The basic operation of every society is maintaining its essential order – the order that makes it the society that it is – in the face of adversity. It is the work of tradition: of transferring to rising generations the essential order of their forefathers, amended at the margin, or accidentally, so as to cope with changes in the environment.
This interminable project of social reproduction requires practical wisdom. And practical wisdom is possible only to the virtuous man, and then only to the extent of his virtue. Societies live or die, then, depending upon their preponderant degree of virtue. This is just as true for societies of multi-celled organisms – i.e., for men themselves – as it is for societies of men. It is true for any social organism: for the family, for the tribe, clan or people, for the church, for the guild or business enterprise, for the town or for the nation.
Thus the basic task of social existence, the quotidian moral housekeeping that is the sine qua non of successful social life, is the attainment and maintenance of virtue. The first and most basic product of society then, is righteousness. All other economic production is founded upon it. Worldly success – survival, vigor, prosperity, strength – is the fruit of practical wisdom, of applied virtue. Prosperity, then, is a fairly good indication of virtue.
There are to be sure in this Fallen world many ways to get rich by wickedness. Thus the fact that a man is rich is no sure indication that he is mostly righteous. But even ill-gotten wealth, such as that of the thief or gangster, is the product of a kind of virtue – a corrupted and ill-directed excellence, yes, but an excellence nonetheless (the competition among gangsters is keen, and ruthless; only the best survive). Likewise for the wealth of the corrupt executive or politician. The excellence of these sorts of men lies in their ability to game the system: to exploit the niches created by defects of the social order.
Such men are always with us. And indeed, they are not altogether useless, or they would never have succeeded at what they do. The corrupt politician succeeds by pleasing his constituents and his customers; the thief succeeds by pleasing his fences with the goods he offers; the Mafioso succeeds by pleasing the customers of his drug distribution system. The social utility of such men derives quite directly from their gaming of the system. In effect, their exploitation of defects in the system design corrects for those defects, or at least compensates for them. Their gaming activities are similar in some ways to arbitrage. Like the arbitrageur, the wicked exploiter restores some equilibrium or other, and compensates for a defect of society.
Can the system be gamed? It will be. Indeed, it ought to be.