Alain de Botton, author, philosopher and founder of the School of Life, gives us his take on closing the savings gap, via medieval saints, Spartans and Adam Smith.
This essay was written for Aviva's Future Prosperity Panel, a collection of thinkers Aviva brought together to tackle the savings problem. View the rest of the contributions here.
We can frankly admit that to be described as a "saver" is little short of an insult.
Around the saver there hover associations of miserliness, excessive caution, bloodlessness, renunciation and timidity.
This is a small part of a larger, perplexing phenomenon of the modern world, whereby many apparently good and virtuous patterns of behaviour have become awkward and dispiriting concepts, whereas degeneracy and evil bask in a peculiar glamour.
It is proof of how perverse the situation has become that the highest term of praise for many of the young is now "wicked".
Saving properly understood should not suggest a dour mentality focused on needless prudence.
The accumulation of capital is what makes possible an existence marked by fullness, passion, creativity, generosity, sensory delight and rapture.
Therefore, it should be a joyful term evoking the most intelligent, stylish, ambitious and great-souled individuals we know.
What we are facing is therefore the need to alter perceptions of values rather than values themselves. It is easy to despair at the challenge.
However, history shows we have reasons to be optimistic. Every society holds certain kinds of people in high esteem while condemning or ignoring others, for having the wrong skills or patterns of behaviour.
Although a decision about who deserves glamour is never unanimously accepted, there is usually sufficient agreement for one to be able to speak of an archetypal "successful" or even "ideal" human type in the eyes of a community.
Yet this definition of success is far from permanent or universal. We have not always demeaned saving, nor do we need to forever into the future.
For example, the most honoured members of Ancient Spartan society were men, and in particular fighting, aggressive men, with large muscles, little interest in family life, distaste for all business and enthusiasm for killing foreigners, especially Athenians, on the battlefield. The fighters of Sparta never used money, let alone accumulated it.
Or take medieval Christianity. It carried out the extraordinary feat of making poverty glamorous, one of the few times any movement in the West managed to do so.
Christian saints shunned all material goods: Saint Hilarion grew famous for living in a cell five foot by four foot; Saint Francis of Assisi claimed he was married to "Lady Poverty". He and his followers lived in wattle and daub huts, had no tables or chairs and slept on the floor.
These examples are deliberately extreme, but they reveal a basic and inspiring point: ideals are far from being cast in stone.
How are attitudes altered? A great book and some images and arguments have usually been sufficient to provide viable models for others to follow.
Nietzsche observed the phenomenon portentously known as the Italian Renaissance, which we might imagine to have been engineered by innumerable actors, was in fact the work of only about a hundred people.
What helps to change values is, in the broadest sense, advertising.
Although the noun has become one of the more creepy in our lexicon, affected by the sinister or doubtful ends towards which certain historical regimes and corporations have put it to work, advertising is a neutral concept in its essence, suggesting merely influence rather than any particular direction for it.
We can make advertising synonymous with the enhancement of our receptivity to higher qualities: generosity, entrepreneurship, courage, and saving.
Intellectually, the way to defend saving is to draw attention to its connections with spending.
The task is to remind a society well versed in the advantages of spending money of the fact that to save is not the opposite of spending, it is the precondition of spending, and therefore of all generosity.
In order to solidify this argument, we need only to turn to both the greatest economist and the greatest defender of saving in the history of the capitalist doctrine.
In The Wealth of Nations, the most beguiling defence of saving ever written, Adam Smith began his work by admitting saving money almost never made anyone happy in and of itself:
"Accumulating riches leave a man always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow."
But at the same time, Smith expressed deep gratitude that people do save, because it is on this basis they are able to invest, spend money and employ others.
The whole of civilization, and the welfare of all societies, depends on peoples' ability to accumulate capital.
In economic theories of old, savers had been condemned for "hoarding", for taking too large a share of what was thought to be a finite pool of national wealth.
But this was to forget there was no finite pool of wealth, and as soon as someone becomes an investor, that person is essentially, without even any conscious desire to be "nice" to anyone, recycling capital and benefiting others.
It is the task of organisations that wish to promote saving to remind us of the brute facts of capitalist economics. Use advertising to reconnect saving to its social benefits.
What we know we enjoy - feasting, partying, buying presents - must be reconnected to behaviours we wrongly think of as being opposite.
Saving too can be "wicked" - or simply rather a good and kind idea.
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