Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Mammon's Mastery” first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone.
Paul J. Cella III on the Awful Idea of Efficiency
Ever since my college days, when I spent many an hour defending this country of ours against the various sticks and stones of my fledgling leftist friends, the charge of plutocracy was always among the most difficult to dismiss. An aristocracy of wealth is emphatically not the same as a commercial republic. The supreme point of difference, I think, lies in the role of the state.
In the latter, the state, being small, remains (or at least tries to remain) neutral and unobtrusive. It allows businesses to flourish and to fail on their own merits; for that is the essence of freedom in the economic sense. Perhaps this ideal is but a dream; but let it at least be admitted that it was a dream shared by many of our fathers, most notably the framers of our country.
In the former, the state takes in its hands the business interests of those it favors, and guides them, easing their struggle, protecting them against failure, doing what it can to ensure profitability; it coddles and coaxes; and in return, these favored businesses promise stability. They will not rock the boat; they will compromise where necessary, and remain mute where compromise is impossible; in short, they will not stand in the way of political fashion and enthusiasm.
We may look at it from the other direction, as it were. Favored businesses use the state as their instrument. They take command of a tax code the complexity of which makes the Book of Leviticus positively plain by comparison; they employ veritable armies of accountants and actuaries and litigators; they shrewdly hire elected officials immediately after their retirement from public office, muddling almost irrevocably the distinction between lobbyist and legislator; in short, they make the state, within a circumscribed range, their creature.
Large corporations, which are usually depicted by our perfectly antique progressives as blundering machines of reaction, on closer examination appear quite supine in the face of political and social innovation. CEOs do not often pour out into the streets to protest homosexual marriage; rare indeed is the plutocrat who finds time in his day to thunder against the mean inhumanity of pornography with the words of St. Paul: “Let it not even be named among you.”
In the great state of Colorado, where I was born and raised, a prominent man led a prominent business that is reported to be “one of the most gay-friendly companies in the nation”; and a businessman ran for a seat in the United States Senate as a conservative Republican. They are the same man.
At the root of plutocracy is the awful idea of Efficiency. The whole structure of society is made to be smooth and facile; disagreement, especially disagreement concerning “the permanent things,” is suppressed. We see the rise of the Efficiency State in Europe, where it is, in effect, illegal to argue publicly about the things that really vex, and a class of elites, repining in places like Davos, Switzerland, make the decisions without much input from the untidy masses. It is efficiency made the master of a polity.
But human beings are inefficient. Families are models of human inefficiency; that is why they are, and always will be, even unto the end, the final guarantor of liberty. All the world may be an anarchy of efficient inhumanity, a mechanized madness of perfect efficiency; and yet, if human beings yet flourish, even in such dark days, they will flourish because efficiency is checked at the solid door of the family home.
For liberty itself is inefficient. What is efficient about free men trading stories over mugs of beer? What is efficient about a woman cultivating her own garden, a small but soaring slice of creation, wherein she becomes and embodies the imago Dei?
Efficiency will always have a partner in what is called equality but usually is better named egalitarianism. The family, being inefficient (and free), desires that mothers be mothers and fathers fathers; in the family, equality consists in variety and not rigid sameness. “One flesh” is the biblical phrase for the mystery of matrimony; and in that astonishing image none can gainsay the sacred equality of arms and legs, or eyes and ears, or hearts and minds; though we may question how very alike they are.
The plutocrats did not much lament that rending of the family which came with the coerced egalitarianism of the sexes. They did not balk at an economy which, to the shrill cries of “equal pay for equal work,” rendered single-income families increasingly prohibitive; “equal pay for equal servility” might have captured it better. It may be efficient to turn every household from one into two workers; it may appease abstract equality to atomize the family into a little factory for labor; but to take mothers away from their children and make them workers is certainly no triumph for liberty, and only a society very far gone in sterile distempers and strange sophistries would think otherwise.
Half of America’s wealth is wrapped up in this betrayal of liberty for affluence. We impoverish ourselves as citizens and men to enrich ourselves as consumers. This was the bargain: American consumers would grow prosperous, and luxury would become their convenience, but liberty would slip from their grasp. Democracy was seduced into selling the soul.
A good example: Here in Atlanta, Georgia, there is a mass of city laws that restrict what a man can do with the flora on his property. It takes a legal scholar to discover what to do if a homeowner wants to remove a tree that menacingly overhangs his porch. Usually the laws entail a requirement to the effect that one can only remove a tree if he replants another. Now I happen to like trees, and I confess to a certain sympathy for these laws; I know that, given the opportunity, we Atlantans will likely devour our trees.
But the laws do not apply, it seems, to the big developers: They evade them, or buy their way out of them. Atlanta city government is notorious for corruption. But this is not corruption; it is madness. Socialism is alive and well—but it afflicts only small property. The small owner is trussed, but the large landlord is freed.
To be sure, there are worse forms of government that a man may live under than a plutocracy. The ingenuity of man has never been quarantined from the science of government, or the science of tyranny. But let us at least walk in candor, calling things by their right names; and let us acknowledge that if we have ceased, or yet may cease, to be a republic and become a plutocracy, it is a degradation and a tragedy.
“Mammon's Mastery” first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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