Who Adds the Greatest Value to the Economy?: The Laborer, the CEO, or the Philosopher?
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By John von Heyking, October 6, 2010 in Professional Development, What is Education?

A common perception in our society has it that people who create wealth directly, such as the businessman or the laborer who works with his hands, produce more wealth than a university professor, who is seen as a parasite on their efforts. The university professor, especially one who teaches humanities and social sciences and thus does not invent some machine that enhances industrial production, produces nothing of value.  It’s even worse if he teaches at a public institution, because then he draws his inflated salary from the backs of those who actually work for a living.

A recent encounter of mine challenges this perception in a fundamental way.  I recently attended a conference where I heard an executive of one of Canada’s energy producers announce that only now are they starting a public relations campaign promoting the good work being done in Alberta’s oilsands.   The oilsands industry is responsible for approximately 20 percent of America’s oil imports.  At a time when alternative sources of oil are owned by unreliable trading partners (e.g., Venezuela) or carry enormous domestic environmental risk (e.g., the recent offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), energy producers present the oilsands as a reliable source of energy.  A new PR campaign, with ads running in Times Square, is meant to respond to frequent high profile criticisms of the industry.

Until very recently, energy producers, as well as provincial and federal governments, have assumed that US need for oil is reason enough to assume that the oilsands will sell themselves.  A large and powerful opposition to oil from the oilsands in Europe and the United States, which includes decision-makers at all levels of government as well as celebrities like James Cameron who influence public opinion, regards the environmental damage produced by oilsands extraction as unacceptable.  For many, Alberta’s oilsands are the primary cause of climate change.  Newspapers such as The Guardian even refer to them by their polemical term, “tarsands.”  The oilsands epitomize all that is wrong not only with the energy industry, but, for some, with industrial civilization itself.

The energy industry and provincial and federal governments have only recently realized that the oilsands are not only environmentally questionable, but they are a morally tarnished good.  Because executives in the energy industry tend to be engineers and MBAs, they tend not to think of the practice of business as a moral practice.  The production of energy requires technical knowledge, and the marketing of energy requires only good communications skills.  Theirs is the knowledge of the CEO and the laborer.  They seem not to have realized that the economics of producing and selling energy, like the economics of anything else, takes place within a moral economy.    Goods produced must be seen not only to be useful, but they must also have a moral value.  If consumers come to identify oil produced by the oilsands as morally equivalent to goods produced by South Africa under apartheid, the oilsands is as good as dead.  This claim may seem exaggerated because there will always be a demand for oil, at least for the foreseeable future.  This is true, but many of the people critical of the oilsands would prefer to get their oil from Hugo Chavez, who shares many of their political views, than from Alberta energy producers, which generally do not share their views.

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1 Comment
Anonymous on Oct 7, 2010 at 8:28 pm

John,

I couldn't agree more with respect to your primary contention: namely that morality and economy are deeply bound together. The things exchanged in an economic transaction are, after all goods. And unless one is a moral nihilist, it would be implausible and irresponsible to reduce the value of those things exchanged to perceived value alone. And some goods are of such value that they should always be precluded from market exchanges--like human life or human relations. To make such goods items for exchange is to treat that which has intrinsic value as if it had merely instrumental value, and therefore fails to accord to such goods their proper worth.

There's another way in which the market economy is situated within a larger moral economy. Transactions costs that must be factored into any account of why particular exchanges occur are deeply impacted by the degree to which parties to an exchange trust each other. But trust is deeply impacted by trustworthiness (or, if you will, by virtue). You might say, then, that the number of market exchanges that occur is dependent upon (though not only dependent upon) moral capital. The more moral capital, the better a market will, all other things equal, perform. The less, the worse . . .

about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.