According to one admittedly unscientific survey, 37% of Occupy Wall Street protesters believe that capitalism is inherently immoral — presumably because they think it encourages Public Enemy No. 1, greed. Evidence shows that a more free economy (reasonably regulated) can actually alleviate poverty… but it can only do that in a moral society. Fixing the American economy in the long run — helping the poor, decreasing unemployment, repaying household debt, cutting the deficit — will take more than a beefed-up version of Dodd-Frank or a tax-cutting, regulation-killing Republican administration. It will take several key virtues.
1. Honesty. Politicians, business owners, bankers, policemen, journalists, lawyers, and judges must seek the truth, tell the truth, and act according to the truth. Otherwise the trust which underlies every market transaction and every market activity will be eroded until society devolves into chaos. Why buy from a business if you think the owner is lying to you? Why give a start-up company capital if you suspect the entrepreneur is dishonest? Why open a store if the police turn a blind eye to shop-lifting? Or in the public realm: Why pay taxes if you think politicians will keep the money for themselves? Why contribute to public welfare if you know the system is ? Why take a criminal to court if the judge can be bribed? It is no coincidence that public-sector corruption goes hand-in-hand with terrible poverty. Without honesty, there will be no prosperity.
2. Charity. “The poor you will always have with you,” right? Even the freest and richest society contains poor and disadvantaged members. We can certainly debate how best to help them — keeping in mind that even the most well-intended efforts can have negative consequences — but the obligation remains. If you’re young and broke, find somewhere to volunteer!
3. Prudence. I pity the OWS protesters whose student-loan debt amounts to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they could have chosen a more practical major, worked for a year or two before enrolling in college, attended a community college before transferring to a four-year university, selected a cheaper college in the first place, etc. Similar unwise decisions underlie the housing crisis; it’s a mix of problems, but some homebuyers bought bigger houses than they could afford.
So spending money unwisely is bad not only for the spender but also for the welfare system, heartless as that may sound. Same thing with spending time: teenagers who drop out of high school are far more likely to face joblessness, poverty, homelessness, and a host of other problems. Without blaming them entirely for their circumstances, we must strongly encourage them to graduate from high school and acquire the skills necessary to holding down a job. Imprudent decisions contribute to poverty.
4. Chastity. Don’t have kids until you’re married. That’s another way of saying “don’t have sex until you’re married,” not only because contraception is wrong but also because it frequently fails the typical user. (Abortion won’t improve the situation, either.) Growing up without a father makes children far more likely to be poor, abuse drugs and alcohol, suffer physical and mental health problems, and commit crimes. All these factors affect children for their entire lives and virtually set them up for failure.
On a cheerier note, getting married will benefit YOU (you’ll be wealthier and healthier, both and mentally) as well as your kids. (I hardly need add that other offenses against chastity — pornography, adultery, divorce — are also bad for everyone.) Where, besides the family, will kids learn virtues like the ones I’ve described? Who will tell them to do homework, if not their parents? Who can comfort and encourage kids better than a mother? Who can better discipline an unruly son and teach a daughter self-respect than a father? In addition to being “the domestic church” (the first to preach the Gospel to children), the family is “the domestic school,” the place where kids gain practical knowledge about how to live.
So next time you’re talking to someone about Occupy Wall Street, don’t just denounce greed. Bring up honesty, prudence, and chastity: these are as important as charity in the development of a just, flourishing economy.