The Magazine

When the Giving Is Good

Saving Christmas from the economists.

Jan 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 17 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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To justify Christmas giving we need to look past the hasty confusion of the "consumer," so described by economics, to the soul of the giver and see how it is improved by the virtue of generosity. The benefit of giving is more to the giver than to the receiver--a paradox better known to common sense and the Bible than to economics. For having a generous soul saves one from living in the relentless anxiety of never knowing whether one has enough for oneself. Of course, to be generous one must calculate what one can afford, and one must observe the chosen recipient carefully to see, not merely what he wants, but what good thing he can be induced to enjoy. Thus economics has an honorable role in the service of generosity, a role more useful, hence more economical, than attacking generosity.

And let us not forget the advantage of generosity to liberty. The commonest form of slavery is slavery to money, and generosity is a kind of liberation as well as utility for yourself. A country gentleman generous with his rustic hospitality had a better inkling of that liberation than Adam Smith with all his studied devotion to natural liberty. With the aid of a little feudalism lingering in our democratic, materialist age you can have the two great goods economics wants you to have but does not know how to achieve on its own. You can then crown these goods by taking a reasonable measure of pride for having spent your money well. Instead of damning a commercial society for being materialistic, instead of despising Christmas giving for not being properly materialistic, you can do your part to soften our materialism and make it more intelligent.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and research fellow in liberty and virtue at the Hoover Institution.