M. Stanton Evans once said, in defense of free markets, â€œIt all depends on how prosperous you want to be.â€ Prosperity, most of us would agree, is generally a good thing. The Western World has been quite good at it, although prosperity has often required that we compromise on the important things that got us prosperity in the first place. An â€œeconomyâ€ meant in Greek and Roman terms (and Hebrew as well) the proper management of a household, which required the close cooperation of a husband and wife, and usually members of the extended family. To survive and prosper our ancestors had to grow things, make things, and fix things. This is still the rule of an ordered economy, and we must recapture its moral center in order to work our way back from the present distress. â€œThe economy,â€ as we anthropomorphize it, is of course much more complicated than the trinity of grow, make, and fix. But just as central to a properly managed household as the trinity, is work. In fact, there can be no meaningful economic activity without respect for work. From long before Xenophonâ€™s Oeconomicus the ancients revered work as manâ€™s purpose; Plato went so far as to equate justice with doing oneâ€™s own work and tending to oneâ€™s own business. Interpreting Plato nearly twenty-five centuries later, Irving Babbitt remarked that the only true freedom is the freedom to work. Among the Romans, Plutarch describes the elder Cato as dedicated to the work of his farm, the work of teaching his children and writing treatises on many aspects of agricultural life, the work of the law in helping neighbors, and the work of politics and war in service to the res publica; such was Catoâ€™s definition of Roman virtue. The poet Vergil used the term labor to represent the dignity of work, without which the mission of Rome would have little to offer the republic or the world.
Western religions sacralized work from the beginning. Adam and Eve were supposed to tend the garden. Hebrew civilization was based on faithfully doing good work for God and man, according oneâ€™s calling. â€œSix days you shall workâ€ precedes the day of rest in the fourth commandment. The Catholic tradition is that human work is â€œcialled to prolong the work of creation,â€ and is to â€œbe exercised within the limits of the moral orderâ€ in the service of the whole man and the community (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.583). Our Puritan and Quaker ancestors in this country accepted–insisted upon–â€an idea that every Christian had two callings…The first was a Christianâ€™s duty to live a godly life in the world. The second was mainly his vocation (David Hackett Fischer, Albionâ€™s Seed, p.156).â€ In trying to explain the origins of modern economic systems Max Weber should probably have called the cultural precursor the â€œJudeo-Christian Work Ethic.â€Â
Pagans and Jews and Christians all knew, says Russell Kirk, â€œwe must find our happiness in work, or not at all.â€ Or, as my mother-in-law is fond of saying, â€œWhat would we do if we didnâ€™t have our work!â€ An economy does not produce happiness for either the person or the community. But work can make for happiness, and make a good economy. Again, the CCC: â€œWork is for man, not man for work.â€Â
Some classical liberal economists argue that free markets (â€œthe economyâ€) are the only real guarantors of strong families and communities. Many socialists contra-argue that only command economies can accomplish this same goal. Most of our best historians and poets, on the other hand, have always known that the best economies are driven by church, family, and community–that is, morally driven and nurtured. It is the person in the context of the natural and eternal structures of church, family and community who is himself truly natural and whole. And as members of the cult, those whole persons create economies (and for that matter, governments) that are best for them given increasingly complex circumstances over time. Culture is antecedent to economics; if the cult is not healthy, the economy, however much we try to abstract it or anthropomorphize it, will not be healthy for long.Â
Having made an extraordinary claim for historians and poets, let us take a brief look at the historical wisdom of Forrest McDonald and the poetic vision of Robert Frost to illustrate the point. First, a definition:
Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devilâ€™s Dictionary, 1911)
Bierce, writing his wicked definitions in the midst of the period of greatest change in the history of the human race (roughly 1870-1920, the first fifty years of my grandparentsâ€™ lives), saw around him the real American Revolution: a fundamental alteration of our relation to nature, which among other things created prosperity unknown to any other generation since the Creation.
Much of Forrest McDonaldâ€™s The Phaeton Ride: The Crisis of American Success (1974) is about the corporationâ€™s effects on that prosperity. The legal fiction â€œwhereby an artificial â€˜companyâ€™ of persons is vested with the legal status of a single natural personâ€ touched off the â€œproximate beginnings of the present crisis.â€ McDonald borrows his title from Greek mythology, the story of Phaeton, son of the sun god Helios (Apollo to the Romans), who extracts a promise from his father to let him drive the chariot that lights up the earth across the skies for one day. The boy is unequal to the task, and as he loses control of the mighty horses pulling the chariot, threatening to burn up the earth, Zeus is forced to kill him with a thunderbolt to save mankind. Phaetonâ€™s grave marker says in part, He could not rule his fatherâ€™s car of fire,/Yet it was much, so nobly to aspire.Â
The trope is clear: The legally protected corporate chariot, fueled by the fires of technological innovation, wartime emergencies, investment banking, and eventually government itself, soared to heavens of prosperity, but eventually became a threat to the very nature it tried to conquer. â€œIt is easy enough to teach people to want things,â€ McDonald writes, â€œbut far more difficult to teach them not to want things.â€ Furthermore, the â€œcrisis of successâ€ is at least partly a moral problem because it weakened the â€œwork ethos,â€ which is â€œat the heart of the American system of morality.â€ We should add that the wild chariot ride after â€œstuffâ€ at least indirectly threatens the church, the family and the community by emphasizing the individualâ€™s desires over natural associations.Â
McDonald warns us to remember â€œTHE SUMMER of seventy-three. [gas lines, the beginnings of astronomical interest rates and inflation, a stock market plummeting amidst incredible affluence, soon to be followed by wage and price controls] Remember it well, and cherish the memory, for things will never be that good again.â€ Perhaps the 80s and 90s were a respite, but overall, for ordinary Americans, so far he is a prophet.Â
The Great Depression threatened the real economy for the opposite reason. People out of work cannot grow, make or fix things, except on a level of barest subsistence. The great economic question of the 1930s was, â€œhow much economic activity should be subsidized, regulated, or controlled by government? The answer was, â€œa lot,â€ which was set in stone during World War II. Most American writers took up the cause of the â€œworking manâ€ and opted for one degree of socialism or another. Robert Frost did not. He won two Pulitzer Prizes in the 30s, but was also perhaps the most criticized writer of the decade (with Thornton Wilder, Booth Tarkington, and Willa Cather running close behind).Â
In â€œBuild Soil,â€ published in 1936 and widely interpreted as an anti-New Deal poem–but actually written in 1932, well before the second Roosevelt was elected–Frost used the form of a Vergilian Eclogue to argue against what he called â€œpigging together.â€ â€œWeâ€™re always too much out or too much in,â€ he says.
â€œMy friends all know Iâ€™m interpersonal.
Â But long before Iâ€™m interpersonal,
Â Away â€˜way down inside Iâ€™m personal.
Â Just so before weâ€™re international,
Â Weâ€™re national and act as nationals.â€
Speaking through the farmer Tityrus, Frost says â€œI bid you a one-man revolution–/The only revolution that is coming,â€ a plea for a renewal of self reliance and self government, just as he insists that in tough times we should not rush to market despite that by our â€œbrute snarling and lashingâ€ we have been taught it.Â
Rather, â€œbuild soil,â€ plow under, store for later, give up five-year plans; go back to our roots, avoid the frenzied action the times seem to demand, â€œKeep off each other and keep each other off.â€ His argument is not for unfettered freedom: â€œEveryone asks freedom for himself/The man free love, the business man free trade,/The writer and talker free speech and free press.â€ But there is no love of mankind, â€œThereâ€™s only love of men and women, love/Of children, love of friends, of men, of God.â€
â€œThe song says, Steal away and stay away.
Donâ€™t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States and join the family—
But not much in between unless a college.â€
â€œBuild Soilâ€ is a classical call for the Aristotelian mean, for temperance and self respect, interspersed with words from Christian hymns and agricultural imagery, and a warning against too much trust in either market forces or governmental solutions to timeless questions. An economy, by implication, is the ambition and ingenuity of real men and women who understand that good soil must be enriched and not stripped of its gifts. Greed and â€œismsâ€ of every kind are its veriest enemies.
Just as the family is â€œthe first and best teacher of the faith,â€ it is up to what Burke called the â€œlittle platoonsâ€ to restore the respect for work that alone can restore health to an economic order. It is a long road to travel, but no amount of economic â€œscienceâ€ or political tinkering can make us really want to grow, build, and fix. A good start on going down the long road is to turn away from the Phaeton Ride and stop â€œpigging togetherâ€ and to read carefully our historians and poets.
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