Surrounded by economic abundance, it can be easy to be distracted by what we see—products, tools, technology, resources—and assume our newfound prosperity stems from material causes. In turn, given the stability of many institutions and the increasing pace of innovation, continuous economic progress now seems somewhat inevitable.
Economists like Deirdre McCloskey have challenged such notions, pointing instead to the power of rhetoric, virtues, and ideas to shape all else. It takes a special something to cultivate a society wherein basic freedoms are preserved and protected—political, economic, religious, and otherwise. But even if we get there, we still have far more than a new “tool” or “system.”
We have access to something social and spiritual—a new order of human relationships.
In a recent article, Kevin Williamson reminds us of this, observing the mysterious beauty that manifests when people collaborate to meet each others’ needs. Amid the rise of so many comforts and conveniences, we too easily take for granted the wells from which they spring.
“In the 1990s, we came to believe, if only for a couple of years, that ‘the laws of nature and of nature’s God’ had been replaced by Moore’s Law, the observation that the computing power practically available doubles roughly every two years,” Williamson writes. “…But Moore’s Law is not a force of nature, and it is not the case that our items of technology and our manufactured goods must get better, less expensive, and more widely available every year. They do, but they don’t just.”
To have a “capitalistic system” is to actually point our civilizational attention before and beyond such “systems.” What matters is the activity therein, which depends on the tiny contributions of individuals, families, institutions, and enterprises, all within a broad ecosystem of human relationships:
The miracle of modern life — modern life itself, really — has one ultimate source: the division of labor. The division of labor is not just a term from a dusty undergraduate economics textbook — it is the secret sauce, the fuel in the rocket engine of capitalist development that has transformed our world. It took about 66 years go to from Kitty Hawk to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon — Jeff Goldblum is 66 years old. In the course of one Goldblum — one Goldblum so far — we went from standing on the Earth and wondering about the moon to standing on the moon and observing the Earth.
And nobody did that. An enormous number of people each did a little part.
Because of the division of labor, the people who are searching for a cure for HIV do not have to spend their days baking their own bread — or growing their own wheat, grinding it into flour, gathering the rest of the ingredients, and then, finally, if they haven’t starved to death in the interim, baking their own bread. We like to say that “all work has dignity,” and that is true, and worth remembering. But it is a much more profound observation when understood in the context of human effort as a whole: The team that cures HIV will go to Stockholm to collect the Nobel prize, but the guy who delivered their late-night pizzas, the Uber driver, the police officer, the crew that fixed the potholes in the roads, the laborers who framed and roofed their houses and laboratory buildings — they all play a part. The work we do, no matter how seemingly unexceptional, is what makes the life we live together — this remarkable, wondrous life — possible.
If we forget this basic reality, we’ll forget what we’re defending—focusing only on the negative effects of progressive meddling: the inefficiency of government, the unintended consequences of various regulations, the hijacking of the “system” to produce particular outcomes. All of this is folly, but because it stems from intrusions on human relationships.
But we’ll also forget what we’re inhabiting—viewing our daily work as material in nature and the work of our neighbors as the same, perpetuating a cramped vision of competition and reinforcing cycles of greed, envy, and materialism. Our response, instead, should be gratitude, giving thanks for the freedom to create and consume, but also to collaborate and exchange, dividing our labor amongst ourselves to restore “the broken family of humankind,” as theologian Lester DeKoster calls it.
Without a recognition and appreciation of our daily cooperative activity, our hearts become set on systems and status instead of people and transcendent purpose.
“We always emphasize the competitive nature of capitalism, and that competition is important in that it provides the means by which capital is allocated to its most effective uses,” Williamson explains. “But that competition is not an end — it is the means to the much more significant project of enabling human cooperation on a scale that had been unimaginable until the day before yesterday.”
“There is a world of miracles out there,” he continues, but the flow of economic progress and ever-expanding gadgetry is neither inevitable nor sufficient. From Venezuela to Pakistan to North Korea, we see darker forces at work, set on building “vendetta societies organized not around human cooperation but instead dedicated to punishing and humiliating real and perceived enemies,” Williamson explains.
In the American context, those forces seem obsessed with wage minimums and CEO salaries or the “injustice” of bottom lines and economic “imbalances.” But at their core, they are really set against something much more profound: free association and human relationships.
In our efforts to conserve our freedoms and pursue economic flourishing across society, we’d do well to recognize what’s actually at stake, aligning our hearts, hands, and minds accordingly.
Image: Diego Rivera Murals, Detroit Institute of Art, cdschock (CC BY 2.0)