lot of economists want to gravitate towards it also is to say, Well, now we're coming into mainstream economics, economics is instrumental, it's about trying to figure out how to achieve good policies. So if a policymaker says I want to give, you know, cheaper housing for the poor, and then economists can do their analysis and say, Well, you know, it might look like rent control would be a good way to do that. But here's some better ideas about how to achieve that goal that you've laid out. And if that's your picture of what economics is doing, then there's clearly a role for a theologian or an ethicist to say what it is that we should be aiming at. So economists do the positive analysis about what various policies would do in terms of achieving various goals. And then normative economic or you know, the the normative side about what those goals should be comes from the theologians or the the ethicists. So that's not bad. So that my concern about it was sort of more in the weeds, and I don't know how far you want to go into it. The way it plays out, is it's not clear what the theologians or the emphasis are actually contributing. Because a lot of what happens is people think that these debates about say minimum wage or debates about whether you want to have whether we should want to help the working force should not want to help the working poor whereas before In economics, the debate isn't whether we should or should not help the working poor, it's about how best to help the working poor. So what does the Theologian really have to contribute? If everybody agrees that the purpose of economics is to try to help the working poor? Then what is the Theologian Adam, they say, oh, and theologically speaking, it would be good for you to help the working poor. It just doesn't add much. And there's a strange kind of energy in the literature because theologians are not falling all over themselves to say, you know, medicine should find a cure for cancer. So, yeah, there's more to be said about that. But if it looks like it's a fruitful division of labor, but it really isn't, because there's actually already consensus, I think,

David Wright :

Nick on the goals, and I think that, you know, one of the things that I thought was fascinating and you can dig in deeper if you'd like on this is the way in which that fails is interesting. If you're using the tools of economics, those themselves were kind of the taint is right. But you know, the the rational choice model and they're like, but we could, we could Back to the if you like, or however you want to continue the narrative.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, let's let's come back to that. Um, so. So then the third one is to say let's let's go ahead and and set it up and let theology be the dominant discourse. And from a theological point of view, it should be since theology is about ordering your life towards your ultimate ends, which is God. And theology is the discipline that does that. You should start with theology. But this would not. This would be mostly about saying, what we're going to do is use a theological orientation towards what is actually good, what is actually human happiness? How do we really understand that? And then, given that orientation, you would still have the discipline of economics doing its own economic thing because the economists roll up their sleeves and go and look at the world as it is and figure out what's going on. And then what you want to do is engage in an integration that says, What can we learn from economists but how the world actually is. We might want to correct a few In economics, because economists, although they do a good job of describing how the world is, or at least that's what their enterprises and the reasonably good at it, I think they often slide into prescribing telling us how the world should be, and in ways that are incompatible to theological vision. So. So the way I approach it is, I'm going to stick to my guns about how I think the world should be ordered. But on Aquinas view, you can't just start with how the world should be ordered. You have to pay attention to how people in the actual world behave. We think we live in a fallen world. So we would expect people to not behave in a way that necessarily moves them towards genuine happiness. So let's learn from economists but how that plays out. And then there's this lovely space where, you know, given the world as it is, how do we think about policies, institutions and norms and so on, that respects the limitations of human behavior but doesn't really Fight and make us think that that's the only way we can be at least space for us to move towards a better way of engaging with our economic lives. So,

David Wright :

do you want to talk about the Machiavellian critique that might be useful? Because it seems strikes me as being a really powerful way to shoot down a lot of a lot of ideas that that seek to have the right motivation, right. So you want to try and improve the way that that or improve how we progress as a society, but if you if you don't have if you're not actually doing a very good job of describing how things work, then you're never gonna be able to change that. If you please, push back against that characterization. But

Mary Hirschfeld :

yeah, no, I mean, I start out with it's one of the first moves I'm making the book is to go to Machiavelli. So Machiavelli is what is the Renaissance thinker Yeah,

David Wright :

couple hundred years later, after

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yes, after Aquinas but well before the modern world or you know before the modern world. So, in the ancient world, everybody thought politics. And to the extent that How about economics, they thought about it in normative terms. I mean, if you read your Aristotle, he certainly is aware of how people actually are. But they write in terms of how things should be, at least that was the Machiavellian critique. And he's just like, if you really want to think about how to be, you know how to how to function well in this world, it just won't do this start off with some utopian idea about everybody loves each other and go from there, because everybody does not, in fact, love each other. And and you're going to get a lot of unint, you know, you're going to get a lot of bad outcomes. And this is the economic insight on par excellence, right? It's Adam Smith idea that it's not from the love of my neighbor, that my neighbor gets fat, you know, fed. It's out of my own self interest, because my neighbor offers me money for the loaf of bread and that incentivizes me to produce bread. So, the, the, the Machiavellian critique is You know, let's be pragmatic and hard headed and realistic. And the modern project as I understand it, and possibly a somewhat crude way, but the modern private say, let's just assume people are self interested greedy bastards. And let's figure out what set of policies and institutions we can design so that we can channel their crappy behavior into good outcomes. So economists come along and say, yes, you know, that really self interested behavior causes us to set up businesses that, you know, are conducive to common good, because people are pursuing their profit motive. And markets just do a great job of turning that into good outcomes. And then we debate about when the markets fail, and so on. So that's the Machiavellian turn and my frustration was the comms coming into theology is that just not enough of them understood why Machiavelli would want to make that turn. And so they do end up talking past the modern world by basically just saying, Hey, you know, if we just got rid of private property, everything will be fine. Which I think is silly. So, at the same time though the, the tiller we had to swallow and we took the Machiavellian term is ratifying people as they are and saying, right go from saying, people. We go from saying people just are greedy or whatever to saying normative, it's almost flying in the same normatively that's good. It's like, you might as well just pursue our best interest. That's how we are. There's no normative horizon whatsoever anymore, no idea that we could be better, nothing to channeler our interest back towards, you know, I may well want to make things further my own ness. But I also do care about my neighbor. And that kind of starts to get squashed out. And people actually start being shaped by that narrative. So we might actually become worse people. If you live in a post Machiavellian world that says that's how people are. So I want to have you Sorry, no, I'm done. Go ahead.

David Wright :

So the thing, another really, really cool point you make is that economists that you have these two sides, right, so you have to call them normative in the positive. So how things are or how things should be and how things are, respectively. And, and economists they they're their tools are all designed to describe how things are right to pass the Machiavellian critique. But then a lot of their status and social authority comes from actually really doubling down on that and saying, here's how you get more. And so they're playing into some, you know, some of the weaker urges, I guess, you might say, or at the very least, with perpetuating and indeed accentuating what it is about society that we're describing. And, and people like that, and they like having more stuff, and they like carrying on in this in this kind of particular value system. And so economists take a lot of they when they're because they're really good at passing the Machiavellian critique

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, no. And I think you're exactly right. The procedure time has come because they basically give us a big thumbs up on what we're doing,

David Wright :

keep going and Peters out.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, no, exactly. And but then the other thing to my mind a little bit pernicious. So, an example of how they kind of crossed this line, they come they come to define rationality as exactly kind of maximizing your utility subject to constraint. And they can throw in like say, you know, your utility can concern include concern for other people, but overwhelmingly they model it is concerned for yourself. So like in a prisoner's dilemma, you know, the prisoner's dilemma where you know, me pursuing my own interest in pursuing your interests leads us jointly into a bad outcome. They call that rational. So I mean, we that's dilemmas we individually act rationally, we end up in, in that case in the sub optimal outcome. But if you run it in a lab test, a lot of people actually won't behave the way that model says. They're supposed to that is they'll actually cooperate. And it looks like that would be individually irrational. And they'll call it irrational. Of course, it's not irrational to cooperate with somebody, especially if you can see what's at stake, right. So if I can see by not cheating, and then if you don't cheat, we jointly get to a better outcome. It makes a lot of sense for me to these venture out with a white flag in the hopes that you will too, so we can jointly come to a better outcome. But it comes with persistent calling that irrational and and that seems to me to skew us towards thinking yeah, narrow self interest just is what is rational, and it's not a complete account of rationality. So do you see what I'm saying? It gives it a valence by calling it rational. Because you know, if somebody says, Hey, that behavior is irrational, then I obviously don't want to do it. This is telling me what Yeah,

David Wright :

rational is good because we like being rational. It means you're smart, I guess. It there's, there's one kind of and I wonder what you think about this idea? There's one maybe, I don't know if it's if it's insidious, or it's a little bit hidden, because one of the things that that is quite amazing about the the kind of the monetary system and the way that the whole kind of edifice of economic work is that the idea of being able to aggregate goods and be able to measure things is really powerful. You know, I know in, you know, in the business world where you have this saying, no doubt, you're familiar with it, you manage what you measure, manage what you measure, right? So you actually get really busy, you measure stuff, and it's easy to, to report on it, and to, to kind of put it out put down like a score, right, you have this and you kind of naturally feel this inclination, you know, in a gamification sort of world to increase in your score. So making more money producing more GDP, and these are all things that you know, there's going to be a, you know, kind of moral valence as you say, you know, where we like having more stuff, but it's also easy to focus on it because there and it's it's you can you can aggregates things by measuring how much they're worth. And you can, I can see you falling and this happens in the business world all the time where you fall into the trap of kind of working to the metric with it losing sight of the underlying value of it, because it's always an imperfect proxy for what you want anyway, so I could see a world where we everybody agrees with your critique, but behaves differently anyway, only because it's easier.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah. No, absolutely. Um, and it gives us a sense of control all those numbers. Yeah, we know what we're doing. And we feel like we're, yeah, we're on top of things and sometimes that's right. Sometimes not numbers guide you to something like the truth. But yeah, very often we miss the mark. So, I developed that you know, I go on to say okay, suppose people took this perspective that Aquinas developed seriously and started thinking about happiness pursuit of authentic goods, so that instead of chasing after this evermore and the money metric always invites you to chase after this evermore so what would a firm look like if it was more oriented towards actual authentic goods. So the firm mission would be want to provide goods and services for the community that are of value, right. And to to provide a place for workers to develop their talents and you know, with we get a lot out of our own work, exercising our agency cultivating our skills, that's part of what rocks is being a human is being able to do that. It creates a community, these are all really good things. And then along the way, if the firm is functioning well, it's making a profit that allows everybody to make a living so they can go home and you know, pay their rent and all that stuff. And so, profit is what allows them to pursue the goods that are actually worth doing. And once you start focusing on that metric of profits as a thing to be maximized, you're going to start sacrificing those other goods and important weighs. And that's exactly what opens up this sort of radical left wing rejection of markets because people outside that system can see that a lot of human goods are being thrown under the bus, in the name of profits. So,

David Wright :

one, one distinction I'd like to draw, actually, we can talk a bit about this idea of rationality, because you cover it extensively in the book. And you make the point about prudence and to Thomistic rationality, if I can, I think that might be the way I phrase it, but you can tell me if you think that's okay. And then there's a contrast to it as well, which is that really the idea of of measuring things based on people's choices is is actually itself fairly profound, right? Because you have this irrationality of of rhetoric so people say they like something but you know, they're revealed preference and the economic jargon, jargon by the choices they actually make, the things they spend money on, is often very different from what they say. And so we kind of like say we live a certain way, but we really have a different way. There's a economist Robin Hanson, who wrote a book on this a guest on the show a little while ago talking about the elephant in the brain, which is the hidden motivations for all the things you do. And the only really only real way to get a clue to what people really want is through their behaviors and actions. And talk is cheap, right? And I'm wondering if what do you think about that as compared to Thomistic rationality which you can you can define as well if you'd like.

Mary Hirschfeld :

I think the insight that people are often driven by subconscious motivations, there's definitely room for that in Aquinas in the psychological anthropology description of human human nature. He the way he put it is there's and this actually lines up well with right think Robin was probably getting at. We're rational animals, there's a significant chunk to our being this animal in nature. So there's, you know, animals have a kind of quasi rationality where they you know, respond to pleasures by moving towards the things that give them pleasure and they respond to pain times. thing away and they make their calculus is pretty well on that metric or so on. And we humans, because we're animals are often guided by our fears and our desires much the way animals are. The difference is, we have this other higher rationality that can allow us to step out and see things in the light of whether they're truly good and some more universal term. And we can, we can make choices as a result. And sometimes we're able to cultivate the kind of self command that allows us to make good choices. So I struggle with my weight. I'm a heavy woman, I have a lot of trouble if you put a donut in front of me, I have a lot of trouble saying no to the donut. So my animal side wins almost all the time. So I can say I've been healthy eating and if you looked at my choices, you go Yeah, no, you don't. You're eating the doughnut. And so Aquinas would, he would he would be, he would not at all be surprised by that you would completely expect that. Because most of us fail to cultivate that higher rational self. differences. He thinks there's space for us to do it. And oftentimes people do people do get a certain level of self command, people can make your own choices. And that's, and that's definitely available. Sometimes I can actually turn down the donut, you know. And so, for Aquinas, then there's two kinds of sets of desires, there's my well formed desires. And then there's desires that are, you know, the rebellious animal self wanting to do its animal thing where the animal hasn't really learned how to follow reason. And so behavioral economists are good at identifying the way the animal self works. But there's still only with the economists as as basically denying that we have, we have the capability of cultivating a better self, and I and again, I don't want to say that we all should just expect to suddenly become these perfect human beings, but I really want us to leave space in our thought, for the real fact that we on the margin, always can Step into those better choices. So, how do you how do you reconcile that model with the Machiavellian critique? Or how do you pass the Machiavellian critique with that urge to to to appeal to the higher rationality or to encourage it? Yeah, basically, it would be on the policymaking level, I think where you can see it most clearly. If I go to a policymaker, I say, you really do want to listen to the economists because they have a good bead on how actual people behave. And so if you pass a policy that has, you know, that is mentally as to good outcomes, but you don't take into account the fact that people might follow their own private incentives in a way that lead to unintended consequences. You're going to get bad outcomes like you know, if right control seems like a good idea, but then individuals and responding to those incentives, you end up with a worse housing stock and a worse situation. So you absolutely need to listen to economists who have a good description of how people are But you want to try to craft your policy in a way that that uses incentives reasonably and Well, given the realities on the ground in a way that doesn't. That leaves open space for people to do better. And so I, what's his name? Michael sundials book, what money can't buy the best selling book? He comes at it from the side of philosophy saying, you know, in the last 30 years with the rise of dominance of economic way of thinking or incentive, incentivize, it's really metastasized in our culture. And once this mindset of incentivizing everything just affects everything, it gets rid of the side of the culture that tries to coax our behavior by setting social norms by talking about what's morally desirable or admirable or good to do. And the language of incentives is crowding that out. And so you would want Yeah, you just want a policymaker who can see Both sides and then navigate, like, when do we go ahead and use the incentives? And when do we try to engage in, you know, setting social norms or cultivating attitudes that that conduce to better, better behavior. You know, classic examples of that, like with smoking, we actually defeated the bad habits people had with large extent. And some of that was taxes. Sure, we've raised the price on cigarettes really quite a lot. I used to be a smoker. But the thing that was really, really effective the shift in the culture was the change in social norms, right? We just got, you know, became more and more morally fraught, to stand out smoking thinking, Well, my secondhand smoke might be killing the guy going by, right. That's not a good thing. And so, yeah, so the difference between Machiavelli and me is, I just want to leave room for the other kind of encouragement towards better behavior.

David Wright :

Do you think that the those Evolution of those social norms is that, is there a source of that? Like how, how, how deliberate? Or how domestically rational was that? Or is there something else there? Yeah. And the way in which I'm fascinated by that, that that story, which, of course, is an extraordinary change. And there has been many such changes in society, which have genuinely, you know, we're in debt. We live in a different world now, from a norm standpoint than we did 50 years ago. No question all kinds of ways. And the thing that, is there a model for that? Or is it like a is it simply, is it just there are some people individuals who really charismatic thinkers and speakers and persuaders, and then they can influence society? Or is there you know, some would say, well, Robin, his answer to this question was, well, as we get richer, we start to act more like rich people. So he grounds it in an economic analysis actually, and so rich people behave certain ways and he's got this whole framework called foragers and farmers and stuff and and people are behaving like More like they did could say in the jungle a much more quality, much more security concern, weirdly, and then, but perhaps there's there's another model or is it just, you know, random acts of history where you have, you know, the today's charismatic person who can who can influence us all?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, you know, because I, you know, I straddle both worlds, so I feel a lot of pull towards Robin's narrative. You know, Gary Becker's got his big narrative on how to how do we decide to have fewer children and you know, there's a strong economic story you can tell about exactly why that shift happened. that's compelling to me. Nonetheless, different even once you're rich, different societies play these things out differently. It's not economically driven. And I just there is part of what happens with economics is we like, we like these models that allow us either model individual behavior, or the choices of government and the impact that that has and the and both cases were focusing on places where we can change the world by a decision that's made by one specific actor. Sure, yes. It gives us a sense of control. Yes. And I want to draw attention to this third space, which is culture where I can't change. There's no button to push, there's no policy prescription that says, push this button and the culture will change its norms and attitudes. And it clearly it does and it does so as you say, because some charismatic people go out and say things. Also, there could just be a groundswell. And so I kind of see my product is you know, my little spit in the wind where I you know, I try to share these ideas, maybe somebody hears them, maybe that shapes their behavior, maybe it changes their discussion, you know, was it Richard Dawkins talking about memes and you can try to launch these cultural means, and and clearly some of them take hold, but nobody has control over which one wins, right? So that's kind of our communal project, I think is jointly through our conversations and choices. shape. a culture that then in turn, creates the space where we either can move towards better ways of being human or less good ways of being human.

David Wright :

Are we making progress from as this is big question, right? So Aquinas lived, you know, what, 800 years ago or something. And he's referencing somebody who lived almost 1000 years before him, right? We're more than right. Being Aristotle. So people have been talking about this for an awful long time. And one would imagine that that the tools that you're identifying here were available to folks to make changes in their life long before, you know, either of us, we're around. Where are we? Do we have something more today, which gives us an advantage of actually achieving good outcomes here? Are we better off and you know, kind of in sort of a moral sense then then folks, we're in the Middle Ages. What do you think about moral progress?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah. I don't think there's ever global moral progress. Cuz I'm enough of a Christian to think that we're kind of fallen and screwed

David Wright :

a random walk.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah. But I also think what happens is it there's different spheres of morality. So I think we make progress in some, there's no, I mean, there's something to the Pinker's story about our bettle better angels, right? The fact that people are marching in the streets today about racial injustice, and it's really widespread in the culture represents, I think, a clear kind of progress, right? We all I think, have ideas, it's not good to run around shooting people, it's not good. It would be really bad for us to run in and try to occupy and dominate, you know, Canada. So, that's progress. But that those wins, I think it can be expensive other things like understanding the real value of human life and on other dimensions. So the medievals I think had a better sense about them. the fragility of human life and the need to orient yourself towards transcendent goods in order to find meaning and depth. I think, you know, the medievals and ancients had a better idea about that.

David Wright :

And they lived in a remarkably more dangerous world, which perhaps influenced that you know that focus?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Absolutely. Last fall I ended up teaching Richard Adams Watership Down. Did you ever read Watership Down? I have not growing up. It used to be a popular children's book is about rabbits trying to find a new and safer home after their Warren gets blown up, basically. Yep. But one, I think people should read it right now since we're in the process of having a world that's getting blown up. One lesson that came out of it, for me really was and I think this is compelling that he the rabbit stumble into a warren where everybody's basically full fat and happy. It turns out, it's a little bit pernicious. There's a farmer that's, you know, throwing out lots of carrots, lots of good rabbit food. But then every now and then just, you know, killing one or you know, hunting, calling, calling the crop of rabbits, the rabbit sitting there and they're Warren and they're all full fat and happy and there's just there's no art, there's no real art, there's no real energy that they have length of life, relatively speaking, unless you're one of the lucky rabbits that hits the wire. But there's not much there there. And it resonated with Ross Douthat critique of the decade society, there's something about once we hit a certain level of satisfaction that the the meaning of life just sort of drains out. So anyway, our our hero rabbits three that we're in and they hop off away and they have to fight big battles, and a few of them die, but they become better, stronger versions of themselves and doing so.

David Wright :

well, there's a powerful I guess, subplot to a lot of a lot of religious thinking, which is about the struggle through struggle and effort you find virtue and and you know, it's a little depressing honestly Mary, where you say in a world where we are safe and secure we decline and then in a world where we are experienced hardship and difficulty we can we can rise above, man, I mean, Far be it from the the politician who's so hyper aware of this to then send us off to war to better our moral selves. What can we do about this?

Mary Hirschfeld :

And I don't think it works that way. I don't think you could go out and manufacture your own suffering, the benefits of suffering because by definition, suffering is dealing with circumstances beyond your control. Right? Right. So it may just be that as no wheels of Fortune turn, I I'm kind of a pessimist about how things are going right now. And if it turns out that You know, between the pandemic and the response to the pandemic and the already underlying civic fragility, we end up in a very long, hard decade, that's something like, you know, maybe more like the 1930s. Nobody wishes for that. I certainly would never push a button to go there. But the upside would be a chance to move back in towards cultivating these other kinds of human strengths. So, anyway, I mean, maybe maybe the optimistic way to say that is there's always something good going on, right?

David Wright :

Yes, because we're always in a struggle, you know, you make the point in the book as well just come back to that, for a sec to that, that, you know, there's this idea of longing, which we still have in a one of the things and one of the ways in which the the rational choice model and the and the mainstream economic thought is, it does show a trail a path, right. So you are looking for more. There's this socially constructed idea of progress that we have that you actually you critique pretty effectively. I think but it's still there. So we're always we are always looking for something. Yeah. And I guess where does that get directed? Perhaps is the question.

Mary Hirschfeld :

No, that is exactly. Question. So I, in my own life, I tried to direct it back towards looking for wisdom, looking for depth looking for meaning, as opposed to just looking for another race. Um, but yeah, we're always looking for something and that restlessness will always be with us. And I think that's why maybe this is the mistake of modern social science projects. We want to try to engineer some kind of utopia. And I don't think that fits human nature. I don't know. You know, I so,

David Wright :

yeah, and I think of it one of the things that I notice about maybe everybody, right is, is many people are, are in their own way damaged, right? mental illness is kind of a maybe a more, you know, maybe more kind of way to present it in a moderately relevant way. And, and I think of that manifests itself very differently for different kinds of people. You know, I've I've been around seen work with people who are extraordinarily productive individuals from like an economic standpoint, but not so you know, not so well in other ways and that just gets channeled in that direction. And then some some folks, maybe you have a you know, similar call it encumbrance psychologically but it is sort of spiraled out of control. You know, to me like the, the freedom to kind of be your own kind of weird is, is, you know, is is also I mean, I guess it's an important thing but I'm not sure whether that's something that you know, can be curtailed or should be you know, what do you think about that?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, I thought I had it listen to you talk is just um I think we want to resist try to come up with a one size fits all model, either with respect to a diagnosis of what's wrong, so not everybody is you know, the one who throws you know, we're not all workaholics, right. We're not all throwing our whole lives under the bus in order to climb up the corporate ladder, whatever. And people have different failings and different strengths. But also that to have a really good society, it's good that there will be people with different mixes and different plans and balances. So one thing I liked about the mystic character stealing perspective, is that a community genuinely fits together different, qualitatively different individuals, brings them into relationship and draws something greater out of that hole. So if you want to work really hard in the insurance business, and that somehow is fulfilling and fitting in your life, then that's good. Right? And maybe you don't have the same work, family balance that other people have. But then there's other people maybe have the reverse balance and society needs both right? Because we need somebody to tend the home fires and we need somebody to work on the front. And so maybe One way we could start to move towards is understanding that people have different gifts and respecting the way they fit together rather than imposing this idea. There's just one way to have a good happy human life. Because I think that's clearly wrong.

David Wright :

Yeah. And another incredible feature of this, the world we live in now, is that another observation I've made in businesses that usually most organizations exist to sort of empower a few phenomenally productive folks who have kind of more agency in the sense that they make a lot of decisions that affect the whole organization. And the organization exists to, to to benefit from their judgment, you know, and those people are real hard workers. They are, you know, they, they exhibit a lot of a lot of virtues actually, you know, whatever the cause of that kind of workaholism is sometimes it's positive, not always, maybe not even usually. But the rest of society benefits in a material sense from that because, you know, we have, we can have these companies that produce extraordinary things. And I think as a result, sometimes it's not always a positive underneath, I guess is my point. Yet we all, we all kind of benefit from it. And one of the thoughts that I had in reading the book was, if we if we are if you were a project is extremely successful at blunting that what did we lose? And do you worry about what we might lose?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, no. I do actually the thing that keeps me up at night is if everybody followed my prescriptions, we would not have gotten to the modern war, you know, we wouldn't, right? I just, I want to retain space and say there, there's still room for growth because people pursuing better ways of cultivating their land can still figure out ways to innovate. Joel McCarran his books on the desk revolution points out that a lot of the great innovations did not happen out of pursuit for money or anything they happen because gentlemen scientists like tinkering and and they were really into that and then they Tinker their way to steam engines and and here we are. So you still are gonna get some but there's no doubt you don't get as much and and the question is how can you cultivate a culture that allows for authentic good entrepreneurial creativity? But calls that out from the client? That's bad and distracting? So

David Wright :

yeah, very delicate, isn't it? You know, I think, you know, I think of, let's say, somebody takes a non nuanced read of your book, and and thinks, Oh, well, the answer is theocracy. Right. So the Taliban or something where you mandate some morally extraordinarily strict society where you know, remote, you know, we live in a fallen world right to use your phrasing there. And and as a result, we have to force people to to act behave in a better way. And well, let's just get some AK 47s and force them to live in a certain way. And I suspect you're, you're opposed to that kind of that kind of world. But you could see how you could distort one into the other.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, no, I did have a few unfortunate readings of the book where people seem to think I wanted a top down driven theological model. is not at all what I wanted. I'm still kind of more of a libertarian, not 100% libertarian, but I like I like the subsidy I like the individual agency, which again is part of why I like Aquinas on private property because he's got that. But the maybe the way to put it is the emphasis on finding the good human life is a process that we have to do, right. It's, it's not a matter of delivering good outcomes from people. And so if you really understand the thought behind what I'm talking about the vision you just described as an aesthetical to what the good life really is because the good life is he cultivating my own understanding of the world and participating my own development and having my own agency and YouTube right and then we do it through conversation, and ak 47 interfere with that project rather severely.

David Wright :

Yes. How about, you know, the response to to Tyler Cowen's book Stubborn attachments where he celebrates the, you know, to be fair, he he defines economic growth as what he calls him at growth plus, which includes probably related ideas to what to what to write about. But he's still elevates this idea of compounding progress. So his is a more optimistic vision. I would just have one where where we do something better today and tomorrow, we can build on that. And then we're that much better off, you know, twofold. in any way. What's your reaction to his to his work?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, I mean, Tyler and I have been friends since graduate school. So we've been having this argument for a long, long time. And in some sense, my book was a pre rebuttal to his book, or I don't know, maybe his book was a pre rebuttal. And I, anyway, I don't think he was writing in response to me, but I certainly was writing in response to him.

David Wright :

But he's extensively acknowledged in your preface. Clearly,

Mary Hirschfeld :

so I'm Tyler's intuition, which is a good one is you know, we radically underestimate how much we've benefited from economic progress. A fact that is salient given our current situation is, you know, we all expect to live to be 75, 85, maybe even longer. And it's just a widespread expectation. Hundred Years ago, as recently as 100 years ago, that just wasn't true. In the 1920 census, the top age bracket was 45 Plus, right? Um, wow. Yeah. And 20% of the population lived to be 45 or older. Yeah, so, you know, on the level of length of life quality, you know, we don't suffer from the kinds of disabilities and stuff if you look at old pictures, you're going to see laying kids, people with pockmarked faces, you know, literacy, the ability to travel around. I mean, we just had a lot of benefits that come from progress. And that's what he's saying. I my understanding is that's what he's thinking about. I think the mistake he makes is that He projects that out. And and imagines that we could keep going. And I see it more as we've approached some kind of ideal. And now that we've arrived here, what do we do to cultivate it and and deepen it rather than think about extending it more. And the life issue is the clearest one. I don't think we gain anything by trying, you know, first of all, there's a natural lifespan that I think would be very hard for us to get past. But you have to start off with the fact that we're mortal. And now that we've achieved kind of that most people hit the natural lifespan rather than dying prematurely. What does it mean then to live well, which is different from living longer? And the same is true about wealth. I mean, we no longer starve to death. We have all our basic needs met. So what does it mean to live well, now we've achieved this and different question from the more that he's got. So

David Wright :

it is and you know, it's fascinating to me in reading and Thinking about this and and interviewing Tyler, as well and others on these related topics is that I come back to this kind of measurement problem where it seems to me, you know, there's a happiness literature, right, which is, which is, I don't know, not all that satisfying, really, because it's surveys and the like, there isn't really kind of, if we could only measure an aggregate happiness, then we probably would be a heck of a lot better at figuring it out. You know, I mean, one might suspect that, that social media on net improves happiness. I mean, that's that'd be I mean, you don't necessarily want to spark that debate here. But it's possibility. And maybe there's technology which is, which doesn't turn up in the GDP stats and doesn't turn up in any other stats, but which we clearly are expressing a preference for. And even if you took the most positive interpretation of that, where let's just assume that there's something which is a miracle technology that we could invent that would implement your vision for for genuine produce of human flourishing, genuine progress of human flourishing. We wouldn't know. I mean, you would have an opinion, I would have an opinion and maybe not everybody. Now people just disagree with each other for no particularly good reason, sometimes. But we wouldn't have a way of proving that we've actually made some kind of progress on this question.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, yeah. And this effort to measure it and pin it down question of what is really a good life and what's a fulfilling life? It seems to me that part of what is a good and fulfilling life is precisely asking the question of what is a good and fulfilling?

David Wright :

Good point.

Mary Hirschfeld :

So, you know, again, my social science colleagues, you know, my former colleagues in economics world, they teach us important things, but we put them to the summit of human knowledge. I just kind of would like us to go back to a world where, cool, I've learned from what you have to say, but I still want to really think through for myself, you know, social media does these good things, but how does that really conduce to human flourishing? I see it's missing this and then my friend David says, No, no, no, no, but you're not seeing that and go, Oh, that's interesting. You know, then we just have For us, and we learn something, and it's fun, especially if it is like fighting each other to the death over it.

David Wright :

Yeah, yeah. hasn't happened yet in this conversation. I think we might get away without it. I, I do. I wonder one of the so here's here's like, some something of a misgiving I have about about this entire project... your project, if I could put it this way, is that I feel like people do this all the time. I mean, you know, I'm constantly having conversations with folks, about kind of how do you how do you get better people have the frustrations with the world, I think that I think that your view is actually really broadly held. And to me, it feels like there's a lack of a kind of satisfying way to to actually make progress on that. And then as individuals and as adults, you learn about the world and when you're a kid, you sort of think the world a certain way and then you get older and you learn and get better. Right? So I think that we're we are making progress on this as individuals, if not as a society. So you know, look at this Help literature. I mean, what is that if not a cry for help, or for a way for people to to kind of pursue this on their own? And so I suppose the question would be, what would you change about that? Or what would your change look like? Do you think in terms of actual behavior for folks on the ground?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, no, I mean, I did worry about this. I'm like, you know, who doesn't already know this? I always worry about that. There's just tons of great literature out there people exploring it. I mean, we had the whole simplicity movement in the 80s and 90s, where people wanted to go back to finding more meaningful lives with less stress and hectic and stuff. I see my contribution mostly as speaking to economists and theologians because they very often just don't see that. Maybe a way to put it is you're saying the cultures already moving in the directions are already has a lot of what I'm talking about in it. And I want to bring our intellectual apparatus more into alignment with that. Because it is still true. I mean, almost During a lots and lots and lots of people take econ 101, which means they learned that rationality just does mean maximizing under constraint. And a lot of almost all of our policy discussions get put into that framework. And it's distorting. And so even though people have these good ideas, they don't have an intellectual apparatus that allows them to leave it out as fully as they might. So that's what I see the contribution is being I can a quick example in our endless, not very fruitful debates over this lockdown response to the virus, you know, is it health? Do we care about lives on the one side or, you know, the economy on the other, and people want to construe that as you know, longer lives versus more money. And And in both cases, we want to maximize you see that so it makes it hard about how it fits together. And in both cases, we're not thinking about what are the authentic goods that are served like you know, what actually makes life worth living and what actually are the human goods and the things that come from the economy. And because so even though I think I agree with what you said, um, I look at the way the discourse goes and I think I still need to write my book because people still are talking in terms of these instrumental goods without really thinking about the real goods that that actually make life worth living.

David Wright :

Yeah, I love that framing actually, and and i think too, you know, I have lost my job. So the hardship in my family is I mean, it's constrained to my you know, my wife who stays home with our kids we just had a baby which is our fourth and so they're all seven and under. And so it's just like pretty nuts in the house, which is you know, but we look at that we think to ourselves, okay, there's some hardship here the kids you know, at the homeschool meant to figure out all that which is man it's that's that's difficult. But I should probably point out recording this on June 9. So we have to timestamp when we start talking about Coronavirus. And if at the same time we talk about boy Isn't it cool that we get to spend all this time with each other And we love it. Right. And so that's, it seems to me that that the, you know, what really, I found interesting with your comment there was in some ways, it's like a, it's like a battle cry against the elites in a certain sort of way, because the elites adopt an agenda of some sort, which is maybe rooted in, you know, it's rooted in some version of reality, right. But it's kind of hard to, to for for, for them to grasp at a model that kind of captures enough nuance to, you know, you have the soundbite world and you kind of have to adopt the position and the position, you know, you What is your authority and and that comes back to your academic credentials, which is what you published your model on. And, you know, if there's a bias and all that apparatus, then yeah, like the conversation will get influenced. And, you know, maybe that's been a huge frustration for our society as well, perhaps that we're missing a lot of what you're what you're saying and talking about.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah, I have I have a rule of thumb that says when a debate is polarized, it's because literally a premise that is shared by both sides is not an adequate underlying premise.

David Wright :

Yeah, interesting.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Yeah. So I think that's what's going on with this this particular debate. So,

David Wright :

how successful would you say you're looking back at your book? You know, our Yeah. What do you what do you what do you want to do next? What's the urge that this is created in you? Do you feel like you You kind of you've got it, where we want it to be? What? What's your kind of reflection on the process and where you're at?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Um, yeah. So I, you know, I'm, I'm 69 it took me a long time to write my first book. I'm not the most productive scholar who ever lived. So this is the this the book was wonderful to me to write because it was just sort of the culmination of a long and complicated intellectual journey. And it actually received more attention than I expected. So I mean, I'm not wasn't a blockbuster or anything, but um, so that was all really good. The difficulty for me is, I really am a committed Christian and Catholic. And I really think that it's important thing about life is oriented towards God, which is not. And, and the irony of my life is that I have to spend my life as an econometric theologian talking about economics, which I think is order concern, right. And and again, all this, whatever attention I do get is because people think it's cool to talk about economics and the real lesson the book has, but no, God matters more. Right? You see that tension? So I'm not quite sure I could, you know, there's a world where I could pursue this and, you know, write articles amplifying, I've done some of that. And I spent time at workshops and trying to share this vision with up and coming economists and create space for them to grow into this sort of way of thinking. But I kind of would rather think more about spirit. I would rather turn back more to pure theology at this point, I'm not sure so I've been sitting here on this fence and I What happened after the book came out is I got flooded with a lot of invitations to talk and, you know, papers to write. So I just kind of been working on the stuff that comes up. Yep, to do. But in terms of the next big project, I'm not sure it'll either be a book about my conversion story or it'll be a book about feminism and household economics and the good life side that one?

David Wright :

Well, it does feel to me like there is a lot of ground to synthesizing I think a lot of the value that comes from from the the theology, the Christian thinking, and, and, you know, a lot of the rest of the world which doesn't necessarily kind of want to, doesn't want to study that directly. Right. But, but, uh, you know, I think that, I think, you know, your book was a fantastic contribution. And, you know, I've encouraged other folks to, to, to, to read it, buy it and read it. Where can we get your book?

Mary Hirschfeld :

Sometimes on Amazon, yes. Sometimes they run out but I think they've got some now. So, yeah, Harvard University Press, you can always go to their website and I think your independent bookstores tend to have it. So give them a shout, do small business. That's a good thing to do.

David Wright :

Yes. My guest today is Mary Hirschfeld, Mary. Thank you very much.

Mary Hirschfeld :

Thank you very much. My Pleasure.