Yesterday’s terrible fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral reminds us how quickly centuries of accumulated “cultural capital” can be destroyed. Oak timbers dating from the 1200s in the roof and spire were lost forever; some priceless stained glass windows appear to have suffered damage. As the saying goes, France is the heart of the West, Paris is the heart of France, and Notre Dame is the heart of Paris—and as such the sight of the iconic church ablaze makes an uneasy if simplistic metaphor for the decline of the West.
“Cultural capital” here of course means something far broader than economic definitions of capital as financial wealth or factors of production. Even the broader Austrian view of capital as heterogeneous production goods, what Rothbard termed an “intricate, delicate, interweaving structure of capital goods,” can’t capture the sum of wealth in a society. Capital ultimately is measurable, reducible to units, while the value of Notre Dame to Catholics around the world cannot be measured. We cannot quantify the cost of its damage or destruction in purely economic terms. But we can recognize a loss. Hundreds of years of wealth bound up in the beauty of Notre Dame’s roof and spire are now lost to us forever.
The blogger Bionic Mosquito reminds us that civilizational wealth compounds over time, and thus wealth can be material, cultural, spiritual, even civilizational.
…Think of wealth not just on a balance sheet, but wealth in terms of culture, accumulated wisdom and knowledge, the captured savings of time.
Accumulation and time are the keys. Healthy societies build and preserve wealth, which is to say they are made up of individuals who strive to create more than they consume. The people who built Notre Dame over two centuries, using rudimentary pulleys and scaffolding, certainly did not expect to see the end results of their work. In fact no single Pope, architect, financier, mason, artist, laborer, or French monarch saw the project through from start to completion. But they built something lasting, something of incalculable benefit to future generations. They created wealth lasting far beyond their lifetimes.
All healthy societies do this. The notion of being concerned with things beyond one’s lifetime is innately human. Humans are hardwired to build societies, and the most ambitious humans have always sought to build lasting monuments and modes of living. That’s not possible unless people work toward a future they will not enjoy themselves.
This was especially true for our ancient primitive ancestors, who lived very short and difficult lives. We can imagine how much they wanted to have lasting forms of sustenance: food, water, clothing, shelter — instead of having to produce that sustenance day after day.
In fact, this trait perhaps more than any other is the hallmark of civilization. We can call it many things, but we might just say healthy societies create capital. They consume less than they produce. This capital accumulation creates an upward spiral that increases investment and productivity, making the future richer and brighter. Capital accumulation made it possible for human populations to develop beyond subsistence misery. It made the agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions possible.
Technical know-how, artistry, and craftsmanship also represent forms of wealth which can be lost over time, and apparently have been. This article questions whether Notre Dame really can be rebuilt in quite the same way:
While architects have enough detailed information about the cathedral to pull off a technically very precise reconstruction, the craftsmanship is unlikely to be the same. Today, the stone that makes up the cathedral would be cut using machinery, not by hand by small armies of stonemasons as in the 12th century. “Nineteenth-century and 20th-century Gothic buildings always look a little dead, because the stone doesn’t bear the same marks of the mason’s hand,” Murray told Ars Technica.
Civilization is far more than just economics, but it needs economics. Mises cautions us that it “will and must perish if the nations continue to pursue the course which they entered upon under the spell of doctrines rejecting economic thinking.” So when we consider the sad spectacle of Notre Dame burning, we should ask ourselves whether the politics and economics of our age encourage or discourage building wealth for future generations. Even if one reduces the inheritance of western countries today to material well-being, the threat of losing what makes us rich certainly concerns us all. Short-term political thinking, coupled with demand-driven mania in fiscal and monetary policy, can consume our future just as fire consumed the roof of Notre Dame.