Even in its elevated status of being “the” economy, what is an “economy”? Looking it up, I find that it comes from the Greek words for “household” and “manage.” Economy is used in a material sense. It starts with how we manage the resources for and within our family. The household was the original production team.
Division of labor and specialization made new technologies possible, and also meant that economies had to grow beyond the home. Villages, manors, fiefs, towns, city-states, nations, empires — all have had their turn being units of an economy. The various citizens filled their roles in production, and resources flowed to meet their needs — albeit, often unevenly. There have always been some who see fit to try to hoard up resources. Some, like Joseph and the pharaoh before the seven-years’ famine, have philanthropic motives. Others are motivated more by ego, fear or greed.
However imperfectly an economy functions, it’s there to serve human needs. We built economies to reap the benefits of skill specialization, technological improvement and stability. And life’s better when everyone contributes what they can. Over the millennia, we have built rules for our economies. Rules help large, complicated systems work more predictably. But these are our rules — human-made. These are laws neither of nature nor of God. The pen is always in our hands.
I want to encourage us to think hard what “the economy” really is, because the phrase often seems to refer to some independent, endowing, essential entity that we must serve. People worry about the health of the economy — sometimes to the detriment of the health of humans.
Powers that be scramble to shore up the economy — sometimes asking us to sacrifice for that cause. Indeed, sometimes it seems that our most valued role in this economy isn’t as producers but as consumers. Lack of consumption is considered a problem. Much moving and shaking is done to get us all to consume more. But is that really our highest duty? I, for one, am still attached to the values of stewardship, future planning and using resources wisely.
Or is it our highest duty to serve the economy before our families? Before our communities? Showing up for work is good. I’m glad when I do, and I’m glad when other people do too. Other people’s efforts make my life better, and I hope the same can be said for mine. But is it really shockingly irresponsible to prioritize the lives of the vulnerable among us? Or the health of those we love?
I’m thinking that when life can be better served by the wheels of the economy slowing down a notch, then slow down they should. Why else do they exist? Why else should stockpiles and reserves exist except to help us all through hard times? If the wheels slow down together, no one gets hurt. People (and economies) are only pulled apart when someone somewhere keeps cranking on one of the wheels. Slowing down together isn’t an act of panic. Leaning on the crank might be.