Who doesn't love a circus? In mid-nineteenth century America, almost everyone. Circuses were, in the main, fly-by-night outfits run by scoundrels and populated by rogues. Customers were short-changed by crooked ticket-takers and pinched by pick-pockets working on commission. While they attended the spectacle, burglars would rob their homes. The exhibits were frauds, the games fixed. While these circuses made a fast buck at first, people caught on to the scam, and the industry quickly entered a crisis.
Enter P. T. Barnum. Where others saw disaster, he saw opportunity. In managing his circus, he insisted on honest employees. He hired private detectives to roam the grounds. He promoted not questionable exhibits but genuinely entertaining performers. As John Mueller writes in his provocative new book, Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, Barnum created the Greatest Show on Earth “not by bilking ‘suckers' but by providing a good, honest show that people appreciated and were quite happy to patronize year after year.” And so they did; P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus grossed $400,000 its first year.
Barnum's rehabilitation of the circus demonstrates another aspect of capitalism's morality: It encourages people to treat others fairly and respectfully. Barnum's insight was simple. People will patronize your business if they think you are treating them well, and the easiest way to make people think you are treating them well is actually to treat them well. In Barnum's words, “The truth is, the more kind and liberal a man is, the more generous will be the patronage bestowed upon him.”
I am thankful for the support that has allowed the Acton Institute this last decade to present an account of the morality of capitalism to our future religious leaders. I look forward to another ten years of advancing freedom and promoting virtue.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico
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