I recently discussed our pesky human tendency to limit and debase our thinking about economics to the temporary and material. Much like Judas, who reacted bitterly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment, we neglect to contemplate what eternal purposes God might have for this or that material good and the ways through which it might be used or distributed.
C.S. Lewis captures the tendency powerfully in his book, The Great Divorce, providing a clear contrast of heaven and hell through a series of conversations and spiritual choices.
Beginning the story in a dreary town described as being “always in the rain and always in evening twilight,” Lewis provides us with a setting very much like earth but with a bit more darkness and—take note—a bit more surface-level comfort and security (“they have no Needs,” as one character describes it).
Lewis follows one man’s journey beyond the town (which we quickly discover to be hell or some type of purgatory), toward an ever-increasing light (which we quickly discover to be heaven). Along the way, he encounters a series of fellow travelers, each struggling with his or her own obstacle to the divine—an earthbound idol that must be pried from their paws.
In one particular conversation, Lewis points specifically to the economic sphere, using a character he calls “the Intelligent Man” to propose an economic solution that, according to his limited, earthbound assumptions, will certainly relieve what he believes to be an inevitable, ever-increasing darkness:
What’s the trouble about this place? Not that people are quarrelsome—that’s only human nature and was always the same even on earth. The trouble is they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it. That’s why it never costs any trouble to move to another street or build another house. In other words, there’s no proper economic basis for any community life. If they needed real shops, chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist. Well, that’s where I come in…I’d start a little business. I’d have something to sell. You’d soon get people coming to live near-centralisation. Two fully-inhabited streets would accommodate the people that are now spread over a million square miles of empty streets. I’d make a nice little profit and be a public benefactor as well.
His approach has some charming elements, to be sure. Indeed, if I myself were to encounter a dreary town such as this, I, too, would be quick to emphasize the positive socializing effects of market collaboration and cooperation. “The townspeople boast an unhealthy and isolating sense of entitlement,” I might be tempted to say. “Thus, we should proceed to foster a healthy web of bottom-up independence, interconnectedness, collaboration, and specialization.” (more…)