Despite an economic recovery this past year, hostility remains trained on Wall Street, business, profits and the rich, whether by populists from the left and right, or by capitalism’s traditional haters among politicians and journalists. The Economist just ran a column titled “The Filthy Rich,” which declares that since the rich are “unloved and unwanted” they should “hide or support a charity.” The hatred of wealth-makers is ubiquitous–yet people wonder why is capital (loan institutions) on strike.
Yet while capitalism was being credited as “victory” over socialism a mere two decades ago, it now stands convicted without a trial, amid a revived eagerness for socialist schemes. Not even today’s Tea Party movement seems committed to capitalism in any deep sense.
In short, where have all the capitalists gone? The beginning of an answer might be found in the curious phenomenon that a “socialist” today means an advocate for the political-economic system of socialism as a moral ideal, yet a “capitalist” means a Wall Street financier, venture capitalist or entrepreneur–not an advocate of the political-economic system of capitalism as a moral ideal.
Indeed, most of the world’s wealthiest people–for example, George Soros, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates–are “liberals” who advocate for an ever bigger, more intrusive state. Most people distrust the wealthy for making so much money, yet tolerate or cheer them on for giving it away or lobbying for still-higher tax rates.
That the concept “capitalist” today is still largely non-ideological or amoral reflects a deeper bias (especially among intellectuals who claim the rich are guilty and the rich who view themselves as guilty because the intellectuals say so): that capitalism is not and cannot be moral, at least not on Judeo-Christian grounds. Thus in spite of its vast practical benefits–its promotion of peace, prosperity and culture–capitalism is deeply distrusted, by liberals and conservatives alike, precisely because it is secular, materialist and individualistic.
Capitalism embodies the life-enhancing, wealth-creating ethic of rational self-interest–of egoism, of “greed,” if you will–which is perhaps most blatantly manifested in the profit motive. So long as this humane ethic is distrusted or despised, capitalism will suffer unearned blame for any social-economic ill.
Both the enemies and friends of capitalism concede its productive prowess, yet also disdain its morals, as one can see in as varied a group as Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek and President Barack Obama.
Capitalism immorally “set up that single, unconscionable freedom–free trade,” and this “evil” system was doomed to fail on practical grounds, Marx insisted, by creating “too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” Private property must be abolished, he said, despite its vast power to create a productive civilization, because “the right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same,” and it is a right “without regard for other men,” hence “the right of selfishness.” Capitalism must “fail” because it is “evil.
|John Maynard Keynes|
Yet beware also the conservatives, who today argue as the late Friedrich Hayek once did. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), where he warned, correctly, that the seemingly benign welfare state can lead to a totalitarian state, Hayek also complained of pro-capitalists who with “wooden insistence” defended “the principle of laissez-faire.” For Hayek, as for leftists, “the desire for a collectivist system springs from high moral motives,” where “high” motives means those “above,” beyond and opposed to the motive of self-interest and the individualist ethic, the capitalist morals which are presumed to be low, vulgar, and crude. Such an unwarranted apologetic for capitalism could never constitute even a speed-bump on the road to serfdom.
Obama is only the latest to concede capitalism’s productive power, while adamantly opposing its morals. “The reason we’ve got an unparalleled standard of living in the history of the world,” he said recently, “is because we’ve got a free market that’s dynamic and entrepreneurial, and that free market has to be nurtured and cultivated.” All that’s true enough–to the extent we’ve had freedom in markets. But Obama’s policies, like those of his predecessor, only stifle markets instead of nurturing them. Obama has said capitalism’s profit motive is corrupting, its wealth distribution is “unjust” and its financiers are “fat cats.” As with Marx, Keynes and Hayek, such biases reflect a deep disdain for capitalism’s morals.
The collapse of socialist regimes two decades ago didn’t mean capitalism was finally being hailed for its many virtues; the historic event only merely reminded people of capitalism’s productive ability–an ability that already long-proven and long-acknowledged even by its worst enemies. Persistent animosity toward capitalism today rests on moral, not practical grounds. Unless rational self-interest is understood as the one moral code consistent with genuine humanity, and the moral estimate of capitalism thus improves, socialism will keep making comebacks, despite its deep and dark record of human misery.