Editor's Note

Naomi Schaefer Riley | Posted on 09/01/04

If you ask someone about thrift, chances are their response will begin with the words, "My grandfather" or "My grandmother." Sometimes it's a crack about how his wallet was so stuffed with coupons he couldn't sit up straight, or how she would unwrap gifts with a view to reusing the paper. Then there are the holes he wore in his jackets after putting them on for thirty years, or the mismatched patches she would use to sew them up. But usually underlying the humor in these anecdotes is an admiration for the way previous generations learned to make do, and indeed, conserved their resources so well that they made possible the comfortable life of their grandchildren.

Thrift is part of the American dream, allowing each generation to do better than the one before, but it is also an area where Americans today see room for improvement. In a survey that In Character commissioned in June, 79 percent of respondents say that Americans are less thrifty than they were fifty years ago, 77 percent believe that Americans today spend too much, and 80 percent think "there is a real problem with our 'throw-away' society." And they weren't just blaming this deficiency on others. Looking at their own behavior, 48 percent of those surveyed consider it important that they become more thrifty.

But why? Now that we're living comfortably in twenty-first century America, do we really need to use our tin foil more than once or shop at yard sales? There are obvious reasons why a return to thrifty behavior - spending less, and less impulsively - would benefit a lot of people. Credit-card debt is at an all-time high. We produce hundreds of millions of tons of garbage every year. And our rates of childhood obesity have skyrocketed.

But thrift, when it was practiced by the generation who made it through the Great Depression, was not to keep us thin or improve the environment. Thrift was a virtue of necessity, like a soldier's courage in battle. But just like bravery in war doesn't just manifest itself without the proper training, both of body and mind, so the behaviors that our ancestors demonstrated were not born only out of circumstance, but out of a cultural and often religious environment that considered thrift, as Jean Bethke El-shtain notes in her essay, "a constituent and necessary feature of both worldly success and moral achievement."

This idea of moral achievement, generally, not just thrift in particular, has been lost in recent years. It is not to say that our society is culturally bankrupt or that we are all, to borrow a phrase, "slouching toward Gomorrah." Rather, it is to suggest that we do not think about building character and moral development in the systematic way that our ancestors did. Benjamin Franklin's "Thirteen Virtues" would seem a quaint, earnest, and probably silly volume if published today.

Samuel Smiles, the nineteenth-century best-selling Scottish author, would not have sold many copies of his work Self-Help today, not because we don't read self-help books - we do, and in greater numbers than ever - but because Smiles was less concerned with making you a richer person, a happier person, or a more sexually satisfied person, than with making you a better person. Parents today still want their children to grow up to be good people, but those kids don't keep diaries documenting their success in fulfilling the goals of a virtuous life, as our Founding Fathers did. And to be honest, it is hard to imagine that compiling lists of good and bad qualities and making a daily measurement of ourselves - a sort of moral dieting - is likely to gain popularity anytime soon.

A better, and we hope, more interesting, way to access these virtues is to think about them in concrete terms - from the perspectives of science, religion, education, public policy, and business. And so we have sent reporter Damien Cave to examine the history and changing role of thrift shops across the country. We have asked political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain to reflect on the thrift of her Great Depression childhood, and childhood expert Kay Hymowitz to see if any remnants of that Protestant work ethic can be found in the affluent children of today. And we invited historian Arthur Herman to reflect on the stereotype that Scots are a thrifty people, looking at the industrious culture that led to the popularity of this idea.

These kinds of articles allow us to put thrift - or any other virtue - in a context. What situations produce this virtue? What situations are conducive to its practice? Can we recreate those conditions? Do we want to?

Of course, even to consider a particular trait a virtue, we must imagine that there is something timeless about it, something that goes beyond a particular circumstance and has the potential to reveal itself anywhere at any time. And so science writer John Horgan provides us with an overview of thrift in nature - examining how thrift manifests itself in the animal kingdom, in prehistoric man, and across human cultures today. And economist Deirdre McCloskey examines some of Adam Smith's theories about human nature to determine whether there is indeed a "paradox of thrift," that is, whether an economy can really operate effectively if everyone spends less and saves more.

Whether they are discussing thrift in a particular circumstance or making more general observations about thrift throughout the ages, almost all of our authors offer anecdotes from their own families. In this way, they reflected the results of our survey, which showed that family appeared to have the greatest influence (by a wide margin) on teaching about the value of money - it was considered very important or extremely important by 55 percent of American adults.

This finding is hardly surprising. Families have to share money and make decisions about how to spend it together. But there is another reason that families influence our understanding of all virtues, not just thrift, so greatly. We see the people in our family up close, demonstrating these virtues in a way that we don't see in other people. As children, and sometimes as adults, we go through stages where we mimic their behavior.

Indeed, the title In Character is meant to reflect this idea of imitation. The theatrical pun represents an Aristotelian understanding of virtue - that we become morally good by habituation. The virtues that we will be covering, like thrift, purpose, creativity, and loyalty, are ideas we have to try on, like parts in a play. The longer you stay "in character" the closer you come to being that virtuous person.

But isn't this all rather outdated? Why attempt this project at all? It is true that some of the virtues, like thrift, are rarely spoken of anymore and many would question their importance today. The first goal of In Character, then, is to examine these assumptions, to unearth these forgotten virtues.

While some of the virtues have not been lost entirely, their relevance to everyday life has. The connection between virtue and happiness made by ancient philosophers - Aristotle noted that "Happiness requires completeness in virtue" - and reiterated during the Enlightenment - Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard's Almanac that "Virtue and Happiness are Mother and Daughter" - is rarely mentioned anymore. And so the second goal of this journal will be to explore the link between virtue and personal fulfillment.

Finally, there is another connection that has been lost - the one between personal virtue and public good. After examining all of the possible factors that could make America successful - its laws, its geography, its origins, etc. - Tocqueville concluded that "It is therefore particularly mores that render the Americans of the United States ... capable of supporting the empire of democracy." There is no reason to assume today, one hundred seventy years later, that this nation is any more capable of surviving without the virtue of its citizens. And so we at In Character hope that the articles, interviews, and surveys presented in our pages can help to articulate and perpetuate those virtues in the years and generations to come.
NSR