Daily Reading for October 8 • William Dwight Porter Bliss, Priest, 1926, and Richard Theodore Ely, Economist, 1943

In the last few years, I have found myself repeatedly noting that the term “economy” itself is in its origins simply the word for housekeeping. And if this is the root or the core of its sense, we ought to be able to learn something about where the whole discourse belongs by thinking through what housekeeping actually is. A household is somewhere where life is lived in common; and housekeeping is guaranteeing that this common life has some stability about it that allows the members of the household to grow and flourish and act in useful ways. A working household is an environment in which vulnerable people are nurtured and allowed to grow up (children) or wind down (the elderly); it is a background against which active people can go out to labor in various ways to reinforce the security of the household; it is a setting where leisure and creativity can find room in the general business of intensifying and strengthening the relationships that are involved. Good housekeeping seeks common well-being so that all these things can happen; and we should note that the one thing required in a background of well-being is stability. “Housekeeping theory” is about how we use our intelligence to balance the needs of those involved and to secure trust between them. A theory that wanders too far from these basics is a recipe for damage to the vulnerable, to the regularity and usefulness of labor, and to the possibilities human beings have for renewing (and challenging) themselves through leisure and creativity.

That is the kind of damage that manifestly results from an economic climate in which everything reduces to the search for maximized profit and unlimited material growth. The effects of trying to structure economic life independently of intelligent choice about long-term goals for human beings have become more than usually visible in the last eighteen months, and one reason for holding this conference is the growing force of the question “what for?” in our global market. What is the long-term well-being we seek? What is the human face we want to see, in the mirror and in our neighbors? The isolated homo economicus of the old textbooks, making rational calculations of self-interest, has been exposed as a straw man: the search for profit at all costs in terms of risk and unrealism has shown that there can be a form of economic “rationality” that is in fact wildly irrational. And, over the last two or three decades, the impact of a narrow economic rationality on public services in our society has shown how there can be a “housekeeping” strategy that ends up destroying the nurture and stability that make a household what it is. What we most need, it seems, it to recover that vision of what the Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom has called the home we build together.

From “Theology and Economics: Two Different Worlds?” by Rowan Williams, in Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 4 (Fall 2010).

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