I don’t get many opportunities for this, so let me take them when I can. I refer, of course, to the exhilarating sensation of disagreeing with C.S. Lewis.
In an essay on good work, Lewis says this:
“Work nowadays must not be good. For the wearer, zip fasteners have this advantage over buttons: that, while they last, they will save him an infinitesimal amount of time and trouble. For the producer, they have a much more solid merit; they don’t remain in working order long. Bad work is the desideratum.”
That’s it. I disagree with Lewis about zippers. Well, actually it is about more than that, but hold on a sec. In the same essay, he says this:
“The only hopeful sign at the moment is the “space race” between America and Russia. Since we have got ourselves into a state where the main problem is not to provide people with what they need or like, but to keep people making things (it hardly matters what), great powers could not easily be better employed but in fabricating costly objects which they then fling overboard. It keeps money circulating and factories working, and it won’t do space much harm — or not for a long time.”
The actual subject before us is economics, and two other foundational issues related to economics. Those two other issues are what happens over time when market choices are left free and untrammeled, and then the dividends of sheer curiosity.
Manufacturers make zippers and try to sell them to diehard button users. Diehard button users can refuse to budge and thereby put the zipper guy out of business, or they can go along. If they go along with the new technology, a certain amount of beta testing is going to occur, and things should improve over time. In other words, as the years go by you should expect zippers to jam far less than they did in the 1950’s. Now in both cases, with both buttons and zippers, the end result is that your pants stay up, and the time involved in getting them on differs only by seconds.
But what about space exploration? God has made the entire universe fertile. What looked initially as simply throwing hunks of metal overboard has completely transformed our lives. Because satellites are up there now, I can, with a few clicks of a button on a remote, order Shakespeare or Gilbert & Sullivan on demand in my study. Now it is quite true that somebody else can watch mind-rot dramedies on demand also — but there is nothing new about that. Right? There has never been a time when simple Simon couldn’t go to the fair.
Also — because of those satellites — I can take my phone out of my pocket in a strange city, have it tell me where I am within a few feet, and tell me the location of the diner I am looking for. Then I can call the friend who is waiting for me there. Then I can look up a book in a library on the other side of the world while I am walking to the diner in order that we might have something to talk about.
The final lesson in both cases is that we cannot plan everything out beforehand. We have to trust God for the future, always. If we try to control the future because it makes us nervous, we will only succeed in achieving the disasters we fear. And what we call controlling the future is actually controlling people — a point Lewis makes in Abolition of Man — and thereby ruining their lives.
Grinding poverty can certainly come about through natural disasters — famines and so on — but the thing we really need to be on guard against is organized poverty, by which I mean socialism. Socialism is the drive to control the free choices of other people, in order to prevent them from doing things that seem stupid to the organizers, but which will lead to staggering wealth three generations from now.
I do not say this because Lewis was a socialist — he was far from it — but I do want to maintain that there are times when conservative curmudgeons can play into the hands of the poverty organizers.