LIV Golf and Homo Economicus
We should not be surprised that Phil Mickelson and company left their country’s golf league to play for a foreign league.
“Graduate with a perfect GPA.”
“Go to Harvard Law School.”
These were a few of the goals I wrote down on a piece of paper in the eighth grade. I then taped it to my ceiling (I know, I know, a nerd) so that I would use these goals as motivation for everything I did. I accomplished the first two; though I am still in undergrad, I have redacted the third.
I took this worldview with me to college. I expected it would change, but did not anticipate that it would change here. I figured after I had finished schooling at around thirty years old—newly married and perhaps ready to start a family—I would decide to focus on other things. What provoked my reconsideration? Failing my first test at Georgia Tech.
I was certainly not alone; many in the class failed with me. Perhaps it should not even be all that big of a deal, but I had placed all of my stock in my grades (again, a nerd). Yet, I noticed something: While many who failed were absolutely distraught, I was not. I cannot say I was elated, but my frustration lasted for maybe a few hours. Why? Well, because I was going home to see my family that weekend. I had a profound realization, the most important one I will have: That all this time, success and the idea of making a lot of money never truly mattered to me; what mattered to me, and what had been giving my life deep meaning, was my family—my home.
What does this have to do with the new Saudi-backed golf league? Quite a lot, actually.
On June 1, LIV Golf generated much controversy when it announced the roster for its first event, which contained the likes of major PGA Tour golfers Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia. In the past week, more fuss arose when Phil Mickelson revealed he would be joining the Saudi-funded tour, Dustin Johnson officially quit the PGA, and Bryson DeChambeau announced he would also join LIV Golf. In response, the PGA Tour suspended all of the golfers involved with the new tour.
Many golfers and commentators were left asking why these decorated golfers would leave the PGA Tour. With its great history and traditions, its world-class competition, and when it has given so much to these golfers' careers, why leave the PGA for a brand new league? Why would American golfers leave the premiere American golf league to play for a tour backed by Saudi Arabia? The answer, in the end, is rather straightforward: money. LIV Golf will be paying the golfers absurd amounts of money.
As a golf novice, I am not here to discuss the sport-related particulars. I mention this consequential moment in golf, alongside a consequential moment in my life, because I believe both illustrate a consequential development in our culture—the malaise that has befallen our social consciousness, an angst looming over the American mind produced by a culture whose ends are disoriented.
So, we should not be surprised that Mickelson and company left their country’s golf league, bristling with rich history and legacy, to play for a foreign league. I think ESPN host Stephen A. Smith’s self-qualification as a “capitalist” who is “proud of it,” before quasi-defending Phil Mickelson, reveals why. These golfers are facing what American citizens (particularly young adults) encounter daily: the allure of “economic progress” and “upward mobility.” These ideas saturate—or, dare I say, pollute—the very air we breathe in liberal America. But the roots of our modern capitalist tree are sunk deeply in a false anthropology, and this tree often bears bitter fruit.
Wendell Berry, American cultural critic, essayist, and poet, addresses these themes in his book, What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth. According to Berry, the liberal standard holds that a person is “upwardly mobile” if he leaves his hometown, the rural farm or country home, and finds a lucrative job or enters a respected profession in the city. Berry claims this, by implication, makes those who move to the city because they are chasing bright lights, or because they have had their jobs replaced by a machine, and end up homeless or in a slum, “downwardly-mobile.” Yet, up or down, all is well, because it constitutes “progress.”
Berry spares neither capitalist or socialist from rebuke in addressing this problem, as both have contrived solutions like telling people to “get a job,” a better education, or fall back on “safety nets” like welfare, Social Security, or a retirement fund. These “solutions,” for Berry, merely “serve the purpose of an economy of bubbling money.” They fail to address the problem of mobility, “which is to say a whole society that is socially and economically unstable.”
These solutions rest on the mistaken presupposition that man is inherently an economic being, thus they are inherently economic. Profit is the sole motive for homo economicus, and, as it turns out, modern homo economicus is the most pitiful of creatures. As Berry claims, he is homeless too:
In this state of perpetual mobility, even the most lucratively employed are likely to be homeless, if “home” means anything at all, for they are endlessly moving at the dictates of their careers or at the whims of their employers.
The LIV golfers have defended their actions. Dustin Johnson claimed this was a move he had to make. After all, he is making more money, and that is best for him and his family’s needs. The money is quite important, and as Graeme McDowell, an Irish golfer who has joined LIV, claimed, they “are running a business here.” I am not contending that money should not be made, or that jobs are not important; I am contesting the very idea of homo economicus. Men need jobs, they need responsibilities and incomes—but there is more to life than this. To say a job, or income, is all man needs is to disregard what is crucial to our humanity: family, a community, roots in an actual home, a place of worship, and the concerns of doing good and meaningful work. “Presumably,” Berry states, “if you have a job,” then “you won’t mind being a stranger among strangers in a strange place, doing work that is demeaning or unethical or work for which you are unsuited by talent or calling.”
LIV Golf is about more than just golf—it is a dreadful portrait of homo economicus in modern America, and this perversion of human nature leads to a perversion of economics, creating, as Berry claims, a system of finance and not a true economy. And Berry’s words ring true: “Finance, as opposed to economy, is always ready and eager to confuse wants with needs.”
Mickelson and his fellow LIV golfers have not escaped criticism, however. Yet, even in the criticism, there still dwells the spirit of liberal homo economicus. It is evident in the criticism from fellow PGA golfers Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, who claimed, “the decision is theirs,” that they are “certainly not knocking anyone for going” because it is “their life. It is their decision.” Behind this lies the idea of the social contract. It is as if Thomas Hobbes were behind the microphone claiming there can be “no obligation on any man which arises not from some act of his own.” It is the idea, as J.S. Mill claimed, that a proper political economy should view man devoid of modification from his social state, for his conduct rests not on his society. The argument is that Mickelson and company built their careers, they are “self-made men,” and thus in their hands lies all power of choice. If they wish to leave the PGA Tour and join a Saudi-backed golf league, then good on them. They fall under no obligations they do not consent to, because they are the arbiters of their fate and consent is the fundamental basis of all legitimization. This is an appealing argument, no doubt. But is it true?
Are Mickelson and company really “self made men”? It appears to me that they owe a great deal to the PGA Tour—their fame, their championships and green jackets, their money, their careers, and their very lives would not be what they are without it. This does not mean that these golfers did not work to earn their success. They did. But, none of it would have been possible without the PGA Tour. It is through the PGA Tour, if you like, that these golfers become the golfers they are, the individuals they are. It is the wellspring from which their identity flows. In the sense of pietas (the latin word for a religious, or transcendent duty—one that cannot be ignored), they have contracted a debt to the PGA Tour and have obligations toward it. For so long, they have reaped its benefits.
This is what I realized when I went back home. I was not worried about what it would mean for my future success, my law or medical school applications, or my GPA. I was going home. That was all I cared about, because, while at home, I knew me. I saw, in the subtle pastures, the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the quaint community, the historic downtown, and beautiful architecture of Rome, Ga., a human face staring back at me. That face was mine. My home and my family made me who I am, and there is no escaping that. Through my community, I have become the free individual I am. All of these things made me theirs and I knew it was time to make them mine.
I had pictured myself as self made, just like the LIV golfers, therefore it made sense to leave my home to go make money and be “successful.” That was “my right.” The worldview of homo economicus had corrupted my every thought. But I realized it was not what made me happy, and that, as opposed to the financial satisfactions our society boasts, my heart yearned for moral and spiritual sustenance. I saw that to be fully human is not as homo economicus, but as the imago Dei, and that as the imago Dei my command is to love my neighbor—an empty and futile word without the concept of home. Rome, Ga., has provided that, and consequently imparted a debt on me—one I now think I can never pay. Thus, while I have not put a new sheet of paper with a list of goals above my bed, I have amended my ends to the following:
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“Love and serve God—the true, good, and beautiful.”
“Be a good man, husband, and father.”