Saturday, January 15, 2011

Thrift: Rebirth of a Forgotten Virtue

By Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, 238 pages, Encounter Books.

Thrift's author, T.R. Malloch, believes in capitalism, but it is the capitalism of Calvin, Scottish Presbyterians, and even the ancient Greeks and their "middle way." Thrift is at the heart of this. More than a virtue, thrift is a spiritual way of living, which rejects mindless consumerism and believes in hard work, saving, and preparing the next generation for gainful employment.

Thrift is the ability not only to budget wisely, but also to discipline oneself over purchasing, work, and family. Duty and obligation play a greater role than rights and entitlement. In fact, Malloch sees our entitlement, me-first victim culture as destructive of social capital, which is essential for capitalism.

Virtues such as thrift build up spiritual capital, which in turn helps promote social capital. Social capital strengthens capitalism by establishing self-reliance, trust in each other and in social institutions, and financial credit. Social capital builds the network of trust relationships that enable capitalism to function. We trust the government that paper money is worth something; we believe that the banks will not fail; and we hope that the system itself is dependable and will serve us us when we are vulnerable, such as in retirement.

Malloch gives the excellent example of social capital being the education of the young generation by the older one. He cites a young entrepreneur who owns several pizza restaurants and plans to retire in only a few years. The man learned the business in his father's restaurant - not through an expensive business degree but by doing. His implicit, hands-on knowledge far outweighs expert knowledge.

Social capital comes from spiritual capital, which Malloch defines: "[T]he concept of spiritual capital posits that the sources of prosperity are knowable and that prosperity can be spread by knowledge and education... The idea of spiritual capital is deeply rooted in natural law and the theological study of God's action in the world."

Wealth creation and the economy as a whole have a spiritual dimension. Malloch goes so far as to say that religion has had much to do with the establishment of capitalism. Nowadays, with instant gratification, entitlement/victim mentalities, and hyper-individualism, the spiritual capital underlying capitalism is not functioning properly.

While Thrift is often quite Calvinist in its tone and outlook, Malloch's firm belief in the creative potential of humans and in how capitalism encourages this echoes some writings on work and justice by John Paul II, including his encyclical Centesimus Annus, where the late pontiff highlighted the creative aspect of work.

Malloch himself echoes the Catholic Church's concern to protect the family from individualism and social fragmentation: "The disregard for law and contempt for authority have sprung from the trend to more selfishness. But the long-term impact is greatest on the essential building block of society – the family."

Malloch puts so much emphasis on the forgotten virtue, thrift, because without it not only are we selfishly rejecting our families for our own needs, but gradually, as social and spiritual capital thin out, we won't be able to meet those individual, consumerist needs either. He suggests that we need to live virtuous, responsible lives, where we work hard and save for a rainy day, and where grassroots organizations rather than the government look after many of our basic needs.

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