When we pause each autumn to give thanks, we celebrate more than the land's bounty. It's a dual celebration of wealth: Of rich resources and the work required to develop them.
But the revelry of our Thanksgiving holiday is uncommon in the course of history. Yes, harvest feasts are as old as civilization, but today's ritual is no offering of thanks to the gods of rain and hearth for delivering the season's crops. Today, it's as much a celebration of those at the table as of what is on it.
The community versus the individual, liberty versus society, the problems of allocating resources—these seem inexorable paradoxes, and through much of civilization they were. Monarchies, economies of central command, authoritarians, military rule, mercantilists, socialists, and communists... all had their turn on stage and persist in largely diminished or hybrid forms. China, for instance, is a land of increasingly free economy but meager personal liberty. Such a condition is volatile, unstable, and ultimately futile.
It's no accident the rise of capitalism and democracy coincided with the explosion in standards of living and accelerating, sustained wealth creation. Free market economies are the alchemical conduits of human prosperity—the greatest solution to the paradoxes arising between individuals and societies. Adam Smith, regarded as the father of capitalism, understood this implicitly and was revered by his contemporaries, who happened to also be America's founders.
From Thomas Jefferson…
A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.
I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple. Were we directed from Washington when to sow, when to reap, we should soon want bread.
But the idea of championing "rugged individualism," complete with unabashed celebration of the fruits of man's labors, wasn't vogue until later. This attitude emerged in the writings of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson—both considered pillars of the American ethos. The work of each demonstrated sincerity about their love of nature and its plentiful resources in communion with, not opposition to, the legitimacy of the individual.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most requests is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.
I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions… I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men's, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh today? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.
And from Whitman…
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self...
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
In the twentieth century on into the current era, many continue to champion the powerful synthesis of individualism and greater societal good through free market capitalism. Ayn Rand* and Milton Friedman, for instance, are only prominent voices in a larger chorus.
The greatest prosperity comes not only from the earth, but from each other. In that pursuit, the sum of our self-interested achievements is far greater than the parts, a fine reason to give thanks.
*Editor's note: For more on Ayn Rand, please see MarketMinder opinion column, "Thanks, Ayn" (11/22/07).
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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.