In his 1958 book, Reflections on America, the great French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (who took refuge in the United States during World War II) claimed that Americans, for all their commercial endeavors, “are the least materialist among the modern peoples which have attained the industrial stage.”
Well, that was then, this is now, and it isn’t Jacques Maritain’s America anymore. Still, there remains a link between money-making and idealism in these United States that is distinctive, and perhaps even unique.
About which, twenty-first-century Americans can learn a useful lesson from President Calvin Coolidge, famously known (and pilloried) for the phrase “the business of America is business.”
Except that’s not what Coolidge said, according to historian Geoffrey Norman. What he said, which was much more interesting, was that “the chief business of the American people is business”: which is to say, most Americans are engaged in earning a living—a noble activity that confers real dignity on whoever undertakes it, no matter what their income.
As for wealth, consider Silent Cal’s remarks at the end of the same speech: “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element in all of civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists . . .”
And that, I suggest, is why Americans respond positively to presidential aspirants who lift up a vision of American possibility—prosperity linked to creativity, responsibility, and generosity—rather than candidates who play class-warfare politics, in whatever partisan form.
A robust economy is not only an economic imperative; it is a moral and cultural imperative. A robust economy makes honorable work possible for all who wish to be responsible for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. And work, according to Blessed John Paul II in the 1983 encyclical Laborem Exercens, is an expression of our participation in God’s sustaining “creation” of the world.
A robust economy makes possible the empowerment of the underprivileged—the true “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social doctrine, according to John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—even as it helps conserve public resources by making the resort to welfare less necessary.
A robust economy is essential in supporting one telling sign of America’s enduring generosity and idealism: the remarkable philanthropy of the American people. Americans, these days, give some $300 billion a year to charitable organizations, including religious institutions that fund vast networks of education, health care, and social service serving people in real need. There is simply nothing like this anywhere else in the Western world; if you doubt that, go to Europe or Canada, where the tradition of the benign, caretaker state (the contemporary version of the benign, caretaker monarch) has severely eroded charitable instincts—meaning giving.
And if it be responded that Americans give money to charities because it’s advantageous to do so for income tax purposes, well, let’s be grateful that, in affording full deductibility to charitable giving, the tax code got something right.
The United States faces grave problems because of profligate public spending, however well-intended, by both parties. Those problems—which include the morally reprehensible habit of loading mountains of unpayable debt onto the backs of future generations—cannot be addressed without sustained economic growth that dramatically lowers the unemployment rate. And that reduction is itself a moral imperative, given the toxic effects of unemployment on the self-respect, dignity, and family life of the unemployed.
John Paul II took Catholic social doctrine in a new direction by teaching that, in the post-industrial world of the twenty-first century, Adam Smith’s “wealth of nations” resides, not so much in stuff (as in natural resources or land) as in human creativity: in ideas, skills, work-habits and entrepreneurial instincts. That insight seems worth remembering as Americans consider the policies, and politicians, most likely to lead the country back to prosperity and full employment.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.