Why are we here? This has been the central question of humankind since the beginning of time. Every ancient religion and philosophy that survives the test of time has dealt with this question at its center. Historically, this was the central theme of classic liberal arts education. What is the meaning of life?
It isn’t my place to answer that question for our readers, but an interesting op-ed in The Wall Street Journal got me thinking. Clay Routledge and John Bitzan published the July 30 op-ed, “Free Markets and Meaning in Life.” Mr. Routledge is a professor of management at North Dakota State, and Mr. Bitzan is the director of the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth.
According to the authors, a growing body of behavioral-science research indicates that believing life has meaning helps individuals thrive. These individuals deal better with stress and with tragedy, live longer, and are physically healthier. This is nothing new, but interestingly, the authors found that a sense of life’s meaningfulness is tightly tied to positive views of capitalism and entrepreneurship.
As most of you know, I have presented many arguments in favor of capitalism in our various newsletters, and I will continue to do so. Capitalism has its issues and, like its political partner democracy, is the worst system there is, except for every other system ever tried by humans. With all of its flaws and sharp edges, capitalism has proven to be the only system that allows an individual the freedom to pursue her dreams and thrive. Milton Friedman said it best when he observed, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”
I had never really thought about capitalism in terms of existential meaning. I find this very interesting, and it makes sense. It fits with my personal experience. Every entrepreneur I know is relentlessly positive. By nature, the entrepreneur is optimistic. I know in my personal case, I have often been asked if I was nervous about the risk I took when I left my job at Invesco and co-founded Iron Capital. My honest reply was that the idea that it would fail never really crossed my mind in any serious way. I had to give lip service to such risk in the business plan, but in my mind I always said, “That will never happen.” I don’t remember, to be honest, but I probably said it out loud to some of our backers.
That does not mean it was not hard. The lawyers’ bills were larger than my salary the first few years of our existence. We have navigated through the financial crisis and the Great Recession, and we are navigating our current world of unrest. There is no such thing as a life of meaning that is free of hardship. It is the struggle that provides the meaning. It is easy to forget that in the midst of the struggle.
A few days ago I had a conversation with someone close to me about the world’s current state. She made a comment about what someone might think who was 100 years old, all the pain they would have seen. My grandmother was born in either 1900 or 1902 (depending on whether you believe the family Bible or her birth certificate), and she died in 1996. During her life she witnessed the last great pandemic, World War I, the Great Depression, War World II, the Korean War, Vietnam, social unrest of the 1960s, desegregation, the economic stagnation of the 1970s, and the Cold War. Personally, she overcame an abusive older brother. She divorced a cheating husband before meeting my grandfather. She and my grandfather both worked in a textile mill in the small town of Elkin, NC, to put food on the table for seven children in the midst of the depression. One of those children died tragically young in a car accident. My grandfather died of emphysema when I was four.
I got to spend a lot of time with my grandmother. I lived with her for a full summer when I was in high school, and went to college down the road from her home in Winston Salem, NC. I often asked her about what it was like to live that long. She would smile and say things like, “Well, we didn’t have cars when I was born,” or, “There was no such thing as air conditioning,” and she always ended with, “The wonders I have seen are truly amazing.” Obviously, she would be honest about the tough times, that is how I know about them, but those struggles made her appreciate all the more what life had given her and the wonders she had witnessed.
We are going through tough times today, but it is good to remember that life does have meaning, and it is the struggle that brings meaning. It is also good to think about the connection between liberty and meaning in life. When our founders enumerated our God-given rights, there were just three: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty was the defining virtue of their new nation, which made us capitalist, but more importantly, provided us with meaning. Their wisdom is a good guide for today. At least that is my perspective.
Chuck Osborne, CFA