A Fancy Dinner Isn’t a Moral Failure
Earlier this month, when celebrity chef Thomas Keller was interviewed by NPR about his new cookbook, his interviewer wasn’t all that interested in the recipes. Instead, he wanted to talk about the $850-per-plate price tag at Keller’s recently reopened San Francisco restaurant.
With so many people struggling financially due to the pandemic, asked the reporter, is it really “fair” to charge that much per plate? Or is it, to use his words, “tone deaf.”
That an interview, which was likely intended to be a puff piece, turned into a social justice diatribe is further proof that worldview affects everything.
To be clear, I cannot imagine ever spending $850 for a meal, but the reporter’s problem had nothing to do with prudence or financial stewardship. The problem with the price tag, according to the reporter, is not that some people would not have access to food, but that everyone would not have equal access to Thomas Keller’s food. In other words, his was a problem with the free market. And, of course, having a problem with the free market is all the rage these days.
Often called capitalism, a term popularized by Karl Marx and intended to be derogatory, the free market is an economic system. Unlike Communism, it is not a complete worldview. In other words, it doesn’t try to answer questions about the nature of reality, who we are, why we’re here, what’s right and wrong, what’s ultimately wrong with the world, and how it can be fixed. That’s a significant distinction.
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The failures of Communism (everywhere it has been tried) are due to the fact it assumes wrongly about reality, morality, and human nature. Its failures are intrinsic. A free market, on the other hand, is premised on allowing consumers and entrepreneurs to make their own decisions. Its failures are the failures of the human beings it involves.
Economic freedom for a largely moral people leads to the explosion of wealth, innovation, and generosity. Economic freedoms outside a moral framework can lead to exploitation. Thus, instead of the totalizing control of a Communist framework, a free market leans on the state to provide legal protections and religious institutions to provide moral instruction.
Arthur Brooks, president emeritus of The American Enterprise Institute and a professor at Harvard Business School, once said that he supports the free market not because he cares about the rich, but because he cares about the poor. After decades of studying global poverty, he found that “four-fifths of starvation level world poverty has been eradicated since 1970.” How did that happen? It wasn’t through additional federal aid, or by throwing money at a problem that fundamentally wasn’t a money problem.
Poverty is addressed through opportunity, innovation, and people benefiting from their hard work and expertise. Thomas Keller can charge more because he sources the best produce and meat, buys the best kitchen tools, pays the best chefs, and tosses in his own innovation and skill set. I’m not saying that he should charge what he does, or that people should pay what he asks. I’m just explaining why his work and product deserves more value than a Big Mac.
Imposing absolute financial equality, on the other hand, doesn’t lift anyone to ingenuity or wealth. Rather, it lowers everyone to the lowest common denominator, economically as well as in creativity and quality.
A free market works not because wealth is valued, but because labor is.
Jesus said we can’t serve both God and money and that it’s more difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus never said accumulating wealth itself is sinful. Exploitation of the poor is sinful. Looking to wealth for salvation and meaning is sinful. Failing to steward what we’ve been given and failing to care for those in need are sinful.
When these potential downfalls are mitigated or avoided, a free market inspires people to give more. According to data from The Philanthropy Roundtable, Americans give to charity at a rate seven times higher than continental Europeans. The top one percent of all earners in the U.S. give a full one-third of all charitable donations.
Once NPR finally asked Thomas Keller about what was in his new cookbook, the interview took an ironic turn. Keller cautioned that his recipes aren’t necessarily for home cooks. His recipes require a certain amount of previously obtained skill. Interestingly, the reporter didn’t seem to think that was unfair.
I won’t be buying Keller’s book, and I likely won’t be eating at his restaurant. Still, I respect what his labor and skill has created. All that’s ok. That’s how freedom works.
Maria Baer contributed to this story.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at www.Breakpoint.org, the website of The Colson Center. It is reprinted with permission. For more on why a free-market economic system tends to be the best option for human flourishing, you can view our recent What Would You Say video at whatwouldyousay.org.