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“That Which is Not Seen” (Part II)

This short essay finishes my present reflections on the role of the family in the realm of political economy. For Part I of this duo, inspired by Bastiat’s famous essay by the title, “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas,” I invite you to begin here. Otherwise, read on, dear reader!


I have been blessed with incredible professors who give me interesting things to read (if you think this might be you… yes, it’s you). I am also blessed with this thing called the Internet, which provides an unimaginably huge garden of information through which I can discover more interesting things to read. The following thoughts are largely based upon a few of these readings: North’s work on institutions, Hayek’s writings on knowledge, Dr. Morse’s book Love and Economics (thank you, Acton), and a healthy dash of Josef Pieper, Adam Smith, and C.S. Lewis (surprising, I’m sure).

Permit me to begin with a speedy lesson on institutional economics.

We go about our daily business within the framework of our society’s formal and informal institutions. One side is labeled formal, since it is embodied primarily in our rule of law. The complimentary side of institutions are called informal, and they refer to the culturalreligious, and societal norms that also shape our behaviors. These both can be thought of as the “rules of the game,” and one of the many things that they provide is the incentive structure for our actions. For example, you may be more willing to invest in experimentation and invention if you know that your idea can be protected by patent law, which enables you to reap the rewards from your successful risk-taking.

Who plays this game? You and I, to be sure, and mainly through the organizations we are a part of (think civil society). These organizations are the political (parties and councils), economic (firms and unions), and educational (schools and training) bodies that were founded in order to fulfill specific purposes within our community.

North (1993) writes, “It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance” (VII). Taking enforcement as given, is there a relationship between these formal rules and informal norms? North and many others (notably going back to Smith) acknowledge this fact: Formal institutions are underpinned by the informal institutions of a society. There is much accumulated evidence (see here and here) to show that these two must fit together, otherwise the desired rule of law (one that unleashes economic prosperity) will not “stick.” In the spirit of this casual stream of consciousness, it might be fun to consider everyday examples:

  • Just because it was legal for me to watch PG-13 movies at the age of 13 did not, in fact, mean that my mother’s rules were the same, and I had to abide by her rules or suffer dreadful consequences. (And now my bookishness is beginning to make sense…)
  •  Although it would be legal to host a business meeting in a tree-house, it simply isn’t done. (A terribly inconvenient truth.)
  • There are many “forbidden fruits” in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that are still legally and socially acceptable in our society. Nevertheless, myriads of religious individuals continue to submit to the restrictions placed by their beliefs.

If informal institutions are truly the underlying determinant of formal institutions, upon which rests the fate of economic prosperity, then it becomes important that some of us specialize in shifting our gaze toward the informal institutions of culture and religion. Religious belief and cultural norms are often accepted as givens in economic analysis, but today I propose that this is no longer a valid or necessary assumption.

Enter, family.

Just as the rule of law is the embodiment of our formal institutions, the family is the manifestation of our informal institutions since religious and cultural beliefs are passed down within the sacred space of the home. To wander this small kingdom is to indeed wade into rich and deep waters, so I just want to focus on one thing that the family–above all–safeguards throughout generations: human dignity.

In this, there is no substitute for the role of the family. Organizations and institutions can treat a human being with dignity, and of course the best ones do, but they cannot possibly nourish human beings with the deep knowledge of their inherent dignity, moment to moment, like our family members do. Love and Economics contains a passage in which Morse reminds us of this hidden teaching, glimpsing into the rich love of the mother for her little one:

“People do things they do not fully understand, acting upon knowledge they truly possess but cannot fully express… [The mother] might tell you she folded laundry and did dishes. But she probably will not remember that she rewarded every little noise her baby made, by smiling at the baby, or imitating the baby’s sound, or having an imaginary conversation with him. Far more is going on between a normal mother and child than we would ever imagine…” (17).

If you are familiar with Hayek at all, the first sentence may have reminded you of his “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His main idea there, loosely paralleling the religious doctrine of human dignity, is that every single human being possesses an unique, irreplaceable knowledge of our world, equipping each to identify the best choice in surrounding situations better than anyone else. Above all, the knowledge and perspective that each of us stewards–mental models as North refers to them–have been extraordinarily shaped by our family. The understanding of our dignity or worth, and consequently that of others, can only be fully instilled by a mother and father who take it upon themselves to live out the greatness of their dignity as husband and wife and mother and father each day. And we know that dignity is the basis of institutions that support economic freedom and prosperity.

What might this mean in our current situation, when the decline of the family is hard, cold fact? In his foreword to Leisure the Basis of Culture, Fr. James Schall pulls us in with a striking sentence: “When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are.” This is my next task.

Morse travels back to the pioneers of political economy and posits that Adam Smith, and the subsequent family tree of classical liberal thinkers, held the rational assumption of close familial relationships when describing the workings of the free market with terms like “the invisible hand” and “spontaneous order.” Such close quarters with our kin inevitably grows mutual sympathy, the term Adam Smith uses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe the way that we learn to test our perceptions against the imagined or real praise or blame of others, thus cultivating our moral sentiments. The strength and prosperity of the market operating under formal institutions was rooted in this shaping of virtue.

I invite you to read “The American Family Today” at Pew Research (or just look around) to see that tightly-knit families are no longer a safe assumption in the United States. The covenantal bonds of family are rapidly dissolving all around us.

Before proceeding, however, far be it from me to claim that families will ever be perfect. For, far be it from imperfect humans to bind ourselves perfectly in covenant. Fortunately love doesn’t need perfect. It just needs patience, kindness, and all the rest. Though imperfect, the family is the single institution within which human beings are freely bound together for the purpose of love. It is the only place in the world where “do this” equates almost directly to “this is truly in your best interest.”

If families are no longer in place to perform their fundamental role in shaping moral sentiments and religious and cultural beliefs, what will happen to our formal institutions? (Or better yet: What is happening?) Speaking from her experiences as an adoptive parent, Dr. Morse points out that we are seeing a growing number of children who have never learned of their inherent dignity (and that of others), whether parental neglect, over-spoiling, or attachment disorder is to blame. My good friend C.S. Lewis vividly paints this picture better than any other:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We taught at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst” (The Abolition of Man).

If we are left only to operate under our formal institutions, we are saying that there is no prior reality, in fact, we are shifting our identity from mother and father to worker and citizen. The agora can either serve as a strong force for building community or a vulgar replacement for it; without dignity, all the power lies in the “rules of the game.”

We inherently ache to covenant ourselves to one another because it will fulfill us, and in no small way, remind us that we are more than our production and consumption capabilities. Depending on our covenants, our contracts will either make or break us.

But, materialism only robs us of our joy if we give it permission, and a healthy family is the best counterbalance to the world of labor, scarce resources, and efficiency. As Chesterton reminds us:

“Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that the home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.”

“That Which Is Not Seen” (Part I)

I had told myself that I would not write (save the nightly journal of course) until I had completed my weeks of vigorous GRE prep (hey there, un-missed pal of high school math). But… give a girl a delayed flight home from Texas, and she’ll take an essay. Prudence did convince me to divide this train of thought into halves, however, and so here lies part one.

It is the tale of two Frenchmen and a common feature in the mirrors their writings held up to society. The contemporary American continuation of this motif will likely follow in a few days. If you are interested in history, economics, politics, America, love, or the French– read on!


Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (Frédéric Bastiat)

In 1850, the French economist Bastiat penned a famous essay with the above title: “That which is seen and that which is not seen.” By way of straightforward reflection, he explicates many foundational (though admittedly counter-intuitive) economic lessons. See The Broken Window for a taste of this famous dish. However, the theme of each parable is simple, hinging upon his opening argument:

Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference – the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, – at the risk of a small present evil… It is only in the long run that it learns to take account of the others. (emphasis added)

Such foresight, in my humble opinion, convicts a lot of policies that we have today: from welfare reform to environmental policy to education debates. But that’s not what I found so compelling about Bastiat’s lesson. I think that there is a deeper “that which is not seen” that we are currently ignoring to our peril. In fact, I think it can truthfully be said that this economic lesson–small present sacrifices for a greater future good–is only a phantom of the original lesson. It lies beyond the orb of economics and contracts, rather, it is the bedrock of our society.

We call it covenant.

And here, I switch to another Frenchman who had deliberately studied our nation ten years prior. His name is Alexis de Tocqueville, and his Democracy in America explores the fruitful garden of political, social, and familial associations that make our familiar (even “taken for granted”) national identity what it is. His insight is compelling:

In Europe almost all the disturbances of society arise from the irregularities of domestic life… But when the American retires from the turmoil of public life to the bosom of his family, he finds in it the image of order and of peace. There his pleasures are simple and natural, his joys are innocent and calm; and as he finds that an orderly life is the surest path to happiness, he accustoms himself without difficulty to moderate his opinions as well as his tastes. Whilst the European endeavors to forget his domestic troubles by agitating society, the American derives from his own home that love of order which he afterwards carries with him into public affairs. (emphasis added)

This “that which is not seen” is the family, whose sacred cathedral is the visible home. In that space, costs infused with love become benefits and the familial covenant is carried out in daily acts of mercy.

This, of course, is sweeping verbiage for doing the dishes even when it’s not my turn, making you soup when you’re sick, and carrying home armfuls of farmers market flowers “just because.” This daily exchange of love-labors for a more perfect home is the foundation and fulfillment of the true economist who takes all persons into account and “pursues a great good to come” in the contractual realm.

I have a little theory that the greatest purpose of economic trade is to enable this somehow more fully human trade to take place.

Yet, here’s the rub: when we forget that our identity is first found as sisters, brothers, brides, husbands, and children, then we carry that same disordered priority list into the public square. Something tells me that this is what a little nun in India had in mind when she once said:

The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.

The GRE Manifesto

A quality that I’ve always admired is purposefulness. Time is something we can never get back (and who knows how much we even have left!), so there’s a real power in being able to confidently answer the question, “Why am I doing this?”

The great majority of my next few days will be consumed with studying for the GRE. (Joy of joys!) I’ve been joking to a few friends that I’ll be cafe-hopping through Omaha over my Fall Break. Except I’m not joking… And I may even hit up Council Bluffs if I’m feeling especially adventurous one day. But though I “just kinda know” this is something I need to do, I looked in the mirror this morning and understood that I needed to articulate my purpose more clearly. My lovely journal began to catch the words, but then I realized that was not nearly honest or humble enough. This was also something that I wanted to own up to publicly.

Therefore, let it be asked, “Why am I doing this”?

Starting with the least important reason, I’m doing this for myself. I’m doing this for the part of Clara that wants to know she can persistently pour herself out into a goal and reap the fruits of her hard labor. Theres’s definitely a dose of the stuff those cheesy motivational quotes are made of running through my veins. It’s invigorating, actually.

Secondly, I’m doing it for my friends, at home and abroad. The amount of support and encouragement I’ve received from my dear friends lately has taken my breath away. If you’re reading this, please know that I cherish those hugs and kind words when the going gets tough. I cannot wait to be there for you when you need the same strength! On a deeper level, I’m doing it for my friends abroad– especially holding in mind my little brothers and sisters whom I taught during Encuentro. I know there are multitudes who do not have as many doors open as I do; I’ve danced bachata with them and been humbled to live amongst them. That is why I embrace whatever small things I’ll have to give up these next few days. What an honor to be in these shoes!  May I never forget the joyful charge: to whom much is given, much is expected.

Thirdly, I’m doing this for my family, my rock. There’s something sublime in knowing you are prayed for. There’s something empowering in knowing you are loved no matter what. (There’s also something really appealing about not living on your couch next year, mom and dad!)

And finally, I’m doing it for Him. I’m doing it because it was His Hands that set me in this place, and His Love that placed these burning desires within my heart. We each have a mission, or as I like to think of it, a heavenly, beautiful story that He writes through us as we journey home. So, even should this next chapter not quite work out according to my plans, I know I’m not the one who knows best (thank goodness!) and I truly believe that there is a peace that surpasses all understanding.

It’s pretty simple, really, this is just me answering Your call with “yes.”

(Confession: I had to google “manifesto” before publishing this to make sure using the word wouldn’t make me a “comrade.”)