Of Competition and Liberalism, Luxury and Speculation
Of Competition and Liberalism, Luxury and Speculation
Abstract and Keywords
All of the pastoral moralists were committed to the most basic principles of economic liberalism. Everyone, for example, agreed about the goodness of private property. Joseph Emerson's entire sermon on Christian Economy was a defense of the proposition. This type of realistic assessment of competition was one of the pastoral moralists' most fundamental axioms. Like trade itself, competition was simply a reality—a fact of life in a liberal society that needed to be navigated properly, not condemned categorically. The unavoidable truth of the matter was that self-interested competition was a necessary component of a market-capitalist society. It was the motivating engine that drove the economy, but that also had to be restrained and subjected to the boundaries of Christian morality.
ALL OF the pastoral moralists were committed to the most basic principles of economic liberalism. Everyone, for example, agreed about the goodness of private property. Joseph Emerson's entire sermon on Christian Economy was a defense of the proposition that “WE SHOULD BE CAREFUL THAT NONE OF OUR PROPERTY BE LOST.”1 And other sermons were nearly shameless in their thinly veiled references to John Locke. Walter Blake Kirwan, for one, proclaimed that “the possession of happiness is the principle and end of all our actions and passions…. Men are united in society only to procure it.”2 Likewise, Joshua Bates's “A Discourse on Honesty in Dealing” was a veritable tribute to Locke, beginning with references to men's rights “as social beings,” including the right of property, and only then stating that such ideas were “sanctioned by the authority of Inspiration.”3 He did not, in other words, start with the Bible and then build his economic system from there, but began instead with the foundations of Lockean liberalism and then explained how the workings of such a system, including the fact of competition among self-interested individuals, were consistent with Christian ethics.
Competition, in many ways, was the crux of the matter. The commercial world was built on it, but the principles of Christianity seemed to be set against it. In short, this is the place where self-interest bumped up against the interests of others and potentially did violence to the Christian golden rule. “While we are endeavoring to secure our own property,” Joseph Emerson explained simply, “we may be tempted to injure our neighbor. His interest and ours may clash.”4 What was the good Christian to do in this situation—renounce competition entirely? Did putting one's neighbor before one's self (p.192) always mean losing? And what about winning? Did success in one's own endeavors have to mean the ruin of your competitors? One group of earnest and justice-minded Congregationalists in Rhode Island was so suspicious of “both the reality and the appearance of … competition” that they resolved to avoid it “as far as possible.” But as they went on to conclude: “Of course, this cannot be avoided entirely.”5
This type of realistic assessment of competition was one of the pastoral moralists' most fundamental axioms. Like trade itself, competition was simply a reality—a fact of life in a liberal society that needed to be navigated properly, not condemned categorically. The unavoidable truth of the matter was that self-interested competition was a necessary component of a market-capitalist society. It was the motivating engine that drove the economy, but that also had to be restrained and subjected to the boundaries of Christian morality. “We are indeed to do to others as we would have them do to us,” Orville Dewey wrote, referencing directly the golden rule as his ethical guideline for commercial activity. But as he went on to argue, there was nothing “in Scripture, or in the laws of human brotherhood, that forbids this honest, not fraudulent, but honest competition between men's exertions, faculties and wits.” Scripture might not sanction competition, the pastoral moralists argued, but neither did scripture forbid it.
And then there was always the more commonsense approach. Was it really unfair to have superior knowledge or superior skills? Should one necessarily share that knowledge or those skills with others, and especially other competitors? “Must,” as Dewey asked, “the intelligent and the enterprising merchant raise up his dull and careless neighbor, to his own point of view, before we may deal with him?” “Certainly not,” he answered. Loving one's neighbor as oneself did not mean that there had to be a leveling of knowledge and ability among them. A wise and skillful merchant was not obliged to share his rewards with his less able competitors, Dewey reasoned, just as a gifted painter was not obliged to share his prizes with his less talented artistic peers.6
In short the pastoral moralists answered the question of competition by stating that it was perfectly acceptable for individuals to pursue competitive and self-serving interests as long as they did not injure themselves (by violating their consciences) or their neighbors in the process. Dewey expressed it this way:
A man may pursue his own interest; he may use his endeavor, sagacity, ability, but in the first place, he shall not pursue any traffic or make any contract to the (p.193) injury of his neighbor; … and, in the next place, he shall not pursue his own ends to the extent of committing any fraud.7
Competition, again, so long as one played by the rules, was permissible. Unscrupulous practices, however, such as lying and cheating, or seeking to harm one's competitor purposefully, were unacceptable and out of bounds. The Christian principle of “honesty will not allow us to take advantage of ignorance and inexperience,” Joshua Bates wrote. Neither will it allow one to engage in any “kind of deception concerning the quality, quantity, or current price of an article for sale,” or (most controversially) allow the creation of “monopoly … to enhance the price of goods, especially the necessaries of life.”8 All of these actions injured many while enriching some. “Attention to our own concerns,” as Walter Blake Kirwan summarized, is legitimate and within the boundaries of ethical economic activity. But caring for oneself becomes excessive and thus “culpable” when it leaves “neither leisure or [sic] inclination to promote the happiness of our fellow creatures. Then does self-love degenerate into selfishness.”9 This quotation encapsulates the pastoral moralists' view about self-interested competition and its proper boundary. When an individual economic actor has no regard for the interest of others, the line has been crossed and self-interest is no longer a mere motivator or desire but is instead an uncontrolled passion that does harm to others.
Francis Wayland agreed with this distinction between innocent and harmful commercial competition. Also using the language of the golden rule, he filled his address on “The Moral Law of Accumulation” with scenarios that illustrated the effect that certain actions would have on “my neighbor,” “his neighbor,” “others,” “the community,” and “the nation.”10 His general governing principle, which was rooted in economic liberalism, was that it was morally permissible to pursue wealth and even to compete against one's neighbor; but “God has made nothing [including wealth] for itself alone, but every thing mainly for the sake of others.” Thus God permitted human beings to seek a personal fortune, but “God [also] intends that man should grow rich by adding something to the means of human happiness.” Those who do wrong in commercial affairs, Wayland explained, were those who, “instead of using his capital for a blessing, [use] it for a curse to his neighbor.”11 It was not immoral to act according to self-interest and seek that “capital” in the first place, as long as one did not harm others in seeking it. But if one were to forget one's neighbors or hurt them in the process of pursuing wealth, then would “self love degenerate into selfishness,”12 and (p.194) the motive that had begun so innocently become a passion with only harmful effects for self and others.
To sum up this view of competition, it is important to point out that the pastoral moralists were resigned to the fact that America was going in a certain direction—away from republican notions of “community” and toward a more liberal notion of “society”—and that life within that society had to be lived in a certain way. There were costs to this process, to be sure, but all of the pastoral moralists were enthusiastic about their economically modernizing future. Living as a Christian within this new world, however, demanded a balance between moral principle and what Orville Dewey called “a certain expediency.” “It is expedient,” he wrote, “that every man should take care of himself. Others are not to step forward at every turn to rescue him from the consequences of his indolence or inattention.” How could a liberal society work otherwise? The law, for example, was based on a set of principles—justice, fairness, truth, and the like. In its day-to-day operations, however, the law did not punish every individual who acted unjustly, unfairly, or untruthfully. If it were to do so, as Dewey put it, “our tribunals would be overwhelmed with business.”13 Thus, while those charged with keeping the law hopefully never violated its principles or actively encouraged others to violate them, they had to use discernment about what behavior is questionable but tolerable, and what is intolerable and should be punished. In the end, Dewey wanted to draw yet another moral boundary—this time in the ambiguous operations of the law. He deemed such a boundary a necessary “concession to expediency,” but also one that should be discerned with great care.
The analogy was that the realm of commerce likewise had to operate with moral ambiguities and imperfections in order to operate at all. Such was life in a liberal society, and Dewey made it clear that there was no going back. While “there should be a brotherly community of feeling,” he wrote, “there cannot be a brotherly identity of interests between the members of society.” People had to watch out for themselves as much as possible, while hopefully not doing themselves or their neighbors any harm. Given the new structure of things, there simply was not time for people to be concerned about the interests of others as they might “if they belonged to a community of Shakers, or of New Harmony men.” As long as one wanted to maintain the cherished liberal “principle of individuality, of individual interests, of individual aims,” one had to admit that America was a society, not a community, and that it should remain so. The structure of the nation was large and individualistic, not small and communalist, and (p.195) so should be its standard of ethical behavior in the public realm of business activity.14
But even given such latitude, the pastoral moralists still believed that there were two misuses of money that clearly violated the golden rule and twisted an economic actor's natural “desire” for wealth into an unhealthy and sinful “passion.” An individual could cross the line and transgress the moral limit in both the consumption of wealth and, as with competition, in its production. This excessive and immoral consumption or accumulation they called “luxury.” The injurious and immoral production of wealth they called “speculation.” Both of these transgressions were variations of the more general sin of avarice, but luxury was more rooted in the past, while speculation pointed to the future.
Along with the clerical economists, the pastoral moralists were conflicted about luxury. As Henry Boardman argued: “To say for example, that the Bible prohibits all indulgence in luxuries would be taking very ambiguous and dangerous ground.” On the one hand, they saw luxury items as one of the goals and privileges of civilized life, as well as one of the most powerful incentives for people to work. The various crafts that produced luxury items also employed countless people who would not otherwise have a trade. The extreme proposal that there be an “absolute prohibition of luxuries” would therefore, as Boardman explained, “have a most disastrous influence upon the well being of mankind” because it would destroy these people's livelihoods. Plus there was always the problem of discernment for individuals in different financial circumstances. What “may be a luxury, certainly an extravagance, to one family,” Boardman wrote, “is not to another.” He therefore concluded that it was both impossible and impractical to make a strict rule about what could be deemed a luxury and thus prohibited.15
But on the other hand, the pastoral moralists seemed to think that the desire for luxury items was getting out of control and corrupting people's virtue. In the language of faculty psychology, luxury, which could be just as innocent as prudential self-interest, was itself becoming a passion. “The contest for gain in the arena of business,” Boardman wrote, “is carried forward as a race for ostentation in social life…. Luxury is made, not the exception, but the rule.” Luxury had become licentiousness with grave consequences for both individuals and for the nation. One by one, luxury weakened an individual's “manly energy, rigid self-denial, and lofty virtue” so that he eventually grew “weak, effeminate, and dwarfish.” And a nation of such individuals—the body politic, so to speak—was equally effeminized. The “history of wealth has always been a history of corruption and downfall,” (p.196) Dewey warned. “No lesson in history,” he concluded, “is so clear, so impressive, as this.”16 And unfortunately, America seemed to be running this risk. “As a people,” wrote Leonard Bacon in the midst of the Panic of 1837,
we have gone mad with our sudden prosperity; and … have introduced from older and more profligate countries, habits of luxury ill suited to our republican state of society…. In brief, the whole country has been living not only “up to the means,” but “beyond the means.” … Old fashioned frugality has gone out of fashion; and … there has of course been a rapid deterioration of morals.17
This, in condensed form, was the republican nightmare. Prosperity itself was never an evil, but the American people were apparently following in the train of other nations and going “beyond” the proper limit in their pursuits of happiness and their consumption of wealth, with disastrous results for all—a subject that will be revisited in the conclusion to this section.
But as always, the pastoral moralists never went to the point of questioning the economic order itself. Republican ideas about luxury, self-indulgence, and corruption, by their very nature, all had to do with the people who inhabited a given structure and not with the structure per se. They never criticized the system or mechanism of commerce as inherently evil or as invariably leading people into immoral behavior. The new economic system did bring up new problems and temptations, but the real problem, as they saw it, was with human nature and not the nature of any particular economy. They therefore made an important distinction between the system and the spirit that could animate that system.
What is even more revealing about the pastoral moralists' Christianized republican sensibilities is that they never used these sensibilities to question the underlying liberal assumptions that accompanied the developing economic structure. In fact, their republican values surface over and over again in the very same documents in which they unabashedly promoted liberal values, such as the individual pursuit of wealth. Orville Dewey, for example, the same man who wanted to uphold the cherished liberal “principle of individuality, of individual interests, of individual aims,” also wrote that “independence and luxury are not likely to be good for any man. Leisure and luxury are almost always bad for every man.”18 And Francis Wayland likewise did not dare “censure the natural desire in the bosom of every man to benefit his condition.” As far as he could see, “this desire is not only permitted, but encouraged in the Scriptures.”19 When properly managed, such a self-interested “desire” contributed to the well-being of both the individual and of society in general, simultaneously allowing for self-fulfillment while (p.197) shoring up the nation's stability, a conclusion that echoed the sentiments of Adam Smith.
But as Wayland was quick to point out, this desire, like everything else, was subject to certain moral boundaries. Just “because the Bible allows of accumulation,” he argued, “it by no means follows that it allows of all accumulation.” “The desire of accumulation, within these limits,” he wrote, “is lawful; beyond them, it is sinful.” And when such a desire broke its bonds, he continued, it “is not only fatal to our spiritual interests, but, in the end, it is ruinous to even our temporal prosperity.” As he saw things, it was actually “as necessary to our prosperity to limit our desire as to possess the desire itself.”20 The human impulse to pursue property, after all, was natural and God-given. Thus Wayland did not want “to denounce as unchristian the accumulation of property in general.”21 Discerning the point at which the desire for accumulation became excessive—became a “passion,” in other words—and injured one's neighbor was the more difficult and ultimately the more important task, but one that the pastoral moralists never discussed in great detail. Instead, and as always, such discernment was left up to the “enlightened conscience”22 of the individual in his or her particular circumstances.
The pastoral moralists had similar thoughts about “speculation”—just one example of what they considered to be the sinful production of wealth and a practice that they recognized was becoming all too common in their market-capitalist America. All of the pastoral moralists—as well as the clerical economists for that matter—were unequivocal and unanimous on this issue: speculation was an evil. The clerical economists, however, did not express this opinion either forcefully or frequently in their writings on political economy. Instead of harping on the subject as a pastoral moralist would, they tucked away their brief comments in footnotes or asides, almost as if they were embarrassed of the subject but could not ignore it entirely. Henry Vethake, for example, devoted only a few pages to the subject of “unrighteous speculations,” which he likened to “swindling, or robbery.” A “more active spirit of speculation” he called “an evil,” an attitude that “easily degenerates, if stimulated to excess, into mere gambling; becoming then, more or less, a source of public corruption.” John McVickar made the very same points. In a footnote he addressed the vexing moral question of whether individual gains were made at the expense of the nation. When it came to speculation, he made it clear that “the wealth of the country merely changes hands, the profits are but the criterion of a rising market.” In other words, personal profit was morally acceptable, but it had to come from a (p.198) business venture that somehow contributed to the welfare of other human beings.23
Both the pastoral moralists and the clerical economists were quick to clarify that not all commercial activity was speculative. In their own words, they wanted to make an important distinction “between the traffic of the honorable merchant and the art of the mere speculator.” As Leonard Bacon wrote, this difference between honest trade and speculation “is as wide as heaven.”
The merchant whose business is to transfer commodities from the producer to the consumer, gives an augmented value to the commodities thus transferred, and has an equitable title to the value created by his skill, his capital, and his labor. The mere speculator, on the other hand, renders no actual service to the community. His whole art is, to get possession of commodities at one price, without any corresponding augmentation of their value. The mere speculator, whose only capital is his acquaintance with the arts of panic and excitement, whose hopes of success depend on the skill with which he calculates the expansibility of a bubble and the chances of its bursting, is twin-brother to the gambler.24
While it was acceptable for a merchant to hope for a handsome return on an investment, in other words, there was nothing redeeming about a speculator who artificially and duplicitously increased a commodity's price. Such speculative transactions were wrong because they allowed individuals to profit, sometimes handsomely, while not creating any additional social or economic value. There was thus an important distinction to be made between the “legitimate departments of commerce,” as Andrew Peabody put it, and “the mass of speculators of every class and degree, who all swell the volume of credit without adding an iota to the general wealth.”25 “God intends that man should grow rich by adding something to the means of human happiness,” Francis Wayland wrote—summarizing the utilitarian purpose of commerce—and “adding something,” even “an iota,” was exactly what speculating failed to do.26
But in addition to this harsh utilitarian judgment, the pastoral moralists also wanted to draw attention to the negative effects speculation had on both the soul of the individual speculator and on the well-being of his neighbors. Regarding the first, all the pastoral moralists believed that business activity was intended to be a school for virtue. “To do business and get gain, honestly and conscientiously,” Orville Dewey wrote, “is a good thing. It is a useful discipline of the character.” Speculation, however, violated business's every (p.199) moral principle in both its means and its ends. To the speculator, wealth was the only end that mattered. People speculated in order to amass their personal fortunes and retire from work as quickly as possible. Such a goal was truly the worship of mammon and disastrous to an individual's soul and character in every way. Instead of encouraging patience, for example, speculation encouraged haste. Instead of a life of moderation, speculation encouraged excess and luxury. And instead of reminding people to rely on God for their livelihoods and lives, speculation made people look to themselves and their own wits to win their fortunes. Dewey even warned that some people were looking with hope “to speculation itself, … as if it were a god, or some wonder-working magician.” The evil of speculation, in short, was “drawing away men's minds from the healthful processes of sober industry” and destroying the very virtues that young entrepreneurs were supposed to be learning. As Boardman put it, “whenever this spirit enters the walks of trade, it must tend to degrade commerce to a system of shuffling and trickery.” Again, the mechanism of market capitalism that God had created for the happiness of the human race and the development of virtue in individual economic actors could be twisted by the spirit of speculation and turned against the very people it was meant to benefit.27
In addition to harming the virtue of individual entrepreneurs, speculation also injured other people, sometimes physically—an obvious ethical violation. In fact, according to the pastoral moralists, there was no doubt that speculation encouraged businessmen to hurt both their neighbors and their larger community as they sought their personal fortunes. “Speculation,” Henry Boardman wrote,
looks only to its own good…. In the view of a confirmed speculator, the aggregate property of a community is but the stake in a game of chance; the people at large are the players; and each man is to get what he can, without caring, or even asking, who loses. Such a man must necessarily regard every one around him with a jealous eye…. They are his opposers, almost his enemies. What they gain, he loses; and he must lay his plans so as to make them lose, that he may pocket their losses.28
This “shrewd, cold-blooded operator”29 was exactly the type of businessman that Boardman and the other pastoral moralists loathed—thoroughly selfish and unscrupulous in his commercial transactions. In such a person, self-interest had clearly degenerated from being a mere motivator to being a selfish passion.
(p.200) The pastoral moralists had deemed competition within certain moral limits permissible, but speculation encouraged attitudes and behaviors that were well outside of those boundaries. With speculation, competition ceased being an honest affair of “may the best man win,” and became instead a ruthless “survival-of-the-fittest” struggle for resources where the winner took all and the losers lost everything. “He would as soon speculate upon the property of the widow and the orphan,” Boardman added,
as upon any other. It is not a question with him in arranging his projects, “How will this affect the interest of others?” … His motto is, “Each one for himself”; and if in carrying out this very honourable and humane principle, he happens to ruin a few families of females and children, he comforts himself with the reflection, that “he was not aiming at their ruin, but only at his own advantage; and that if they have lost their property, it is an incidental evil.”30
This was the sociopathic attitude or “spirit” of speculation that polluted the individual and did harm to others. To the speculator, other people were nothing but means to the selfish end of amassing as much wealth as possible. Through speculation a person might “gain the world,” in the language of the Bible, but most definitely “lose his soul,” and injure others in the process.
To the pastoral moralists, if the business community could encourage such poisonous activity and apparently not be checked by any external restraints, they indeed had a problem. The entire commercial world, if ruled by the spirit of speculation, would be little more than a den of iniquity and thus indefensible from any kind of Christian ethical perspective. But exactly where did the spirit of speculation fit into this commercial world? Was it merely an incidental part of the structure of things, a part that could be restrained and controlled while the mechanism chugged along, harmoniously doing its mostly virtuous work? Or did the spirit of speculation actually permeate the entire structure, coexisting with it in a symbiotic relationship in which it was impossible to separate the ghost from the machine?
An even greater problem, as they perceived it, lay in the fact that this sin of speculation often went unpunished. On the contrary, in fact, the developing economic mechanism seemed to reward speculation. The unscrupulous man who cheated families out of their fortunes, for example, often lived in the biggest house in town. Henry Boardman expressed precisely this frustration: “it is a great social evil that speculators who have neither means nor moral (p.201) principle, should, by a few reckless wagers at the stock-board, roll up a princely estate, and then use it to dazzle the town with their extravagance.”31 What did the pastoral moralists have to say about such flagrant injustices and the morality of a commercial system that seemed to foster them instead of hinder them—that made speculation both possible and even desirable? (p.202)
(1.) Joseph Emerson, Christian Economy: A Sermon Delivered before the Massachusetts Missionary Society, at Their Fourteenth Annual Meeting, in Boston, May 25, 1813
(2.) Walter Blake Kirwan, “Seeking Another's Wealth,” in History and Repository of Pulpit Eloquence, ed. Henry C. Fish (New York: Dodd, 1856),
(3.) Joshua Bates, A Discourse on Honesty in Dealing: Delivered at Middlebury, on the Annual Fast: April 15, 1818 (Middlebury, VT, 1818), 3–4.
(4.) Emerson, Christian Economy, 7.
(5.) Report and Proposal to the Public on the Subject of Female Wages: By a Committee of the Female Benevolent Society (First Congregational Church) (Providence, RI, 1837), 6.
(6.) Orville Dewey, “On the Moral Law of Contract,” in The Works of Orville Dewey D.D., vol. 2, Discourses on the Nature of Religion: and on Commerce and Business; with Some Occasional Discourses (New York, 1848), 178, 162.
(8.) Bates, Discourse on Honesty in Dealing, 9,
(9.) Walter Blake Kirwan, “Seeking Another's Wealth,” in History and Repository of Pulpit Eloquence, 1:584.
(10.) FrancisWayland, The Moral Law of Accumulation, the Substance of Two Discourses Delivered in the First Baptist Meeting House, Providence, May 14, 1837, 2nd ed. (Boston: Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, 1837), 10, 13, 16, 11, 31
(12.) Kirwan, “Seeking Another's Wealth,” 584.
(13.) Dewey, “On the Moral Law of Contracts,” 160–61.
(15.) Henry A. Boardman, The Bible in the Counting House: A Course of Lectures to Merchants (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1853), 174–75.
(17.) Leonard Bacon, The Duties Connected with the Present Commercial Distress: A Sermon, Preached in the Center Church, New Haven, May 21, 1837, and Repeated May 23 (New Haven, CT, 1837), 9–10.
(18.) Dewey, “On the Moral Law of Contracts,” 161; Dewey, “On the Moral Limits of Accumulation,” 246.
(19.) Wayland, Moral Law of Accumulation, 8.
(21.) Dewey, “On the Moral Law of Contracts” 163; Wayland, Moral Law of Accumulation, 8, 9; Wayland, “The Perils of Riches,” in Sermons to the Churches (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman, 1858), 206.
(22.) Bates, Discourse on Honesty in Dealing, 6
(23.) Henry Vethake, The Principles of Political Economy (Philadelphia: Nicklin and Johnson, 1838), 178–79; John McVickar, Outlines of Political Economy (New York, 1835), 90–91.
(24.) Bacon, Duties Connected with the Present Commercial Distress, 8.
(25.) Andrew P. Peabody, Views of Duty Adapted to the Times: A Sermon Preached at Portsmouth, N.H., May 14, 1837 (Portsmouth, NH: Foster, 1837), 12.
(26.) Wayland, Moral Law of Accumulation, 9.
(27.) Orville Dewey, “On the Moral Ends of Business,” in Works of Orville Dewey, 196–97; Boardman, Bible in the Counting House, 142.
(28.) Boardman, Bible in the Counting House, 138.