We see hints of this type of reaction to our current recession, which has such clearly moral causes -- the burst of a bubble inflated by irresponsible debt, consumerism and unaccountable risk-taking. During an economic crisis, Americans return to a language of morality. Perhaps excess and recklessness are vices that deserve social stigma. Perhaps frugality and prudence are personal virtues as well as practices that prevent economic collapse. Perhaps there is a distinction between securing our needs and being dominated by our wants.
It would be difficult for me to recommend asceticism, writing on my miraculous MacBook while snacking on some delightful artisanal cheeses (I am kidding about the cheese part). But many Americans in this downturn seem to be finding that less costly entertainments such as family time are the most rewarding, that meals at gourmet restaurants are not always the most satisfying, and that previously outsourced chores -- from landscaping to parenting to hair dyeing -- might be better performed themselves. (In commenting on this trend to The New York Times, however, one hairstylist cautions, "They do come in sometimes with some pretty orange hair.")
Suspicions about consumerism are being powerfully reinforced by economic realities along with environmental concerns. But the rejection of materialism is finally rooted in a spiritual view of human nature. Pope John Paul II warned of making "people slaves of 'possession' and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better." A less material orientation in life (assuming basic material needs are met) actually expands our horizons -- like an escape from the dungeon of our own desires.
It has always been a quiet fear of capitalists that the success of free markets would eventually undermine the moral basis for free markets -- that decadent prosperity would dissolve values such as prudence and delayed gratification. "Capitalism," argued economist Joseph Schumpeter, "creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own."
But capitalism may be self-correcting in this area, as it is in many others. A recession causes suffering that can overwhelm hope. It can also lead to the rediscovery of virtues that make sustained prosperity possible -- and that add nonmaterial richness to our lives. Sometimes grace can arrive through an unexpected door.