Person, not individual – the Christian contribution to economics

The Gospel tells us about the unity and integrity of the human being. It reminds us that each of us is a unique being, yet we are not ourselves apart from other people. Each of us exists within a series of dualities. Each of us is either a woman or a man; none is a neuter. Each is either married or single, either a parent or not a parent. Each of us is ourselves, but also someone’s sister, brother, child, parent, friend. We are not mere units, persons without relation but we exist through these many relationships.
What is more, each of us is twofold because we are who we are today, and who we will be in ten year’s time. Each of us is not only this present but that future person. The unity of this person is not the present possession of any human being, not even of that human being himself or herself. Persons are not simply individual units, for whom it would be normal to be on our own. We are related to people other than ourselves. We do not simply create our relationships by our own say-so. Some relationships we inherit, and some we hope to pass on to those who come after us. We hope to create or pass on relationships that they will be born into, and if they are willing to recognise these relationships as good, we will have done something for them. But all that depends on thinking of ourselves as persons. Christians do so, but they may be in the minority.
Christians offer their complex account of the human being. On other accounts, persons are insidiously simplified. When we do not think of ourselves as persons, but merely as individual adults, independent units who make their own decisions from their own wills without reference to anyone else, we get a simplistic account of man and a much reduced version of our vocation as economic agents. The Christian view is that we may gain freedom by undergoing our own discipleship, that is, by subjecting ourselves to voluntary restraint of freedom.
The social sciences assume that each of us is an individual on their own, a unit without relation. The more we insist on individual freedom without such self-elected restraint the more we turn the human being into a unit who exists in on-off relationships with other units. These relationships exist only as long as both units want and no moment longer. This makes us one person against the world, for whom there turns out fortuitously, just one friend.
If we turn the person into a unit, who exists in relationship with other units who have no binding and long-term relationship with him, he is effectively in long-term relationship with just one other unit – the state. The corporations serve us as long as we have got money, or can borrow it, to buy their services. But this individual freedom of choice exists only as long as we are independent adults, who pay for ourselves, which we can do as long as we are in the job market. Of course our existence as independent agents begins to wane again as soon as we leave employment again when we retire and make our descent back down into dependency. In the middle of life, we may have many relationships, mediated by the market. By our attempts to grow in freedom without taking on any discipleship and self-restraint we surrender our powers to corporations and the market. But at the beginning of life and again at the end of life we have no money, cannot pay for ourselves, so the state has to supply these service for us.
Every attempt to increase people’s personal freedom that does not start with some form of self-imposed discipleship and self-restraint, tends to shifts responsibilities from that person to the state, and so from this person to all other persons. Every attempt to increase anyone’s freedom increase the power of the state and so increases anyone else’s unfreedom. The state is our parent, partner and sole true ally. Our life would consist is attempting to squeeze more resources out of it. Paradoxically, the more demands we make of it, the more the state is paralysed by special interest lobbies and unable to make good, sparing decisions on anyone’s behalf. On this basis, the individual and the state are mirror images. Each person is a little state and the state is a big person. The two of them are locked in this claustrophobic relationship. On this basis, the state is the true person, whereas we units are persons to the degree that we are dependents of the state.
So the Christian insistence that we are complex beings, who can enforce restraint on our present selves for the sake of our future selves, and for those who come after us, is vital to the concept of freedom. And freedom we agreed is vital to those unforced transacting that characterise economic exchange. You can’t have an economy without freedom. This is why the Christian view of man, as person, the complex being who is encountered only through dualities, is essential to the existence of an open economy. The Christian input, with the complex account of man who as image of God participates in love and freedom, is not only the origin of the open economy, but is essential to its continuing flourishing.