Which comes first, prosperity or virtue? Jack Kemp, then a vice-presidential candidate, argued in a debate with Al Gore that material wealth comes first. Enact “supply side” tax cuts, boost the churn of money through the economy, and virtue will follow as heat follows flame.
There actually is a lineage to this line of thought. It goes back to an American economist by the name of Simon Patten, who was prominent around the turn of the last century. Patten tried to reconcile the burgeoning consumer culture with the traditional values of probity, hard work and thrift. It was the old virtues, Patten said, that had to go. The new economy would usher in a new and finer form of humanity, with more discerning tastes and more philanthropic views.
When urgent wants were sated, people would turn naturally to higher forms of consumption. They would create public libraries and concert halls. “High social morality and high average profits have the same roots.” Advertising became a kind of gospel; the Pilgrim’s Progress now led through a department store.
Patten had a wide influence in his day. He was an answer to the Thorsten Veblens and Henry Georges, who sensed destructive forces at work in America’s new corporate economy. Like George Gilder more recently, he enabled big shots to feel virtuous — more, as exemplars of virtue — even as they shoveled in the dough. His influence extended across the political spectrum, since he provided a justification for programs to help the poor. If consumption was the path to virtue, then the uplift of the nation required that everyone partake.
A hundred years later, Patten seems a bit fatuous, to put it kindly. We can see today how the constant bestirring of wants leads only to more wants, and to a chronic sense of deficiency and lack. Kids have turned into targets, childhood into a marketing free fire zone. At the top of the scale, Enron is answer enough to the supposed civilizing effect of the pursuit of personal gain. The more people up there get the more they tend to want. Every aspect of the social and natural world gets tossed into the commoditizing fire, to feed this hunger that cannot be filled.
The grab-fest over the World Series ball (see essay, Whose Ball? 2/1/05) is a cautionary tale regarding a culture that goes too far in the direction of self-seeking. Contrast the attitude of the (former) Red Sox first baseman, with the recent deed of a man who has practically no money, nor hope of getting much. His name is Darwin Calvario, and he drives a tricycle in Manila, the Philippines. Tricycles there are little motor bikes with sidecars for passengers (or sometimes freight.) The nation teems with them. Along with jeepneys, the improvised stretch jeeps that are omnipresent in the Philippines, they are the prime means of transportation in a nation in which most people cannot afford cars.
Driving a tricycle in Metro Manila is not what you would call pleasant work. The heat is miserable, the traffic nightmarish beyond description, the air makes your eyes water. Many tricycle drivers wrap handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses in a desperate effort at relief. Their riders for the most part aren’t much better off than they are. It seems almost a miracle that these people manage to scrape by.
One day not long ago Darwin Calvario did have a rider of means. He didn’t know it at the time. But later, on the passenger seat, he found a bag with checks and cash worth 296,000 Philippine pesos, which is about half a year’s middle class income in that country. He normally makes about P150 a day, or about three dollars U.S.
For Mr. Calvario there was a more pressing metric. One of his four sons was born without an anal opening (technically an “imperforate anus”). When he was born 3 years ago the family had to scrounge P100,000 for an operation so that he could wear a colostomy bag. Some of the money came from loan sharks. The bags alone cost P70 a day and the now the child is in desperate need of a second operation before it is too late to have a normal life..
The P296,000 in his passenger seat must have seemed a gift from heaven. Calvario might well have thought about the kleptocracy in his own country, and the moral equivalent in the corporate U.S., and thought, “Why not me?” His fellow drivers urged him to keep the money. As reported in the Philippines Inquirer, he went home that day and brooded. That night he hardly slept. The next day, partly at his wife’s urging, he tracked down the passenger and returned the money.
Things are turning out well for the Calvarios. His story has prompted offers of help from many quarters. The passenger, a businesswoman, gave him P6,000 cash and a sack of rice, plus a promise to help pay for the operation. But Calvarios was not rich before he was honest; nor did he need the “incentive” of tax cuts to bestir his virtue into action. Rather it was his own integrity and generosity that evoked the generosity of others. This is how the invisible other hand works; it is the reciprocity that is the inner dynamic of the commons sphere.
Calvarios was following the Master’s injunction to “seek ye first the kingdom, and all these things will be added unto you.” It is one of the many that those who wave their bibles on the political stage conveniently forget.