hrift is America’s forgotten virtue. That is the contention of David Blankenhorn, of the Institute for American Values, who has conducted a two-year multidisciplinary project researching the idea, language and practice of thrift, supported by the Templeton Foundation.
“It’s been a recovery of part of the American tradition, part of American history, that has almost entirely been neglected by historians and social analysts,” says Blankenhorn. The predominant attitude of the academy towards this important social ethic, he claims, is indifference, aggravated by lack of knowledge of the subject.
The first phase of the project was to commission 24 research papers from participating scholars. Although this objective was achieved and the completed papers are now being considered for publication as a three-volume set, Blankenhorn was dissatisfied with the focus of the earlier research.
He recalibrated the entire project, therefore, bringing together a small cadre of enthusiasts to do more specialized research, starting with the basics. “We’ve now assembled a team that’s passionately interested in it, completely enthusiastic about the possibilities of this kind of work.” Beginning with the etymology of the word “thrift,” they traced its evolution, branching out into consideration of the main thinkers who have argued for or against thrift, progressing to study social institutions, and finally examining the realm of social movement.
“That’s where we are now,” says Blankenhorn. “We now have a number of high quality products coming out.” These outcomes include a book he has written himself called, Thrift, to be published by the Templeton Press, plus an exhibition on the history of thrift. There is also a book of additional essays, based on the later, more focused research, with the working title, It’s a Wonderful Life, due to be published in late 2008.
What is the big question his team has been addressing? “We begin with: What is thrift? Because it’s a contentious term, it’s often defined by those who don’t like it. It has fallen out of the public conversation, but it is a venerable word. Chaucer used it. It’s a very old English word.”
Does thrift have a spiritual dimension? “Absolutely. The spiritual dimension of thrift is central because, if you peel it back, thrift is really an attempt to use somewhat secular language to rearticulate a doctrine which, in religious traditions, is called stewardship. The central idea is that what we have is not ours alone, that we are stewards of gifts that are not our personal property … and we hold these gifts in trust and have moral obligations to treat them with respect and pass them on.”
His findings show that this religious principle, articulated by John Wesley and others, was secularized by Benjamin Franklin and similar lay thinkers in the 18th century, so that it became the concept of the common good rather than a gift of God. This program’s historical survey of thrift has included research into institutions such as credit unions, building societies, public libraries, and community parks.
But, whatever their historical virtues, contemporary Americans do not emerge as thrifty. “Of the three dimensions of thrift that we have come up with—industry, frugality, and trusteeship—Americans do well in hard work, but not the other two categories.” Because of the credit crisis, Americans are once more adopting attitudes of thrift, but are doing so out of necessity. True thrift, insists Blankenhorn, “is more of a voluntary practice, it’s a virtue, it’s a discipline, it’s a good thing—you don’t just do it grudgingly, you do it because you know that this leads to good outcomes for you.”
There has already been a conference to discuss the program’s early research papers. The final conclusions of the project were presented in a report to the nation and released at a press event in Washington, D.C. on May 13, 2008. Blankenhorn brings a missionary zeal to his determination to reintroduce the topic of thrift into public discourse in America and he is proud of the contrarian stance his team has taken, against contemporary fiscal orthodoxy, to promote what he calls “this against-the-grain recovery of something that’s been ignored and disdained.”
The times may be favorable to his endeavor, with economic recession concentrating minds. “There’s a sense of the need for sobriety in our national fiscal affairs.” The current difficulties could encourage Americans to cultivate once again a virtue that their ancestors embraced intuitively. As Blankenhorn says, “It’s actually the pathway to thriving.”