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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Economy vs. community

Our language is missing a word. Its absence is both telling and crippling. We need an equivalent of the Greek polis and the Latin res publica. We need a word to speak about our political community, one for which we’re all responsible and on which the quality of our lives heavily depends.

Annually, the president gives a State of the Union address — Tuesday Obama will deliver his last one — but used in that sense, “union” has no currency. Rarely does anyone else publicly assess the state of the union. In contrast, many people discuss the state of the economy. As we use it, “economy” refers to an aggregated activity in which we all participate but without any responsibility for its general health, only our private share of it.

We are all homo economicus, not homo politicus. This is the cultural consequence of capitalism, whose paradigmatic figure is Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is defined by his economic activity — turning his turf into productive land on which he can subsist and accrue some surplus against future vicissitude.

For Aristotle and his culture, every animal is economic; only humans are political. Our uniquely human potentialities can only be realized within political communities. The family (oikos, from which “economy” is derived) precedes the polis both in social evolution and, to use Maslow’s language, in the hierarchy of human needs. In his “Politics,” Aristotle declared that the oikos exists for life, the polis for the good life.

Think about the household. Its activities are associated with the body — nutrition, hygiene, reproduction. They are repetitive and call into play a limited range of human abilities (which is why women finally rebelled against confinement to them). Aristotle’s point is even clearer when we recall that until the 19th century and in large part well after, almost all the activities we call economic — food production, cloth-making, child-rearing, etc. — were home-based.

Only when there’s enough surplus to free people from constant occupation with the necessities can intellectual and artistic life flourish. And it flourishes in cities, not in households. I’m writing this piece from home and you’re likely reading it at home, but involved in this production and exchange is a large community of people past and present whose minds have been shaped through interactions outside the family.

For Aristotle, a polis was co-extensive with its citizens. While city-states varied according to their forms of government, those forms varied by how many of their residents could participate in civic life, and in what ways. There could be no polis without participation; an absolute monarchy couldn’t be a polis. The Roman Republic was similarly understood. The res publica — the public entity — provided economic goods (water, roads, etc.) to all residents, but it belonged to those who took responsibility for it.

What can it mean that so many candidates seeking public office run against “government”? It means they intend to use the economic surplus that taxes bring into the treasury to further enrich private persons instead of funding public goods like education, and/or they want to cut taxes and abolish public goods entirely.

And what can it mean that so many voters see no disqualifying contradiction in a candidate’s running against government? It means that they cannot understand the good life as a broadly engaged life, with satisfactions no amount of material self-indulgence can match. Theirs is a politics without a polity. How could they not be confused?

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.