the imaginative conservative logo

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith was absolutely right: The widespread division of labor would cause the interior life to die; an unsurprising result, for under capitalism, the human person became a commodity, a resource, a thing used to further profits…

My parents, Romanian gypsies, born in a Transylvanian village and raised in thatched-roofed houses with dirt floors, heeded the inscription on the Statue of Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Like the millions of immigrants before them, my parents worked hard, scraped together a few dollars, started a business, failed, and started all over again. But they never gave up.

Their hard work and dogged determination finally resulted in financial success. My parents ran their store, Nick and Anna’s Grocery, according to the Romanian peasant understanding of social life. Our store served the rural community of Union Lake, forty miles west of Detroit. Most businessmen nowadays believe the purpose of a business is to make money, and consequently they readily destroy community. The very best thing I received from my parents was an example of a generosity that encouraged me to look beyond my narrow self.

Every Christmas Eve, my father loaded the store’s panel truck with bags of groceries, which he delivered to poor people in our neighborhood. During strikes at General Motors or Ford Motor, my father carried strikers on the book, often for five or six weeks. My parents told me repeatedly that our store was there to serve others and that we would do well by doing good; my father added that the other guy often needs help, even if only in small ways.

My parents always helped anyone out in time of need. If someone showed up at the grocery store and asked for a job, they had a job. I cannot recall all the people who lived with us for short periods of time. One month it was a plasterer, the next month a teenage girl in trouble with her parents, the next month a veteran returning from military service, and on it went. Several relatives lived in our house for years, ate all their meals with us, and worked in the store.

Years later when I read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, I discovered the principles of capitalism. The founder of modern economic theory claimed that free markets were an integral part of human life, for every individual has the “propensity to barter, truck, and exchange one thing for another.”[1] From the viewpoint of Smith, every economy, whether primitive or advanced, is driven by the desire to make profit from the production and exchange of goods. A participant in a free market looks after his own interest and knows that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that I expect my dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. I address myself, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of my own necessities but of their advantages.”[2] (What Smith calls self-love economists now call self-interest.)

Ignorant of The Wealth of Nations, my father, a butcher, ignored the first principle of capitalism—always act out of self-interest—and temporarily fed more than one family that encountered hard times because of the sudden death of the father or an unexpected layoff from General Motors Truck and Coach in Pontiac, Michigan.

In modern economic theory, as set forth by Smith, Homo sapiens is essentially a rational, profit-maximizing species. Every man, woman, and child is naturally driven by a self-interested desire to acquire material goods, a desire that can perhaps be tempered, but not eliminated.

Contrary to my father and mother’s actions, Smith told me that no one acts for the sake of another. Always motivated by self-interest, an individual never gives something valuable to another without getting some good in return, say pleasure, devotion, money, or power. Underlying Smith’s view is the opinion that an individual barely holds on to life, needing food, shelter, clothing, and other goods that are easily lost. An individual hopes to take much and give little in return, for human existence is beggarly.

Competition vs. Love

The second principle of capitalism is implicit in the propensity of every individual “to barter, truck, and exchange one thing for another.” Sellers in the marketplace attempt to maximize profits, while buyers shop around for the best deal. As a result, sellers compete with each other, as do buyers. For instance, when demand for labor increases, the “workmen have no occasion to combine in order to raise their wages. The scarcity of hands occasions a competition among masters, who bid against one another in order to get workmen.”[3] Most of us in America today believe that we must compete for every good thing life has to offer and are thus unwitting followers of Adam Smith.

In grade school, we receive daily exercises in competition, not cooperation. I watched my best friend in the sixth grade, Joey Prinko, cry after he missed a “stupid” word for the Spelling Bee Championship. Shirley Divine won the spelling bee, and everyone held her up as a winner; from the smile on her face, I knew she felt good about herself. Joey’s failure was his problem, not hers. In the schoolhouse, winners are taught to look to the good they have gained and ignore the unavoidable, emotional damage caused to the losers. The goal in a competitive society is to win without violating the rules. That’s how the game works in America, and that’s how the natural empathy young children feel for the pain of others is squashed by the ethos of capitalism. Later in life, Joey, Shirley, and most of my classmates out of “ignorant and coarse”[4] self-interest learned in grade school would be indifferent to the fate of the three million children in America who live in abject poverty, the kind found in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world.[5]

The Southwest Pueblo Indians, in contrast, look upon such behavior as unspeakably cruel. “Among the Hopi, competition is the worst of bad taste and physical aggression is rigorously suppressed,” anthropologist Dorothy Eggan observed on a Hopi reservation in Arizona. “Outwardly a Hopi learned to smile at his enemies, to use ‘sweet words with a low voice,’ to share his property, and to work selflessly with others for the good of the tribe.”[6]

One lesson I learned in the Union Lake Elementary School was I succeed only if someone else fails, and the converse—if someone else succeeds, I must have failed. No wonder so many of us feel our heart sink at the success of another, even if it is only a stranger successfully photographing an albino zebra on the Serengeti Plain. That stranger has bested us. Another lesson I was taught was my success is entirely due to me, and no other person has a legitimate claim on its benefits—a fundamental ethic of capitalism, where each person is responsible for his or her own success or failure.

Competition in public school, on the sports field, and in the workplace divides America into a nation of winners and losers. Students, in the lower grades and in high school, work for gold stars, A’s on report cards, and the honor roll, and, in college, for the Dean’s List and a Phi Beta Kappa Key; they have been taught that part of life is to be measured, graded, and ranked in front of others.

I, of course, had no inkling that in the fifth and sixth grades I was already being prepared for the workplace, where “the isolated individual has to fight with other individuals of the same group, has to surpass them and, frequently, thrust them aside,” according to psychoanalyst Karen Horney. “The advantage of the one is frequently the disadvantage of the other.”[7] The situation where everyone is a real or potential competitor of everyone else creates a diffuse, hostile tension between individuals, as is clearly apparent among members of the same occupational group, regardless of the disguised attempts to camouflage envy and hatred by politeness. “Competitiveness, and the potential hostility that accompanies it, pervades all human relationships,” Horney concluded from her years of psychiatric practice. Psychoanalyst Rollo May agrees: “Individual competitive success is… the dominant goal in our culture.”[8]

If Horney and May are correct, then agápē, the love that gives and expects nothing in return, is incompatible with human relationships that are forged on the principles of capitalism. At the heart of the Gospel of Love is Jesus’ new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[9] Jesus commands us to emulate God’s selfless love (agápē) for human persons, a love that cannot be earned and that excludes no one—in essence, to love without desiring a reward. The ethos of capitalism—self-interest and competition—that I learned in Union Lake Elementary and later reinforced by my schooling at the University of Michigan is contrary to the Gospel of Love.

The Division of Labor and Material Abundance

In early America, before the Industrial Revolution, material desires were limited by nature and handcraft production. But two elements of capitalism—free markets and the division of labor—changed everything. As Adam Smith emphasizes at the beginning of The Wealth of Nations, the division of labor greatly increases the productive power of the worker. Rather than defining the division of labor, he gives the example of a pin-maker. An unskilled workman could perhaps make twenty pins a day. With the advent of industrialism, the task of making a pin is broken into simple operations, with each workman skilled in performing one or two simple steps.

One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations.

In this way, ten semi-skilled workers “could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day.”[10] If each worker completed all the tasks by himself, then the ten workers at best could make only two hundred pins. Thus, the division of labor increased production by 240-fold! No wonder Smith extols the division of labor as the greatest innovation in material production, ever.

Smith predicted that the vast number of material goods produced through the division of labor would require large markets, or in modern parlance a consumer society, where “a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of the society.”[11] No one can doubt that two hundred years of capitalism in America created for the wealthy and the poor a superabundance of goods. The typical Walmart Supercenter carries 142,000 different items. A shopper at Kroger or Whole Foods can buy blueberries in December grown in Chile, fresh roses flown in from Columbia, and organic lamb imported from Australia.

Americans are incredibly wealthy by historical standards. Every day, labor-saving machines such as clothes washers, electric ovens, and gas-fired furnaces are taken for granted. Most readers of this essay have access to precious medical advances, such as genetically-engineered pharmaceuticals, laparoscopic surgery, and magnetic imaging devices. Laptops, flat-screen TVs, and smartphones are everywhere, in the ghetto as well as aboard yachts, which is not to deny the scandal that three million children in America live in abject poverty, the kind found in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world [12] or to discount the marked increase in midlife mortality of white non-Hispanic Americans, the result of “deaths of despair” caused by drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide in a declining middle class.[13]

In the United States, the distribution of income has never approached anything like equality. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, between 1893 and 1895, built his Newport, Rhode Island summer home, The Breakers, a 70-room, 65,000 square foot mansion, at a cost of more than $7 million, approximately $150 million today when adjusted for inflation.

(For a rear view of The Breakers, see the illustration at right.[14])

In 2007, 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. The upper 1% took in 23 % of the nation’s income. In 2017, the top 1% controlled 38.6% of America’s wealth. Twenty billionaires were worth as much as the bottom half of America. The five heirs to the Walmart fortune were worth $140 billion. Apparently, the super-rich brush aside Jesus’s admonition that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”[15]

Should the economic well-being of the ordinary citizen be measured by George Soros, the world’s richest hedge fund manager with an estimated net worth of $25.2 billion, or by Ethan Martin, a sodbuster in Nebraska at the beginning of the twentieth century?

To continue to exist, the capitalist economy must constantly produce new consumer goods, not unlike a shark that must keep swimming or die. Without the “great mass of inventions”[16] that flowed from science and technology, capitalism would have ground to a halt once markets were saturated by an abundance of goods. One obvious example is that without John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, the three inventors of the transistor, the iPhone would not exist, except for Dick Tracy.

New inventions and technologies continually produce new goods and thus previously unknown desires, and as a result, we are all placed on the treadmill of desiring more and more.[17] The marketplace thus instills values: For “a general plenty”[18] to be consumed, an unlimited desire for material goods must be developed through advertising and mass media. In this way, everyone’s attention is focused on the good life in this world, away from salvation, at the expense of intellectual and spiritual values. Every increase in the wealth of a consumer society goes into more material goods and higher profits, not into the development of the worker-consumer as a human person.

The great promise of capitalism was to bring a more abundant life, and this promise has been fulfilled, if only material goods are tallied. Arguably, science and consumer goods are on an ever-increasing, upward arc: The cure for cancer is in the pipeline; the intricacies of brain function will one day be unraveled, leading to better psychotropic drugs; the driverless car is imminent; and the iPhone (n + 1) will follow in eighteen months the iPhone (n).

Jesus tells us that he came so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.”[19] According to St. Peter the Apostle, we are called to “become partakers of the divine nature,”[20] to love the way God does, to love our neighbors and even ourselves without desiring a reward, without wanting something in return. The Gospel of Love states that the participation in God’s love is to have life more abundantly, not the possession of more and more material goods.

The Death of the Interior Life

The dark side of capitalism is that the division of labor contracts the interior life of the worker. Surprisingly, Smith argues, again in The Wealth of Nations, that when a person performs one or two simple operations, as required by the division of labor, he “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.”[21] The interior life of an industrial worker collapses to what serves the machine. Smith maintains that industrialism produces an abundance of goods and a decline in the interior life of the worker. Alexis de Tocqueville agrees: “As the principle of division of labor is ever more completely applied, the workman becomes weaker, more limited, and more dependent. The craft improves, the craftsman slips back.”[22] In pre-modern economies, Smith notes, no one fell into the “drowsy stupidity” induced by the division of labor and “every man ha[d] a considerable degree of knowledge, ingenuity, and invention,” because the labor of the artisan developed the whole person.[23]

In his movie Modern Times (1936), Charlie Chaplin brilliantly portrays the effect of performing one repeated task in a manufacturing process upon a person. Under the opening credits, the hands on a clock face approach 6 o’clock. In the style of a silent movie, the title gives the film’s theme—“Modern Times. A story of industry, of individual enterprise: humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” The film opens with an overhead shot of sheep jostling in a pen, and then rushing through a chute, presumably off to the slaughterhouse. The sheep dissolve into industrial workers shouldering each other as they rush out of a subway station on their way to work.

In an early scene, the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is an assembly-line worker who tightens bolts on machine parts as they pass by him with clock-like regularity on a conveyer belt. His task requires mechanical, repetitive motions. During a short break, the Tramp cannot stop his arms from continuing the jerky, rhythmic movements of nut-tightening.

In the late afternoon, the boss orders an increase in production. The conveyer belt speeds up, and the Tramp makes a valiant attempt to keep up with the machinery, but it is impossible. He goes berserk and lies on the conveyer belt to tighten the nuts of the pieces he missed as they went by him. Dragged into the machinery, his body stops the gears and cogs of the monstrous machine (see illustration). The production line reverses, and the Tramp emerges in a trance, still with his two wrenches, now raised high. Everywhere he sees nuts that need to be tightened. He even chases two women whose suit buttons resemble the nuts he had been tightening. The interior life of the Tramp collapsed to what served the machine.

I can speak from experience about work on an assembly line. I grew up outside of Motown, and my sixth-grade class trip was to Pontiac Motors to learn how cars were made. As soon as my fellow students and I walked into the huge factory building containing the assembly line, we were frightened and disoriented by the noise; pounding and hisses came from all directions. Five minutes later, I saw Mr. Seifert, my neighbor who lived down the street. He was installing windshields using a bizarre apparatus with large suction cups that resembled a robot octopus. Mr. Seifert, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, wrapped his arms around the tentacles of the mechanical octopus and forced a windshield into place. The car left his workstation, and within thirty seconds another arrived. I was mesmerized: car, windshield; car, windshield; car, windshield. (See illustration of Chinese workers on an iPhone assembly line.) Right then and there, I vowed never to work on an assembly line, and I never did. As we pulled out of the parking lot to head home from our class trip, I observed out the school bus window three bars across the street from the huge factory.

But that doesn’t mean that I never engaged in the division of labor, a virtual impossibility in modern life. Every university in the Western world follows the prescription given by Smith: As each individual scientist “becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased.”[24]

My education at the University of Michigan made me both smarter and dumber. The smarter part was obvious. My academic transcript showed that my proficiency in solving problems in Newtonian mechanics, electrodynamics, and quantum physics increased substantially over eight years. What the university records did not show was that everything I learned was without an ethical or social context. My education prepared me to be a new barbarian, who sold the fruits of science to the highest bidder, no questions asked.

Years later, I learned that in modernity education from first grade through graduate school is designed to serve the Nation-State and the free-market economy. As a result, the asking of certain fundamental questions is forbidden: Is creating television advertising aimed at children, or manufacturing junk food, or developing thermonuclear weapons right livelihood? To ask these questions is to subject the free market to moral constraints.

At Los Alamos, I was surrounded by bright, nice guys working for the destruction of humankind, in blind obedience to a new god—the Nation-State. One day during a colloquium on the effects of nuclear weapons, I had this sudden realization that if we hotshots were in the Soviet Union, we would be doing the same thing, although not living as high on the hog. The irony is that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russian funding for physicists ran out because of the economic catastrophe caused by a failed Marxist state, and many of the United States’ former enemy’s brightest and best ended up at Los Alamos.

Several of my colleagues at Los Alamos told me that perfecting nuclear weapons was carrying out the will of the people and that Congress was morally responsible for the work at Los Alamos, not the physicists who actually made thermonuclear weapons smaller and more destructive. I argued to no avail that for a physicist, or any person, not to take moral responsibility for his or her actions meant that person was only half human, a willing cog in the machinery of the military-industrial complex or Corporate America. To serve the machine, either through the collapse of the interior life brought about by the division of labor or through the willful abandonment of moral agency as demanded by all corporations, not just the military-industrial complex, reduces a person to a thing.

The modern workplace, of course, is governed by the division of labor; each employee carries out a small assigned task, and virtually no one grasps the whole of the operation, whether it is the manufacture of a Toyota Prius, writing the code that runs Facebook, or even the care of my mother, when she was terminally ill in a hospital.

Karl Marx observed how the division of labor affects the interior life: The worker “does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy.” He feels to be himself only when not working; at the factory or at the office, the worker feels alienated, or estranged, from his work and himself. To enter into the workforce is to accept “forced labor.” No one would willingly accept industrial work, and the factory and the office are “shunned like the plague.”[25]

Most Westerners find that the only purpose of their work is a paycheck. The alarm clock gets them out of bed on weekdays, not a passion to engage in a meaningful pursuit. If fully alive, they would spring out of bed with a surge of energy and could hardly wait to get back to the activity of living, much like Sumie Seo Mishima, an eighty-nine-year-old traditional weaver of kimono cloth, who says she awakens at 4:00 A.M. every day and just waits for morning’s first light, so she can begin weaving.[26]

Even with the affluence brought about by capitalism in the twentieth-first century, work is “shunned like the plague;” most young, educated persons I know dream of retiring at fifty. The rhythm of their lives is a dreaded week of aimless, boring work followed by a weekend of real life, chasing away the blues by shopping, clubbing, and surfing the Web, with the hope of now and then spending a week’s vacation in Hawaii, Cancun, or Las Vegas, of embodying the fantasies of the leisurely life instilled by consumerism.

Outside the workplace, what fills the interior life of most worker-consumers today is entertainment, and that usually means watching television or moving images on a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone. According to a 2016 Nielsen report, American adults on average spend eight hours and forty-seven minutes watching TV, surfing the Web on a computer, and using a Web app on a smartphone.

In the twenty-first century, few worker-consumers have little personal experience of anything; most of their “personal” experience of the world is filtered through TV, movies, and the Internet. TV-watchers invariably believe that television is an electronic window that brings the world into their living rooms. An opera, Iraq War II, or the Amazon rain forest seen through television is taken for experience of the real event or place. But the hollow, depleted images of television bear little resemblance to reality, and not only because they are edited, rearranged, and altered. The viewer of a TV-opera never feels the excitement that runs through an opera house just before the performance begins; the viewer of a TV-war never is subjected to the confusion of battle or the incredible physical vibrations that accompany an artillery barrage; the viewer of the TV-Amazon never smells the rotting organic matter of the jungle or hears the silence that pervades the deep recesses of the rain forest. An artificial, manufactured experience is taken for a genuine human experience.

Science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick claims worker-consumers are trapped within multiple artificial worlds:

Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, by political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.[27]

Pseudo-realities manufactured by Corporate America unceasingly bombard adolescents and children with “whole universes, universes of the mind.”[28] In many lives, objects of nature are absent; images are reality; and isolated individuals wear ever-changing masks fabricated out of images created to sell products and measure their self-worth against that of entertainers and heroes promoted by mass media and advertising.

As worker-consumers live more and more in the Web, the interior life becomes more and more superficial, just like the photographic images skimmed from the real world; the end result of the digital revolution may be that the interior life collapses to hollow images and counterfeit emotions.

Adam Smith was absolutely right: The widespread division of labor would cause the interior life to die; an unsurprising result, for under capitalism, the human person became a commodity, a resource, a thing used to further profits.

The Worker Is a Commodity

In the lower grades and in high school, I was taught to consider myself as a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. I learned that to be successful, I must acquire, besides educational achievements and an impressive CV, a pleasing appearance, stylish clothes, an attractive image, and an inviting bearing to be accepted by the right people. As a potentially valuable commodity, with the correct molding, I would fetch a substantial price in the marketplace. I was taught to emulate Willy Loman, the principal character in The Death of a Salesman, the quintessential American, selling not knifes, stockings, or watches, but himself. To be successful, the novice salesman must first learn to sell himself. Despite my education, I could not regard myself as a commodity for sale to the highest bidder.

Under capitalism, the human person made in the image and likeness of God became a commodity, bought and sold, used up, and discarded when no longer of value. What is priceless in the eyes of God is bought and sold as a commodity. To reduce a laborer to a resource, to a thing to be consumed and thrown away, is a denial of human dignity, and in this way, capitalism and every department of human resources directly contradict the Gospel of Love: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.”[29]

Capitalism “when it has impoverished and brutalized the men it uses, abandons them in times of crisis to public charity to feed them,” observed Tocqueville in the 1850s.[30] Public charity in our day means such federal programs as unemployment compensation, worker re-training programs, food stamps, and fuel oil assistance.

The Great Recession of 2008 was devastating for many low-income Americans. Consider just one story among hundreds of thousands. A couple in their mid-50s from Barre, Massachusetts, told about the difficulties of seeking employment at the late stage of their lives. Faced with foreclosure, the Massachusetts couple was fearful they would end up living in their car:

We, my husband and I, are very deeply concerned. You see, my husband has been out of work for three plus years now, losing his job to China in manufacturing. We are now at our wits end and in dire straits. Our parents have since left this world and with no place to go, what are we to do and where are we to go? I pray to God we do not have to resort to living in the car which is unimaginable in the middle of January in zero degree temperatures with no gas money for gas to run the engine to keep warm. This is inhumane, to say the least and yet no one, no one in this great state of ours is doing anything to prevent this crisis.[31]

Capitalism creates a thing-oriented society, where machines, profits, and properties are more important than people. In such a society, everything is for sale; human beings, animals, plants, and land are commodities; completely hidden is the human being’s capacity to wonder, to behold, and to offer thanks for the plants and animals that form the web of life.

What Are We to Do?

From the perspective of the Gospel of Love, we have uncovered the dark side of the ethos of capitalism: A person is a commodity to be used up and discarded.[32] The choices before us are stark: Be a person who exemplifies The Wealth of Nations and calculates his actions in terms of material return, fearing that without worldly prudence his life would quickly fall into poverty, or be a person who embodies the spirit of the Gospel of Love and gives freely, spending himself for others and asking for nothing in return, recognizing the great moral imperative in Post-Modernity is the refusal to treat any person as a thing.

What offsets the starkness of these two choices is that the spirit of capitalism does not pervade all American life. Many Americans, especially those in what economists misleadingly call the service sector, embody the Gospel of Love, although some regard themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers.

A dear friend of mine, a psychiatrist, genuinely desires to help her clients, many of whom are suffering from childhood abuse, failed marriages, and social isolation. From the viewpoint of Smith and present-day economists, she exchanges her expertise for money; however, in reality, her counseling of a patient is not an economic transaction, but one wise person attempting to help a desperate person right her life.

The fee she charges should be called an honorarium, a term once used to recognize that certain services cannot be measured by money.[33] The worth of Suite No. 1 of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites and its performance by Yo-Yo Ma cannot be reckoned in terms of dollars. All we ordinary mortals can do is be thankful and offer honoraria.

Another psychiatrist I know exemplifies the ethos of capitalism. After demanding and exhausting years as an anesthesiologist, she hit upon the idea of becoming a psychotherapist. She practices in a hospital, mainly administering psychotropics to depressed patients, and earns an exceedingly good salary from the misfortunes of others, whom she has little interest in.

Human life is so varied that for every example of a shining light, there is a counterexample. Nevertheless, allow me to briefly mention just a few other people I know who follow the Gospel of Love, who act for the sake of the other, although not necessarily from any religious belief. In Santa Fe, the best surgeon does volunteer work in Ethiopia, mainly repairing cleft lips and anal fissures of women that resulted from no medical attention during childbirth. A cosmetic dentist I know made a fortune in California and now in New Mexico his sole practice is at a clinic for the homeless and poor, for which he receives no income. My two grandsons attended an integrated grade school in Charlottesville, Virginia. At their school, I met wonderful black teachers, who taught their students manners, the importance of education, and such virtues as truthfulness and justice. These teachers are pillars of the Black community, dedicating their lives to the welfare of the young.

We, too, can rise above the economic values instilled in us. Each of us, of course, must make a living, provide for our children and ailing parents, and that entails buying and selling, hiring and being hired in a capitalistic economy driven by self-interest, competition, and an insatiable demand for material goods. Yet, we have an extraordinary freedom in how we conduct the business of life. We can forsake the path of individual competitive success; we can refuse to treat others as commodities; we can step off the treadmill of consumerism; we can keep in mind that “purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act;”[34] we can freely share our material abundance; we can give ourselves to others. The Gospel of Love does not have to be subservient to The Wealth of Nations.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), Bk. I, Ch. II.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., Bk. I, Ch. VIII.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (Harper & Row, 1966 [1835,1840]), p. 557.

[5] National Poverty Center, Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011.

[6] Dorothy Eggan, “The General Problem of Hopi Adjustment,” The American Anthropologist vol. 45 (July-September 1943), p. 372. Italics in original.

[7] Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (New York: Norton, 1937), p. 284.

[8] Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety, rev. ed. (Norton, 1977), p. 173.

[9] John 13:34, NRSVA.

[10] Smith, Bk. I, Ch. I.

[11] Smith, Bk. I, Ch. I.

[12] National Poverty Center, Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011.

[13] Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century.”

[14] Matt H. Wade, CC-BY-Sa-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

[15] Matthew 25:40, RSV.

[16] Francis Bacon, The New Organon: Or the True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature (Bobbs-Merrill, 1960 [1620]), p. 103.

[17] The ethic of more and more, of course, is contrary to nature. Before we can consume an infinite amount of material goods, climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable for Homo sapiens, but perhaps not for cockroaches.

[18] Smith, Bk. I, Ch. I.

[19] John 10:10, RSV.

[20] 2 Peter 1:4, RSV.

[21] Smith, Bk. V, Ch. I.

[22] Tocqueville, p. 556.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Smith, Bk. I, Ch. I.

[25] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Penguin, 1992), p. 326.

[26] See Aram Boyajian and Nicolas Noxon, directors, Living Treasures of Japan, (National Geographic Films, 2010), video.

[27] Philip K. Dick, “How to Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” in Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (Doubleday, 1985).

[28] Ibid.

[29] 1 John 4:7, RSV.

[30] Tocqueville, pp. 557-558.

[31] For more recession stories, see “Struggling through the Recession: Letters from Vermont.”

[32] Treating another person as a thing is the heart of evil in modernity. The two great political ideologies of the twentieth century—communism and fascism—regarded a person as a thing used to advance society to a future Paradise on Earth, a workers’ utopia, and an Aryan Nation-State, respectively. The evils of communism and fascism, of course, are on a vastly greater scale than the evils of capitalism, which in deference to our fellow Americans, we will call moral failings.

[33] See Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (Mentor, 1963), pp. 52-53.

[34] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. This is one of the most profound pieces of insight to be found anywhere. It also reinforces the notion that each of us can – and must – act in accordance with our first principles in our spheres of life.

  2. Admittedly I haven’t read the whole article but from at least the first part, I believe I hold a completely different view. Capitalism allows “self interested” individuals to achieve not “material wealth”, but to use that wealth to achieve the ultimate goal of establishing a level of status, influence, and relevance. Something all primates are naturally programed to achieve. Your fathers generosity appeared to be selfless, but in reality he surely would have achieved a great deal of status and relevance within the community. In effect, his generosity was likely motivated by “self interest”. Others much wealthier, like the Vanderbilt’s, built great mansions, and doing so would have appeared to be in their self interest and likely were, but in reality, they provided valuable work, for both skilled and unskilled labour. I’ve read some of these projects employed individuals in the thousands. The Vanderbilt’s spent their money on the what others were able to create, and not necessarily their own vanity. One might argue that by providing opportunity to others to sell their creativity, is even more valuable than just straight charity. One feeds both the soul, and the stomach. And this is what Capitalism ultimately provides.

  3. Dear Mr. Stanciu,I wondered about Distributism. Familiar with but do not know its details or complexities. Chesterton and others, (later on) espoused the positivity of this form of economics. Can anyone enhance me on this as well sources? Is it applicable? Thanks and Bless.

  4. A worrying article. The author points to the failures of the free market economy, but they are the shortcomings of fallen man, unlike the shortcomings of the socialist system which are all its very own.
    I dread to think what would happen if the logic of the article were turned into real world policy, as has happened so many times in so many places to such disastrous effect.
    We need to accept the benefits of capitalism, while palliating its deficiencies, and setting a free economic system in the context of our broader deeper human values.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: