What is Economics For?

Today wraps up a month’s worth of playing with ideas about economics.

Throughout the exploration, the theme that has most stood out to me is that the most successful people — however wealthy they might be — are those who understand that economics is merely a means to an end. The real secret of their success, then, is properly defining their ends and then organizing their efforts to achieve them.

Only some of that has to do with money. Though it’s clearly possible to make a lot of money with no deeper or greater sense of value or purpose (examples are not hard to spot), seeking money for its own sake or as a way to keep score seems like the path to less freedom rather than more. If, as the Motley Fool says, “the value of money is opportunity,” what good is opportunity if you’re too fixated on making more money to make good use of opportunity?

Or, to go all the way back to Aristotle, economics constantly tests whether we’re able to never expect more certainty of a science than it can give. We truly cannot buy happiness, but we can learn to manage our affairs in such a way as to be able to find happiness in sufficiency (or even in surplus).

Aristotle also famously taught the concept of the mean: right conduct is always found at the midpoint between unhealthy extremes. That can be a useful principle in economics, too. Happiness is not to be found in communist idealism, nor in wanton pursuit of money under the rules of what we presently call capitalism.

Sufficiency, like happiness, is an interior condition. Paradoxically, it cannot be bought. Rather, it depends on a solid ethical foundation (we have to know what is good for us, and why), as well as attention to the political context (we must know how our pursuit of what we want affects those we live with, like it or not).

For, just as we all must manage ourselves and our households, we also must respect our political nature — a topic we’ll start exploring tomorrow.