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Religion & Liberty: Volume 27, Number 3

Entrepreneurs all

Anyone can fulfill an entrepreneurial vocation.

Everyone today is a critic of “soulless” Wealth of Persons market economies and the machine-like view of economies taken by professional economists who, on the neo-classical side, think of that abstraction of humanity called homo economicus and, on the Keynesian side, see only aggregate views of supply and demand. Do we have to leave markets behind to find real flesh-and-blood human persons and allow them to flourish?

Fr. John McNerney, an Irish priest who served as head chaplain at University College Dublin and is currently doing research at the Catholic University of America, agrees that too much of orthodox economics deals in abstractions. He does not, however, think the problem is that the modern world is too caught up in markets. In his new book, The Wealth of Persons, McNerney attempts to get a view of the actual human persons who are the central actors in economics by developing a “higher viewpoint” by which to see persons in all their richness. While persons are not simply economic agents, McNerney thinks that it is in a free market under the rule of law that we can see the many sides of human capacity in dynamic and startling fashion. If Aristotle famously saw man as “rational animal,” McNerney sees humans as acting, judging, choosing, discovering, innovating and creating animals. They are persons and not mere individuals because they are always in communion of some sort with other human beings and God.

McNerney’s book is very full (295 pages of text, with another 60 of bibliography and notes), with the occasional repetition that slips into books of such size, but it is really a delight for anyone interested in what it means to be human both inside and outside the marketplace. The higher viewpoint he seeks to develop in this book is derived from his interactions with a whole parade of economists, philosophers, theologians and entrepreneurs, including Saint John Paul II; Bernard Lonergan; Eric Voegelin; JosephSchumpeter; the Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Israel Kirzner; and Bologna University scholars such as Stephano Zamagni. Yet the reason for this eclectic mix of figures (and a host of others who can’t be mentioned in a review of this size) is that they all looked at the human being through a broader lens than those offered by the “orthodox” economists of their times, whether of right or left. They all focused on the marketplace not as a system to be fixed by those with higher knowledge (Adam Smith’s “man of system”) but as a dynamic arena, indeed a “process,” of interaction and discovery on the part of all the participants.

McNerney thinks that despite their superior performance, free markets are more often vulnerable to critiques concerning their moral legitimacy than other systems in part because of the way their friends talk about them and about being human. Too often the friends of free markets depict them as arenas for only a few select dynamic individuals whom we know as entrepreneurs. The heart of the book is found in the middle five chapters that explore the questions of who are entrepreneurs and what do they do?

Joseph Schumpeter, in contrast to Ricardo and other classical economists, stressed the role of entrepreneur as innovating producer who comes from outside the system and drives new development. While McNerney doesn’t discount this picture entirely, he insists on seeing all economic participants, from producers to middlemen to consumers,
as showing entrepreneurial gifts in their discoveries and decisions. These themes were developed in different directions by Mises, Hayek, Kirzner and others who considered the role of choice, alertness to reality and cooperation not simply to their self-interests but, in McNerney’s view, something deeper:“‘The art of the entrepreneur does not think about what is good for the art of entrepreneuring, but what is good for the body-economic,’ that is the common good of persons who are all participants in the economic drama.”

For McNerney, the “real wellspring of human wealth” is the human person exercising creativity and judgment to meet others’ needs. Most captivating is his chapter on Agnes Morrogh Bernard, a 19th-century Irish nun whose creation of textile mills—against the advice of advisors—provided work, dignity and profits for the poor of Foxford, County Mayo. Her vision of a “flash of transcendence” in the poor for whom she worked motivated her to trust Providence to bring that out in the workplace even for people unlikely to be considered “entrepreneurial material.”


David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas. He is the 2013 winner of the Novak Prize.