“Man, Thou art dust and to dust Thou will return.” Many millions of us hear that quiet, vital thought about life on Ash Wednesday.
Life is not “stuff.” When we form our lives around things, then we lose the great value of our life. This is a religious view of materialism, but it is also a profoundly American view. Recall the last sentence of our Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The Founding Fathers fully understood that supporting liberty, a transcendently noble virtue, might well bring impoverishment. The sick notion that our Founding Fathers were motivated by enlightened economic self-interest is Marxist; indeed, it is essential to the grim Marxist perspective on life. When we look at politics as an economic game, then we accept the naked materialism of Marx (and also of Hitler, of Mussolini, of Mao, and of almost every other evil monster of the last century).
Our nation was founded, as that last line of the Declaration so clearly restates, upon belief in a Blessed Creator and His protection. The history that led up to the Declaration encompassed ancient Jews rejecting not wealth per se, but rather the elevation of wealth above higher values. This thorny part of Judaism still makes us squirm when Amos tells of the damnable fate of those who “[p]ant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor” – a theme that runs throughout the whole of Jewish theology. The men who wrote our Declaration and founded our nation were intimately familiar with Jesus’s dramatic warning that “[t]he love of money is the root of all evil.”
American liberty did lead to great wealth, but to our Founding Fathers, it was a happy fact that the free markets that arose out of our nation naturally led to great wealth. The first serious exposition of this idea, Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was published by the Scottish thinker in 1776, the very year of our Declaration. We had already been in hot rebellion against the British Crown for years by then, and “Stuffism,” unless we buy the thinking of Marxists writing long after the fact, was not a serious factor in that rebellion.
There is a danger that too many conservatives have listened too closely to the cant of leftism and see in free markets our own happy incarnation of Marxist Stuffism. Here is the telling question, though: if we could be wealthy without liberty or poor with liberty, which would we choose? It is not an academic question. Leftists who have sold their souls to Marx often do well, if by “well” we mean wealthy. In the Soviet Union, the only wealthy people were those who attacked liberty and free markets. Indeed, these cadres had not only great wealth, but also great power – the sort of power that cannot be bought by the rich in free lands.
The embrace of Stuffism also blurs the fact that all wealth will melt over time, and that our dirt ball in space might die in a day if a comet passed too closely, and that our lives stretch a fewscore decades and nothing more. Ironically, this ought to be the trump card of conservatives: we cleave to things greater than Stuff. The shortening shadow of a Politburo member or a mendacious politician in the hive of Democratic Party machinations knows that not only is everything he tries to accomplish through his lust for Stuff doomed, but if there is anything beyond this life, then he will face that reality smeared with the muck of unseemly avarice.
None of this means, of course, that this world of Stuff is bad. Creation is good; indeed, it is “very good.” Jews write of a Blessed Creator. Christians know that Jesus celebrated a wholesome enjoyment of life. Our Founding Fathers were farmers and inventors and merchants and traders who lived in lovely homes and who enjoyed a robust meal with a fine glass of Port. Stuff, however, ought to be a pleasant consequence of honorable life, a happy ancillary of human liberty, a worthwhile secondary purpose to our pursuit of the Good.
When we descend into utter materialism, as it seems so many conservatives do these days, then we fight our political battles on the home ground of our enemy. Marxism is evil not just because it produces poverty; it would be evil even if it produced prosperity. Liberty is good even when it costs us – and many veterans pay a price much greater than money could compensate – and the optimization of affluence that markets cause is a byproduct that sharpens our arguments for liberty but cannot be the heart of those arguments.