Culture

For These Gifts We Are Truly Grateful

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, by Jennie A. Brownscombe (Wikimedia Commons)
Of all the worldly goods that we hold in common, the one we almost never think about or acknowledge is the greatest.

There is a part of the Christian tradition that relates charitable giving to the Seventh Commandment, which is the prohibition on theft. The idea is that the world and all that it contains are God’s gift to corporate mankind — “the universal destination of goods,” in theological jargon — so that the man with two coats holds one of them unjustly when his neighbor shivers in the cold with no coat at all. Private property, in this understanding, is instrumental in promoting the common good, but it does not supersede the primordial gift.

There is great grace and goodness and wisdom in that. But it simply assumes the existence of coats and coat factories, the vast and incomprehensibly complex apparatus of coat-production that incorporates materials, effort, and intelligence from people all over the world, coordinating the efforts of men and women who do not speak the same languages, share the same religion, reside in the same countries, or even know of one another’s existence — from goose farmers to computer programmers to chemical engineers.

“Feed my sheep,” sayeth the Lord. Okay: Feed ’em what?

Here is a little thought experiment. Scenario 1: You have two coats, your neighbor has none, and so you give him a coat. Scenario 2: You have two coats, your neighbor has none, but he also doesn’t have enough food, and he may not be able to make the rent, so you sell one of your coats and give him the money and let him decide for himself what is his most pressing need. Scenario 3: You have a thousand coats, and your neighbor has none, and he is hard-pressed in many other ways, so you sell 999 coats and plant an orchard, and redirect a portion of the proceeds from that orchard to helping your neighbor and others like him. Scenario 4: You have ten thousand coats, and your neighbor has none, and so you sell 9,999 coats and use the money to plant an orchard and some grapevines and a small herd of cattle — they were pretty darned nice coats that you sold — and you hire your poor neighbor to help you manage all that, as a consequence of which he is no longer too poor to buy his own coat — a secondary but happy result of the greater good that now all of your neighbors enjoy a more abundant supply of fruit and vegetables and milk and meat, whether they are poor, rich, or in-between.

Charity is honorable and necessary. We all — but especially those of us who have been blessed with so much — have a positive moral obligation to help the poor. But when we speak of the distribution and consumption of goods, we ignore the more fundamental question of how those goods get produced in the first place. God may have given us the Earth as a gift, but He does not plant potatoes or raise pigs or build the refrigerated trucks that keep people far from the farms and ranches from starving to death. He leaves that to us, one of the many ways in which we share in His creative work.

Here is a truth that almost never is spoken: All of the money that ever has been saved and invested in profit-seeking productive business enterprises has done incalculably more for the poor — more by many orders of magnitude — than has all of the money that ever has been put to charitable uses, formal or informal, mainly by preventing them from ever being poor in the first place. That saving and investment, and the innovation and labor that have gone along with them, are the only thing in the history of this little blue planet that has made its inhabitants less poor. Of course we invite the hungry to our table. A hell of a lot of good it would do if we didn’t have anything to put on their plates other than nice intentions or sanctimonious sentiments.

Keep that in mind when you hear Senator Warren denouncing the supposed excesses of capitalism and the so-called greed of those who do the actual work of feeding and clothing the world, fueling its machines and making its medicine. When politicians look to stick their snouts into that, they talk a great deal about the poor. Or at least they used to: Now, they talk more about the alleged privations of the middle class, who of course vote in greater numbers than the poor do. That isn’t charity — it is simply the desire of people who produce nothing to exercise power over people they hate and envy.

Sweet words don’t feed the poor. Monsanto does.

It took us a while to figure that out. For the first couple hundred thousand years, Homo sapiens mostly ate grubs and barked at the moon. We didn’t really get our act together until the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution, at which point the graph of the economic output of the human species takes an upward turn of about 80 degrees. And we moderns who are carrying our iPhones through the majestic plenty of a Walmart Super Center are, biologically speaking, the same savages we were with the grubs and the moon-barking and whatnot. In the course of less than 1 percent of human history, we went from being something very close to second-rate monkeys to whacking around golf balls on the moon. We made something of God’s gift, after all. We can share our gifts because we have gifts to share in abundance that would have been unthinkable not very long ago — within the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents, in fact. That did not happen by accident, and it is not fate or Hegelian capital-H History or Moore’s Law that made it happen, either. Prosperity is not inevitable. We evaded it for millennia, and some of us manage to evade it even now.

We are proud of our saints and our great philanthropists, the rich men who have the great honor of supporting the good works of the world. But as you cut into that turkey today, remember that somebody did the hard and dirty work of raising it, butchering it, packing it, driving the truck that brought it to your town, stocking the store shelves — and the very difficult work of figuring out how to get all that done, from domesticating turkeys to fueling that truck, a long unbroken line of human effort and ingenuity stretching back to the first guy who figured out how to chip a piece of stone a certain way to make it more useful. Of all the worldly goods that we hold in common, that one — the one we almost never think about or acknowledge — is the greatest. That is not mysticism or ideology or cheap sentiment: That is something real. We are all in this together after all — not in principle, but in fact. “Capitalism” is too small a word for it. Ludwig von Mises had it right that his field of study was not economics but Human Action, the name he gave to his great work. (Funny word, “work” — opus in Latin, karma in Sanskrit, the connotations of each being worth considering.) Civilization is a game of inches, and it is built on work — on human action, a gift for which we should be truly grateful.

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