Creative Destruction

It is heart-breaking: a major city in our nation, Detroit, filing for bankruptcy. For anyone having visited Detroit recently, there are prominent images: rows of ruined houses, empty lots given over to weeds and strewn garbage, empty storefronts and graffiti. Just a few decades ago, Detroit was a major hub of industry, vitality and culture.

Many issues are at play here, and I don't mean to discuss them all. Instead, I wish to focus on something I related in Defending the Free Market: the Moral Case for a Free Economy. One chapter in that book focused on "creative destruction:"

… the phenomenon whereby old skills, companies, and sometimes entire industries are eclipsed as new methods and businesses take their place. Creative destruction is seen in layoffs, downsizing, the obsolescence of firms, and, sometimes, serious injury to the communities that depend on them. It looks horrible, and, especially when seen through the lives of the people who experience such economic upheaval, it can be heartrending. But think of the alternative— What if the American Founders had constructed a society where no industry was ever allowed to go under because it would mean a lot of innocent people losing their jobs? I mean, have you ever met a livery yard owner or a stable boy? How about a blacksmith or a farrier? Do you have among your acquaintances any makers of bridles, saddles, chaises, coaches, or buggy whips?

Clearly, this is not an easy issue, nor is it particularly pleasant to live through. Yet, it happens all the time, even in nature. Take the idea of a controlled burn in a forest. It's a technique sometimes used in forestry management: a chosen area is carefully burned. Why? There are some seeds, such as sequoia, that require fire to break down the seed coating. They won't grow without it.

Are we not seeing something similar in places like Detroit? The old ways of doing business are gone, and new ones must – and will – grow. Many talented and intelligent people are already at work in Detroit, re-imagining that city.

We humans benefit from "creative destruction" as well, although we don't call it that. From a Christian perspective, we talk about sin, forgiveness and redemption. If we remain in sin, of course, nothing new grows. When we recognize the destruction of sin in our lives, and we desire change, the creative force that God has blessed us with allows us to recreate ourselves. That is – again, in Christian terms – grace.

The psalmist wrote of this destruction and renewal in our relationship with God:

He redeems your life from destruction, he crowns you with kindness and compassion. He fills your lifetime with good; your youth is renewed like the eagle's. Ps. 103:4-5

Each one of us can cite examples in our own lives of how great things came from what seemed to be tragic circumstances. I'll end with a quote from my late friend, Chuck Colson.

…all at once I realized that it was not my success God had used to enable me to help those in this prison, or in hundreds of others just like it. My life of success was not what made this morning so glorious -- all my achievements meant nothing in God's economy. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure -- that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation -- being sent to prison -- was the beginning of God's greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory. (Charles Colson, Born Again)

Chuck Colson recognized the force of "creative destruction" in his life. What could have been the most harrowing and damaging of events became the seedling of Prison Fellowship, an organization that continues to serve tens of thousands of prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

Times of creative destruction are painful, but necessary – in business, in nature, in our lives. We must focus on the psalmist's themes: kindness, compassion, goodness and renewal. Even in the midst of loss, disruption and endings, we see new growth, fresh and green with expectation. Rev. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute.