I find it remarkable how essentially aesthetic elements keep creeping into the discussion of political economy.
Sharp-elbowed dialectics could, of course, present these elements in a harshly critical light — distributists with their romance of small property, hard-currency men with their romance of gold, supply-siders were their mystical images of the feast, where the rich man's riches become enjoyment for all — but I prefer a more relaxed approach. Each field of emphasis yields its own truths. Observe.
(1) Without small property no free political economy can exist. We find the very shield and portion of liberty when private ownership is widely dispersed, firmly held, and defended at law. Small property is varied property: it is property held for future capital gain, alongside property for current enterprise, alongside property held as historic trust, alongside property for worship of God, alongside many thousands of private homes. This arrangement of free, various private ownership is the ballast of republican liberty.
(2) The debasement of currency for gain by a few: why it is nothing short of theft. Ruinous inflation has laid countless countries low. Government abusing its power to control currency is one of the oldest spectacles of tyrannical fraud evidenced in history.
(3) At the root of free enterprise is not, in fact, greed but more nearly generosity or greatness of spirit. The man who risks his capital on a new idea cannot know it will succeed. He cannot possibly count on his own accomplishment of great wealth. He can only work hard, overcome setbacks, adapt and adjust on his feet; above all he must delay his own gratification. Many are the capitalists whose early gains were made by what we might truly call a monkish existence: extreme thrift and industriousness, disciplined service toward future rewards.
And yet each of these truths also suggests a valid criticism:
(1) Truly varied property includes large property. Given the size and menace of the modern state, the sentinel for tyranny might even take solace in the fact that Apple and Walmart are global in reach. Perhaps there are some parts of these enterprises the American bureaucrat cannot reach. Moreover, while there are undeniable problems arising from the privileges that our law grants to the business corporation, this system has provided for the greatest gains in prosperity for the most people of any in human history. The number of human souls raised from subsistence to some comfort, and from minimal comfort to affluence and security, by the achievements of the American business corporation, must be staggering to compile.
(2) The old serpent in human economics lies in this: that gold equal wealth. Or, suitably updated for our day, that wealth lies in liquid assets that can be hoarded. The truth is that hoarding assets defeats their liquidity. The deeper truth is that liquidity depends on human psychology. Even gold is only valuable because of the human sentiment that attaches to it. Hard currency is no escape from the vulnerabilities that human sentiment introduces. And nothing is more destructive to prosperity than the frightened scramble for perceived hard assets in a panic. Between persistence deflation and persistence inflation, wisdom still prefers the latter. As we can observe today in Europe, the embrace of a dearer currency is fraught with potentially dire consequences.
(3) Greatness of soul is no protection against a will bent by sin. It is very difficult to distinguish extravagant generosity from concupiscence. Our own nation’s recent history demonstrates beyond cavil the dangers that great affluence has on the sources of prosperity. How often the generous spirit of the enterpriser is dissipated by his listless children. How easily material comfort can engender an attitude of entitlement. It is often when we are most secure in our economic prosperity that we indulge in our most reckless schemes of governmental meddling. The idea of government providing freedom from want had to wait until capitalism made it even imaginable. Moreover, the same restless spirit which drives the capitalist to build and create may incline him to back schemes of government meddling, especially when his enterprises stand to benefit. Finance has greatly facilitated this gradual blending of the capitalist class and the governmental class. There is a perfect poetry in our country’s most prominent capitalists signing on with Leftist adventures.
Thus it seems to me that each of these viewpoints, identifiable by their apparently aesthetic concerns, both has something valuable to offer and is susceptible to valid criticism from the others. The conversation will continue fruitfully, unless dogmatism curtails it.