A review in City Journal of a new book, Thrift: Rebirth of a Forgotten Virtue, suggests that the notion of living within our means is gaining currency even with the articulate elites. The book’s title is suggestive. Thriftiness is, above all, a moral condition: a virtue. Also, it’s a virtue we seem to have misplaced over the last decade or so.
Here’s the take of the reviewer, Gerald Russello:
In his new book, Thrift, the impressively named Theodore Roosevelt Malloch seeks to return thrift to its place among commercial society’s respectable virtues. After all, the word “thrift” is cognate to the verb “thrive,” and it is Malloch’s view that thrift, properly understood, should be joined with a constellation of other characteristics that make society more just and ultimately more prosperous. Thrift does not mean poor, and its opposite is not wealth but waste. Tracing its roots to the Scottish Enlightenment, Malloch describes thrift as “a matter of the wise use of assets—accumulating where this was possible, investing where this promised a return, and avoiding waste.”
From the review, it becomes clear that the author, Malloch, in part blames the loss of American thrif on the rise of consumerism, “the insatiable urge to acquire things.” That certainly has become a ritual explanation of our financial problems. Usually – though not here – it’s joined to more general accusations against the American character: we are crass materialists, exploiters and destroyers, and last but not least obese.
It may be that the American people have developed an insatiable urge for things. It may be, too, that this pathological condition led to our financial crisis. But both propositions must be proven: until then, I’ll remain a skeptic. The Americans I encounter seem mighty satiable in their urges.
Malloch’s recipe for escaping consumerism appears to be religion: in his words, “spiritual capital.” Russello again:
Michael Novak and others have long argued that a disciplined capitalism requires a complex structure of social sanction, education, and often, if not always, religious belief. While Malloch concedes that calculating spiritual capital is difficult, he brings to bear an impressive array of data that shows a correlation between prosperity and traditional religion.
Not having read the book or seen the data, I can’t vouch for the correlation between thrift and religion. The connection with morality, however, is causal if not tautological. Living within our means entails mastering our appetites and controling our impulses. A person doesn’t become thrifty by means of tricks or formulas: self-rule and self-reliance, the basis of all moral order, are the only path.