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Russell Kirk

The fol­low­ing essay ap­pears in the final chap­ter of Russell Kirk’s text­book Eco­nom­ics: Work and Pros­per­ity (Pen­sacola, Fla.: A Beka Book Pub­li­ca­tions, 1989), pp. 365–368.

Some peo­ple would like to sep­a­rate econ­o­mists from pol­i­tics, but they are un­able to do so. An­other name for eco­nom­ics is po­lit­i­cal econ­omy. As we men­tioned in ear­lier chap­ters, a sound econ­omy can­not exist with­out a po­lit­i­cal state to pro­tect it. Fool­ish po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence with the econ­omy can re­sult in gen­eral poverty, but wise po­lit­i­cal en­cour­age­ment of the econ­omy helps a so­ci­ety to­ward pros­per­ity.

Sim­i­larly, some peo­ple would like to sep­a­rate eco­nom­ics from morals, but they are un­able to do so. For unless most men and women rec­og­nize some sort of moral prin­ci­ples, an econ­omy can­not func­tion ex­cept in a small and pre­car­i­ous way. Moral be­liefs, some­times called moral val­ues, make pos­si­ble pro­duc­tion, trad­ing, sav­ing, and the whole eco­nomic ap­pa­ra­tus.

All human cre­ations and in­sti­tu­tions have some con­nec­tion with moral ideas and moral habits, for human beings are moral crea­tures. Con­cepts of right and wrong haunt us in every­thing we do—whether or not we wish to be con­cerned with moral ques­tions.

So it is that the final sec­tion of this final chap­ter of [Eco­nom­ics] on the first prin­ci­ples of eco­nom­ics sug­gests that ma­te­r­ial pros­per­ity de­pends upon moral con­vic­tions and moral deal­ings.

Adam Smith, the prin­ci­pal founder of eco­nomic sci­ence, was a pro­fes­sor of moral phi­los­o­phy. He took it for granted that moral be­liefs should af­fect eco­nomic do­ings.

The suc­cess of eco­nomic mea­sures, like the suc­cess of most other things in human ex­is­tence, de­pends upon cer­tain moral habits. If those habits are lack­ing, the only other way to pro­duce goods is by com­pul­sion—by what is called slave labor. Let us ex­am­ine briefly some of the moral qual­i­ties that make pos­si­ble a pros­per­ous econ­omy.

Any econ­omy that functions well re­lies upon a high de­gree of hon­esty. Of course, some cheats and char­la­tans are found in any society, yet on the whole, in a pros­per­ing econ­omy most peo­ple be­have hon­estly. “Hon­esty is the best pol­icy,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in the eighteenth century, echo­ing an old English proverb. He means that honesty pays, in an eco­nomic sense.

For any advanced economy is based upon con­tracts: agreements to sell or to buy, promises to pay, deeds of sale, all sots of “commercial instruments.” Many commercial con­tracts are oral, rather than writ­ten. Today’s mar­kets especially de­pend upon implied con­tracts (as distinguished from de­tailed writ­ten con­tracts). You may have seen a pub­lic auction, at which a bidder may pledge a large sum of money merely by raising one hand or nod­ding his head. The auctioneer trusts the bidder to keep his promise to buy at a certain price. On a much vaster scale, the complex apparatus of stock mar­kets de­pends on such implicit con­tracts—and on ordinary honesty.

On the other hand, those societies in which theft, cheat­ing, and lying are common do not ordinarily develop successful economies. If production and distribution can be carried on only under armed protectors and without any certainty of being paid, then little will be produced and distributed above the level of subsistence. When bar­gains are not kept and loans are not re­paid, prices are high and interest rates are higher—which discourages production and distribution.

An­other moral quality or habit important for the success of an economy is the custom of doing good work—of producing goods of high quality. The Ro­mans had a word for this: industria, a moral virtue, from which our English word industry is de­rived. Goods should be produced, and services rendered, for the sake of turn­ing out some­thing satisfactory or even admirable—not for the sake merely of cash payment. This affection for quality is bound up with the hope of pleas­ing or help­ing the purchaser or customer: doing some­thing kindly for other people, even though producer and distributor may never see most of the customers. This be­lief in work­ing faith­fully and well is connected with the virtue called charity. For charity is not a hand­out, primarily; the word means “tenderness or love, affection for other people.” The producer who creates first-rate goods is serving other people and can take satisfaction in that service.

One more virtue of the marketplace is a kind of courage: what the old Ro­mans used to call fortitude. This economic courage includes the willingness to take risks, the ability to endure hard times, the talent to hold out against all the disappointment, harassment, ingratitude, and folly that fall upon people in the world of getting and spending.

It would be easy enough to list other moral beliefs and customs that are part of the foundation of a prosperous economy, but we draw near to the end of this book. So instead we turn back, for a moment, to one vice we discussed earlier—and to the virtue which is the opposite of that vice.

The vice is called envy; the virtue is called generosity.

Envy is a sour emotion that condemns a person to loneliness. Generosity is an emotion that attracts friends.

The generous man or woman is very ready to praise others sincerely and to help them in­stead of hinder­ing them. Generosity brings admiration of the achievements and qualities of other people.

Now, generosity, too, is a moral quality on which a sound economy de­pends. Producer and distributor, when they are moved by generosity, do not envy one another: they may be competitors, but they are friendly competitors, like contestants in some sport. And in a society with a strong element of generosity, most citizens do not sup­port public measures that would pull down or repress the more productive and energetic and ingenious individuals.

A spirit of generosity to­ward others is still at work in America. But in much of the world, a very different spirit has come to prevail. In Marxist lands, envy is approved by the men in power. Private wealth and personal success are denounced on principle. The Marxist indoctrinator deliberately preaches envy. By appeal­ing to that strong vice, he may be able to pull down constitutions, classes, and religions.

Be­cause the mar­ket brings substantial success to a good many individuals, the Marxist hates the mar­ket. A con­sis­tent Marxist declares that when two people ex­change goods in any mar­ket, both are cheated. Yes, both—that is what the Marxist says. Ex­change it­self is “capitalist oppression,” the Marxist propagandist proclaims. Certainly there is little profitable ex­change in Communist countries. Envying the market’s popularity and success, the Marxist denounces the market furiously.

In the long run, the envious society brings on proletarian tyranny and general poverty. In both the short run and the long run, the generous society encourages political freedom and economic prosperity.

Also, a successful free economy makes possible material generosity: it creates a mate­rial abundance that gives wealth to private char­i­ties and en­ables the state to carry out measures of public welfare.

From the generous society comes plenty. The old Greeks often rep­resented in their sculptures and paintings the symbol of the cornucopia, the horn of plenty, a large goat’s horn over­flow­ing with flowers, fruit, and grain. To this day, the cornucopia is the symbol of a pros­per­ing economy.

The American market economy, whatever its shortcomings, has put a cornucopia into most house­holds in the United States. The re­wards of the mar­ket economy have been generous.

If the horn of plenty is to continue to overflow with good things, it must be cherished with courage and intelligence. Crushing taxation, imprudent meddling, malicious envy, or revolutionary violence might destroy the horn. To protect the cornucopia, it is necessary to understand economics tolerably well. Otherwise, a society of generosity may give way to a society of envy.

In our time of troubles, many strange economic doc­trines are preached. Yet there is reason to believe that the productive market economy will be functioning well a century from now. The errors of command economies and the blunders of utopian welfare states have be­come obvious to a great many people, while Adam Smith continues to make economic sense. So long as many people work intelligently, with good moral habits, for their own ad­vantage and for the prosperity of a nation, an economy will re­main healthy. But hard work and sound habits may be un­done by foolish pub­lic policies or by the violent envy of totalist states. There is a strong need for watchfulness on behalf of the economy.

This book has not been able to tell you everything about the Goose with the Golden Eggs. But we have been able to offer some information about the care and feed­ing of this creature; and we have cautioned you not to slaughter her.

Nowadays this Goose goes by the name of Mar­ket Economy. It seems probable that she still will be preen­ing her feathers when you are ready to take your part in the world of work. If you treat her kindly and intelligently, she will continue to lay for you.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreRepublished with the gracious permission of the University Bookman.

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