The unexpected return

My French mother-in-law, whom I remember with much affection, lived in the midst of an extraordinary web of her own weaving -- a web of gifts offered and received, of favors rendered and returned, of obligations freely undertaken and somehow as freely compensated. She was always doing some small thing that seemed incomprehensible to me. Yet I had the distinct feeling that underneath her small meneuvers was a robust sanity and an intensely practical morality.

In North Africa during the war, where by a strange fate our lots were thrown together, I had a special opportunity to observe her way of doing things. It happened that amid the wartime shortages of almost all foodstuffs I was able to bring to her regularly a portion of my rations from the army mess where I was quartered. A pound of sugar, a tin of coffee or of spam, would be allotted me by the mess sergeant in view of the fact that i was taking most of my meals outside. These I would contribute to the family stores.

My mother-in-law was soon making gifts of such provisions here and there among friends and acquaintances; and by some mysterious process the table was soon being laden with delicacies almost unheard-of in those difficult times. Fresh lobsters, I recall in particular, or the incredible treat of chocolate ice cream! I came to see that my mother-in- law was achieving minor miracles, not by barter in any strict sense, but by an astute generosity. What was sent forth was returned in unexpected forms, multiplied and indeed blessed by the surprised gratitude of the recipient.

I have been put in mind of these old things by reading the book Wealth and Poverty,m by George Gilder, the just published best seller that has become the bible of the new administration in Washington. Gilder makes an eloquent and witty defense of old-fashioned capitalism as opposed to such modern nostrums as planning, socialism or the welfare state. Virtually alone among the practitioners of his dismal science, he makes economics seem humane and capitalism profoundly moral. This he does by insisting at the beginning of the book that capitalism has its roots not in greed, but in generosity, not in the strictly rational but in the practice of hopefulness and faith.

The origins of capitalism Gilder discerns in the old tribal custom of giving feasts. The up-and-coming young man, ambitious for increased power and wealth, would set a richly furnished table and call in all his friends. Many among these would be impressed by the lavishness of his hospitality. Others would be grateful for the entertainment. Presently the young man would find his standing in the community enhanced and his coffers fortified by reciprocal favors. Others would vie with him in feast-giving and a good time was had by all.

What has all this to do with capitalism? Gilder argues that investmentsm under the capitalist system are essentially like the expenses incurred by the giver of feasts. A man sends out a portion of his wealth to participate in some enterprise, not knowing for certain whether it will be repaid and not under guarantee that it will bring him a profit. Often it does; and sometimes, like the blessing with which a gift is returned, it brings him an unimagined increase.

"The essence of giving," says our economist, "is not the absence of all expectation of return." Rather it is the indeterminateness of the return. In the moral life the kindnesses we perform are not (if they are true kindnesses) repaid in precise equivalences. It is revenge, not charity, that seeks an eye for an eye. It is socialism, not capitalism, that wants everything to be regulated, guaranteed and exact. And so the best of us, in our best moments, go about with an underlying sense of trust and a belief in the compensatory nature of the universe.

I has never thought of my mother-in-law as a capitalist; nor do I, I must aver, follow Mr. Gilder in all the reaches of his argument. But I must say that my mother-in-law often seemedm rich -- if not in visible coin at least in a smiling and secretly held satisfaction with life.

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