When George Bernard Shaw decided to devote himself to the destruction of civilization (or, as he would have preferred to call it, the cause of socialism), he spent years studying political economy.  As Chesterton put it in a book devoted to his longtime friend,

Here was a man who could have enjoyed art among the artists, who could have been the wittiest of the flaneurs; who could have made epigrams like diamonds and drunk music like wine.  He has instead labored in a mill of statistics and crammed his mind with all the most dreary and the most filthy details . . . 

Northcote Parkinson, who cites the passage in Left Luggage (appropriately subtitled A Caustic History of British Socialism From Marx to Wilson), concludes that, of all the British socialists since William Morris, Shaw was the only one with a gift to squander, the only one to have made “a tremendous sacrifice on the altar of socialism.”

There is another, less subtle conclusion to be drawn.  Imagine, a man of Shaw’s brilliance and erudition, grinding away at thousands of passages of drab social statistics, year after year—and what is the result?  The socialist platform of the British Labour Party.  A child or, better yet, a libertarian could have told him he was wasting his time.  Get off on the wrong foot (the left), and you can never get back to the right one.  How could Shaw and so many other lesser but nonetheless intelligent people go so far astray?  If economics is a science, as classical liberals insist, then how does Marxism—the economic equivalent of phlogiston or spontaneous generation—maintain itself?

The most obvious answer is that, if economics is a science, it is an ethical science, one that deals not with absolutes but with the approximations of human society.  As such, it can describe certain general tendencies; it can say what will probably happen as the consequence of certain individual decisions or political policies, but it can never say what a given individual will do, faced with rising prices, much less what he ought to do.  Ethics as a whole deals with the sort of life that it is good for us to lead; economics, as one of the lower branches of this science, can only tell us (in theory) the most efficient way of getting what we want.

If we think that some form of socialism is the only just political and economic goal, then economic analysis can be used to find the best way of reaching it.  This “market socialism” is roughly the approach taken by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and the Bush administration, where it sails under the colors of “compassionate conservatism.”  Economic theory cannot, however, tell us that the socialist dream, unrealistic though it may be, is unjust.  And what sort of young man, forced to choose between an impractical dream of justice and a practical but unjust system, would not choose socialism?  From the way that capitalists and libertarians frame their arguments—always aiming at the lowest instincts—I can only conclude that the sign on the Free Market door reads: FANATICS WANTED.  NO IDEALISTS NEED APPLY.

Socialism is not simply impractical or an affront to the individual and his supposed rights—a quaint if long-exploded philosophical theory.  Socialism is wrong because it is fundamentally unjust and because it degrades humanity.  It robs man of his moral duties toward his wife and children and diminishes his feeling of charity toward his neighbors and fellow countrymen.  “I gave at the office” really means “I gave to the IRS.”  Socialism is the drabbest of ideologies, and, whether we call it liberalism, the New Deal, the Great Society, or big-government conservatism, socialism suppresses the spirit of enterprise (not just business enterprise but all adventure) and makes the world a duller place.

Some Christians have been seduced by superficial similarities between Marxism and the voluntary communism practiced by early Christians in Jerusalem.  Like celibacy, the ideal of communism proved an unbearable burden for all but a few, and in this recognition lies the seed of monasticism.  A monastery, however, is not a state, and a state that imposed celibacy would have an even shorter life than the two generations of communism imposed, albeit imperfectly, by the rulers of the Soviet Union.

If Christianity does not actually forbid private property, it has almost always had reservations about great wealth.  When Calvinist friends speak of money as “the outward sign of grace,” I assume they are really joking, though when George Gilder treats with religious awe the billionaire eccentric John Templeton—“Contemplating his work and wealth is like entering a cathedral”—I can only assume that George should have spent less time in corporate offices and more time in cathedrals.

Christ did not pander to the rich; He spoke, rather, of the difficulty of a rich man entering into the Kingdom of Heaven and gave us the chilling parable of Lazarus and Dives.  Dives and his brothers, who would not listen to Moses and the Prophets, will not hear the Gospel, even if it is preached by Father Abraham (or Christ Himself).  Jesus declared explicitly in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.”  Even more plainly, His Mother exulted, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.  He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

In 1 Timothy 6:10, Saint Paul does not tell us that property or wealth is the root of all evil, but philargyria, the desire for (silver) money.  It is a vice that Saint Paul elsewhere calls pleonexia (“more-havingness”), a word that implies that someone is never content with enough but is always reaching for more.  Aristotle, who uses the same word, is hardly more temperate in his disdain.  Breaking with Plato, Aristotle thought property was a natural good, because without it human life could not be sustained.  But how much property is enough?  Aristotle does not say precisely, but since the highest human purpose is contemplation of God—as a philosopher, he would say “the good”—a serious man should have a house and land sufficient to provide for his necessities, without too much of the back-breaking labor that distorts the character and prevents a man from cultivating the liberal arts (poetry, music, rhetoric) and, ultimately, philosophy.  In today’s terms, a nice little annuity providing $50,000 per annum would allow a professional man to spend short weeks on honorable work and take long vacations, so long as he does not have to “buy” a condominium in Sarasota or stay in five-star hotels.

Aristotle says that money, unlike food, housing, weapons, or books, is an artificial form of property because most of us (except for goldsmiths) cannot actually do anything with gold or silver, much less with the ugly misproportioned slips of paper (ultimately worthless) we call Federal Reserve Notes—unless, like Scrooge McDuck, we take dry baths amid piles of coin.  In a money-based economy such as ours, it is impractical to imagine doing without money, but it should not be made a god.  Aristotle is even more emphatic about moneylending or, as we should now call it, banking.  For money, an artificial form of property, to breed more money is unnatural.  Significantly, the Greek for interest is tokos, which means “offspring.”  To make money by breeding money is akin to artificial procreation, a violation of the law of God and nature.  The same connection must have been made by Saint Paul, who frequently pairs pleonexia with sodomy: Both are vices contrary to nature that produce nothing real.

Aristotle, even more than Saint Paul, lived in a world whose economics (a word so habitually misused that it has become nearly useless) was quite different from our own, and he would doubtless have as many interesting things to say about the American system of capitalist-socialism as he did about Carthage, the state we most resemble.  (Carthaginians were excellent businessmen, ruthless imperialists who relied heavily on mercenaries and killed their own babies for good luck.)  It was Aristotle, after all, who first pointed out “the tragedy of the commons,” observing that, where property is owned by all, it is taken care of by none.  He would certainly have learned to understand the value of investing in stocks and modified his objection to moneylending if it made possible the construction of homes or the expansion of an honorable business.

Intellectual historians (who like to misappropriate the name philosopher) fail to grasp the significance of Aristotle’s thought.  His contribution to science is not found in his mistakes in such matters as the number of legs on a spider or the rate of falling bodies but, for example, in his more general discussion of causation, his methodical approach to every question, his insistence on gathering evidence before coming to a conclusion.  And Aristotle’s contribution to political economy is not limited by the economic system of fourth-century Greece, because his concern is not with efficiency but with justice and the good life.

Aristotle was raising the only important questions of ethics: What are the ends of human existence, and how do we attain them?  His answer, roughly, is “happiness,” or the good life, which is to be attained in a community of family and friends who can satisfy one another’s material and social needs, behave justly toward one another, and, according to their capacity, contemplate the Good.  Such an ideal—if it is a true ideal—does not change from age to age.  It is valid in a Greek polis, in the Roman Empire, in medieval Christian France, and in post-Christian America.  The material necessities—and the means of getting them—will take different forms, but the goal remains the same, as do the means (generally speaking).

This reality has been obscured by a series of political theorists who have emphasized individual acquisitiveness—that is, pleonexia—as a primary good.  This was the great error of classical liberals, who were otherwise right about many lesser questions having to do with how an economy should be managed (or rather, should not be managed).  Even when liberals have written of the community or society, their tendency is to think primarily of a means of satisfying an individual’s material desires.  Socialists are even worse, because they insist on imposing the liberals’ degraded understanding of human existence on all of humanity.  There have been deeper socialist thinkers (William Morris, the Guild Socialists), who challenged the liberal notion of man, but they were quickly eclipsed.  For a century, socialists, while making obligatory references to human brotherhood, have drawn up plan after plan with only one object: to turn the working class into the spitting image of the greedy capitalist oppressors they claim to hate.  When there was a “conservative” opposition, it opposed both liberalism and socialism for reducing human beings to libidinous viruses forever seeking to expand their supply of junk, like the Mexican gourmet chef in Carlos Fuentes’ The Crystal Frontier who bought everything he saw advertised on TV.  Soon, he had to rent warehouse space to house all the useless stuff he had amassed.  He might have been named the Ludwig von Mises man of the year.

Where liberals and libertarians like to reduce complex questions down to the simplistic formulae of Mill or Smith or Mises, and leftists continue to repeat the long-refuted speculations of Marx, conservatives have contented themselves with what they knew to be imperfect knowledge that buttressed loyalties derived more from the heart than from political pamphlets.  The heroes of conservatives are more like beloved uncles than the exotic foreign gurus that inspire the “two and seventy jarring sects” of the supposititious right.

A conservative—not just a “true conservative” (which is probably a contradiction in terms), but anyone with a conservative instinct—will never put the cart of policy before the horse of purpose.  In confronting such political questions as immigration, trade, and foreign policy, he will instinctively reach—not always wisely—for the policy that seems to benefit his people.  If he has a critical brain, he will analyze the numbers and probably come to the conclusion that both sides of an issue are lying—just a little, at least—but he will never make the mistake of confusing statistics with reality.  Finally, he will not put the Great God Efficiency above the honor and interests of his own country.  Before deciding how many prisoners can be efficiently stuffed into a concentration camp, there are a few more basic questions to attend to.

Here, finally, is the problem with the entire spectrum of debate over free trade and industrial decline, in which the only part of the spectrum that is represented is the narrow segment that runs from orange liberalism to red Marxism, from a neoconservative indifference to our neighbors’ well-being to a neoliberal ambition to return to Five Year Plans and industrial policies so long as they provide for market efficiency.  Nothing good has come out of such a debate—and nothing ever will.