- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

How does the Christmas spirit fit with the spirit of capitalism? Is it complementary or contradictory? To a great extent, it is consequential: Capitalism is a necessary predicate for the abundance out of which we can share with our friends and the less fortunate at Christmastime and at other seasons of the year. As in the "Sound of Music" song, "Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever will."
Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" reminds us that it is the quest for gain that drives the baker to his hot ovens every morning, thereby instilling in him a willing spirit to serve a need of his neighbors. He will calculate the cost of his butter, milk, eggs, flour, yeast, the overhead of his bake shop and the cost of his own time, and these will enter into the pricing of his bread modified by what the customers are willing or able to pay and by whatever level of intangible reward, or joy, he receives from doing his work.
Still, his family cannot be supported long if he underprices his bread: He will go out of business and end in penury. If he overprices his product, beyond a commensurate improvement of quality customers are willing to pay for, he will likewise end up taking a loss.
And if he is to contribute to charities, to his church, to Toys for Tots, or even to provide extra loaves to feed the homeless, he must first be a going concern, or else his act of benevolence may be his last. His alms-giving must come from his income or, more precisely, from his profit, if he intends to continue in business. Profit is the gift that truly keeps giving. And when the mass of people are involved in the economy, doing what each does best or most profitably society advances and prospers together.
The fault of the miser, as caricatured in Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," is not that he is a "good man of business." It is rather that he is solely fixated on gain and not the good that he can accomplish for himself and others by a benevolent and creative re-investing of that gain. He lives in dusty, decrepit luxury, supping on gruel, and is mean to his own emotional and physical needs as well as stubbornly rejecting those around him.
After he has his epiphany and begins to generously give out from his hoarded wealth, he experiences an expansive liberation of spirit. For men and women are social animals, not mere gatherers. Their true wealth is alike in the relations they foster with others and the well-being they can effect in the world as well as in the money they can store up and the goods they can accumulate.
Still, if Scrooge were a careless, profligate giver, or an unwise investor, he would not have come into a position to allay the plight of Tiny Tim and the rest of Bob Cratchit's family, or make glad the future of his own nephew and the nephew's wife-to-be.
Hence it is not the capitalistic pursuit of profit that is the problem: Rather it is the narrow, emotionally separated alienation of self and secreting of wealth for no purpose other than knowing one has it that is the illness that made an earlier waste of Scrooge's life. We find examples of the generous spirit that can infuse the successful capitalist not only in the fictional Scrooge's transformation but also in the actual Andrew Carnegie and his endowment of multitudes of public libraries and other facilities serving the common good out of the fortune he acquired as a steel magnate.
Consider again the recent giving by Americans of hundreds of millions of dollars to various funds to relieve the victims' families after the September 11 attacks. Where did all that money come from, except from the successful and profitable strivings of the givers? Then there was the tremendous generosity of Microsoft megamillionaire Bill Gates in assigning so much of his personal fortune to benefit underprivileged members of society.
In the story of the first Christmas, Three Wise Men journeyed from the East, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to lay at the feet of the Babe. One may suppose they did not magically materialize these items but from their earnings as astrologers or counselors procured them from merchants who dealt in spices and ointments, perfumes and items wrought of precious metals. Doubtless the merchants were paid well enough for their trouble, too.
Later in the Christian Bible, Jesus preached many lessons that resonate with the spirit of capitalism. One Parable speaks of the two "good and faithful servants" who wisely invested funds entrusted to them by their master and doubled the money. A third servant simply buried his small sum for safekeeping, causing the master great displeasure since he returned only the original amount with no increase. Jesus used a Parable of capital gains to impart a spiritual lesson the calling for his disciples to enlarge on the dispensation He had brought them and to spread His work. But His language is specifically capitalistic and emphasizes expansive, creative growth as a sign of the best use of resources. He said elsewhere, "I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly."
Similarly, it cannot be said that the privations brought about by communist and other radically egalitarian systems of coerced "sharing" represented a triumph of good instincts. It may have leveled society but to a common state of want perhaps actuated more by envy and the lust for power than benevolence.
Instead, prosper happily in the season. And then apart from what is needed to meet the respectable and reasonable needs of one's immediate family and near associates invest for the future both in one's own material gain and in the improvement of the society in which one lives. It is in this way that so much we now have and enjoy, both as public and as private wealth, has come into being to play such a positive and ongoing role in our lives.
So be of good cheer. And have a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year.

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.

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