Identity, Virtue, Economy

There are seven commonly-discussed virtues (sometimes noted as four Christian virtues and three Pagan ones), which have long been enshrined by western society as ideals. These are hope, faith, love, justice, courage, temperance, and prudence.

To aspire to a virtue is a statement of identity. To try and be loving alters who you are - as readers of this blog know, I argue that everything you do, wear, say, and aspire to changes to who you are, because you are largely the sum of those things (and maybe a bit more).

If you aspire to a virtue, you may become more virtuous. This may seem odd from me; as a modern intellectual, I can happily talk about virtues as 'things we built up' rather than as things we discovered. But so what? We also built soup kitchens, and schools. We built hospitals, and governments (both good and bad). We built tools to investigate the inner workings of the universe, and procedures by which we might approach the slippery bastard that is truth. That a thing is made does not make it unworthy. It does mean, though, that it can be lost, forgotten, cast aside.

I'm not about to try and call up some golden age of the past, but there are times when these virtues are actively improving specific parts of society, and times when they are not. At any given moment, really, prudence can be seen somewhere... But not always in, say, the housing market.

So, let me talk about some of those virtues in action, in a place where they do good work - by which I mean, in the marketplace.

The entrepreneur requires courage - as does anyone whose business model must change to keep pace with the times we live in. A collective failure of nerve can mean that things we could use to make our lives materially better won't exist, because nobody has the gumption to try and make them. In existing industry, the cry for deep protections against modernity is (among other things) often an act of cowardice.

A "bubble" on the market is a failure of both prudence and temperance among investors, and a perversion of faith and hope in the market. Artificial booms are caused by overweening greed of a sort that has little to do with materially improving the lives of many involved.

The very existence of Fiat currency is a matter of Faith and Hope. Money has value because we believe it has value; it's not backed by gold or plutonium or some other harder store.

A market where those involved possess a sense of Justice is one where cheaters are noted, caught, and ousted. Where that sense of justice fails, cheaters are lauded, stocks manipulated, businesses and lives ruined.


For some, this may raise up the spectre of Gordon Gecko's famed speech in the film Wall Street:

"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed cuts through and clarifies, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of it's forms. Greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind, and Greed, mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA."

...It's a magnificent lie, isn't it? The speech conflates all ambition, all aspiration, with his particular form. But the greed of Gordon Gecko, and of those who mirrored his actions, are a form of self-interest based on valuing numbers over people. Far from saving anything, the wild rush to play at the expense of others, in a market freed from all virtue, brings chaos, disharmony, and recession.

Our markets, governments, and all our institutions, can handle a little greed, a little overblown rhetoric, a share of hateful pride and scorn. We can put some measure of these things into harness and derive work from them. That's a strength of our systems, and no mistake. But it's not the basis of our systems.

The basis of these systems is virtue, not vice. A built thing, noble, worth preserving, but able to easily be lost and forgotten. And when we lose track of this, we invite dysfunction into our markets, our governments, our courts, and all else besides.