Tolstoy And Modern Economics

I really like the town of Sisters, OR. My wife and I are camping just outside of town, and drove in today to shop and relax. We are in the town park, she is on the blanket sleeping and I am thinking about a book I purchased today in a used bookstore. I love going into stores that sell used books because you never know whether you will find a treasure. Today I did find an incredible golden nugget hidden in the philosophy section of the store.

The book’s title is “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” written by Leo Tolstoy. I think it is a treasure because of what it did to human history. A Mr. Coates, who was a Quaker, gave a copy of this book to Mohandas Gandhi, who in turn was profoundly impacted by the words. “In Gandhi the book certainly ignited an explosion; and its impact on others around him spread like the bombardment of particles in an atomic pile, so that before the chain reaction was over, the British Empire was blown open and India was a free country, under the aegis of nonviolence.” The person who wrote the forward to this edition mentioned that it is good to read the conclusion before your read the rest of the book, which is what I have done. It has definitely got me thinking.

The theme of the final chapter, at least as how I see it, involves the relationship between the haves and the have nots. Tolstoy describes an event where a privileged landowner wants to divert a stream from an area where the common folks benefit to where his land will reap a bountiful harvest. He will make more money, but the common folks will suffer and lose the water they use to irrigate their fields. The result of this travesty is the common folk protesting and the governor sending in troops to punish the protestors. Sound familiar?

Tolstoy raises a couple of questions. First, “how are men capable of doing deeds directly opposed to their principles and their conscience?” In other words, how does someone who states they believe in good, act in a way that is contrary to that good? A modern example is Kenneth Lay who taught Sunday School, but was involved in one of the largest corporate swindles in the history of business.

Second, he raises the question of the fallacy of self-importance. “Under the influence of this intoxication, men imagine themselves no longer men as they are, but some special beings – noblemen, merchants, governors, judges, officers, tzars, ministers, or soldiers – no longer bound by ordinary human duties, but by other duties far more weighty – the peculiar duties of a nobleman, merchant, governor, judge, officer, tzar, minister, or soldier.” How can they do this? I can think of many managers I have worked with that believed the fallacy of self-importance, subsequently not doing a very good job.

So far I have only told you what Tolstoy is saying, but now I’d like to tell you what I am thinking. While my wife was shopping I was laying on the blanket in the park reading this book. As I read Tolstoy’s words I thought about economic systems, inequality, poor, rich, and commerce. As I read his words I kept thinking that they probably had an impact on Paulo Freire ending up in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Eventually my thoughts went to economic systems, and I wondered if there was an economic system that would be better than what we have today? The landowner of Tolstoy’s day is the large capital investor of today. (I am thinking about buying another book while I am in Sisters. Its title “The Flash Boys.” It is about how our investment systems are designed to benefit the insiders not the average investor.) Nothing has changed, so the question is how do we do this differently?

I don’t have the connections, or the energy, to create a new economic philosophy, but I can give an opinion on what must be done differently. I can say I worked hard, and I can say I have done ok, but I am not having lunch with President Obama or Mitt Romney, not that I would want to have lunch with either of those gentlemen. I did have some wonderful opportunities that others did not have, like working for a large corporation that paid for all of my education. I do believe in the Horatio Alger philosophy of being able to start poor and yet make it, And I do believe in hard work. I also do not believe all of the rich meet at a yearly convention where plans are made to make sure they get most of the resources and the poor get just enough to keep the revolution at bay.

However, I do believe that though a series of powerful relationships laws are constructed in a manner that allows certain people in our society to gain more than others. I am not too sure that can be changed, but I do know that those who are recipients of those benefits have a responsibility to do good.

I don’t think we need to throw away our current economic system and replace it with even bigger government, but I do think we need to recognize how destructive self-importance is. As scripture says pride cometh before a fall, and if we start believing our own importance we are heading for trouble. What I do think we need to do is take care of our brothers and sisters. Those people we try and isolate on the other side of the tracks want to make a living, they want to have food on their table. The also want to have a TV in every room, but they may not have the job skills needed to be able to make that kind of money. They may not have the personality required to be hired for the job, because they grew up in an area that rewarded being street smart with a certain street language. Or maybe they were a crack head and broke the habit but lost their teeth in the process, and cannot be hired for a job.

I still think capitalism is a better economic system than socialism, but I also think that those who are followers of Jesus Christ, and our wealthy, have a responsibility to help those with less. This may not mean giving them money, but giving the poor the skills they need to be employable and enjoy a livable wage. I think caring for one another is still the best economic system out there.

And that is my thought for the day!




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