Thrift and the Just Social Order

“It is the duty of those serving the people in public place,” said Grover Cleveland in his first inaugural address in 1885, “to closely limit public expenditures to the actual needs of the government economically administered.”
That was, for Cleveland, plain common sense, and his practice proved that he meant it. He was an implacable opponent of spurious appeals to the treasury for army pensions, and of posh jobs handed out as political favors, and even of calls for the federal government to disburse alms to citizens suffering from natural disasters. He would give his own money, and would call upon his generous countrymen to do the same, but was committed to defend the Constitution against a most dangerous opponent, the sentimental desire to do good, or to see that somebody somewhere does good, with somebody else’s money.
We must keep the government lean, he said, “because this bounds [its right] to exact tribute from the earnings of labor or the property of the citizen, and because public extravagance begets extravagance among the people” (italics mine).
There were two principles at stake, and in Cleveland’s mind they were related: liberty, and the thrift upon which a free and virtuous people rely. He was not simply asserting the obvious, that if the government is free with your money, you have less money to be free with yourself. He claimed also that you would be more likely to follow the government’s extravagance — and that vice will hurt or destroy many a marriage and family. Therefore Catholics who reject Church teaching about the family but who say they support some vaguely defined “social teaching,” usually one that endorses public extravagance in the cause of “helping,” may in fact be rejecting the Church’s actual social teaching, too. Their policies not only rob people of their just earnings and encroach upon their due liberty; they help to ruin communities by encouraging vice and punishing virtue.
Suppose, instead, your town has a school scrupulously responsible with the people’s money. Suppose the school board, the principal, and the teachers believe that their jobs are quite modest: to teach children to read good works, to write grammatically, and to compute; to teach them in some coherent way about geography and history; and, in the upper grades, to teach them about the natural world, and perhaps immerse them in Latin or another language. That’s all. If the students want a football team, they can have one, and raise money for uniforms and blocking dummies and barbells. If they want to swim, there are lakes and ponds for that. And they will have time for it, too: They’ll be walking to school, most likely, since school will not be a great prison-like complex, outdated and leaking after 25 years, somewhere far outside of town on what used to be a farm.
What virtues would such a policy encourage? Thrift, for one — and not just from the school’s directors. Students would learn by experience that all the flashy “learning resource centers” in the world aren’t worth as much as a few good books in a quiet room. They might help clean the floors and trim the grass and uproot the weeds, too, because though it’s fun to foul somebody else’s property (and the big, distant, anonymous school is always somebody else’s property) most people don’t want to live in a pigsty. The townspeople, not only the parents, would also feel that they owned the place and had a stake in its upkeep and success. It would be a kind of town homestead. “There’s the schoolyard, there’s the big tree, there’s the place where I gave that bully a black eye.” A few such overseers, with sharp eyes and tongues, could keep the school from degenerating into a moral slum, because the place would be too small and conspicuous for the vicious teacher, and because, living on a parsimonious budget, the school could never afford to alienate the neighborhood. The good teachers would enjoy, and the bad teachers would suffer, all the virtues of responsible ownership.
It would not take much money to keep that school running, so property taxes would be low. Then old people on fixed annuities need not move away and sell their homes. That means no less than that a genuine neighborhood might thrive from one generation to the next. People who own their homes, too, and who do not expect to flee them when their income dwindles, are more likely to keep those properties trim, and to improve them when they can afford it — a garden house, a real fence, a grapevine on a trellis.
Extend the thrift beyond the bounds of the school district. Let the town and county and state be thrifty, too. Let the nation mind its business. Some parents, not taxed to death, might use the saved income to send their children instead to a Catholic school, and exercise stewardship. Or they might be content to live on a single income in a modest house, and that in turn would serve the neighborhood, returning to it the lifeblood of daily social interchange, the work and mutual help and oversight of women.
Would there be no social services? Plenty; they are called “neighbors.” No help for the poor? Neighbors would pitch in there, too, with sweat that cements a bond between helper and helped. Thrift, which lends us the liberty not only to cook our neighbors a meal when they are sick, but to know who they are, would remind the poor too that God has given them two things more powerful, more real, and more human than any scheme for organized robbery. They hang at the end of one’s arms, and are called “hands.”
Shiftless, squandering, heedless of the hard-won victories of our forebears, heedless of posterity, we and our government do less with wealth than a thrifty people do with penury. We pillage and spread the plunder, and gain graduates who can’t read Dickens; evacuated downtowns, imbecilic libraries, fatherless children, crowded prisons.
Cleveland won his first term as president after a preacher accused him of being friendly to Catholics, and the accusation backfired. I wish now more Catholics could be accused of being friendly to Cleveland. It might bring them nearer to his greater and wiser contemporary, Pope Leo XIII. They might recall some old social virtues, not yet erased from the Catechism. The poor would be better off for it, too.

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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