A colleague recently voiced to me his opinion that it’s “immoral” when people go to dinner and spend a couple hundred dollars. Because of my respect for him and his teaching ability, his comment hit me like a proverbial “ton of bricks.” I had to think through his proposition … and I have come to believe in the strongest terms that he’s wrong. Dead wrong.
As we move forward, let’s clear the air a bit. I’m not talking about spending ill-gotten gains or spending money that you don’t have. I’m also not talking about going into debt for the sake of having a little fun. I’m addressing a situation where people make the adult decision to spend their money how they wish (in this particular example on an excellent meal prepared by competent chefs and served by attentive wait staff). Of course, there are many who would read this and argue that such a “waste” of money is entirely selfish and inappropriate. Their assumption appears to be that charity only takes place when someone gives something away with nothing in return. I reject that notion.
Being restaurateurs, there are two things that my wife and I adore: seeing others enjoy themselves in our own restaurant, and going out to enjoy ourselves in the culinary establishments of others. Let’s take a moment to imagine that Patsy and I are headed out to one of those “selfish” dinners after a hard week of working our day jobs and running our little restaurant “on the side.” We’re tired, we don’t want to imagine cooking for ourselves because we’ve been cooking for others all week, and we just want to settle at a table somewhere and be waited on. Let’s imagine that we’re headed to a fine-dining establishment because we want the best dinner we can get and we want impeccable service. We know in advance that it’s going to be pricey, but that’s a choice we’ve made. After all, we’re selfish, right?
By the way, on the way home from teaching that day, I stop to fill my gas tank at a chain gasoline station. My payment to the attendant not only helps assure that the station owner can pay her bills and feed her family, it also guarantees that she can continue to hire people to run the station and stock the shelves and coffee machines. My payment also supports the thousands of Americans in the oil production and refinery businesses, and it puts no small sum into the federal tax coffers (in fact, I pay more in taxes on my gasoline purchase than I pay in profit to the gasoline retailer or the provider). My purchase at the pump also make it possible for the guy who delivers the gasoline to the station to feed his family, along with all the other businesses who deliver to this location: purveyors of sandwiches, high-energy drinks, hot chocolate, candy bars, coffee, headache remedies (something I need often since Obama was elected) and yes, one can even buy condoms (even without Obamacare they’re cheap). This one little shop is visited dozens of times a week by people providing for their families by delivering goods that are subsequently sold to people like me.
After my gasoline purchase I arrive home and check the mail. In the box I find a package containing a theological text I’ve ordered through Amazon. It’s a used text, purchased directly from a retailer in Idaho who happens to have had it on his shelf and who sells pre-owned books online. My payment to him helps him keep his kids in school, keep them fed, and helps him move one step closer to a bigger store where he also wants to sell coffee to shop visitors. He pays a small fee to Amazon, and Amazon uses that to hire more people to fulfill the thousands of orders they get each month for new books. As I walk to the door of my home, I’m greeted by pets (dogs and cats), all of whom have to be fed and several of whom need their medication because they’re getting older. So I’m supporting grocery stores and veterinary clinics–all of which are staffed by employees who depend upon the success of their employers to meet their own financial and personal obligations. And, of course, the interactive delivery web that I mentioned with the gas station applies in these establishments as well.
All of this and we’ve not even left the house for dinner!
I’ll try not to bore you with the rest. Even a cursory glance at the rest of the evening will make my point. Upon our arrival at dinner, Patsy and I are waited upon by a friendly bartender in her twenties. She is a single mom who desperately needs her job behind the bar to pay her bills. She’s good at what she does. We each drink a cocktail, we hear about her precious daughter, and we leave a generous tip. We are then shown to our table by a friendly manager in a suit, we’re introduced to a sommelier eager to sell us a bottle of wine, and then we’re greeting by a waiter named Gus who bubbles over with information about the specials of the day.
We are wined and dined. We talk. We make business plans for our own restaurant. We share the joys and disappointments of our recent days. We pay for our dinner and wine and we return home. If we had a really great bottle of wine, and if we splurged on appetizers and dessert to accompany our meal, it’s not impossible that we did spend a couple hundred dollars. But in the wake of our evening adventure we’ve supported bartenders, waiters, chefs, chef assistants, dishwashers, delivery personnel, training personnel, and yes, even a business owner. Because my wife and I splurged on a night of “selfish” entertainment, and because others were doing the same, there are dozens and dozens of people whose jobs and incomes are secure.
Though it’s maligned these days by left-leaning politicians, the free market is nothing more than a web of relationships between people for the sake of exchanging goods and services. It works much more smoothly because of the invention of money, or capital (from the Latin word capitale, meaning “stock” or “property” and from the French word capitaliste, a form of coinage in use during the French revolution). Although money today is controlled by government and is often disastrously affected by the policies of government, it wasn’t always so. It’s simply a medium of exchange that makes it possible to avoid all the problems associated with the barter system and, at least in theory, anything can be used as money.
Unfortunately, for most of us, the idea of charity means only one thing: giving away something of value (money, time, or goods) with nothing in return. I’m certainly not opposed to such forms of charity, as I hope my work with the poor has demonstrated. But if charity is defined by concern for others and by making it possible for others to care for themselves and their loved ones, then the free market itself is a tool for charity.
Need a relaxing evening with a loved one? Go to a nice restaurant if it fits into your budget. If money is tight, go to the local BBQ joint instead. Either way, there are lots of people who will be terribly grateful that you did–especially when they pay their bills. You will have made that possible.