Organism and Mechanism

by John Young

A sound economy is impossible while the economic order is seen as a mechanism rather than an organism. For an organism is from nature and is auto-perfective, while a mechanism is from man and is hetero-perfective.

Take a physical organism, say the human body. It is composed of diverse parts, each having its own operation, and all contributing to the good of the whole body. Now, at first glance it might seem that it is essentially the same as a mechanism, say a motor car. This is not so, most basically because the physical organism is one substance, whereas the car is many substances combined by art. The car is an artificial whole, not a natural whole.

In the strict sense, an organism is a physical entity, such as the human body; and the word is being used analogously when we apply it to an association, such as a social club or a political society or the economy. But the comparison is worthwhile, for it throws light on the nature of these groups. Let us apply it to the economic order.

Consider some characteristics of a physical organism which also apply, analogously, to the economy. 1. It is heterogeneous: it has many parts, each different from the others. 2. Each part has a special operation. 3. Each is so related to the other parts that its operation tends to the good of the whole body. (Cf. Dr. A.M. Woodbury, Natural Philosophy, p. 310.)

The economy has many parts in the sense of the millions of individuals who constitute it, and also in the sense that it is made up of many groups such as workers, investors, consumers. Each of these has a special part to play in the whole. This part tends, from its nature, to the good of the whole.

The social organism which is the economy is more than a mechanism, a machine. What is a machine? It is a human invention, a product of art, constructed from physical substances like metal and wood. Hans Andre, comparing a biological organism with a machine, says: "Whereas a machine functions by man and for man, the organism constructs itself by the forces which lie hidden within it" (quoted by Dr. A.M. Woodbury, Natural Philosophy, p. 309).

The economy is from nature in the sense that it is required by human nature and its essential features are from human nature. And like a living body, it too "constructs itself by the forces which lie hidden within it".

It is also like a biological body in being self-perfective. The activity of a lifeless thing is always transient: that is, it passes into something else. Fire, for instance, causes heats in other things. But the activity proper to living beings remains within the operant, perfecting it. Knowledge, for instance, remains within the knower as a perfection of himself. Likewise, when people form an economic society, the activities in which they engage (provided these are in accord with the natural laws that should regulate the economy) contribute to the perfection of the whole economic body. They generate a marvellous common good in which any number of people can share without it being diminished.

A genuine economic order differs from a mechanism or machine in a number of ways. The fundamental difference is that a true economy is from nature, whereas the machine is from man. God designed the economy; a human inventor designed the machine.

The nature of a true economic order must first be seen, then we should proceed to implement it. Its nature or essence is independent of the human mind, while its implementation depends on human will. The machine, on the contrary, has its essence from human ingenuity: it is invented by man, not found by him. What happens if we visualise the economic order as though it were a machine and not an organism? We will tend to treat it as though we had invented it and can change it at will.

The economy, insofar as it is from nature, must not be tampered with. We can't improve on God's work. But we may find it advisable to make any number of changes to the machine we invented, for we can improve our artefacts.

Further, as noted above, the economy generates the common good, for it is auto-perfective. But the machine cannot have a common good of its own, for it is hetero-perfective: it causes good in other things. (An automobile is really a hetero-mobile!) But if we see the economy as a mechanism, the marvellous common good it generates will tend to be overlooked and replaced with the idea that we should manipulate the economic system for our individual wants, rather like using a tool. Individualism will replace community.

We will also become preoccupied with fears of scarcity, for the machine's activity is towards entropy: its very activity promotes its destruction; in being used it is used up. But the activity characteristic of an organism (as explained in natural philosophy) is towards ectropy: that is, the body becomes more than it was. The act of nutrition, for instance, builds up the body.

The economy, through its auto-perfective activity, generates abundance, and an increase in population tends to the betterment of the economy, not its worsening. But those who see it as a machine can't grasp this. They fear overpopulation, they fear over consumption, they fear a vigorous economy will end up destroying the world.

If the economy were a mechanism, its planners would be like an inventor designing a machine. But because it is an organism, its "planners" are like Frankenstein designing a monster.



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John Young's book, The Natural Economy(London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1997), explores the natural laws required if any economy is to be healthy. It can be obtained from the Cardinal Newman Catechist Centre, 1 Chetwynd Rd., Merrylands NSW 2160 (Ph: 02 9637 9406), or ordered from bookshops. The Australian distributor is Stafford Books, 48 Hotham Pde, Artarmon NSW 2060. RRP $29.95. It may also be purchased online from Amazon Books.


John Young is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 1999. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 1.
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the Centre for Thomistic Studies, Sydney, Australia.
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