Among the angels who rebelled against God and followed Lucifer in Milton's "Paradise Lost," Mammon is the most intriguing. He was the "least erect" of the angels because he was forever lowering his eyes to the golden pavements of heaven. He turned away from the creator of those riches to fall in love with the luster of gold, missing the essential value of God's work. Gold became the idol to worship.
Readers of Milton's epic invariably ask how an angel could have greedy thoughts in heaven. But the angels, like Adam and Eve (and the rest of us), were granted free will to make moral choices, thus "free to fall." Since that fall the devil is in the details, and tension persists across the polarities. At one end, there's an appeal to a moral good for the self and community, at the other end self-interest and Mammon.
Politics lacks the elegance of the poetry of Milton (although there was no poet more political than he), but political debates through history have focused on the tension between the moral good and the temptations of the glittery. We've fought fierce intellectual battles over how to balance this tension with the mechanisms of socialism vs. capitalism. Capitalism has the edge now, but a fragile one. Winston Churchill famously observed that "the inherent vice of capitalism is the uneven division of blessings, while the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal division of misery." The misery-mongers haven't given up.
But the old capitalism, as we knew it, is giving way to a new capitalism, whether we like it or not. "The day has passed when the engine of capitalism, the financial market, will be allowed to operate more or less unimpeded by government," the provocative economist Irwin Stelzer told a lecture audience the other night at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. He cautioned that his remarks were a "thought experiment," not a blueprint for analysis of the present economic predicament. He threw out several challenges of the status quo:
"If market capitalism is to survive the assaults of statists and populists, the former far more dangerous than the latter, we need what might be called a neo-orthodoxy -- the development of new adaptations of the basic truth taught by great economists from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes. From these adaptations might emerge a new capitalism, the latest form of this most resilient of economic systems."