Upset about Donations to Notre Dame? Then Praise the Commercial Society

Last week, after Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral burned, there was an outpouring of emotion and funds to restore the centuries-old building.  However, not everyone has been thrilled by this outcome:

“So when wealthy Frenchmen quickly pledged massive donations, some associated with the movement balked. “If they can give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us there is no money to help with the social emergency,” The Washington Post quotes Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union.”

This is a reason for us to celebrate the rise of the commercial society in our world.  As Adam Smith discusses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, we tend to sympathize much more with those people and things closest to ourselves.  We sympathize with our family very much, our friends to a lesser degree, and beyond that our acquaintances, neighborhoods, towns, country, etc.  A small misfortune to our brother or child is certainly going to trouble us much more than a larger misfortune to someone far removed from us.

Of course, it would be best if we all could engage in that universal benevolence and knew, without question, where our resources could be best spent to best help people.  But that would require far more knowledge, information, and compassion we have or can possibly have.  That sort of universal benevolence, Smith argues, is best left to some deity above us.  Rather, we have it within ourselves to devote to those most local to us are benevolence and beyond that mere justice and virtuous behavior can carry the day.

Notre Dame is a symbol for many people.  It is a symbol of Christianity, of Western Civilization, of French Pride, of many other things.  As such, many people feel close to Notre Dame and thus their benevolence is directed toward that cause.

But it is not by benevolence alone that the world becomes a better place.  Indeed, little else is required but honesty, justice, and prudence.  And that is where the commercial society comes into play.  The commercial society tends to promote these mundane virtues (to borrow a phrase from J.R. Clark and Dwight Lee).  The pursuit of honest dollar can foster growth around us by requiring us to help one another to help ourselves.  We must appeal to the self-interest of the brewer, baker, or butcher for our dinner; we must offer them money (or something else they want).  In turn, they help us by providing us our dinner.  And the same is true across the world.  In my lifetime, billions of people have risen out of object poverty.  It is not because the worlds has suddenly gotten much more charitable or because those charities have gotten better at helping people.  It is because companies, wanting more profit, expanded operations into these poor areas and gave them jobs, and food, and clothing, etc.  It is because the human mind is infinitely creative, and people have found new and better ways to help and serve one another. 

If we were to rely solely on the benevolence of the wealthy (and this includes forced benevolence, such as re-distributive taxation) to solve the world’s problems, we will be unsuccessful.  Compassion is a scarce resource, after all.