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.

Editor's Note: The following essay was written by Micah Paul Veillon for The American Conservative. The Liberty Jacket edited the text and added media to conform with this publication's style. The original essay can be read here.

“Graduate with a perfect GPA.”
“Win valedictorian.”
“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.”

Wendell Berry reads one of his poems from at the 2014 Festival of Faiths. Credit: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

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. Barry states:

Presumably, 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 offinance 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