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Transatlantic Blog

Gratitude: The heart of capitalism

As we gather around our Thanksgiving tables with our loved ones, we’re reminded of the imperative of gratitude. Counting our blessings is an integral part of the Christian life and increasingly recognized by science as having physical and psychological benefits. But does our economic system of free enterprise undermine our ability to give thanks?

Prevailing wisdom has long held that capitalism feeds discontent. New products continually debut, provoking new desires and making consumers dissatisfied with their passé – but perfectly functioning – goods. “Since it was decreed a few decades ago that capitalism would have to expand by selling people things they didn't need, rather than have them replace things when they wore out,” wrote Nina Power in the Guardian, “we have been coerced into thinking about quality of life in terms of owning and accumulating more things.” In this view, capitalism guts gratitude.

Collectivism administered by the welfare state, the argument goes, teaches contentment. Each person gets what he needs, and no one is permitted to have “too much.” A command economy orients production toward satisfying human rights, not catering to fleeting fashions. Once we embrace full economic collectivism, the Democratic Socialists of America explains, “our material needs are securely met by a fair distribution and sharing of resources, and our psychological needs are met through an ethos fostering cooperation rather than acquisition and competition.” A new consciousness will emerge, and each person will live simply that others may simply live.

This theory has convinced generations of impressionable people to pay heed to the siren song of collectivism, to their regret. But this analysis has it precisely backwards.

Socialism is built by nurturing envy and grievance. Its supporters’ laser-like focus on “inequality” blames the system while ignoring such factors as differing gifts, circumstances, ages, and a myriad of personal choices varying from educational attainment to substance abuse.

“Envy is the mother of murder,” said St. John Chrysostom, and Marxism’s past (and present) continually verifies his wisdom.

After stoking dissatisfaction, politicians vie to outdo one another by promising more lavish benefits – and assuring they are human rights. “Single payer health insurance is what our family, friends, neighbors and communities deserve,” wrote a supporter of Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill. “We deserve continuous, affordable health insurance regardless of income, marital status, age or employment.” Similarly supporters of “free” college tuition encouraged their fellow members of the National Education Association, “as educators and union members of the largest teachers' union in the nation,” to “fight” for the “[f]ree higher education, and the public colleges and universities our nation deserves.”

By operation, socialism or the welfare state seizes what belongs to others and redistributes it to those who have not earned it. In the end, it claims ever more public treasure, and freedom. “Envy is the mother of murder,” said St. John Chrysostom, and Marxism’s past (and present) continually verifies his wisdom.

Profits are a tangible form of thanksgiving to hundreds or thousands of people – from factory workers, to shareholders, to CEOs – whom we will never meet and whose names we will never know. 

Capitalism is infused with gratitude. Goods or services only change hands through a well-developed process of mutual agreement. Each party must willingly offer something that the other values. So long as the price is right, the consumer willingly pays the seller more than cost – and that is precisely where gratitude hides in plain sight. The retailer thanks the customer for his patronage, and the consumer rewards the seller with a profit for meeting his needs.

Free exchange teaches that the inventor deserves to make money for his innovation, the entrepreneur for his initiative, and the investor for his willingness to take a chance.

Profit is another name for gratitude. Profits are a tangible form of thanksgiving to hundreds or thousands of people – from factory workers, to shareholders, to CEOs – whom we will never meet and whose names we will never know. 

When this system is coupled with a proper conception of limited government, it teaches that I have no claim on the labor or income of others. All market exchanges must be freely given in an act of mutual benefit.

If someone is unhappy with life’s current circumstances, that person has to change them by becoming more productive at work, inventing a new or improved product, or offering a beneficial service – touching off a new gratitude cycle.

This ingenious system has unleashed the greatest growth of wealth and well-being in human history by rewarding service, diligence, prudence, thrift, and hard work. The freedom to choose (properly understood) assures that all free transactions contain a measure of gratitude on behalf of both parties.

That system, the plenty it provides, and the cornucopia of blessings that Providence has placed on each of our tables is well worth celebrating, at Thanksgiving and all year long.


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.