New Book on Thrift and Thriving Promises to Illuminate Ethics of Economic Life

November 10, 2011

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:

November 10, 2011 — Until recently, the word "thrift" had largely disappeared from the vocabulary of most Americans, aside from describing second-hand clothing shops.

But throughout American history, notions of thrift have played key roles in articulating what Americans believe not only about material wellbeing, but also about what defines a good life and a good society. In short, thrift has a long history of helping Americans define what it means to thrive.

And thrift has the potential to serve that purpose once again in the near future, according to a new book, "Thrift and Thriving in America: Capitalism and Moral Order from the Puritans to the Present," edited by University of Virginia professors Joshua Yates and James Davison Hunter and published by Oxford University Press.

Hunter, executive director of U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Yates, a research assistant professor of sociology and director of the IASC's Program on Culture, Capitalism and Global Change, co-authored the book's introduction and conclusion, and each contributed an individual chapter.

Of the volume's 23 chapters, seven were authored or co-authored by U.Va. faculty, including Charles Mathewes, professor of religious studies; Olivier Zunz, Commonwealth Professor of History; and the late Stephen Innes, who was James Madison Professor of History.

Given the relevance of the research to current economic circumstances, Yates said he is considering writing a follow-up book that would distill the most salient points for a broader audience.

Yates sat down with UVA Today to discuss thrift and thriving.

Q. How did you come to write this book?

A. Thrift is a much more interesting, rich and dynamic subject than it seems at first blush when you think of it in conventional terms as financial frugality. The key to thrift's dynamism was found in its root meaning: thrift originally meant "to thrive." When we looked at thrift in light of this original meaning, lots of interesting connections suddenly popped up. The more we delved into it and started connecting the dots, the more interesting it became.

Then we brought together 24 scholars from a range of disciplines – from historians to sociologists to economists to theologians – and the project took on a life of its own.

Q. How can the idea of thrift help us today?

A. A major problem today, plainly put, is that we have no public consensus on the relationship between moral and material progress. For economic growth to lead to sustained human thriving, it must be informed by some basic and commonly held ethical framework.

Throughout our nation's history, from the Puritans forward, Americans have had to periodically reassess and re-envision what the connection between material and moral progress should be under new social conditions. Thrift has always been at the heart of the answer. In each period, certain notions of thrift were understood as the keys to thriving.

Unfortunately our current ethical framework is impoverished due to the recently ascendant – but naive and mistaken – paradigm that economic growth and free markets are amoral. An economic system is always shot through with moral assumptions, but the failure to acknowledge that in recent decades has left Americans confused and inarticulate about the ethical dimensions of economic life, and has contributed to our political culture becoming ever more fragmented and polarized.

In such a moment, the promise of thrift – or what the book refers to as "thrift well understood" – is that it offers a native language, a common ground, that can help us renew our understanding of the moral dimensions of economic life.

Q. What are some examples of how the meanings of thrift and thriving have evolved over time?

A. For example, the Puritan combination of thrift and thriving inspired individuals to pursue the management of time and talents and to accumulate wealth as a spiritual calling for whole communities, not reducible to private, individual interest. Puritan thrift engendered a powerful combination of individual moral striving with mutual aid and social reform as a response to divine grace.

The Puritan moral order, in time, gave way to the Victorian moral order, in response to the emerging demands of commercial capitalism. In turn, the definition of thrift shifted from the all-encompassing but thoroughly spiritualized condition of thriving, to one focused on material well-being and individual frugality.

This was the birth of the classic sense of thrift epitomized by Ben Franklin's famous maxims, "time is money" and "a penny saved is a penny earned." In the Victorian era, thrift and thriving meant individual responsibility, delayed gratification and benevolently coaxing material wealth from scarcity.

In time, this vision of thrift and thriving was supplemented by yet newer visions – by the rise of consumer and collective thrift in the early to mid-20th century, and most recently, by what we might call free-agent thrift and green thrift.

We are not promoting any one historical type of thrift over others. We think there are things to learn from the highest aspirations of all forms of thrift, as detailed in the book.

For instance, in addition to Puritan thrift and Victorian (classic) thrift, we can learn from consumer thrift's concern with self-refinement; collective thrift's championing of mutual obligation, social justice and civic virtue; green thrift's stewardship of the environment; and free agent thrift's celebration of self-expression, autonomy and mobility.

The "grammar," if you will, common to all the historical idioms of thrift is essentially about the basic conditions of thriving, and as such offers us a starting point to renew our currently impoverished understanding of the relationship between moral and material progress.

Q. Is there one dominant force pushing the evolution of our understanding of thrift and thriving?

A. The evolving meanings of thrift and thriving have been driven at the most fundamental level by our society's shift from subsistence and material scarcity in the pre-industrial era to steadily increasing material abundance in the industrial era. In our present era, our concern seems to be shifting again to an overriding concern with the sustainability of our material abundance.

The advent of material abundance has brought with it three overlapping dilemmas. First is indebtedness and the rise of a debt culture, with all the attendant anxieties of being the world's largest debtor nation, now trying to dig out from under all the bad debt created by the subprime housing loan crisis and the resulting Great Recession. Second are the negative byproducts of economic growth, especially economic and social inequality, and environmental degradation. Third are the psychological anxieties of abundance, including difficulty balancing the demands of work and family life, the meaninglessness and psychic burden of endless consumer choices, the insatiability of ever-rising expectations and the restiveness the comes with a constant expectation to "keep up with the Joneses."

With the post-WWII era's unprecedented growth in prosperity and material well-being, the word "thrift" fell out of common usage. But we believe thrift deserves a comeback, because it can help us overcome the inarticulacy of the average American in the face of our age's abiding dilemmas, all of which are rooted in our impoverished understanding of how material progress translates into moral meaning.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications