The Morality of Capitalism:
JANUARY 01, 1957 by WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLAIN
Mr. Chamberlin has examined the evils of collectivism at first hand and is known as author of numerous books, lecturer, contributor to the Wall Street Journal and many nationally known magazines.
There is a widespread belief that capitalism, or economic individualism, while it may be necessary, is morally somewhat disreputable. This has found reflection in the pronouncements of religious bodies and of individual religious leaders. There are fortunately not many ministers of religion who disgrace themselves and their professed faith as Christians by endorsing the bloodstained record of the atheistic Soviet Union.
But socialism under such beguiling disguises as "social action," "the social Gospel," "humanitarianism," and the like has made considerable inroads in church thinking on both sides of the Atlantic. The conviction that capitalism is contrary to religion and ethics was a strong factor in the rise of the British Labor party and its postwar implementation of a far-reaching socialist program, which has been only slightly diluted by the conservatives.
Influential publicists like R. H. Tawney and Harold Laski tried to dispose of economic freedom with pejorative epithets. Tawney spoke of "the acquisitive society." Laski characterized historic liberalism—diametrically opposed to what has passed for liberalism under the New Deal in its economic assumptions—as "the philosophy of a business civilization." The true inspiration for historic liberalism came from faith in human freedom and in Locke’s great trinity of natural rights: life, liberty, and property.
Whereas continental socialists were generally indifferent or actively hostile to religion, the British Labor party has always included a considerable number of professing believers, especially in the nonconformist churches. They, like some of their sympathizers in the United States, tried to infuse some religious and ethical content into the materialistic dogmas of Karl Marx.
Religious warrant was invoked for communism or socialism by pointing to such examples as the equal sharing practiced by the early Christians or the dedicated life of St. Francis of Assisi and others who deliberately embraced a life of poverty in order to serve their fellow men.
Such examples, however, confuse the issue. Under a free economy, which always goes hand in hand with free political institutions, no one is denied the right to practice personal self-denial or to engage with others in schemes of communal living. Paradoxical as it may sound, an idealistic communist can live up to his faith much more easily in a capitalist society than in the Soviet Union or any other country ruled by communists.
For communism is now an enforced system of hierarchical inequality, maintained by police state methods. There is no toleration in communist countries for the religious impulse which has been strongest in promoting voluntary association of groups of men and women in dedicated communities.
When Soviet agricultural experts visited a kibbutz, or communal farm settlement, in Israel they were amazed to find far more equal sharing than was customary in collective farms at home. What surprised them still more was that there were no armed guards, such as have been found necessary in Soviet collective farms to prevent the exploited peasants from stealing their own grain.
A free economy is in no way hostile to the man who, as the famous naturalist, Agassiz, once said of himself, has no time to be rich. Such men, thinkers, scholars, scientists, are its pride and glory and enjoy opportunities for development and expression which they would never possess under any form of controlled economy. It may also be noted that many who have acquired wealth under a free economy have given away, wisely or unwisely, in one form or another, most of what the tax collector has allowed them to keep.
Freedom Comes First
The issue is not over the right of the person as an individual or as a member of a group acting under some religious or ethical sanction to spurn wealth and live simply and austerely. The issue is whether there is something intrinsically immoral in the capitalist system and whether morality would be advanced by the reshaping of this system along socialist or communist lines. The answer to both these questions is an emphatic No.
The first condition of a moral order is freedom—the opportunity of the individual to choose consciously and voluntarily between good and evil. And freedom, in turn, has always been associated with the right of the individual freely and legitimately to own, possess, and bequeath property. One might paraphrase a famous peroration of Daniel Webster’s to read: “Liberty and property, one and inseparable, now and forever."
The emergence of Western society from the arbitrary rule of monarchs and privileged feudal lords into states where the government functions are strictly limited by the rule of law went parallel with the vindication of the right of the individual to acquire and own property. This issue looms large both in the British Civil War, which ended the dream of an absolute monarchy functioning through a royal bureaucracy, and in the American Revolution. Mention the British Civil War and one thinks of one of the parliamentary leaders, John Hampden, who refused to pay an illegal tax, "ship money," and later lost his life in one of the battles and skirmishes which finally gave the victory to Parliament over the Crown.
"No taxation without representation" was one of the slogans of the American Revolution; one of its more picturesque early episodes, the Boston Tea Party, was provoked by the insistence of the British government on levying an excise tax without the authority of the representatives of the American taxpayers.
The Declaration of Independence charges King George III with "repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states."
And violations of property rights have a prominent place in this historic charter of American liberty, along with infringements of the political, legal, and personal rights of the colonists. So one finds in the list of grievances which are held to warrant separation from Great Britain:
He [the King] has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
Cutting off our trade with all parts of the world.
Imposing taxes on us without our consent.
Security of Property
The men who affixed their names to the Declaration of Independence, pledging "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor," understood very well the close, inseparable connection between the right of property and the other natural rights of man. It was perhaps an accident that Locke’s formula of "the natural right of life, liberty, and property" is modified in the Declaration of Independence to "certain unalienable rights… among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
But, as is evident from reading the Federalist Papers and from other writings of the Founding Fathers, most of the leaders of the American Revolution would have subscribed to Locke’s view that the security of property is "the great and chief end of men’s uniting into commonwealths." John Adams, perhaps, spoke with clearest voice on this subject:
The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.
And in discussing the French Revolution, about which he had almost as many reservations as Burke, Adams again emphasized the double idea that respect for property is a fundamental condition of liberty and that only a government of limited and divided powers can avoid the danger of lapsing into tyranny, either of an individual, of the mob, or of an oligarchy:
Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist. But if unlimited or unbalanced power of disposing property be put in the hands of those who have no property, France will find, as we have found, the lamb committed to the custody of the wolf… The nation which will not adopt an equilibrium of power must adopt a despotism. There is no other alternative.
False Banner of Equality
In the Constitution, which still stands as the sheet anchor of the American ideal of liberty under law, although it has been subjected to some severe strains and stresses in the last quarter of a century, one cannot find a line that would authorize the leveling conception of equality, enforced by the power of government authority. The Declaration of Independence asserts that "men are created equal"; but the authentic American idea is that this equality is an equality only of opportunity, the right of every man to go as far as his character, industry, and ability will carry him. It emphatically is not that everyone should go equally far, with artificial handicaps for the more capable and industrious, and unlimited state aid for those who lag behind. There is no warrant in early American political thought and legal enactment for the practice of pillaging the thrifty for the benefit of the thriftless.
Thomas Jefferson would probably have been called a Leftist, if the term had been known in his time. But, as his correspondence shows, he fully agreed with the conception of a natural aristocracy, as put forth by his political opponent, John Adams, in the following words:
There is a voice within us, which seems to intimate that real merit should govern the world, and that men ought to be respected only in proportion to their talents, virtues and services…
Few men will deny that there is a natural aristocracy of virtues and talents in every nation and every party, in every city and village.
Jefferson‘s agreement with this view is expressed in a letter to Adams from Monticello, dated
I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society.
It was on this basis of individual opportunity that the
As Others See Us
The most brilliant, lucid, and discriminating foreign visitors to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Bryce—the former observing America in the eighteen thirties, the latter near the end of the century—both, on balance, found the moral fruits of the American experiment good, although both were keen and perceptive as to flaws and weaknesses. Lord Bryce, viewing America with the background of a widely traveled Briton, devotes a chapter to "The Pleasantness of American Life." As elements in this pleasantness he mentions "the general prosperity and material well-being of the mass of the inhabitants, social equality," and describes the Americans as follows:
Good nature, heartiness, a readiness to render small services to one another… seem to be everywhere in the air, and in those who breathe it.
I recently heard of another tribute to America from a much less distinguished person, an unknown Italian woman. A European-born American professor and his wife, motoring through Italy, stopped to pick up an Italian family stranded by the roadside in the rain. There was nothing about the car or the dress of the professor and his wife to mark them as Americans and they were talking in the language of their native country. But after a time the Italian woman said: "You must be Americans. Only Americans would be kind enough to pick up complete strangers as you did."
In the United States, as everywhere else, there are bad people as well as good people, swindlers, hypocrites, hoodlums, gangsters, and whatnot. But under the American system of a free economy and free political institutions there is no moral compulsion on anyone to be a scoundrel. People succeed or fail morally on their individual merits or demerits.
Crime and Consequences
How very different is the situation in the countries that have fallen under communist totalitarian rule. No reliable figures are available. But, judging from the reports of many former inmates of concentration camps, a considerable number of people sent there, besides political suspects, are hardened and brutalized criminals, guilty of such offenses as robbery and murder. Soviet newspapers in recent years have been devoting much attention to the alarming prevalence of drunkenness and juvenile delinquency. In these fields, perhaps, the moral score with the West is about even.
But where the score is certainly not even is in the immorality that is forced on Russians, Chinese, and other peoples living under communist rule by the State. It is a high crime and misdemeanor in every communist state not to be an informer of "counterrevolutionary" activity, even though this may entail the death of a close relative. Both the Soviet Union and Red China have made heroes of the wretched junior communist who has spied on his parents and denounced them to the authorities.
Since the official curtain was parted, revealing some of Stalin’s crimes, we have it on the highest Soviet authority that innumerable Soviet citizens, including highly placed communists, have been compelled under torture to make false confessions involving themselves and others.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, highest dignitary of the British Established Church, felt no hesitation in expressing doubt and dismay about the British landing in Suez.
But the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is an amoral robot, obliged to echo in his public pronouncements every lie put out by his atheistic government, including the one about United States employment of germ warfare in Korea. When the notorious "Red Dean" of Canterbury or his American emulators sound the eulogies of the bloodstained Soviet regime, implacably hostile to all forms of religious faith, they have to answer only to their own reason and conscience. No one has put any pressure on them to do so. And they are free to denounce their own governments with impunity, to act as conveyors of the incredible falsehoods made in Moscow.
But if any Soviet religious leader of any faith should call down the retribution of a righteous Providence on a regime whose whole record has been one long atrocity—from the Red Terror of the first years of the Revolution, through the starvation of millions of peasants, down to the massacre and deportation of the freedom-loving Hungarians—he would be an immediate candidate for the crown of martyrdom.
Socialism Also Fails
It may, of course, be argued that communism is not the only alternative to capitalism. But one is not impressed by the moral achievements of socialism where this system has partially or entirely come into power. Much of its driving force comes from two of the least amiable of human traits, hatred and envy. There has been considerable expression of disillusionment by the more thoughtful Laborites in Great Britain about the failure of socialism to bring about the moral regeneration which they expected. It has been found by experience that workers in nationalized industry do not work harder or more enthusiastically because the State has replaced the private employer as the boss.
The process of pillaging the thrifty for the benefit of the thriftless by confiscatory direct taxation and high "social security" payments—a process that has gone much further in Great Britain than in the United States—has not led to any earthly paradise, but to drab mediocrity and a considerable let-down in efficiency and will to work.
The rise of the free individualist economy coincided with the decline of old-fashioned tyranny in the form of the arbitrary power of emperors, kings, and princes. The decline of this economy has just as significantly coincided with the rise of totalitarian tyrannies far more formidable and ruthless than the old-fashioned monarchies.
The equation, economic individualism equals freedom equals all moral values, has never been proved wrong—least of all in our own time.