We Americans — and especially we libertarian-leaning, free-market types — are very deeply invested in our belief in free will. It is difficult to have an intellectually coherent Christian theology without it. (My Calvinist friends will forgive me, as indeed they are predestined to do.) It is similarly difficult to maintain an intellectually coherent ethical defense of Anglo-American liberalism without recourse to the doctrine of free will. Most of us would object to an arrangement in which one’s place in life — economic, social, and political — was determined mainly by one’s height. But we are well on our way toward building a society in which one’s standing is determined almost exclusively by intelligence, which is no more justly distributed or redistributable. In Adam Smith and in Thomas Jefferson we encounter the idea of a “natural aristocracy” of intelligence and energy, what we now call “meritocracy.” But what if there isn’t as much merit in it as we imagine? What if it is just the case that people are what they are, and that their ability to change that is much more radically constricted than we had imagined?
Here perhaps we are called to engage those old virtues that bring very little return in the marketplace, charity chief among them, making room for the actual facts of human life and the actual condition of such fallen creatures as ourselves somewhere in our political and economic theories. There’s a little irony in there: It is, after all, capitalism and capitalism alone that has created a society rich enough that we could well do away with our censorious rhetoric about the “deserving” poor and worry a little bit less about who really deserves what, there being more than enough to go around. A system built on self-interest and profit-seeking has produced a situation in which nobody really has to be poor, at least not in the sense we used the word “poor” until 20 minutes ago.