George gilder is a conservative. To those who have read his books or heard his lectures or seen him with President Reagan’s men, nothing could be more obvious. Yet to Gilder himself this assertion is not a dull and colorless fact. To him, political, social, and religious conservatism are the lifeblood of humanity; they constitute the one grand and unifying theme that makes dazzling sense of reality.

Adam Smith set the world talking about laissez-faire economics when he wrote The Wealth of the Nations (1776). But Smith’s capitalist descendents are often surprised that he took an almost Machiavellian approach to the free market, referring to the “mean rapacity,” “monopolizing spirit,” and “sneaking arts” of merchants and manufacturers.

Gilder does not believe capitalism feeds on the poisoned blood of greed and envy. Instead, he sees capitalism’s heart pumped by Saint Paul’s three verities of the Christian life: faith, hope, and love. He happily quotes Walter Lippmann to the effect that capitalism finally made “the Golden Rule … economically sound.” Yes, “for the first time men could conceive a social order in which the ancient moral aspiration of liberty, fraternity, and equality was consistent with the abolition of poverty and the increase of wealth.”

In fact, for Gilder, religious faith is necessary to capitalism: capitalism “thrives” on it and “decays without it.” In that vein, Gilder the intellectual can leave the tomes of scholars to note that religious figures of average intelligence—not the professors—have got the story right.

Before long, Gilder writes, nonconservatives of all stripes will “have to grant, in essence, that Ernest van den Haag and Billy Graham were right about pornography; that Anita Bryant knows more about homosexuality than does the American Association of Psychiatrists; that Phyllis Schlafly is better at defining national priorities than Daniel Patrick Moynihan; that the Moral Majority is a more valuable and responsible movement in our politics than is the Coalition for a Democratic Majority.”

George Gilder is a thinker. He studied government at Harvard but has since dived deeply into anthropology, sociology, and economics. His first book, Sexual Suicide (Quadrangle, 1973), enraged feminists by asserting that man is biologically more aggressive than woman. Masculine sexuality is oriented to the immediate. But the childbearing female’s sexuality is oriented to the future. “Women have long horizons within their very bodies, glimpses of eternity within their wombs,” Gilder explains. Monogamous marriage thus makes civilization possible. “Civilized society is dependent upon the submission of the short-term sexuality of young men to the extended maternal horizons of women,” he writes.

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His next book involved Gilder in ghetto life. Visible Man (Basic Books, 1978) explored the plight of the poor. Characteristically, his eloquently stated opinions acted like magnets to draw and throw readers into two angrily disagreeing camps. He said that liberal social policies, far from assuaging poverty, were aggravating it.

That theme is resumed in Gilder’s latest—and thus far most influential—book, Wealth and Poverty (Basic Books, 1981). Something of an inspirational exposition on capitalism, and more specifically, supply side economics, Wealth and Poverty was declared the “bible” of the Reagan administration. The President bought several copies and distributed them to political friends and foes. The chief of Reagan’s transition team was clear about it. He said the “brilliant book” would serve “as an inspiration and guide for the new administration.” And David Stockman, Reagan’s once-and-future budget director, declared “Wealth and Poverty Promethean in its intellectual power and insight.” With accolades like these from men in such positions, one might not exaggerate in saying that George Gilder has influenced the Reagan administration as much as anyone who is not a member of the cabinet.

Not everyone is happy about that influence, and those critics are not without daunting ammunition. Those concerned with women’s rights have attacked Gilder’s “biological determinism,” his contention that male and female innately have different functions in life and work. Some say his elevation of woman as the great tamer of man’s base passions only makes her queen to chain her to a powerless throne. If Gilder’s view restricts women, it also abases men by implying that the male is basically brutal, but insecure and in constant need of female affirmation.

Gilder defends the altruistic nature of capitalism by asserting that the successful capitalist must understand “the needs of others.” It is noble to meet such basic needs as food, clothing, and shelter. But some say it is less heroic when one remembers that some capitalists fulfill those basics with Perrier, designer jeans, and vacation cabins furnished with hot tubs.

Gilder’s boundless optimism has also produced accusations that he is uncompassionate, especially when he states that tax cuts for the rich will eventually trickle wealth down to help the poor. Cracks liberal economist Lester Thurow, “George says you’ve got to have faith, but the problem with the got-to-have-faith argument is that we have only one economy to play tiddlywinks with.”

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Finally, Gilder recognizes but does not conclusively answer a charge made even by those sympathetic to capitalism: that it inflames appetites and can breed unrealistic as well as ugly expectations. Here Gilder shifts the blame to secular humanism and the failure of moral guardians such as the church. He will not allow that some flaw within the economic system itself might lead to an unjust distribution of wealth or the dissolution of society’s moral discipline.

What drew CHRISTIANITY TODAY to Gilder is his insistence on the importance of religion in society. His books are not aimed at an explicitly religious audience, yet Wealth and Poverty contains a chapter entitled “The Necessity of Faith.” He has written luminously (to use one of his favorite words) on his thesis that, “if religion is true, its truth must necessarily apply to the economic sphere.”

Thus it was that we met George Gilder at the Hartford, Connecticut, airport last June. He was on his way to join Phyllis Schlafly’s party celebrating the death of the Equal Rights Amendment. He is tall and wiry, with a basketball player’s build. His casually combed black hair makes it clear Gilder is more interested in what goes on inside his head than outside. In a friendly, unpretentious manner he exposed what is inside that head, volunteering many provocative opinions. Most important to CT readers, he made plain the role that religious faith, especially his Christian faith, plays in his thought.

“Love appears blind to outside observers, but lovers know that it is guided by a more exalted vision and it opens new realms of knowledge and creativity. Commitment can create its own confirmation. To the man who dares not love, the entire world seems barren and dull, the future pregnant with doom. It is love and faith that infuse ideas with life and fire.”

—Wealth and Poverty

Let’s begin with your own words. You recently wrote in the American Spectator, “The church should devote itself to its own spiritual and religious cause, upholding the laws of morality and faith, and thus redeem the most crucial conditions of capitalistic giving and entrepreneurship.” Is the church then subordinated to a supportive role in maintaining the capitalist economy? Is that its place in society?

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No. Like every other human activity, capitalism can succeed to the extent that it accords with the deeper principles that inspire religion. God comes first, obviously. Capitalism comes second. But when churches abandon God through various secular fads and enthusiasms, they are betraying God. When they maintain there’s something inherently antagonistic between Christianity and capitalism, they’re being obtuse. In other words, the church is perfectly capable of betraying God, and when it does, it betrays its deepest purpose in the world.

How does that purpose work out in a concrete, practical manner? What exactly should the church be doing?

The church should be evangelizing and persuading people of the truth of the Christian message. To the extent that it succeeds in performing that function it can save the world, and to the extent that it abandons that role it will both destroy itself—as many established churches are beginning to do—and destroy the world as well. Ultimately, the world can only work to the extent that it responds to God and is ordered by God’s truth. So it’s essential that the church propagate those truths rather than get involved in political conflicts.

Is there any place for the church to be involved in politics?

Yes. The church can be involved in politics, but that’s not its prime role. The church as the church has the essential role of propagating and evangelizing God’s truth. Individual people in the church certainly can enter politics. Politics is a perfectly legitimate human activity.

So you would see the primary political involvement of the church to be individual Christians and not the church as an organization or body?

I think Jerry Falwell makes that distinction very clearly. He is a preacher of the gospel much of the time, but he also performs a political role. He collaborates with a number of people of all faiths, propagating moral propositions that are upheld by many other religions as well as Christianity. I think that distinction is legitimate. The World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches routinely accept a lot of socialist propositions and try to infuse them with a kind of holy light they don’t deserve—helping the poor, for example. This is a practical problem, not something that can be done through good intentions alone. But the liberal policies some churches have endorsed have hurt the poor in America. The essential proposition of the church has been that anything that’s done in the name of helping the poor is holy—as long as it doesn’t focus on their spiritual or moral condition. The fundamental and paramount role of the church is to transmit moral, inspirational teachings to the poor. There’s nothing more important that can be done for the poor.

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You would see the church’s movement toward more social involvement and away from an explicit proclamation of the gospel as an error, then?

Yes, that’s an error. It’s also been an error to move away from a strong assertion of moral law, toward increasing acceptance of the behavioral view that people are not responsible for their actions. The world is wandering in a wilderness of secular hedonism, where people have no sense of what’s right or wrong, or of the ultimate divine purposes of their lives. This leads to mental illness and all sorts of diseases of our times. These are ordinarily ascribed to various frailties of social policy or psychological understanding, but, in fact, they are attributable to estrangement from God. The function of the church is to overcome the estrangement from God that results in the chaos of our times. When the church goes to the poor, it tells them that the source of their difficulties lies in some conspiracy by others and in the conditions of the society rather than in their own relationship to God.

Yet in every material way, the American poor today are better off than most in the history of the human race. Their fundamental problem is spiritual. For the church to continue its preoccupation with material problems while denying the centrality of the spiritual estrangement is to betray the poor.

Does the plight of the poor mean that they have more spiritual problems than the wealthy or the middle class?

Not always. But some do; a good many of the poor do have very serious spiritual problems. But many in the wealthy and middle class also have serious spiritual problems.

Yet the spiritual problems of the middle class and wealthy don’t leave them in an economic bind. So how can we say that the spiritual problem is the root of poverty?

The greed and faithlessness of the upper classes do, in fact, lead to pain and failure, while penniless immigrants full of commitment often prevail under capitalism. The last are often first, in rather short order, in American society. Some 46 percent of those in the top fifth of incomes drop out within seven years, replaced by others from below.

Many in the wealthy and middle class have been fortunate. But there’s a sense in which a complete spiritual collapse leads to economic impotence, and many of the poor, the people who are struggling in this society and can’t find a way, do suffer from a real spiritual malaise.

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“These were the boffins, the callow geniuses of the semiconductor and microprocessor revolution, turning the world’s most common matter, the substance of sand, into an incomparable resource of mind: a silicon chip the size of a fly, with computing powers thousands of times greater than a million monks adding and subtracting for millennia—an infinitesimal marvel that extends the reach of the human brain incomparably further than oil, steel, and machines had multiplied man’s muscle in the industrial age.”

—Wealth and Poverty

The middle class and wealthy, although they are often not more virtuous, depend on the accumulated moral capital of their culture and society to live productive lives. This moral capital has been destroyed in many poor communities. People are lucky. I was lucky to be brought up by a mother who was intensely religious and taught me the Bible from an early age. I depended on my own inheritance of moral and religious values. If moral, religious values collapse, as they have to a great extent in inner-city society (with crime and illegitimacy rates that are beyond belief), the church has to start there. Many behave in a moral way for not particularly good reasons. But nonetheless, the observance of moral law does greatly increase the possibilities for material achievement.

I think you’ve written that hypocrisy is vice’s tribute to virtue.

Yes, and it’s better to have this tribute paid than to have it withheld. I think it has good effects in that paying respects to the law, to God, and to the moral code is a good thing to do. Not to do that is to propagate evil and cynicism. There are gradations of goodness and badness in the world and we’re all to some extent sinners. Our hypocrisies are an effort to transcend that sinfulness. Sometimes it doesn’t succeed, but it’s an effort in the right direction.

But the crucial principle is that there is a link between material achievement and religious values. Complete repudiation of religious values leads to economic collapse as well as moral failure. That does not mean that every wealthy man is good. It does mean that as moral values collapse in a society, it becomes impossible to have productive capitalism. The value of anything is ultimately derived from the values upheld by society, and those values ultimately derive from the religion a society upholds. If that religion is secular hedonism and humanism, there will be a different kind of material manifestation than if the values are moral and Christian.

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You’ve noted, “the poor know their condition is to a great degree their own fault or choice” and that “in order to succeed, the poor need most of all the spur of poverty.” One critic wrote that Gilder’s theology of capitalism is long on faith and hope and short on charity. How do you respond to that?

I reject that proposition. I reject the idea that it’s good to the poor to destroy their motivation, to destroy their families, and to destroy their moral integrity. These social programs that are allegedly charitable are in fact profoundly destructive. I reject all the assumptions that underlie that particular criticism. But when I say they need the spur of their poverty, I don’t mean that they need the spur of destitution.

A welfare system is indispensable to capitalism, because capitalism is based on freedom, on voluntary participation, on voluntary response to the need of others. A society that’s based on forcing people to work under the pain of starvation is just as coercive as one that forces them to work at the point of a gun. Welfare is indispensable to capitalism, and capitalist societies generate welfare systems. We have a much more elaborate welfare state than the Soviet Union, which does force people to work under the pain of starvation. However, when the benefits of the welfare state far exceed the needs of subsistence or the possible earnings of an employee at an entry-level job, then it becomes destructive. It violates the principle of moral hazard, which underlies all insurance schemes, and essentially a welfare system is an insurance scheme.

Take fire insurance, for example. When the payoff becomes more valuable than the house, arson often occurs. This has happened in many cities where the houses have become less and less valuable, until the fire insurance payoff is higher. Fire insurance may foster fires. In the same way, where a social insurance system, or welfare, offers benefits far more valuable than work, the welfare state causes poverty. That’s what we’re doing now: we’re causing poverty by paying for it.

Back to the “spur of poverty” not meaning destitution—what exactly do you mean?

In contemporary American society it means income and benefits are less valuable than working at an entry-level job. When the combination of welfare benefits the poor receive are about equivalent to the median family income, it’s catastrophic for them.

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As experienced by the poor, our current welfare state rewards family breakdown, unemployment, and consumption. If you save anything, you’re immediately forced to spend that savings in order to retain your welfare benefits. It cultivates exactly the pattern of behavior that assures failure in a capitalist system. The spur of poverty means that the welfare state cannot be a cradle-to-grave cushion.

Is the capitalist system open to the poor anyway?

A capitalist system has millions and millions of small businesses. There are 16 million small businesses in the U.S. In Japan, which has been a more successful capitalist system in recent years, there are as many small businesses as there are in the U.S. with only a little more than half our population. A small business is the crux of a capitalist society, and it’s accessible to anybody who doesn’t follow the pattern of existence the welfare state prescribes—which is to break down the family into as many welfare-receiving components as possible, forgo all savings, and avoid any kind of regular employment.

“There is something, evidently, in the human mind, even when carefully honed at Oxford or the Sorbonne, that hesitates to believe in capitalism: in the enriching mysteries of inequality, the inexhaustible mines of the division of labor, the multiplying miracles of market economics, the compounding gains from trade and property. It is far easier to see the masters of these works as evil, to hunt them as witches, favored by occult powers or Faustian links.”

—Wealth and Poverty

There’s also something about this dependence on the state that tends to erode religious belief. People begin to orient themselves toward belief in and dependence on the state. The state can become God.

You have said capitalism thrives on religious faith and that it decays without it, and that capitalist progress is based on risk “that cannot be demonstrated to pay off in any one lifetime, thus it relies on faith in the future and in providence.” How specific can you get about the kind of faith that’s required here? Must capitalism be Jewish or Christian?

Not necessarily. Though Eastern religions lack the help of Jesus, they do manage to capture some of the essential truths. If you analyze their moral teaching, they often correspond very closely to Christian teachings. Capitalism can thrive in that environment. Christianity offers a deeper and more inspiring exposition of those values, but through a glass darkly other religions can also descry the essential outlines of God and his truth, so I don’t exclude them.

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Why is capitalism, from a religious standpoint, more acceptable than other economic systems?

The central truth in capitalism is that its progress is unpredictable. The attempt to predetermine returns, to arrogate to the human mind the capacity to know the future, to calculate carefully its precise outlines and exploit this knowledge in some prescriptive way, leads to catastrophe. Capitalism, because it is based on the unknowability of the future and the conduct of continual experiments that reveal facets of the truth, can in fact partake of providence. The great sin of hubris is to imagine that without the help of God we can create a better future through some sort of human planning. It’s this desire to have a master plan based on secular analysis that underlies socialism and makes it an evil system. Capitalism is an open system, where people succeed by serving others.

In order to serve others they have to understand others, and this requires that they have an outgoing temperament—an altruistic orientation, if you wish. And what others want is dependent on their values, which in turn is derived from the religious orientation of the society. If the society is irreligious and oriented chiefly toward hedonistic gratifications and sensuous fulfillment, then the operations of capitalism—in attempting to respond to others—will be depraved by these values.

But at the same time, the capitalists themselves have a crucial role in identifying the market’s values and in choosing which values they are going to meet. I don’t exonerate capitalists at all from their part in this society and their interplay with its societal values. They create goods and services, and because they do take that initiative, they are very important in the determination of the character of the society.

Some Christians believe Jesus taught and embodied an ethic that can’t be comprehended by any economic system—capitalism, socialism, or whatever. Thus, through the church, he stands in judgment over these temporal systems. Do you agree with that view?

No. Obviously, Jesus’ teachings far transcend particular economic processes, but I think that his teachings cannot be fulfilled in a socialist system. A planned, socialist system has to be ruled by experts who prescribe the activities of individuals and thus deny to them the moral freedom that is crucial to both Christian behavior and a successful social order. You can’t give if the government controls all the property and essentially plans the modes of charity.

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“Give and you’ll be given unto” is the fundamental practical principle of the Christian life, and when there’s no private property you can’t give it because you don’t own it. When all the returns of enterprise are captured by the state, you can’t continue to expand your enterprise in response to your vision of the needs of the society. So socialism is inherently hostile to Christianity and capitalism is simply the essential mode of human life that corresponds to religious truth.

So Christ, or the church, does not have to stand in judgment or be a potential critic of capitalism?

There are two ways to view it. Capitalism is the economic system that is consonant with Christianity. But it obviously does not in itself produce a good society. You can have a hopelessly corrupt, evil society that’s actually capitalistic. Capitalism is dependent on the church for the moral values that redeem it, so clearly the church has to stand in judgment. But it should not imagine that there is some other social system that partakes of Christianity in a better way than capitalism itself.

You do not have a high estimate of opinion polls, yet they have increasingly assumed a more significant place in our society. Politics and social movements are largely influenced by Gallup and other polls. Apparently you feel there is some inaccuracy in these polls. Would you elaborate on that?

Public opinion polls are in general the alchemy of the modern era. They’re about as valid as the scrutiny of the entrails of pigeons conducted by hierophants in ancient Rome. They are virtually meaningless. Most people do not think about the questions they answer for public opinion polls. They have no concerted opinion of the sort that they would defend under any real stress or circumstances. Polls aren’t gathering opinions; they’re gathering vague whims—impulses—which are votes elicited by the specific form of the question. If the question expects one answer, it will probably get it. If the question contains words that seem positive and affirmative, it will evoke assent. The polls are thus almost entirely meaningless because of the ignorance dominant in them.

“Women control not the economy of the marketplace but the economy of eros: the life force in our society and our lives. What happens in the inner realm of women finally shapes what happens oh our social surfaces, determining the level of happiness, energy, creativity, and solidarity in the nation. These values are primary in any society. When they deteriorate, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put them back together again.”

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—Sexual Suicide

Would we be better off without opinion polls?

Polls can be used in various ways that mean something. But certainly we’d be better off if the newspapers didn’t have this superstition that polls are true and somehow a democratic expression worthy of the greatest respect. When the New York Times puts every poll result on the front page it is engaging in a new secular humanist religion that has no more validity than astrology—less, because it has a pretense of scientific truth while astrologers have trouble gaining this pretense.

You have said America’s economic problems may be straightened out with the help of a technological revolution. What is that revolution?

It is the movement into the computer age. This has been predicted for decades, and it’s actually happening today. It has happened in all sorts of unexpected ways. The crucial instrument in bringing computers into the home turns out to have been video games, which nobody even began to contemplate as a major use of home computers. The personal computer industry will probably be more important than the auto industry by 1984 or 1985. The shift will be that massive in the orientation of the economy.

Will that help to renew the economy?

Yes, because these computers make it possible to deal with red tape in a very efficient way. They tend to overcome the glut of paper that is clogging the offices of most American enterprises. And they also give small businesses the same sort of financial planning and inventory control capability that was formerly accessible only to large corporations that assigned whole divisions to these tasks. The movement of computers into manufacturing is also significant. A technique called CADCAM (Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Manufacture) means that the designer of the particular product can inscribe all the specifications into a computer, can change those specifications on the computer (which is modeling the product on the screen), can test the product in various ways on the screen, and then produce a program. That program can then be inserted into a manufacturing robot that in turn can produce the product designed on the computers.

This avoids all the processes of blueprinting and translating the blueprint into machinists’ language, and the machine tool into the form required for production of a particular device. It can all be performed by the designer himself. This will revolutionize manufacturing around the world. Essentially, it’s going to solve the productivity problem that we often speak of. It will also solve in various ways both the energy problem and the problem of food production.

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You sound optimistic.

I’m very optimistic, because if these new ideas are blocked in the U.S. by the interest groups that have a stake in past arrangements, they will triumph in other countries. There is enough of the capitalist vision in the world that these new technologies will prevail. They will relieve people of routine and spiritually oppressive jobs, freeing those people to do more fulfilling work in the service of others. Of course, the solution of material problems will not answer the deeper spiritual needs of man. But all wealth is ultimately spiritual—a gift of God—and a persistent and resolute defense of the paramount truths of Christianity will foster an ever-more generous and giving capitalism. In that context, the essential human problems of subsistence and production will be largely solved.

Christians believe the Bible addresses “central human problems.” How important was the Bible to the formation of your views on sociology and economics?

It was important. But I arrived at many of my conclusions during a period of my life when I was less religious than I am now. What startled me was the religious explanation of the world. The Bible’s explanation is far more convincing than all the secular analyses I’ve studied. The Bible knows more about such matters as marriage, sexuality, and economics than do most of the sociologists and economists who address these subjects, and also more about the mind than the dominant psychologies. My first real perception was that most of the problems that are described as mental illnesses are essentially religious problems, and that they can’t be solved through secular administration. Psychology can be a mental illness, because it’s something of an analytical approach to the mind that tends to exclude the luminosity of the divine. The mind is not conterminous with the brain—our minds partake of the mind of God.

That brings us to the idea of creativity.

Right. It is human arrogance to believe that intellectual processes alone, rational pursuit alone, can suffice to orient man to his role in the world. The mind must be open to God, to the divine, to Providence, in order to achieve anything worthwhile. It’s interesting that almost anybody who does achieve something really stunning and amazing, whether he is a boxer or a scientist, always claims that in some sense he wasn’t the one who did it. In some way there was external help. If he is explicitly religious he refers to God. If he’s not, he refers to some mystical transcendence that made possible his achievement.

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This is ordinarily regarded as some sort of hypocritical affirmation that’s expected of people who achieve great things, but in fact it’s the truth. The human mind, moving step by step through rational processes, isn’t capable of shooting a basket or hitting a tennis ball or projecting a new vision or a new idea. There’s an essential principle of giving up yourself to a higher power in all great human achievement; that is the faith I speak of that underlies capitalist success.

Intellectual creativity—any breakthrough of human achievement—is a willingness to give up yourself to others and to God. It’s that essential principle that infuses Christian teaching and that also pervades all human life. Most psychological and sociological analyses say you should be much more self-conscious and rational and introspective and that through these means you can achieve a kind of autonomous mental health. But mental health comes from giving yourself up to others and to God, having faith in others and in the divine truth.

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