Civil society and purpose

Any discussion of building a humane economy that addresses important needs like purpose, security, and opportunity would be incomplete without civil society — the third sector composed of our families, churches, affinity groups, and civic organizations. 

In this post, I will touch on purpose. This year our conversations have been dominated by COVID-19 and discussions about the costs and benefits of state and local policies. In August 2020, the CDC released a report on the mental health effects from the lockdown and the results leave one stupefied. Among young adults (18-24 years old), 25 percent had suicidal ideation. One of the authors’ proposals includes “promoting social-connectedness” suggesting the dearth of community played an important role.

The anguish described above also calls to mind recent attention on “deaths of despair”. This refers to the rise in mortality among middle-aged white men starting in the late 1990s from suicide, overdose, chronic liver disease or cirrhosis. What causes these deaths of despair? In their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Anne Case and Angus Deaton write,

“Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive. It is the loss of meaning, of dignity, of pride, and of self-respect that comes with the loss of marriage and of community that brings on despair, not just or even primarily the loss of money.”

This is also reflected in Marco Rubio’s plea for a common-good capitalism where he cites deaths of despair as a ripple effect from an “economic re-ordering” and holds up the primacy of creating jobs that provide dignified work. This is important. As Adam Smith has noted, “Man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely,” and work helps a man to feel he has made a contribution and is deserving of love and respect. At the same time, I want to resist the temptation to think despair flows only from economic conditions.

In his book Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard claims that humankind falls into despair when we have a misunderstanding about who we are as human beings. But, for Kierkegaard this despair can serve an important role. Despair signals our need for God, the only one who can heal our despair. A couple years ago at the Southern Economic Association meetings, I saw some preliminary work that suggested these deaths of despair were pre-dated by the decline in occupations but actually corresponded to earlier declines in religious participation. In order for life to have meaning, a person must have faith, and that faith is sustained in communities.

The key point is this: Man cannot live on economics alone. More depth is needed and this can be found in our communities. If a person removes themselves from important communities that can have a negative impact on their flourishing.

Here is a question: Before the fall of man, was everything perfect in the Garden of Eden? No.  “The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”” (Genesis 2:18) We want to love and to be lovely. There must be some other for us to direct our love and receive love from. And, while that other could be a higher power like God, even Adam before the Fall, wanted that love to come from another human. Small groups like our churches provide the context through which this natural inclination can be pursued. Obviously there are other groups too like families, recreational organizations, civic organizations, etc.

Small groups can be chosen for different reasons and with different levels of commitment. This is a good thing because it is akin to a portfolio of identities. Having many different communities where we can engage different pursuits seems preferable to worship at the altar of politics. When we talk about a life well lived, human needs like purpose, security, and opportunity seem important to meet. Economics and work are important for that sense of purpose but we should not overlook how a lack of community can lead to a loss of purpose.

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