I just completed a study of the life and work of Frances Xavier Cabrini, an American entrepreneur of the late nineteenth century. She was a nun who opened schools, hospitals, and orphanages that served poor immigrants. By the end of her life, and despite her humility, she become a kind of CEO of a large empire of charitable institutions. She was also the first American citizen to be declared a saint.
My studies of her life prompt an observation. A tendency in public debate is to pit the drive for profits against humanitarian concerns, and to treat workers in charitable institutions as the polar opposites from those who work in finance and big business. One group serves the poor and underprivileged, we are told, while the other serves the privileged class and the rich.
The core of the idea here is that rich and poor are in conflict, so charity and commerce must be, too. As conventional as that view is, it is wholly wrong. The relationship between wealth and compassion is cooperative and complementary. The expansion of prosperity and the accumulation of capital permit the same in the charitable sector. Capitalism needs charitable institutions, just as charitable institutions thrive best amidst capitalist economic settings.
We see this in history: the rise and globalization of capitalism for the last three centuries coincide with the rise and globalization of sophisticated and deeply entrenched institutions devoted to serving the poor. In our own times, charitable giving rises and falls with the business cycle. As more discretionary income becomes available, more is alloted to charitable ventures. A rising stock market and the growth of large fortunes are great benefits for the poorest of the poor—but it takes careful thought to see why.
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