“I have found a place where some Shire folk of Middle-Earth must have emigrated. Surely some hobbit blood runs through these people’s veins.”
Such were the thoughts in my head as I entered the Airbnb while vacationing in the region of my maternal ancestors. Zakopane, Poland is a tourist town nestled in the rolling foothills of the Tatra mountains with skiing in the winter and hiking, boating and other outdoor sports available in the summer. The wooden cabin we stayed in was one of two relatively newly constructed buildings behind the home and barn of our delightful host, Anna, in an area that was and still is a community of small farms. Driving though we would see an occasional cow or a couple of sheep in the neighboring fields. Caution is demanded with dogs, cats, and occasionally chickens crossing the road. The cottage was built in the Polish Highlander style with simple yet beautiful wood carving accents. One can appreciate a folk song without demanding the musical excellence of a classical symphony. This simple beauty evokes the same truth as the highest art, and when accessible in the everyday it elevates the ordinary.
We attended mass at the local church, which is another example of humble folk creating simple art capable of leading the soul to the higher truth better than many a more talented but arrogant modern artist. It was a wood building in construction much like a large barn but painted black and with a Byzantine style steeple on top. Walking inside one is impressed with ornamentation that almost excessively filled the inside, every inch of wall and ceiling filled with painted pictures or designs. The stern, short and stout babcia* sitting behind us completed the picture. There was another Catholic parish in town a short car ride away that was larger, better built, and could easily have eliminated the need for this small church serving this “neighborhood” community of perhaps 200 small family farmsteads. What on the surface is most efficient, however, is not always what is best. This brings me to propose what I shall call the Hobbit view of profit motive:
“The purpose of any economic unit, from family to large corporation, is to generate sufficient economic output to maximize joy.”
It is drilled in the mind of the student at the typical business school that the purpose of the corporation is to maximize value to its shareholders. Maximize profit. Increase the bottom line. In fairness there is the recognition that this is not enough. Corporations need to be responsible citizens taking care of all stakeholders including employees, customers and the community as well as the environment. One view of this is known as the triple bottom line. This, however, falls short of truly bringing joy to all we come in contact with and can still lead to making decisions that make the world uglier. I use the term joy and not simply happiness (as enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right to pursue) because it transcends simple happiness and includes the notion of redemptive suffering. One cannot be happy when one is going through trials and suffering but many a saint provide examples of being joyful even when sacrificing.
Perhaps some of the connections I made with the Shire were due to my recent reading of “The Hobbit Party” by Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt which discussed the political ideas presented in Tolkien’s works. This book presents Tolkien’s views as not just against tyranny but very much for limited government. Catholic social teaching uses the term subsidiarity for the principle where “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions (CCC 1833). Subsidiarity is working in Tolkien’s depiction of the Shire. Dwarvish history gives examples of the negative effects of greed while still giving positive example of working hard and industry. The world of Tolkien is not anti-technology but shows positive examples of the great cities built by Men, the medical knowledge of the Elves, and the industry of the Dwarves while rejecting the environment-destroying technology of Isengard.
Let us return to the Polish farming community example. Like the rest of the modern world Poland has only a small percentage of its population in agriculture, though compared to the US its farms are less efficient. There is fairly solid data correlating smaller farm size with lower GDP in countries. Based on this it appears that it would be more efficient to consolidate 200 five acre farms into a single much larger and much more profitable farm. But that would destroy community. Or maybe replace these small farms with a theme park to cater to the tourist activity in the area. This could be even more profitable. But it would destroy the community. There is other data that would suggest that small farms actually have higher output per unit of land but lower output per unit of labor. A possible compromise solution would be to keep small individual farm ownership but supplement income with other activities. In this example where tourism is an option, one farm is replaced by a restaurant with pizza delivery, another with cabins for rent through Airbnb. The community is preserved, sufficient profit is generated for a middle class lifestyle, and joy is maximized.
Though the vast majority of us do not live in farming communities, I propose that the notion of generating sufficient economic profit to maximize joy holds just as well in urban communities. It is just harder to discern the simple truths when distracted by the noise and chaos of modern life. Take the advice from Mama in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” I may be a complex man living in a complicated society, but I still have the soul of a hobbit.
“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10b)
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:10)