Virtue and the Economy

It is possible to be virtuous, and to pursue virtue, in any economy, no matter how it runs or what legal restrictions are placed on it. You can be virtuous in the context of communism or unfettered capitalism or feudalism or anywhere in between.

However, that doesn’t mean that the economy is irrelevant to the question of virtue. Indeed, the increase of virtue, I would claim, ought to be one of the overriding considerations in light of which an economy ought to be given its structure.

In any given time and place, the economy is the thing that determines for the greatest number of people what we will spend most of our time doing, and thinking about.

What this means is that a well-designed economy may encourage or facilitate (though not necessitate) the increase of virtue.

Much more often, however, the economy will be a force that must be resisted in the development of virtue. A shapeless or poorly designed economy lends itself to the flourishing of vice.

There are a number of directions I could go with this thought, but for now I’ll limit myself to reflecting on a couple basic positive recommendations about what can help keep an economy moving its people in a good direction.

First, private property. Publicly owned spaces and resources can be a great good as well, but private property, most of the time, will be the sine qua non for a virtuous regime.

And I don’t mean merely the permission for private property to exist. I mean an economy designed to make probable the accumulation of a reasonable amount of property by the great majority of those who want it.

I’m thinking of an economy that prioritizes the ability of a family to own a house, or of an individual to start a small business, in a way that strengthens them against the natural advantages of the big businesses and the big landlords.

People make a big deal these days about income inequality, but I think that is largely a misplaced focus. An income, no matter how large, can be interrupted, at which point anything depending on that income will likewise come crashing down. Something owned, by contrast, will provide security even if a source of income were to be cut off (and I mean something owned outright, not something financed, though financing can of course be an important step on the road to ownership).

Secondly, opposition to the extremes of poverty and wealth. It is counterproductive for the moral health of a regime, and of its citizens, if there are people living without enough money to subsist properly, and likewise if there are people whose wealth is grossly disproportionate to what they could possibly need.

The causes of poverty, and also the causes of greatly excessive wealth, are manifold and complex. There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to either. But taking steps to resolve these problems should, it seems to me, help bring about an economy that is not opposed to the life of virtue.

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