When business is based on selfishness everybody is busy becoming more selfish. ~ Peter Maurin
You gotta’ love socialists. At least I do.
I love their passionate idealism, their desire for economic parity, their disdain for rapacious laissez-faire capitalism—and their mod outfits.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Thanks to Bernie Sanders and his quixotic campaign for the presidency, there’s plenty of socialism to go around these days—especially if you’ve got young adults at your house. “Millennials are … a massively progressive generation,” writes Cenk Uygur in the Huffington Post, and by “progressive,” he means sympathetic to state-directed redistribution of resources among other things.
Regardless of your own politics, and regardless of your tireless efforts to educate your kids about how the world really works, I’m guessing the millennials in your life “felt the Bern” this year like mine did—and for all the right reasons.
They’re the same “right reasons” that lead young people to go off to India to work with the Missionaries of Charity or down to Latin America to volunteer at orphanages. It’s the wide-eyed idealism that prompts college students to staff urban soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The world’s inequities seem so easy to solve—just pitch in! And if folks don’t voluntarily pitch in (goes the socialist inducement), then the state should compel them to do so. Of course, it’s an idealism that’s largely removed from any hardnosed awareness of how the world really works, economically or otherwise—but who’s to blame for that? The millennials espousing such ideals have limited work experience, and their intellectual formation is dominated by those who are themselves Bernie acolytes.
Heck, even I had my flirtation with socialism back in the day, and I was raised by Goldwater Republicans. I’m pretty sure it started with Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger—the title alone was a major guilt generator, and reading it was an eye-opener. I commenced bemoaning my privileged, white, suburban childhood. That led to adopting as my own various naïve versions of the Robin Hood-ite battle cry: “Steal from the rich; give to the poor!” In time, I started hanging out with real socialists and wannabes in the extended Chicago Catholic Worker community. I voted for Mondale (!) and agonized with my buddies over the Reagan era’s trickle-down economic policies.
For whatever reason, I never bought into the full-blown socialist shtick. In fact, I was the weirdo who got the idea that we should purchase the burned-out gas station near our parish and turn it into a thriving business. If we succeeded, went my idea, we’d be helping to revitalize that little corner of downtrodden Uptown. What’s more, the gas station could provide training and gainful employment to the winos huddled around the barrel with the open flame across the street.
Clearly business smarts were required to do something like that, so I took the GMAT, applied to Loyola’s MBA school, and started taking night classes. It was a surreal experience, hands down, and I made lots of people nervous. My yuppie classmates wondered what a ragtag Abbie Hoffman stand-in was doing in their microeconomics course, and my Catholic Worker friends openly lamented the Wall Street Journal showing up in the mailbox each day.
I’m convinced my gas station idea was sound, but it didn’t pan out—and neither did my MBA. Still, I believe I was on the right track. By attempting to draw together altruistic aspirations and tough-minded business principles, I’d like to think I was putting into practice the Church’s social teaching. “Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds,” the Catechism teaches, and yet “regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for ‘there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market’” (CCC 2425). That last bit is a quotation from John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, and the Holy Father goes on to note that
the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society (CA 35).
When I read stuff like that, I can’t help thinking of A Christmas Carol—especially in its 1951 film iteration starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. This is the definitive movie adaptation: thoroughly entertaining, plenty spooky, and largely faithful to the novel.
My favorite scene, however, doesn’t appear in the Charles Dickins original, and, instead of Scrooges and ghosts, it features ol’ Mr. Fezziwig and a capitalist confrere, Mr. Jorkins (Jack Warner). The two men are in consultation regarding a tempting buy-out offer for Fezziwig’s business, and Jorkins is all for it. The new “vested interests,” as they call them, are jumping in with industrialization and optimizing profits, but Fezziwig balks. “It’s not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business,” he declares. Jorkins is aghast—if not money, what else? “It’s to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved,” Fezziwig explains. “No, I can’t see my way to selling out to the new vested interests, Mr. Jorkin. I’ll have to be loyal to the old ways and die out with them if needs must.”
Quaint, right? And, sure enough, Fezziwig and his communitarian philosophy are bulldozed over by the likes of Jorkins and Scrooge. Nonetheless, that movie version of Fezziwig embodies a very Catholic vision of business and economics that piggybacks nicely on the whole Bernie phenomenon, and it’s one I struggle to articulate for my kids.
That’s why I tracked down my copy of Hilaire Belloc’s Economics for Helen (1923). It’s one of Belloc’s more obscure titles, a primer of sorts written for an adolescent “Helen”—who could’ve been a niece or other relation, or perhaps simply a literary device. Regardless of Helen’s true identity, Belloc’s intention was to summarize and distill classical economic theory in such a way as to make it both palatable and digestible for a youthful readership. Helen also included a defense of “distributism,” the Catholic via media between socialism and capitalism, and so I purchased a copy back in my Catholic Worker/MBA days hoping it would help me sort this stuff out.
No surprise, I never got around to it—I bought way more books back then than I ever actually read – yet, Helen got lugged around with the rest of my unread library in the intervening decades. Thus it was ready at hand when I was thinking that my voting progeny, with their socialist enthusiasms, could use a dose of economic realism.
Before handing it over, I deemed it prudent to dive in myself—and I floundered mightily. Maybe I overestimated my brief foray into economics at Loyola, for I thought Helen would be an easy read—a Catholic “Econ for Dummies”—but in that I was disappointed. Belloc does indeed lay out the basic principles of amoral economics, and then goes on to explore the moral dimensions of their application in society, but it’s hardly the stuff I’d pass on to teens and young adults today with any hope of their absorbing it, let alone buying into the distributist alternative. Sure, there’s the dated Edwardian verbiage and cultural references—that can’t be helped. Yet consider the complexity of this sentence:
Wealth is produced by man’s consciously transforming things around him to his own uses; and though not everything so transformed has true Economic Wealth attached to it (for instance, breathing in air does not produce Economic Wealth), yet all Economic Wealth is produced as part of this general process.
And that’s at the beginning of just the second chapter! No doubt Belloc was correct in assuming that the average adolescent reader of his age would’ve been able to read Helen with understanding and profit, but it’d be a tough sell for the Snapchat and iPhone crowd. Besides, you’ll want to get these ideas across well before the socialist temptations come up on their young adult radars, so it’s best to begin when they’re much younger.
Fortunately, there’s a children’s book ready at hand to fill the bill—and you might even have it on your shelves already. It’s Russell and Lillian Hoban’s A Bargain for Frances, which, I’m prepared to argue, is the modern grade-school equivalent of Belloc’s economic intro.
Frances, a youthful badger, is going to play at her friend Thelma’s house. She’s warned by her mom that Thelma isn’t always a trustworthy friend. “When you play with Thelma,” she tells Frances, “you always get the worst of it.” Even so, Frances is willing to give her friend the benefit of the doubt, and she sallies forth with good intentions and an assumption with regards to fair play. Like Fezziwig, our badger heroine has a communitarian frame of mind, which, in the dog-eat-dog real world, makes her vulnerable.
That vulnerability is indeed exploited by Thelma, who is intent on leveraging the relationship to gain an economic advantage. Thelma has a plastic tea set she wants to replace with one made of real china. Through persuasion and suggestion, Thelma entices her visitor to buy the old plastic version with money Frances had herself reserved for the china upgrade. The exchange is a fair one, not coerced in any way, although Thelma does mislead Frances into thinking that here choices are limited.
When Frances gets home with her purchase, her sister Gloria sets her straight. “That’s a very ugly tea set,” Gloria says. “I like the china kind with the pictures all in blue.” Frances realizes too late that she had grossly misassigned value, in part due to Thelma’s duplicity. Unfortunately for Frances, however, the deal was sealed with a solemn “No backsies”—which all children know is irrevocable.
At this point, the reader might be inclined to root for Frances’s mother to intervene and rectify the rank injustice—to step in, Deus ex machina, and make everything right. Yet no such socialist cavalry are sent to the rescue in Frances’s little world, so it’s up to her to re-enter the free market fray to bring about a happier, equitable conclusion.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Frances turns the caveat emptor tables around on her friend, and a satisfactory reversal of fortunes is realized. “From now on I will have to be careful when I play with you,” Thelma pouts toward the end, which ushers in the book’s ever so subtle climax:
“Being careful is not as much fun as being friends,” said Frances. “Do you want to be careful, or do you want to be friends?”
Frances, entrepreneurially shrewd as a serpent, retains a dove-like altruism, and she exploits her relative economic advantage in favor of building, rather than dismantling, community. That is, she makes use of economic forces to accomplish good—to make her little world richer overall, rather than poorer, and to “make the people living in the State happier,” to borrow Belloc’s words.
As I was toying with all these notions, I happened upon my kids watching Nativity!, a contemporary Christmas movie they enjoy year round. It stars Martin Freeman as a school teacher trying to produce a holiday pageant, and, like A Christmas Carol, it too involves big business pitted against idealistic yearnings.
Late in the show, the hero’s sweetheart, Jennifer, goes to bat for her beau’s outlandish project. She pleads with her boss and tries to bargain by listing all the menial tasks she does for him, but he flatly counters, “Jennifer, that’s what you’re paid to do”—at which point, during our home screening, my teenage son Crispin resolutely commented, “Yes!”
Unlike his younger siblings, Crispin has a job, and his comment means that he has already internalized the lesson Frances learned the hard way: Business and exchange are not themselves about charity. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that there’s no room in our economy for Fezziwig-ism or Frances’s altruism—far from it. It only means that high-mindedness is not the state’s responsibility, nor any other institution’s. “It is a duty, not of justice,” wrote Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, “but of Christian charity—a duty not enforced by human law.” Doing good is a privileged possibility made possible by working hard, assiduously creating value for which one is compensated, and then voluntarily, generously spreading that compensation around.
Give the socialists time—they’re on the right track. To help speed them along, however, you might consider offering them jobs—something besides political or academic sinecures. Better yet, encourage them to start their own businesses, that oughta’ do it!
At the very least, lend them your copy of A Bargain for Frances, but be sure to get it back. You’ll want to read it to your own kids and grandkids, over and over again.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene from the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol featuring the characters Mr. Fezziwig (left) and Mr. Jorkins.