Moral Alzheimer's Day

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The movie Avalon
(1991) centers on the life of an immigrant Russian Jewish family.
Avalon was a Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore. The story begins
on July 4, 1914, but it centers on the early 1950s. The acting is
excellent, and the story is believable.

The extended
family’s annual dinner is not Passover but Thanksgiving. I assume
that the author was making a point: The cultural assimilation of
this family is seen in how it eats together. But this assimilation
was more than cultural. It was religious. It was not just the old
world’s cuisine that they had left behind.

Joan Plowright
plays the matriarch. She is one of the great actresses of our time.
She made the role memorable. The movie centers around Thanksgiving
and the 4th of July through the years. Every year, the
matriarch says at the table, "I don’t understand this holiday.
Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. We’re giving thanks to whom?" She
doesn’t like turkey. The carving of the turkey is the central annual
ritual event of the extended family.

It should be
obvious what they were giving thanks for, and to whom. The family
had escaped from Czarist Russia and was living in a free society.
They had gotten rich by the standards of Jewish ghetto life in rural
Russia. But the matriarch had fallen into the ethical trap that
Moses had warned against 3,350 years earlier.

Beware that
thou forget not the LORD thy God, in not keeping his commandments,
and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this

Lest when
thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and
dwelt therein; And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and
thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast
is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget
the LORD thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of
Egypt, from the house of bondage; Who led thee through that great
and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions,
and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth
water out of the rock of flint; Who fed thee in the wilderness
with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee,
and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end;
And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand
hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the LORD thy
God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he
may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as
it is this day (Deuteronomy 8:11-18).

It seems to
me that the family had assimilated into the Thanksgiving of modern
America rather than the Thanksgiving of the first settlers in New
England. Americans have grown as forgetful as the matriarch.

is more about traditional college football rivalries than deliverance.

Who are we
thanking? What are we giving thanks for?

The Puritans

O give thanks
unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.
O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for
ever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth
for ever (Psalm 136:1-3)

This phrase
appears in many of the psalms, but when you find the same phrase
three times in a row, you can safely conclude that the writer was
trying to make a point, and he thought the point was important.
I know of no passage in the Bible where any other phrase appears
three times in succession.


Day is an old tradition in the United States. Although it was not
the first such thanksgiving feast, the holiday had its origins in
Plymouth Colony, in the fall of 1621, when the Pilgrims who had
survived the first year invited Chief Massasoit to a feast, and
he showed up with 90 braves and five deer. The feast lasted three

There had been
a thanksgiving day of prayer and a feast in Maine in 1607. The tiny
colony was abandoned a year later. There had also been a thanksgiving
service in Jamestown in 1610, but it did not involve a feast.

The first official
Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on June 29, 1676 in Charlestown,
Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Boston. But Gov. Jonathan
Belcher had issued similar proclamations in Massachusetts in 1730
and in New Jersey in 1749. George Washington proclaimed a day of
thanksgiving on October 23, 1789, to be celebrated on Thursday,
November 27. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln officially restored it as
a wartime measure. The holiday then became an American tradition.
It became law in 1941.

Lincoln was
a strange contradiction religiously. He was a religious skeptic,
yet he invoked the rhetoric of the King James Bible — accurately
— on many occasions. His political rhetoric, which had been deeply
influenced by his reading of the King James, was often masterful.
For example, when he spoke of the cemetery of the Gettysburg battlefield
as "this hallowed ground," using the King James word for
holy, as in "hallowed be thy name," he was seeking to
infuse the battle of Gettysburg with sacred meaning — a use of religious
terminology that was as morally abhorrent as it was rhetorically
successful. It is the sacraments that are sacred, not monuments
to man’s bloody destructiveness. In that same year, 1863, he used
biblical themes in his October 3 Thanksgiving Day proclamation.

It is the
duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon
the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions
in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance
will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth,
announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that
those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.

He went on,
in the tradition of a Puritan Jeremiad sermon, to attribute the
calamity of the Civil War to the nation’s sins, conveniently ignoring
the biggest contributing sin of all in the coming of that war: his
own steadfast determination to collect the national tariff in Southern

In his proclamation,
he made an important and accurate theological point.

We have been
the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been
preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown
in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

But we have
forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved
us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and
we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that
all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and
virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have
become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming
and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

This observation
leads to the same question that Moses raised long before Lincoln’s
proclamation: Why is it that men become less thankful as their blessings
increase? Less than a decade after Lincoln’s proclamation, three
economists came up with the theoretical insight that provides an


In the early
1870s, Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, and Leon Walras simultaneously
and independently discovered the principle of marginal utility.
Their discovery transformed economic analysis.

They observed
that value, like beauty, is subjectively determined. Value is imputed
— a familiar Calvinist theological concept — to scarce resources
by the acting individual. Other things remaining equal, including
tastes, the individual imputes less value to each additional unit
of any good that he receives as income. This is the principle of
marginal utility.

This can be
put another way. We can say that each additional unit of any resource
that a person receives as income satisfies a value that is lower
on that individual’s subjective scale of value. He satisfied the
next-higher value with the previous unit of income.

This provides
a preliminary solution to the original question. I call this solution
the declining marginal utility of thankfulness. People look at the
value of what they have just received as income, and they are less
impressed than they were with the previous unit of income. They
focus on the immediate — "What have you done for me lately?"
— rather than the aggregate level of their existing capital. They
conclude, "What’s past is past; what matters most is whatever
comes next."

Modern economic
theory discounts the past to zero. The past is gone; it is not a
matter of human action. Whatever you spent to achieve your present
condition in life is no longer a matter of human action. The economist
calls this lost world "sunk costs."

There is a
major problem in thinking this way. It is the problem of saying
"thank you." The child is taught to say "thank you."
He is not told to do this because, by saying "thank you,"
he is more likely to get another gift in the future. He is taught
to say "thank you" as a matter of politeness.

I am sure that
there is some University of Chicago—trained economist out there
who is ready to explain etiquette as a matter of self-interest:
"getting more in the future for a minimal expenditure of scarce
economic resources." And, I must admit, people who never say
"thank you" do tend to receive fewer gifts. Or, as Moses
put it, "And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might
of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember
the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth,
that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers,
as it is this day" (Deuteronomy 8:17—18). But Moses added
an "or else" clause: "And
it shall be, if thou do at all forget the LORD thy God, and walk
after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against
you this day that ye shall surely perish" (verse 19). Gary
Becker would no doubt put it differently, but the point regarding
reduced future income is the same: lower. Maybe way, way lower.

The problem
is, we look to the present, not to the past. We look at the marginal
unit — the unit of economic decision-making — and not at the aggregate
that we have accumulated. We assume that whatever we already possess
is well-deserved — merited, we might say — and then we focus our
attention on that next, hoped-for "util" of income.

As economic
actors, we should recognize that the reason why we are allocating
our latest unit of income to a satisfaction that is lower on our
value scale is because we already possess so much. We are awash
in wealth. We are the beneficiaries of a social order based on private
ownership and free exchange, a social order that has made middle-class
people rich beyond the wildest dreams of kings a century and a half
ago. Or, as P. J. O’Rourke has observed, "When you think of
the good old days, think one word: dentistry."

About half
of the Pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth in 1620 were dead a year
later. The Indians really did save the colony by showing the first
winter’s survivors what to plant and how to plant it in the spring
of 1621. The Pilgrims really did rejoice at that festival. They
were lucky — graced, they would have said — to be alive.

So are we.
Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human
(VIII:8) that social Darwinism was wrong. The principle
of the survival of the fittest does not apply to the free market
social order. The free market’s division of labor has enabled millions
of people to survive — today, billions — who would otherwise have


We assume that
we deserve all we receive. Yet until 1750, societies had not learned
the secret of long-term per capita economic growth.

Since then,
the West has grown economically by 2% per year for about 260 years.
This compounding process has made society 1,700 times richer than
it was. Even in terms of per capita growth, we are hundreds of times
richer, and there are more of us to enjoy wealth and give thanks
for it.

We have grown
accustomed to a process that is nothing short of miraculous by the
standards that prevailed before 1750. We pay no attention to it.
We do not even understand it. Congress surely doesn’t. We expect
it to go on forever.

So, we grow
fat and sassy. We grow forgetful. We forget that the entire cornucopia
rats of a handful of principles, which boil down to this: Thou shalt
not steal.

It takes self-discipline
to keep from getting forgetful.


Wealth is not
our birthright. It is the product of thrift, future-orientation,
and the private property social order. These principles were articulated
in the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. It took over
3,000 years for one society — the West — to come to believe them
enough to put them into action.

It is the moral
order that led to the social order for which we should be continually
thankful. The goodies this social order produces are merely reminders
of the fundamental gift.

we have forgotten. So has Congress. We have revised the commandment:
"Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote." We have
also forgotten this: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for
whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians
6:7). Societies, too.

25, 2006

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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