Bullish on commerce, bearish on wealth

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Nov. 13 is an auspicious day for 220 million Eastern Orthodox Christians. It’s the feast day of St. John Chrysostom, a 4th-century Church Father renowned for his powerful preaching. Chrysostom, whose name means “golden-mouthed,” is recognized as a Doctor of the Church for his inspired sermons and moral fortitude. He frequently inveighed against the wealthy and powerful, calling them to account for their pretended piety.

But Chrysostom was no mere class warrior or rabble-rouser. His perspective on markets and wealth contains a great deal of practical wisdom, something today’s economic populists on both the Right and the Left sorely need.

Public skepticism of commerce is at an all-time high. Conservatives eye the corporate boardroom with distrust, seeing it as a den of cultural decadence. Progressives think private wealth is little more than a means to finance their welfare and regulatory plans. This nation is a traditionally mercantile republic, so it’s significant that hostility to commerce and its fruits increasingly defines the political mainstream. Anti-commercial passions strike at the heart of our self-understanding.

If we must be skeptical of wealth — and history affords us many arguments about the enervating effects of riches — we shouldn’t extend our suspicions to the means of its creation, at least not without due consideration. Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking production and exchange are morally equivalent to “filthy lucre.”

Enter St. John Chrysostom, who combines a pessimistic view of wealth with an optimistic view of commerce. He also suggests a way to square the circle: how to engage in commerce, and hence create wealth, in ways both personally edifying and socially just.

Chrysostom’s teachings on wealth reflect a common theme of Christian social ethics. Created things, including the world’s goods, are beneficial if we use them well and harmful if we use them poorly. If someone “enjoys luxury in moderation” and gives “the rest to the stomachs of the poor,” he uses wealth appropriately. But indulgence in “luxury and other profligacy” imperils the soul. For Chrysostom, slavery to pleasure is a very real form of bondage.

Chrysostom is also concerned with distributive justice. The urge to accumulate, which implicitly treats wealth as an end in itself, is sinful. Chrysostom equates those who hoard “others’ goods in their own houses” with “robbers lying in wait on the roads.” Those whom God blesses with wealth, God expects to “distribute to those in need.” Failure to “share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor.”

From these words, you might expect Chrysostom to be a thoroughgoing critic of markets and exchange. You’d be wrong. Chrysostom treats commerce as a blessing . It helps us cultivate not just our material needs, but our souls as well. Peaceful production and exchange allow us to participate in a universal brotherhood. The whole world becomes “as one house,” with frequent and fruitful intercourse among nations. Through trade, each community, which “inhabits a small portion of the earth,” enjoys the fruits of all the world’s communities as if each “were master of the whole.”

How can Chrysostom admire commerce but spurn wealth? The answer has profound implications for our public discourse. Commerce can ennoble, but its fruits can corrupt. At the same time, neither the production nor consumption of wealth happen in a vacuum. We all are members of moral communities whose rules, formal and informal, guide us on how to live, how to work, and how to distribute the fruits of our labor. For Chrysostom, the ultimate moral community is the church, in his time ecumenical and undivided. We may not exhibit the same unity as 4th-century Christians. But we can all consciously situate ourselves in the ethical sphere between markets and states, which can provide us with the moral guidance to use the bounty of creation well.

Chrysostom’s material pessimism and commercial optimism can help us today. We often excuse our messes by insisting there’s an order to the madness. It’s hard to see what order, if any, there is in the madness that pervades our public discourse. Ancient philosophers believed order in the polity reflected order in the soul. Good citizens made good governments. This is undoubtedly true yet frustratingly incomplete. There’s immense social space between the household and the state. Maybe our problems are really about what occupies that space.

Conservatives and progressives denigrate commerce because it does not automatically produce rightly distributed wealth. Yet, by constantly raising the stakes of politics, they inadvertently destroy the mediating institutions that complement market processes in creating human flourishing. Neither self-styled “national conservatives” nor “democratic socialists” exhibit the prudence to steward a genuine communitarian revival.

We do violence to human nature by turning against markets and trade. St. John Chrysostom knew these essentially personal spheres needed moral governance for us to reach our potential. It’s his perspective, not that of today’s noisy pundits, we should adopt. We should stop asking businesses and governments for more than they can deliver. The responsibility to give each person their due is ours.

Alexander William Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, a Young Voices senior contributor, and a senior fellow with the Sound Money Project.

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