Of Moses and Mises: How Businesses Are Better Than Charities
The world has seen its fair share of injustice and stupidity, but there exists one particularly obnoxious sentiment, masked in pretenses of Christendom, which denies the moral importance of business and profit. Citing most improperly Jesus Christ, ignorant Westerners tout charity as the supreme duty of all Christians, as though Christ Himself was not a career carpenter and Paul not a tent-maker. They love to quote "sell all you have and give to the poor," without noting the instructive purpose of that individual commandment to an individual person, meanwhile entirely disregarding "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat." But looking beyond this, there is a question still lurking behind the necessity of production which begs to be answered: whether or not business is actually less moral than charity.
These two great human endeavors, business and charity, have been noted by economic greats such as Ludwig von Mises as being diametrically opposed. Self-interest, on the one hand, guides the policy of capitalism, while Christ's selflessness guides the other. The first requires an almost merciless customer supremacy: businesses must deliver goods and services at the highest possible quality for the lowest possible price, and if they cannot compete, they will not long be in business. The market requires frugality, cold calculation, a survival of the fittest which enriches the consumers at large. But charity requires giving without receiving, loving not a paying customer, but every neighbor who cannot afford compensation.
Let us consider the matter soberly: should either one exist without the other, should business entirely replace charity, or charity entirely replace business, men would either live cold, empty lives and die alone or they would have warm hearts, leaky huts, and starving children. Therefore, if man is not to suffer the evils of imbalance, an adequate picture must be drawn not simply of opposing ideologies, but of a morality which encompasses both practicality and humanity, both the physical and spiritual goods.
If we acknowledge that good and evil exist, and that they lie diametrically opposed to each other, we may also argue that certain actions, though varying in their morality, strike the eye as more evil or good than others. For instance, considering actions from their most base and progressing to their most honorable, a man may:
1) harm others intentionally
2) harm others unintentionally
3) neither harm nor help
4) help others intentionally, for gain
5) help others intentionally, even at a loss
The third option may inspire some controversy, as a refusal to stand for righteousness or to cowardly abandon one's duties can encompass evil in varying degrees; but it is entirely incontestable that the two highest forms of action are giving for gain and giving despite loss. Human nature itself confirms in epic poems that slain heroes capture the heart better than businessmen -- yet the morality of one only supersedes that of the other; it does not negate it.
But having noted charity's moral superiority, business has two entirely unusual advantages over charity -- a superiority consisting primarily in the usage of capital itself, the medium of exchange. A man cannot ever be expected to know the needs of all his countrymen, let alone all his neighbors -- and so he finds himself not entirely incapacitated, but severely limited in his sympathies. His sphere of charity is limited to those he knows, whether through charitable campaigns or personal interaction, and aside from this ignorance, he finds even amongst this shallow pool an inability to properly address all concerns. He may have more than one unemployed neighbor; a father of six children may require expensive medical treatment. The do-gooder finds himself encumbered beyond his capacity, and, finding his other neighbors oftentimes unreliable, or concerned with their own particular branches of charity, he wallows in despair, knowing well that much exists to be done but resigning himself to impotence.
But business -- this is another story entirely. Man's two shortcomings, his ignorance and poverty, cannot yet be entirely overcome; omniscience belongs to the Creator alone, and the concept of an economy is predicated upon scarcity. And yet, by means of capital, man finds himself almost psychically connected to all of humanity. He does not know every neighbor, nor is he acquainted with his neighbors' every ill, but he does know one thing: unnecessarily high prices in any particular business beg other entrepreneurs to compete, and so he follows the money. He helps those around him not by acquainting himself with other beings, but rather by soliciting their votes. He makes others happy by efficiently filling a need, and they reward him with capital, an exchange in which both parties part with what they desire less and gain what they desire more.
Aside from this psychic connection, the charitably inclined man receives a second benefit, perhaps just as helpful to him and to humanity at large. For in satiating needs and wants, he finds his resources replenished -- perhaps even augmented. He gives to others, and they give back. The better he gives, the better he receives. Certainly, some complain about the necessity of the goods and services involved, yet whatever is given, insofar as it is moral, or is not improperly abused, is benefiting another. In many charitable causes, nothing is returned from the beneficiary but gratitude; with business, someone is helped in some way or another, and the giver receives more than what he gave -- if not physically, then subjectively.
Understanding, then, the moral superiority of charity, but recognizing also the advantages of business, men must understand in which cases they must give at a loss and when they must give for gain. These two scenarios constitute the secular principles addressed in the civil Laws of Moses and the Christian principles addressed by Christ Himself. These must be presented in full, for a well-rounded perspective -- but for our purposes, consider an unusual verse.
Regarding the poor, Moses says, You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.
Being enforced not by civil penalty, but by the very wrath of God, what does this commandment declare but that the beggar and the businessman both have rights -- that stores of goods must be replenished (within limit), but that the destitute are to eat? In banning starvation's profitability and usury in desperation, the Almighty Himself ensured the safety of the poor, all the while confirming the righteousness of business. Sell and lend, He says, but do not profit off the destitute.
Consider again that God's wealth redistribution consisted of food, land, and periodic debt-release -- never in the particular burdening of business or the righteous wealthy, never in transfers of capital, never to satiate the indigent, the welfare queens, the covetous. In a forceful climax, we see Christ speak of the farmer and how he chooses to pay his hired hands: is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?
So, then, we see that business has an advantage over charity, but that it must be kept within certain bounds. We see that in a market economy, the iron-hearted customer guides all commerce, and so the foundational principle of business must be entirely different from that of charity. We see that business is not heartless, but rather the ribcage which holds the heart; that two philosophies, almost like the yin and the yang, converge in a dance of humanity, the paradox upon which civilizations are built.
What, then, shall we do with our lives? Produce within the Law, and when needs have been met, and the masses empowered with goods, and justice brought to the poor and the rich alike, then we rest our checkbooks and ledgers and return home, and give as we are called.