Some time ago, an avowedly pro-life presidential candidate was taken to task for owning stocks in corporations that supported embryonic stem cell research. He admitted it was true, but he pleaded ignorance: the money was in a blind trust and he didn’t know how it was being invested. He instructed his trustee to avoid such investments in the future. Why he didn’t issue such instructions previously is a question that was left unanswered.
Something quite similar happened in G.K. Chesterton’s time when a prominent politician was accused of owning stock in an armament firm. The politician made the excuse that he had put his money in a “combine” (the 1930’s equivalent of a mutual fund) and the combine had for a time covered an armament firm without his knowing it. As Chesterton prophetically observed:
In other words, as modern investments are made, almost anybody may have his money in some sense in an armament firm, or a business financing an armament firm, or a business financing an assassination firm, for all the individual investor generally knows about it. Now this sort of anonymity and anarchy, which the Communists extravagantly compliment by calling the Capitalist System, is obviously nothing more than one vast dishonourable muddle, into which no honest man should allow his own private affairs to slide, but into which all the private and public affairs of this great nation have been allowed to slide in the slimiest and most evasive fashion. That nobody really knows where his money is, or what it is doing, or whether even the total strangers who have taken charge of it have not handed over the charge to people even stranger, and sometimes very strange indeed – that is a state of things intrinsically and intellectually intolerable.1
The only way we can tolerate a state of things that is intellectually intolerable is not to think about it. And that is how millions of otherwise good and moral people support very bad and immoral things. They don’t think about it. Chesterton describes our buying and selling of stocks as a “mechanical routine.” We don’t know if we are financing assassination… or abortion. We don’t know what is being built with our hi-tech stocks or what is being ravished with our low-tech stocks. We don’t know if our investment, which may be promoting health and wealth nearby, is promoting poverty far away because of unethical and even oppressive business practices. We don’t know who is being hired and who is being fired with our money. And we have no control over the most obscene thing we finance: the gargantuan paychecks to CEOs which include multi-million dollar severance packages that these guys get… after they’ve run a corporation into the toilet. “Normal responsibility,” says Chesterton, “has been paralysed in the modern commercial world.”
This very pointed question of what our money is doing brings up the more general question of what is the proper perspective toward owning stocks. There are three different views on this subject:
- It is a financial risk that is no different than playing craps. Except that craps is more fun. In either case, you can get rich or go broke or possibly stay even. It’s your money and you can do whatever you want with it. (This is the view of most investors, though few would put it in quite those terms.)
- It is all a pyramid scheme—the epitome of capitalism, of everybody trying to get rich with everybody else’s money—and it will collapse. In fact, it has collapsed a number of times. No Distributist should put resources into such fragile, fleeting, and false hopes. (This is the view of what some would describe as idealists, but who in any case probably have no money to invest.)
- It is a way to support companies and causes that we feel will benefit society as a whole, that really do help build a better world and, in turn, a way for those companies to reward that support. To invest in something means to put faith in it. (This could certainly be described as a responsible view. But we don’t know if it has ever actually been tried.)
No matter what our view of stocks, we simply cannot defend investing in immoral activities. We have to pay attention. At a minimum that means working with investment firms or individual brokers who are accountable and trustworthy, and giving them clear instructions up front about what your money cannot be used for. Chestertonian Denny Hartford, a Pentecostal minister and pro-life activist from Omaha, Nebraska, urges:
Consider an investment policy that asserts the primacy of principle over principal … remember that purity is as important in your money matters as it is any other part of your life.
Or to paraphrase another observer about investment policies: where is the profit if you make a lot of money on the stock market but lose your soul?