- Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present Edited by Joshua J. Yates and James Davison Hunter
Americans may recall that it is a virtue to practice self-denial and prepare for the proverbial rainy day, but evidence suggests that they no longer heed the religious counsel of John Calvin or the secular homilies of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard. Even the economic catastrophe of recent years—propelled by reckless speculation and cupidity—has done little to raise thrift in people’s estimation. As access to credit has tightened and as paths to the good life have narrowed, Americans continue to admire thrift in the breach. Consumers max out their credit cards, politicians bid up the national debt, and citizens call into question the forms of collective thrift that have provided a social safety net since the 1930s. [End Page 1115]
With thrift at low ebb, this text is timely. The twenty-four contributors to this volume—noted scholars who hail from a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences—refrain from issuing a rousing jeremiad that calls Americans back to the homely virtue of scrimping. Instead, they offer cultural histories of capitalism that revolve around debates concerning the value and meaning of thrift. For these scholars, thrift is not a timeless principle that demands the frugal husbanding of scarce resources. Rather, it is a contested concept whose meaning has changed over time, “nested within an evolving set of values central to the changing culture of capitalism in the West and … the changing moral economy of the self” (5). Thrift’s history is one of debates, not declension. These debates have always been, the authors contend, about creating the conditions and honoring the habits and practices that contribute to personal and collective thriving.
Americans have long appreciated the relationship between the private and public components of thrift. Personal decisions about saving and spending are not made merely in the household but in the market and public square as well. Even the Puritans, who claimed scrimping to be a godly virtue, believed that greedy misers who “[s]av[ed] just to save” ignored expectations that congregants and neighbors determine how individuals and communities could prosper together (104). Thrift was important to the Puritans because “moderation in the use of material possessions” forced them to mind both “God’s intentions” and “the good of the commonwealth” (103).
But personal and shared prosperity could undermine the ethic of self-discipline as well as people’s patience with slow-and-steady gains, opening social rifts along class, gender, and racial lines. New opportunities for consumers to purchase commodities unsettled the debate about thrift at several key moments in the American past. These periods of transition saw Americans debate the moral value of spending. In the eighteenth century, critics argued that buying too many of the “baubles of Britain” threatened the virtue of republican citizens, but consumption’s advocates countered that “comfort” was the legitimate result of “well-earned spending” (150). This was thrift “well understood,” since it helped attain both personal and collective prosperity (572). Several of the essayists agree that “the notion of moral consumption resonated throughout the country’s history” (178). And in fact, defining certain brands of accumulating and spending as virtuous could make people—and especially elite whites—wealthier in surprising ways. Early-nineteenth-century charitable associations, for instance, condemned the supposed licentiousness, intemperance, and ill-discipline of the urban poor, only to create a market in thrift that “delineat[ed] parallel economies of vice and virtue under the rubric of reform” (179). Some purveyors of benevolence, hoping to recast the impoverished in their own image, amassed vast sums while obscuring the truly impressive thrift of the lower sorts. For many bourgeois observers throughout American history, thrift was a badge of virtue borne of liberal choice rather than harsh necessity.
The delicate balancing act between personal and collective thrift, played out...