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The Inherent Virtues of Commerce

Is it possible to argue that commercial activity is inherently virtuous, that it does not need to be tolerated as a necessary evil, but rather should be embraced as a positive good? If we all have the mind of the maker, if we are all created in the image of God, then we are all creators. For some, creativity manifests itself in commercial life. The changes of the eighteenth century, the bourgeois deal, allowed whole new sets of people to finally unchain their creative impulses.

Dear Cleinias, the class of men is small . . . who, when assailed by wants and desires, are able to hold out and observe moderation, and when they might make a great deal of money are sober in their wishes, and prefer a moderate to a large gain. But the mass of mankind are the very opposite: their desires are unbounded, and when they might gain in moderation they prefer gains without limit; wherefore all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonorable things.

That is Plato in the Laws. He is outdone by Aristotle who in the Politics advocates banning any merchants from the state, since “such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue.” It isn’t just the Greeks who disparage commerce. Aquinas says that a merchant who works to enrich himself is a rather despicable creature, “justly deserving of blame, because, considered in itself, it satisfies the greed for gain, which knows no limit and tends to infinity.”

One of the interesting things about reading old books is how modern they sometimes seem. You don’t dig very deep into Left or Right political commentary to find remarks disparaging the multinational industrial capitalist economy. The Left wants to replace it with some sort of edenic international socialist state. The Right wants to replace it with some sort of edenic national religious state.

But both conservative and liberal market critics claim that large corporations are being run by greedy CEOs who care only about becoming mind-bogglingly wealthy, tossing the concerns of the poor working classes into the ashbins. Indeed, these capitalist swine in pursuit of riches do what they can to corrupt the government and thwart the will of all those decent not-so-wealthy people who just want to live satisfying lives.

But a profit motive does not necessarily entail systematic social corruption as ancient and modern naysayers of open markets suggest. An individual working in the economic order does not cease to be a moral person simply because he has a profit motive. It is possible to run an ethical business—to treat your employees and customers the right way, the way you would like to be treated yourself—and still generate profits.

This response to charges of capitalism’s inherent corruption, however, concedes that morals and commercial activity are inherently irreconcilable. Think of the arguments for taking environmental concerns into account when operating a business. Yes, your profits may be lower if you Do the Right Thing, but it’s worth it. Society looks at the capitalists and says, “We will let you keep some of your profits if you agree to act virtuously.”

Can the case for commercial activity be made stronger? Is there a fundamental answer to the charges of immorality leveled by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and their modern counterparts? Is it possible to argue that commercial activity is inherently virtuous, that it does not need to be tolerated as a necessary evil, but rather should be embraced as a positive good?

The Image of God

Let us begin with the first page of Genesis. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Then something even more amazing happens. Out of all the things God created, there is only one that is created “in the image of God.” In a remarkably perceptive passage, Dorothy Sayers notes:

But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

This passage is from Sayers’s book, The Mind of the Maker, a wonderfully ambiguous title. Is the Maker in the title God or man? Sayers’s argument throughout the book is that we can learn much about the mind of God by examining the creative acts of man.

 

The immediate implication of Sayers’s work is that we properly use the mind God has given us when we create. Painting, sculpture, composing music, writing poetry or prose, all these things allow us to imitate God in His act of creation. Sayers uses our creative acts to illustrate the nature of the Trinity in which an idea finds expression in a creative energy resulting in a power in the soul of another. That is a description of the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It also describes the act of making.

So what do the novelist’s or painter’s works, praised by Sayers as acts of divine imitation, have to do with activities in the commercial realm? Not all people are artists. But the act of creation can come in other forms. Entrepreneurial activity also perfectly fits Sayers’s description of making. An idea is brought forth with energy and has power in the life of the consumer. The entrepreneur also has the mind of the maker. If that is true, the entrepreneur has the mind of God.

What Hath Commerce Wrought?

For most of human history, wealth was low, incredibly low. Even the wealthy in ages of yore lived lives that those in modern industrial countries would find intolerable. No indoor plumbing, no electricity, no penicillin, no Netflix. What happened? During the eighteenth century in England, the entrepreneur was unleashed. Why?

Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden’s Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich, is the summary of a thesis McCloskey has worked out in several lengthy tomes. The punchline: beginning in the sixteenth century, there was a radical change in society’s views of the bourgeoisie. Over time, people working in business acquired dignity; they were no longer universally despised. Then, as the eighteenth century progressed, this bourgeois dignity was extended to the commoners, those laboring for a living.

As the stigma against commercial activity decreased, the Bourgeois Deal developed. McCloskey and Carden describe it this way: “The Bourgeois Deal says that the taco truck entrepreneur is accountable to the bankers who finance her venture, the employees and suppliers who help her do it, and the customers who vote with dollars for or against her tacos, earned as the fruits of their own labors for still other people.” A society organized on the principle that the bourgeois virtues are not to be despised is fundamentally different from any society that preceded it.

While Carden and McCloskey do not put it in these terms, their observation is that, with the inauguration of the free market era, the mind of the maker—the creative mind of the entrepreneur—was unleashed. Suddenly it became respectable to create new products, new means of production, new ways to finance the activities of others. Suddenly it became respectable to take one’s idea, harness the creative energy in production, and produce the power of this new idea on the consumer.

The magnitude of this change cannot be underestimated. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Malthus looked at the historical record and noted that the world was condemned to persistent misery and vice as population growth constantly exceeded food production. What Malthus did not know was that the world was changing. Because of the unleashing of creativity in the economic realm, people were developing new methods of food production that would both increase crop yields and lower the price of food so that the poor could literally eat as well as the kings of earlier ages. Others started developing better and cheaper forms of housing and clothing and medicine.

 

These economic innovations did not happen by accident. Creative people saw the needs of others and figured out ways to satisfy those needs. Because the stigma associated with market activity had diminished, these creative people were able to bring these new ideas to the marketplace. The innovations that succeeded were thus the ones that actually met the needs of others.

The whole model was lurking there in Paul’s description of the body of Christ. If we all have the mind of the maker, if we are all created in the image of God, then we are all creators. But, not all of us are called to be painters or novelists. For some, creativity manifests itself in commercial life. The changes of the eighteenth century, the bourgeois deal, allowed whole new sets of people to finally unchain their creative impulses.

Creation and Abundance

One way to look at this outpouring of commercial activity is as God’s own creativity unfolding within humanity’s creative acts. Over the ages, the opportunity for creation has spread wider and wider. The anti-capitalist desire to put this creativity back in the bottle, therefore, is dispiriting. Instead of complaining about economic activity, we should celebrate it.

Imagine a prophet in the year 1600 had announced a great plan of God to improve the material lives of the people who were struggling on the edge of starvation, with an expectation that 14 percent of all children would die before the age of 1, while 40 to 50 percent of all children would die before the age of fifteen. Christ commanded us to care for the less fortunate, to provide for those in need. In the year 1600, “those in need” was a pretty accurate description of almost the entire population of the earth. Our saint announces that God is about to change all that. Surely we would rejoice, right?

Fast-forward four hundred years and what happened? As Paul Collier has noted in The Bottom Billion, there are still people whose material standard of living is only slightly better than was the norm in the year 1600. But let us note that while a billion poor people is a lot of people, there are 6 billion people, including all the readers of Public Discourse, who no longer live like that. That is six billion people who are not faced with the daily struggle of trying to get their daily bread.

We are often too quick to attribute the prosperity of the modern age to the work of man. We praise God for natural beauty, for the Grand Canyon and sunsets. Shouldn’t we also praise God for inexpensive food and clothing, air conditioning and personal computers, the polio vaccine and ibuprofen? By creating man with the mind of the maker, God embedded in His own act of creation all of the material progress we have seen in the last few hundred years.

McCloskey and Carden call this “The Great Enrichment.” Jonah Goldberg calls this “The Miracle.” Either title is perfectly appropriate. God in His great wisdom built into man, the imago Dei, a reflection of the mind of the maker. In his famous essay “I, Pencil,” detailing the economic miracle of the humble pencil, Leonard Read wrote: “There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Hand at work.” Read is right that there is no trace of the person who enabled the creation of the pencil. Read should have looked a bit higher for that master mind.

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