I never thought of C.S. Lewis as a free-market advocate–or as an economic thinker of any kind, really. But given his affinity for clear-headed rationality and disdain for pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook, he could never have supported any other kind of economic system.
Lewis was in complete sympathy with their desire to alleviate human misery, but he understood that the execution of benevolent intentions requires the expenditure of resources. Since these are in any given moment severely limited, choices must be made. In the most famous of his wartime lectures, he said, “You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this or that good to this or that man. And if you do this good, you can’t at the same time do that.”
Limited intellectual and limited material resources: These are the facts of our lives, and the results they produce are seldom perfect from every imaginable point of view. Archbishop Temple saw these imperfections as the result not of the constraints imposed by reality but of a fundamental flaw in human nature. “The centre of trouble,” he said, “is in the personality of man as a whole, which is self-centered.”
There were many churchmen who agreed, and the pulpits of the time rang with cries to turn away from the sin of self-interest. Lewis admitted to being baffled with this point of emphasis. Why was it, he asked, that the church leaders of his time had come to insist on “Unselfishness” as the most important of the virtues? The great saints of earlier centuries all agreed that it was Love. A positive term had been replaced with a negative, putting the emphasis not on “securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves.”
Lewis regarded this as a distortion. “The notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing,” he said, “. . . is no part of the Christian faith.” Nor is there anything sinful about personal preferences. These are simply a fact—probably the most important fact—of human life. They make us what we are. Ants and bees, he observed, “have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive,” but human thoughts turn to private concerns and vanities even in the midst of undertakings that involve hundreds or thousands. The Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae stopped to comb their hair, Archimedes propounded mathematical theorems during the siege of Syracuse, and General Wolfe was found reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” during the attack on Quebec. The repeated tendency to focus on our own interests should not be treated as something surprising or exceptional or worrisome; “it is our nature.”
Personal preferences, moreover, are the source of every human felicity and every valuable service. The most important earthly thing is not self-sacrifice for the sake of grand schemes, but the private happiness of concrete individuals: “The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him.”
Man, that’s good stuff. Lewis’ words on personal preferences and human nature are still as applicable today as the day they were written–as fresh as if they were torn from today’s Twitter feed. In a way that’s great, and a tribute to the timelessness of his intellect. In another way it’s depressing that we’re still having the same arguments as we did at the dawn of 20th century fascism.