The Stock Market. Wikimedia Commons

Can the “Us” Enter into the Definition of the “I”?

Two American business leaders test the pertinence of Carrón’s words. Through the experience of these experts on economic cooperation and development, we go deeper in our understanding of “man fully alive” in the workplace and in society.
Suzanne Tanzi

Seth Freeman is Assistant Clinical Professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, teaching courses on negotiation, conflict management, and peacemaking. He is also Visiting Professor at Bordeaux Ecole de Management in France and Sun Yat-Sen University in China. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, he practiced corporate law for several years before entering academia. His areas of research include the problem of trust and the elements of agreement and cooperation when stakes are high and trust is low. He is also an op-ed writer for journals such as The Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and The New York Times.

Professor Freeman, what do you think of Fr. Carrón’s presentation to the CDO?
I’d like to praise Fr. Carrón’s desire to share a vision of life based on something more than rules and individualism. As a fellow follower of Christ, I believe in the danger and limits of self-seeking. My perspective may be useful in part because I teach in business schools, where you might expect individualism to be an essential outlook–an outlook many young business students bring with them and one that most experienced business people renounce, if only because it simply doesn’t work well. I also praise Fr. Carrón for arguing against individualism for more profound reasons than mere business pragmatism; he rightly argues that happiness itself may depend far more on embracing connection than on acquiring things. Recent happiness studies strongly bear this out; while some basic level of income is important, connections with family, friends, community, and God may be far more important. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that New York, the striver’s capital, recently scored dead last among the 50 states in a nationwide happiness study. That said, since Fr. Carrón and I agree in many ways, and agree on the ultimate truth and centrality of Christ, I think it may be more engaging and illuminating if I humbly and respectfully challenge his perspective here more than I agree with it. My central question is this: is it functionally true that a shared faith in Christ and a sincere witness to non-believers really does help a community transcend its individualism, reduce the need for rules, and increase human happiness? The answer may be complex and, at times, troubling. It’s because of this complexity that St. Augustine wrote of the need for rules and government in The City of God. This means we need to be Christian realists, as theologian Reinhold Niehbuhr argued, aware that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, and that even in our desire to do good, evil may be present.

Can you help us to understand where “individualism” originated?
Here, we can see one reason why the story is complex. While the term has many meanings, individualism as a political idea is closely associated with liberalism, the belief in the importance of individual freedom. It rose to prominence in the 18th century as a critique of the divine right of kings, hereditary status, and state religion. These principles of the old regime had become sources of endemic corruption and oppression, giving rise to the endless taxation and pauperization of the peasantry, the tyranny of monarchs, and the corruption of the Church. Individualism as an economic idea has a complex history itself, yet it is not as indefensible as one might think. As historian Barbara Tuchman notes in A Distant Mirror, the 14th-century Church so proscribed “selfish ambition” that it made it illegal to innovate, to work after dusk, or to compete on price. In that world, poverty was virtually required.

I believe Fr. Carrón is arguing for the radical love ethic of Christ in our approach to work and economic life, which I applaud. But it is not always clear to me from his work how we are to challenge individualism in practical and specific ways in our economic lives. It matters because there is a case for a measure of individualism. We are probably safer today than our ancestors were because of a certain kind of individualism–not the worst kind Carron refers to, perhaps, but that of actually valuing and therefore safeguarding the individual. Consider this odd fact about the murder rate in Europe. Since the 16th century, it has declined steadily from upwards of 20 deaths per 100,000 to about 3 per 100,000 today. Why? Some studies suggest it was largely due to the rise of the nation–state and industrialization (which was driven by political, economic, and personal individualism). These trends brought people into better-policed cities, increased literacy, and raised overall health and wealth, which correlate with reductions in crime.

Carrón says, “A friendship born of shared economic interest will last as long as it is judged useful.” You have analyzed the issue of trust in great detail. What are your thoughts on this?
I agree. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston famously said that England had no permanent alliances, only permanent interests, and one can say the same thing about a firm. Consider a common business school saying that “good ethics is good business.” What happens when good ethics is bad business? When the duties of friendship really cost you a lot of money? That’s where another common business saying often applies: “It’s not personal; it’s just business.” That said, personal friendship itself can create conflict, too. A recent study comparing life in two very different firms found that a Hungarian factory where workers allied through friendship and family ties was a far more hostile, tribal workplace than a Californian aircraft plant where meritocracy and bureaucracy kept the peace.

But we as Christian friends are called to more than tribal or merit-based bonds, when Christ is with us…
Indeed. Which means we must be that much more attractive than these worlds can be despite their ugliness; that much more prepared to live out our beliefs in winsome and remarkable ways. One recent, dramatic example: Amish survivors attended the funeral of the murderer of several of their children. Their purpose? To console the murderer’s family. The more the world sees such radical Christian acts of boundary-crossing compassion and mercy, the more intriguing we become. Another, more practical way is to train to use the conflict management skills of the peacemaker, which are learnable and vital to any community life.

Do you think that the negative breed of individualism in the workplace and elsewhere that Carrón describes might have catalyzed the recent economic crisis?
Alas, I don’t know what caused the crisis. Perverse incentives probably encouraged Wall Street executives to endanger the system by taking wildly dangerous risks. Unscrupulous lending probably contributed to the mortgage crisis. But one of the revelations of the crisis is how little anyone really knows about the causes of this–or any–economic calamity. Virtually no economist predicted this one. So I must resist the temptation to blame the mess on an ethos of individualism. I do know that for the past thirty years, the American system has particularly emphasized individual and corporate success through lower taxes and deregulation. Some of these corrections may have been necessary; at some point, taxes can become confiscatory and self-defeating, and regulation more costly than helpful. But we now have a greater income disparity in the United States today than at any time since 1928. CEOs routinely make 300 times more than their lowest paid workers make, whereas forty years ago they rarely made more than forty times more. Deregulation of anti-usury laws in 1978 created a generation of easy credit, massive over-borrowing, and debt poverty. Deregulation of securities markets allowed great innovation and massive, dangerous risk taking. Culturally, the rich and famous became ever more celebrated. Finance became an ever growing sector of the American economy, so much so that virtually all the apparent economic gains the country made since 1999 were driven not by productivity gains but by speculative bubbles using borrowed money.

Carrón asserts, “The true problem is that individualism is founded on a colossal error: thinking that happiness corresponds with accumulating things.”
I like Fr. Carrón’s effort to criticize the insidious effects of materialism. But I think many people may not understand or recognize what he means by happiness. Consider Penn State, America’s number one party school. There, few students have much money, yet they would attest that the “happiness” quotient is high. Why? A key pillar of the culture rests on the massive consumption of alcohol–so much so that 75% of the student body drinks every weekend. Its booze–sports culture is key to their “happiness.” This is a world that looks something like much of secular Europe, where millions find connection through sports and drinking. I wonder what Fr. Carrón would say to the people of Penn State and, by extension, much of the West, who say they find satisfying community in places we might consider shallow and inauthentic. For faith to gain traction in places that have renounced it, we need to be able to talk convincingly about the possibility of something greater than happiness–joy. Given our own mixed success living out that vision, I strongly affirm Fr. Carrón’s caution that we must be humble, even as I share his conviction to work and pray for something far, far better through the love of Christ.
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John Egan is Executive Vice President of Business Development with Aptara, Inc., in Washington, DC. He holds Engineering and M.B.A. degrees and has worked in Germany, Ireland, and the U.S. with leading global technology and services leaders such as Siemens AG, Price Waterhouse, and Cable & Wireless.

Mr. Egan, why do you think individualism is so rooted in the business dynamic of today’s world?
Within the realm of private firms, where I have spent most of my working life, the capitalist-consumerist model reigns supreme. The capitalist’s motive is to maximize return-on-investment and sets the working objectives for the firm. As a worker, my ideas, energies, and behaviors are directed, measured, and rewarded according to how much profit can be attributed to me, and I am driven to use my colleagues for exactly the same end. Within this model, the worker himself has become a voracious consumer of goods and services with which to satiate himself. And so the worker and the firm collaborate. This individualism has become a pre-requisite for the success of the modern economic model according to its own criteria.

Some American capitalists might not concur with the emphasis being taken off the accumulation of wealth and put on the value of the person, and you yourself have helped build a number of companies from the ground up…
The question of the value of the person usually degenerates into a problem of how to “fit” man into the economic equation. What we really need to ask afresh is: how can wealth creation be best used for the well-being of the individual worker, the economy, and society as a whole–i.e., the common good? The accumulation of wealth per se is not a bad thing–I need to accumulate wealth to support my family and, at a societal level, wealth accumulation is necessary for the sustenance and development of a people. But wealth accumulation should be in function of the well-being of humanity, and as such it is clearly subservient to it. Work is for man, but today we live exactly in the opposite way. Wealth accumulation has taken over as the primary aim of economic activity at all levels. As a suggestion for a new starting point, I am far more attracted to the position of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, who said, “The glory of God is man fully alive!” This “man fully alive” seems a most interesting and reasonable mission around which to align our energies for the common good. It is certainly more inspiring than discussing, let’s say, how we are going to achieve a 5% growth target for the GNP!

What do you think of Fr. Giussani’s conviction that “communion without Christ can’t stand”?

A more communitarian life must be generated if we are to have any chance of overcoming pervasive individualism, which is destroying us. It is a condition for better economic growth that is more stable and sustainable. The key question then becomes: on what do we found community? In experience, what I have found the most energizing and helpful factor (in a practical and educative sense), is this “guided companionship” we live in Communion and Liberation. Personally, my nature is to be individualistic, but my chance encounter with some treasured companions here in Washington, DC, has been pivotal to my understanding of myself and my happiness in life. I have markedly grown in acute awareness of what really generates and sustains us–it is this mysterious presence among us that has the name Christ. In this past year, within our circle of friends, two families have been forced into bankruptcy and many more families are suddenly now “living on the edge” financially. What has really moved me has been how these friends are becoming more themselves, and full of real hope, as they are accompanied through their difficulties. Also, new possibilities have emerged for them for work and for the other challenges in life. When you see people become more themselves through disastrous circumstances, you cannot but recognize another factor at work–something “within” the circumstances. I recognize this factor to be the same Christ I encountered before but who is now “new” in this experience. It is something more real than any ideology and a far better foundation to build upon.

In your mind, what does it mean to “wager too much on ethics instead of education,” as Carrón cautions against?
The great temptation we modernists suffer is to think we can design systems so perfect that everything will work effectively, in adherence to prescribed guidelines, so we will not have to risk or to depend on anything or anyone. But this ethical approach does not start from the reality and value of the person per se and it heads straight back to individualism. Again, in experience, I have learned most from my relationships with others. Following their work and collaborating with them in different ways has been more enriching (professionally and personally) than all the formal education I have received. My home life is nurtured similarly, by my wife and children and close friends. This is a method of education which I now cannot live without. So, to wager too much on ethics instead of education means to make a big mistake in what you bet your energies on. As we have seen following Fr. Giussani, there is one method which truly fulfills man: a human companionship in Christ.