Inverting the Economic Order

Wendell Berry

“A properly ordered economy, putting nature first and consumption last, would start with the subsistence or household economy and proceed from that to the economy of markets.”

My economic view is from ground level. It is a point of view sometimes described as “agrarian.” That means that in ordering the economy of a household or community or nation, I would put nature first, the economies of land use second, the manufacturing economy third, and the consumer economy fourth. The first law of such an economy would be what the agriculturalist Sir Albert Howard called “the law of return.” This law requires that what is taken from nature must be given back; the fertility cycle must be maintained in continuous rotation. An authentic economy, then, would be based upon renewable resources: land, water, ecological health. These resources, if they are to stay renewable in human use, will depend, in turn, upon resources of culture that also must be kept renewable: accurate local memory, truthful accounting, continuous maintenance, unwastefulness, and a democratic distribution of now-rare practical arts and skills. The primary value in this economy would be the capacity of the natural and cultural systems to renew themselves. The economic virtues thus would be honesty, thrift, care, good work, generosity, and (since this is a creaturely and human, not a mechanical, economy) imagination, from which we have compassion. That primary value and these virtues are essential to what we have been calling “sustainability.”

A properly ordered economy, putting nature first and consumption last, would start with the subsistence or household economy and proceed from that to the economy of markets. It would be the means by which people provide to themselves and to others the things necessary to support life: goods coming from nature and human work. It would distinguish between needs and mere wants, and it would grant a firm precedence to needs.

A proper economy, moreover, would designate certain things as priceless. This would not be, as now, the “pricelessness” of things that are extremely rare or expensive, but would refer to things of absolute value, above and beyond any price that could be set upon them by any market. The things of absolute value would be fertile land, clean water and air, ecological health, and the capacity of nature to renew itself in the economic landscapes. The cultural precedent for this assignment of absolute value that is nearest to us probably is biblical, as in Psalm 24 (“The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof . . .”) and Leviticus 25:23 (“The land shall not be sold forever . . .”). But there are precedents in all societies and traditions that have understood the land or the world as sacred—or, speaking practically, as possessing a suprahuman value. The rule of pricelessness clearly imposes certain limits upon the idea of landownership. Owners would enjoy certain customary privileges, necessarily, as the land would be entrusted to their intelligence and responsibility. But they would be expected to use the land as its servants and on behalf of all the living.

The present and now-failing economy is just about exactly opposite to the economy I have just described. Over a long time, and by means of a set of handy prevarications, our economy has become an anti-economy, a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.

It has inverted the economic order that puts nature first. This economy is based upon consumption, which ultimately serves not the ordinary consumers but a tiny class of excessively wealthy people for whose further enrichment the economy is understood (by them) to exist. For the purpose of their further enrichment, these plutocrats and the great corporations that serve them have controlled the economy by the purchase of political power. The purchased governments do not act in the interest of the governed; they act instead as agents for the corporations.

That this economy is, or was, consumption-based is revealed by the remedies now being proposed for its failure: stimulate, spend, create jobs. What is to be stimulated is spending. The government injects into the failing economy money to be spent, or to be loaned to be spent. If people have money to spend and are eager to spend it, demand for products will increase, creating jobs, industry will meet the demand with more products, which will be bought, thus increasing the amount of money in circulation, which will increase demand, which will increase spending, which will increase production—and so on until the old fantastical economy of limitless economic growth will have “recovered.”

But spending is not an economic virtue. Miserliness is not an economic virtue either, but saving is. Not wasting is. To encourage spending with no regard at all to what is being purchased may be pro-finance, but it is anti-economic. Finance, as opposed to economy, is always ready and eager to confuse wants with needs. From a financial point of view, it is good, even patriotic, to buy a new car whether you need one or not. From an economic point of view, however, it is wrong (and unpatriotic) to buy anything you do not need. Only in a financial system, an anti-economy, can it seem to make sense to talk about “what the economy needs.” In an authentic economy, we would ask what the land, what the people, need.

From an economic point of view, a society in which every schoolchild “needs” a computer, and every sixteen-year-old “needs” an automobile, and every eighteen-year-old “needs” to go to college is already delusional and is well on its way to being broke. 

In a so-called economy that is dependent on indiscriminate spending, “job creation” often implies an ability to “create” new “needs.” Until lately this economy has been able to create jobs by creating needs. But this has involved much confusion and a kind of fraud. Because it gives no priority to the meeting of needs, and cannot distinguish needs from wants, our economy has confused necessities with products or commodities that are merely marketable. As a consequence, it deliberately reduces the indispensable economic service of providing needed goods to “selling” or “marketing” products, some of which have never been and will never be needed by anybody. The gullibility of the public thus becomes an economic resource. The category of things sold that are not needed now includes legally marketed foods and drugs. This involves the art (taught and learned in universities) of lying about products; a friend of mine remembers a teacher who said that advertising is “the manufacture of discontent.” And so we have come to live in a world in which every brand of painkiller is better than every other brand, in which we have a “service economy” that does not serve and an “information economy” that does not distinguish good from bad or true from false.

. . . . . . . . . .

To read this article in its entirety, please download the free PDF, buy this issue, or become a Communio subscriber!