The Political Economy of Flannery O’Connor

Originally published in The Independent Review

Fiction writer Flannery O'Connor would strike economists as someone engaged in a positive, rather than normative, examination of human nature. She observes the conditions arising from systemic racism, xenophobia, and inequality of opportunity in America's post-World War II South, vividly illustrating the material and intellectual impoverishment that follow when humans act within the logic of that social order. Her stories demonstrate a coherence in society resulting from rational “human action, but not human design” (Ferguson [1767] 1996, 187): her characters reject cooperation with others, even when the benefits of cooperating are clearly demonstrated, just so that they can maintain the rigid racial and class hierarchy in which they have been raised, but the outcome is financial and spiritual suffering.

Though her stories are set more than half a century ago, they remain relevant to our time as records of the conditions from which our current culture arises but also as illustrations of the evils brought about by prejudices we have not yet entirely put behind us: de facto segregation (Lichter, Parisi, and Taquino 2015), fewer educational and employment opportunities for the poor and/or black (Chetty et al. 2014; Chetty et al. forthcoming), and lingering disparities in health (Communities in Action 2017) and wealth (Thompson and Suarez 2019). O'Connor leaves her readers to decide how best to move forward, but she makes it clear that clinging to the old ways leads only to our physical and metaphysical peril.

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