Saturday, March 7, 2009

Finding Our Cheese

“Here, try this – it’s good, you’ll like it.”

Such began a complex sociological and economical phenomenon known as “goods exchange” between a real, living acquaintance of mine and my own rational self, on an actual historical date not long ago. The good in question was a piece of cheese: to be precise, a sliver of Mahon Reserve.

Now, certain acknowledgments are in order. First, it should be noted that this experiment was not conducted under the most rigorous circumstances nor in a laboratory, but rather in a cheese and beer tasting emporium in a crowded industrial city. Second, the individuals in question, myself and my acquaintance, should be observed as having certain personal predispositions favoring the remarkable result which precipitated, to wit: we both like cheese, a fact which might have been inferred by our haunting said emporium.

Upon my recommendation of the Mahon, I made this commodity available to my friend by extending the plate across the table, and he – after hardly a moment’s consideration – summarily snatched up and consumed the morsel. His findings were that it satisfied the desire occasioned in him by my accolade. His expectation was fulfilled: the cheese, indeed, was good.

Now, I am not a trained economist. Neither do I expect that most of my readers are. I can, however, assure them that many trained economists probably would find me flippant for proclaiming this exchange to be a primary example of the so-called “law of supply and demand.” Nevertheless, I presume to do so. And for the purposes of us non-initiate persons, pursuant of the point I hope to make upon this matter, I hope my presumption will be justified.

Every day, in the market, certain goods and services are made available and offered to consumers who engage in exchanges for these goods and services at certain contracted “trade values.” The availability of the goods (their numeric amount, immediacy to acquisition, etc.), in tension with their desirability in the sphere of the consumer (occasioned by need, perceived worth, etc.), are the realities which influence the value in exchange. Exigencies such as occur in the production of the goods and in the creation of a desire for such goods ultimately terminate in the relations involved in a concrete instance of this particular good being demanded and in turn supplied; the complex ways in which those former exigencies factor into such concrete instances in the market, taken as a whole or system as they influence the values which people are willing to exchange, are supposed to constitute the law of supply and demand.

Take now the example of the piece of cheese. Through my purchase of a certain quantity of Mahon Reserve, I possessed a good. My friend had none of this same good. Perhaps, as yet, no market reality existed. However, after my exaltation of the cheese created in my friend a sense of its desirability, it would seem that all of the necessary rudimentary elements for market exchange existed. Whether my cheese was a commodity for trade was still a matter in doubt. But there was nothing stopping my friend from asking for some of it, for initiating a situation of exchange. As it happened, I took this initiative and offered the cheese, and my goods became his; value which was mine passed from my possession and was acquired by another.

Now, because I received nothing in remittance, this might not seem like an economic situation, but I think that a question-begging distinction, for I easily might have asked for, say, some of his Gruyere. I could even have had the cheese-monger lend us his scale to ensure equitable weights for the traded bits. The “law” seems to have been applicable if only in potentiality; it merely happens that the full rights and duties attendant to this law (as with any law), were not in this case fully exploited or exercised.

Yet there is something unsatisfactory, unsavory (pardon the cheesy pun) about looking at this situation in such a way. For one thing, there were other dynamics influencing the situation at least as much as (I would argue more than) the existence of goods-possessed and goods-lacked and a corresponding willingness and desire for exchange. And it seems to me that these other dynamics were more rooted in reality, more fundamentally human, even more fundamentally economic. As a point of fact, in this particular situation (albeit unscientific and biased by certain predispositions of altruism, friendship, and cheese-lust), those other dynamics indeed did influence the outcome more so than the “law” which, I think, has been shown to have been at least theoretically applicable.

It is neither my purpose to debunk the law of supply and demand, nor to discount it, nor even to attenuate it. It is my purpose to talk about a piece of cheese and a value exchanged between two friends. Father Vincent McNabb famously asserted as a formula for Distributist economics that, “as far as possible, the area of production should be coterminous with the area of consumption.” This has been celebrated and written about often enough as an application of the subsidiarist principle (or, put another way, of the desirability of as much “smalleness” within business as possible), as a formulary for “human-scale” economics, and the workability of such has also been discussed at length (especially by writers of the “Back to the Land” movement in promoting self-sustaining agricultural endeavors). But the “why” of this principle is sometimes hard to bring to light. I submit my piece of cheese as an illustration of this rationale.

In the gustatory ambiance of a bohemian beer emporium, between two friends who share much more in common than a liking for cheese, an economic “law” somehow lost its power of governance, and I hold this to be a remarkable fact. Remarkable, because there still persists in the world today an idea that the market, left to itself, will somehow simply “work,” and this due to a certain character of necessity in the “laws” which govern it. Yes, economic laws and market principles are indispensable for predicting behavior with commodities and persons in exchange processes; but I balk at the sort of scientism in this field which all too often tends to lose sight of the essential realities at the root of all economic life: human beings, human volition (desires, values, beliefs), and real goods with metaphysical value. The substance of cheese, when consumed by human digestion, most certainly “works” and its effects are measurable and certain (sometimes terrible and seemingly magical, but measurable nonetheless). But there is also a mystical, a sacramental quality about cheese, a transcendent goodness which moves the soul with eros, which it is the object of all philosophy and art to capture and express (despite the fact which Chesterton observed, that “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”) The substantial reality of cheese, and its interaction with other individual substances of a rational nature (viz., human persons), is a force to be reckoned with in any sufficient picture of human life; and, consequently, it is a force which must be acknowledged alongside and held in tension with other forces and “laws” in the so-called sphere of “economic life.” This, because, as we have seen, in some concrete instances where all of the exigencies of economic life pertain, the forces within persons and cheese might in fact have more influence than all of the laws and forces taxed by the cold, hard science of the market. Because the sphere of economic life is a smaller sphere with porous circumference within the larger reality of human life.

In light of all of this, the practicality – indeed, the necessity – of Father McNabb’s formulation demands consideration in our day. When commodities in exchange are held to have a value apart from their basis in human exigencies; when worth is “created” by programmatic desire-impulse creation exercised by media, government, and sundry other movers; when increasingly the human beings behind economic exchange are alienated by automation and internet purchase, and by the abstraction of economic worth from goods-given-for-goods-received (or even money-in-hand) to electronic ledger entries and portfolios; when the area of consumption and the area of production are not only increasingly bifurcated but disintegrated in their own integrity as consumers themselves become commodities and the very desire for goods becomes a value to be produced; in such an age, we need the wisdom of men like Father McNabb to call us back to basics.

If the market is ever to “work,” human volition and action will be the factors that motivate it most. And the greatest assurance we have that this human action will be ethical and tend to the common good will come by re-grafting economic life onto the metaphysical roots of things and persons, goods and desires. That is to say, when fewer things come between a man and his cheese, the fundamentals for a sound and ethical economic life will be in place. Granted that a piece of cheese, placed within the mechanism of the market and its attendant laws, can achieve various other goods as well; nevertheless, the further the mechanism manages to abstract the cheese from its essential good as food-for-man, the more our peril. Values will become distorted; the forces and laws working upon real substances will spin out of control and warp or obscure their metaphysical images; and, suddenly, in the midst of his own economic life, man will finds himself alien and neglected, if not exploited and abused. A man, a friend, and a piece of cheese are wholesome realities, and as long as they are kept integral and whole they can even operate to great good within a market. But once let the laws and forces of that market eclipse for a moment the wholesome metaphysical realities operating therein – let the cheese be seen merely as commodity and the friend merely as consumer – and man’s alienation has begun. No value which the market may tell the man he has will ever be felt to measure up to the value he once had. He has lost his friend. And, perhaps more tragic, he has lost his cheese.

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