by Hannah Wardell ‘17
Today is my first day at the American Enterprise Institute as the Values and Capitalism Intern, and I’m on my second bottle of Perrier sparkling water. On my way to get it from the beautifully designed, brand new, fully-stocked kitchenette (there’s one on each of the five floors), past the daily catered lunch (today it’s sushi), in my new shoes I bought especially for this occasion (Cole Hahn loafers), I passed an older man kneeling on the floor of the hallway, painting.
The non-partisan think tank dedicated to making the case for free enterprise just moved to its new headquarters in Dupont Circle, on think tank row, in a building that former Secretary of the Treasury and captain of industry Andrew Mellon built as his home in the 1920s. The aging building has required some serious renovations to get it up to snuff, so there are all kinds of construction people scurrying around the building intermingling with the economic policy and education scholars.
On the bus ride home I read the chapter on Equality in my Public Policy textbook.
Theorizing about political equality takes a serious turn when you’re working at the premiere mammoth think tank for free enterprise for a program called “Values and Capitalism” in the former home of a potential robber barron. What do you do about the quite literal place of privilege you’re sitting in? The disparity makes me uncomfortable—I haven’t really earned this brand new, ergonomic and electronically adjustable desk I’m sitting at. If I hadn’t of gone to an impressive high school or had two parents who were well connected and highly encouraged my pursuit of higher education, then I could’ve very well been the person who put this desk together for me. These are the things I largely credit for putting me in business professional instead of painters clothes this morning.
I also believe in free enterprise or I wouldn’t be sitting at this fancy desk; that capitalism is the best way to do the most good for the most people—so how do I reconcile the two, especially in the face of an ever-equalizing Kingdom of God that spurs me to prioritize people over profit?
Arthur Brooks, the president of AEI, spoke to a group of young Christian professionals this weekend. He talked about how we’ve stopped needing certain people to be a part of society. Dignity, he said, is one of the most important parts of human flourishing. We need to be needed by those around us–to do a job that is necessary and beneficial to the community–and we need to start valuing all necessary jobs as dignified.
I’ve misconceived value as a zero-sum hierarchy, but value flows from the ability to contribute well, whatever that level of contribution might be for each individual. It is something to be multiplied, not divided up among the blue and white collar. The more we understand people as necessary, the more value we give them, and the more society flourishes. A job well done is a job well done, from the president of AEI to the man who came by my desk to color in the scratches on the floor with a paint marker.
This idea isn’t original to Brooks–it’s a distinctly Christian concept. Being made in the image of God gives every human being distinct worth and capability. To squander it, ignore it, or dismiss it would be to squander, ignore, and dismiss the image of God. The Imago Dei also revolutionizes how we understand work–it validates even the most mundane tasks as caught up in the redemptive nature of Christ’s work on Earth. God works and so do we.
Maybe a more proper reaction to feelings of privilege is a reframing. Instead of creating hierarchies in my head–me at my fancy desk privileged above the man painting in the hallway, I’m working to start choosing to see our contributions as equally holy (If anything, an intern is much less useful than a painter!). This is why free market concepts need a moral influence, without it they can easily become heavily based on performance, value judgements, and hierarchy. But when we start rightly– with the realization that all jobs are holy and everyone deserves to be wanted and useful–then we can come to a place of flourishing for everyone.
Thoughts? Questions? Writhing Criticisms? I’d love to hear from you at [email protected]
Note: Values and Capitalism is a really cool program connecting Christian college students with the people doing the thought work about ethics, opportunity, and enterprise in the public sphere. You should check them out at ValuesandCapitalism.com