Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why Capitalism Needs a Moral Sanction

“I'm not saying that a businessman should primarily pursue moral aims. That would be asking too much, and I suspect it wouldn't work.”—Paul Johnson, Pursuing Success Is Not Enough

Ayn Rand had pointed out repeatedly the futility of trying to defend Capitalism, the social system of egoism, on altruistic grounds. Paul Johnson, an intelligent Forbes columnist and advocate of Capitalism, is here declaring that the most you can expect from the noblest product of Capitalism, the businessman, is amorality at best or immorality at worst. To the businessman, morality is impractical. He is referring, of course, to the morality of altruism.

Mr. Johnson lists four values that he believes leads to happiness, but only one is considered moral, in his view. He advocates (1) the production of real wealth that (2) is useful and original. Both of those achievements are a path to one’s personal happiness, in Mr. Johnson’s view. The third is the creation of jobs, “and not just paid occupations…but genuine jobs that justify themselves, have a real purpose and longevity.” This is a strange statement. Job creation is not and cannot be a primary concern in the mind of a productive, entrepreneurial businessman. To make it so reverses cause and effect and, thus, leads to just the kind of unpurposeful “paid occupations” of which he laments. Job creation, in fact, is a consequence of the first two values, which are a consequence of the pursuit of personal happiness. But it is only value number four, the achievement of other people's well-being, to which Mr. Johnson bestows the virtue of having “a moral basis.”

In other words, the cause of the first three values, the selfish pursuit of personal happiness, is not moral. The moral resides in the renunciation of that which leads to real, useful, and original wealth, as well as meaningful, productive jobs. The moral is to embrace its opposite, the selfless pursuit of other people's happiness! Mr. Johnson acknowledges the tremendous wealth- and happiness -creating energy inherent in the pursuit of personal happiness, without which “the world would be not only a much poorer place but a far less interesting one.” Then he cuts the moral legs right out from under this life-giving virtue. This is why Ayn Rand called altruism an “inverted morality.”

“…[I]t is desirable, to my mind, that all business activities be rooted in Judeo-Christian teaching…”

Of course, from a Judeo-Christian, or altruistic, perspective, morality is impractical to the businessman (or to anyone pursuing his own productive ends on any level). To pursue one’s own wealth, success, and happiness requires many things, all of them selfish. It requires self-motivation, self-esteem, pride in one’s work, the courage to take a risk (which means to risk failure and disappointment), integrity, loyalty to one’s own hierarchy of personal values, and the most selfish undertaking of all…to think independently. Since Mr. Johnson believes the pursuit of moral aims by businessmen “wouldn't work”, we can only conclude that the above-mentioned character traits are outside the scope of morality, in his view. Yet productive work, the means by which man survives and thrives, is the end result of these very traits. What does this tell you about the nature of Judeo-Christian ethics?

What Mr. Johnson is saying is that Capitalism cannot be defended on moral grounds. And if Capitalism cannot be defended on moral grounds, then it cannot be defended at all. If altruism is the moral ideal, then morality is on the side of Capitalism’s antitheses, Socialism. Altruism holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, and that his only moral justification for living is service to others, or putting others above self…i.e., selflessness. Socialism is the political implementation of altruism. The futility of trying to defend capitalism on Judeo-Christian ethics is obvious.

The toll altruism is and will continue to take on capitalism and freedom will not be reversed without a revolution in ethics. In this article, From Flat World to Free World, Dr. Yaron Brook writes:

For all of capitalism's astounding accomplishments, the intellectual underpinning sufficient to deflect its critics has never been fully identified or understood. Capitalism and the profit motive continue to be viewed with suspicion.

The odor of moral suspicion that clings to capitalism helps explain why, decade after decade, businessmen are first to be blamed for the never-ending crises actually caused by statist market distortions. Whenever some new emergency arises, culpability falls first on greedy capitalists, whose profit-seeking is regarded as morally suspect, and rarely on government regulators, whose selfless policies are regarded as morally unquestionable.

Capitalism will remain the world's punching bag until such time as the profit motive is rescued from moral oblivion.

In a related commentary, Objectivist intellectual Harry Binswanger writes:

Yaron Brook puts his finger on the basic issue: the morality of selfishness vs. of selflessness. To live for oneself vs. to live for others…is the basic, unavoidable alternative. No compromise is possible between self-preservation and self-destruction. Egoism and altruism, are irreconcilable opposites. But captialism represents selfishness. This is the issue leftists cash-in on, and which most conservatives are afraid to face.

But it must be faced. Either your life is your ultimate value or it isn't.

The supreme value to you of your life is what grounds the egoist ethics. What grounds the Judeo-Christian code of self-renunciation? Why is anyone who is "non-you" more deserving of your time and effort than you are? No answer has ever been given. Nothing, nada, zero grounds the code of self-sacrifice.

Capitalism is a social system based on altruism’s exact opposite…rational egoism. And it is only on the basis of rational egoism that Capitalism can be defended. The fact is, when businessmen as well as any other person engages in the pursuit of his own profit and happiness through his own productive work and in
honest and voluntary association with others, he is acting in the highest moral fashion. Capitalism is the moral system, and the only moral system, because it is the system of egoism…i.e., of man’s, every individual man’s, right to exist for his own sake and as an end in himself.

There is no conflict, of course, between a businessman treating his employees, customers, and surrounding neighbors with dignity, fairness, and respect…and the pursuit of his profits. They are, in fact, mutually reinforcing. But it is just this…the honest, productive pursuit of personal gain…that is the wellspring of human progress. Look around. The array of products and services that enhance our lives, but that are available to us only through the efforts of others, and that we can acquire by trading the product of our own work…what is the moral motive power behind the producers? It is the noblest of all human endeavors…the opposite of “Judeo-Christian teaching…” the selfish pursuit through productive work of personal gain and happiness.

By declaring that the life-giving activities of businessmen do not constitute moral aims, Mr. Johnson is damning Capitalism more thoroughly than any enemy of it could ever do. Despite the tremendous increase in the standard of living of people at all economic and intellectual levels made possible by Capitalism, this moral and benevolent social system continues under relentless assault and faces destruction at the hands of the forces of a system that, in the 20th century, brought unimaginable suffering, mass death, war, and poverty…collectivism.

Mr. Johnson is a Catholic and an ardent defender of Capitalism. But by ceding to the Collectivist/Socialist enemy the moral high ground, he is proving what Ayn Rand discovered decades ago…that Capitalism’s worst enemies are it’s conservative advocates. Morality is the most powerful force on the battleground of ideas. No social system can long survive without a moral foundation. This is why the dead, bloody hand of collectivism keeps resurfacing around the world…including, sadly, right here in the nation of individualism, America. The system that doesn’t work, collectivism, is seen as moral, while the one that does work, capitalism, is seen as immoral (or, at best, amoral). Just ask Barack Obama.

Ayn Rand saw the root cause of the demise of Capitalism…the lack of a moral base. She proceeded to discover and to define what that moral base is…the Objectivist ethics of rational self-interest… and to dramatize it in the form of a classic work of art, the action novel Atlas Shrugged. Capitalism, and thus freedom, now has the bedrock without which it is doomed…a moral justification.

The Christian Right is generally supportive of Capitalism, including property rights, lower taxes, and limited government in the economic sphere. But this support comes at the price of an irreconcilable, and philosophically lethal, contradiction. Paul Johnson is an intelligent and knowledgeable British historian, and I enjoy reading his columns in Forbes magazine. But Mr. Johnson and all those who attempt to defend Capitalism while denying the morality of its essential characteristics are doing more harm than good. It’s well past time for capitalism’s defenders to discover the destructive weakness in their intellectual armor…the failure to uphold the moral virtue of Capitalism.

Concludes Dr. Brook:

Two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers blazed the path to a capitalist future by creating a nation based on the individual's right to life, liberty, property and the selfish pursuit of his own personal happiness.

For the first time, a nation's social system embodied approval of profit-seeking, the lifeblood of capitalism.

Those founding principles withered because no one could morally defend self-interest. For individual rights to prevail in politics, nothing less than a revolution in ethics will be required--a bloodless revolution--not of arms, but of ideas. You'll know that struggle is over when businessmen are finally viewed not as moral pariahs or ciphers but as paragons of virtue, precisely because they pursue profits.

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