All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1984

Capitalism Versus Comte

If you ask the man in the street what “altruism” means, he’s likely to tell you that it’s the same thing as good will. Altruism, in the American vernacular, is taken as a virtue—as a charitable worldview toward one’s fellow men, as a generalized inner “standing order” to treat other people with respect and consideration.

As most citizens of most cultures do, Americans “absorb” their world-view from those around them—their parents, their teachers, their friends, their business acquaintances, and even from the media and politicians (although these latter two groups tend to fare badly in public opinion polls). Americans doubtless acquire their view of altruism in the same way. After all, the U.S. cultural melting pot is a benevolent one; it does not produce much hostility between citizens. We grow up in this nation willing to give the other fellow the benefit of the doubt that he is decent and deserving of good will—unless he proves himself otherwise by violating our rights through coercion or deception.

Given these conditions, given the wonderfully generous outlook with which he matures, it would probably surprise our average citizen to find that there is another meaning to the word altruism—a meaning which conflicts with his vernacular understanding and undercuts the essen tials of capitalism which bring him so much joy, opportunity, and prosperity. He would be shocked to find that for many of our intellectual “leaders,” altruism represents a concept used for attacking and destroying the essentials of a free society, including its economics.

How would we explain this situation to the layman? Given its sweeping scope, it would be best to start with a little historical background.

The Secular Outlook of the by Followers of Immanuel Kant

Few today realize that altruism—as a philosophical principle—was an offshoot of the followers of the German thinker, Immanuel Kant, as they attempted to build an entirely secular outlook on the world. As Leonard Peikoff reports: “The result was a new moral creed, which swept the romanticist circles of Europe from the time of the first post-Kantians, and which continues to rule Western intellectuals to the present day. The man who named the creed is the philosopher Auguste Comte. The name he coined is altruism.”1

Comte was not only un-American by citizenship, he was un-American by outlook—that is, his philosophy of altruism opposed at root all of the basic values which Americans share and which helped create this nation and its wonderfully productive economy.

According to Comte, “The medieval adoration of God . . . must now be transmuted into the adoration of a new divinity, the ‘goddess’ Humanity. Sacrifice for the sake of the Lord is outdated; it must give way fully to sacrifice for the sake of others. And this time, Comte says, man must really be selfless; he must renounce not only the element of egoism approved by the Enlightenment, but also the ‘exorbitant selfishness’ that characterized the medieval pursuit of salvation.”2

It is important to note here that just as most Americans think of altruism differently than did Comte, so do we regard the word “sacrifice” differently. Sacrifice in the American worldview is used almost synonymously with the word “investment.” This is implicit in such everyday phrases as, “Is the sacrifice worth it?” For instance, the other day on television I heard a man interviewed ask whether the over 200 lives lost (to the Beirut bombing of American Marines) was “worth the goal” of helping the Lebanese establish a strong government.

In economics, we often hear such statements as, “Americans will sacrifice certain luxuries” until their business or job situations improve. Even in our “national pastime” of baseball we have a well-known phenomenon called a “sacrifice hit.”

Look at what each of these typical uses of the word “sacrifice” does not say: It does not say that Americans endorse or enjoy sacrifice for its own sake—as Comte (and Kant with his virtue-for-its-own-sake philosophy) would have us do.

As further illustration, note that even in charitable contributions, most Americans are “sacrificing” because of a value they see in the contributions they make; the contributions are investments in helping their fellow man (whom they value for reasons other than the mere fact that he is a member of Comte’s “goddess Humanity”)—whether by ira-proving his health (by giving to heart funds, cancer research, muscular dystrophy associations, kidney foundations, and so forth), his well-being (by giving to food-distribution agencies, agricultural education groups, the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and the like), or even his education (by scholarship donations, grants, low-interest student loans, and so on). This American brand of charity “sacrifice” would have utterly dismayed Comte—because the sacrifice would not have been for the pure sake of it.

As Comte saw it, the true altruist “must place others above self as the fundamental rule of life, and that his greatest virtue is self-sacrifice [i.e., total sacrifice, with no expectation of returned value] in their behalf.”3

Given that Comte’s view of altruism and self-sacrifice are in direct conflict with what most Americans mean by those terms, how would Comte’s views, were they to someday dominate American life, affect the field of economics?

At the Root of Capitalism, The Pursuit of Self-Interest

The most obvious effect would be at the root of capitalism itself. Capitalism—as Adam Smith pointed out 200 years ago in The Wealth of Nations—depends on each man pursuing his own self- interest. In actual practice, Smith saw this highly egoistic pursuit not as an evil, but as a fundamental economic good: “One of the capitalistic market system’s enduring strengths is precisely its reliance on the profit motive which, like it or not, is a powerful drive. To many idealists the primacy of the profit motive has long seemed to be a sanctification of selfishness . . . . But capitalism has the overwhelmingly powerful defense of simple realism. There is just enough [self-interest] in most people to make them work harder for their own advancement than for the good of their fellows—a fact that regularly embarrasses socialist regimes.”4

In short, self-interest is Smith’s “invisible hand”—the motive which led men to dream, to work, to build in a free society; and to fulfill their dreams, to do their work, to build their businesses (or their “dream homes”), they had to invest capital; and in order to acquire that capital (if they didn’t inherit it), they had to “sacrifice”—to put off making purchases in order to save. The American builder—whether worker or businessman—was not in Comte’s mold of the selfless man. Quite the contrary, the American capitalist was of necessity supremely concerned with his own economic interests (which, some critics often forget, almost always included the interests of those he valued, especially his family, friends, and business partners or workers). If he wasn’t so concerned, the market’s verdict was harsh: he failed and sank into poverty.

Now let’s see what would happen if our society were to exchange the American vernacular meaning of altruism for Comte’s version; let’s go from the general to the concrete. Three examples will suffice:

1. The homebuilder would have to build homes—but expect no profit; he would have to give away—free—any home he constructed. If he did not, Comte would say, he would be acting selfishly. Any hint of return for his homes, any expectation that others should compensate him by buying the homes from him would taint the homebuilder’s virtue.

Of course, no homebuilder would stay in business for long by following Comte’s advice. The home-builder would quickly find all of his materials and money depleted and he would have to find some other line of work—in which, naturally, he’d be expected to make the same kinds of total sacrifices.

2. The farmer would not be able to sell anything he grew. Rather, Comte would say, he should freely distribute his peas and potatoes, his wheat and rice, his berries and asparagus, to any and all people who needed or wanted the food. If the farmer thought this was a sacrifice that wasn’t “worth it,” Comte would tell him, “Well, you’re absolutely right; that’s what makes it virtuous!” Clearly, our farmer would not last long in the economy, either. Farms—as any other business—re- quire money, equipment, and labor in order to operate, none of which the farmer could afford if he could not make a profit from the sale of his crops.

3. Even the average worker—from the coal mines to the offices of Manhattan—would find Comte’s version of altruism economically impossible. For under Comte’s creed, the worker could not, should not, expect wages or benefits of any kind. Again, such expectations would not be really unselfish—and to be altruistic in Comte’s world of ethics, you must give up all pursuit of self-interest. Thus, the worker would rapidly discover that he possessed no means whatsoever with which to buy even the minimal essentials, such as shelter and food.

Ah! But at this point our modern Comtean intellectual heirs step inwith their own economic “answer.” Socialism. Why? Well, they say, under socialism everyone would provide for everyone else—and consequently no one would go wanting. How so? Simple: The homebuilder would give the farmer and the workers shelter; the farmer would give the homebuilder and the workers food; the workers would provide the labor needed to cultivate the fields and build the homes. Presto! Utopian economic altruism—à la Comte. With this utopia, the Comteans of today would contend, we have ended selfish, evil capitalism and its “exploitation of man by man, the profit motive and the rule of money supreme, with an inevitable cruel injustice everywhere manifest.”5

Of course, many of Comte’s heirs are doubtless sublimely unaware their views of altruism—and rages against the egoism of profit—can be traced to this influential man. But that is not what would make Comte frown at their utopian vision. What would disappoint Comte would be this: Even in this anti-capitalist vision, the parties would not be acting truly selfless: The homebuilder would come to expect compensation in the way of food and labor; the farmer would come to expect compensation in the form of shelter and labor; the workers would come to expect compensation with shelter and food. Obviously, their altruism would be perverted; their sacrifices would anticipate payment. Such an economic system, Comte would be compelled to contend, would merely be capitalism reduced to the barter scale; it would be capitalism in sheep’s clothing—and therefore not good enough.

The Alternative is Coercion

Stepping aside from our hypothetical homebuilder, farmer, and worker, what happens in the real world when those unwitting admirers of Comte’s altruism, those haters of “selfish” capitalism (who, as Charles Dykes pointed out, cross the broad spectrum of modern intellectuals, including “politicians, journalists, university professors, and theologians”6) are determined to put their altruism into practice? What happens when they just “know” this creed is right—and everyone should sacrifice without expectation of reward? What happens is the use of force.

According to Bill Anderson, “The only way that socialism can succeed is for an elite to have total knowledge of what is good for others (who are assumed not to know what is good for themselves), and then to be able to force their will on that less-than-enlightened population.”7

For when the Comtean altruists find that Americans will not sacrifice their values for the pure “virtue” of it—when Americans keep demanding an answer to the question, “What for?”—then the Comteans decide they must take matters into their own hands; they must find a way to sidestep the average American’s demand for a return on his investment—and the only way to do that is with force.

This is why the mere appeals to sacrifice for “the common good” or “the public interest” have never been enough in America. Translated, those appeals are a re-writing of Comte: sacrifice for the sake of others—totally. Americans do believe in such “common good” or “public interest” values as a common defense for the public interest-but translated, that means: for the good, for the interest in common of all those individuals who make up the public and wish to see their val ues protected. Again, the American view is that a sacrifice must be for something, to attain or retain some value, a trade, not effort or energy thrown down some bottomless drain of ethics merely because they are told the throwing is in itself the essence of virtue.

The heirs of Comte—one might call them “old world” altruists—are aware of what they are up against in the American personality. If they were not, why would they constantly have to resort to force? For if Americans were indeed amenable to Comte’s altruism, there would be no need to force anyone; they would do it of their own will. When what men will not do of their own volition is nevertheless imposed on them, the result is not utopia, but—through economic information-restriction—economic decay. Or, as Ludwig von Mises so lucidly stated, “Socialism is unrealizable as an economic system because a socialist society would not have any possibility of resorting to economic calculation. This is why it cannot be considered a system of society’s economic organization. It is a means to disintegrate social cooperation and to bring about poverty and chaos.”8

A Self-Contradictory Theory

It is likely that Comte himself did not fully understand that his creed of altruism is self- contradictory—for if men are to sacrifice only for the” ‘goddess’ Humanity,” the question can be raised: Is not such sacrifice for humanity an implicit acknowledgment of an expected value- return? In other words, doesn’t even Comte’s altruism in some sense smuggle in the concept that a sacrifice serves the preservation of something—and doesn’t that sacrifice therefore become a form of investment to the individual who makes it?

I’ll leave the final analysis of what would be good enough to qualify as a proper economic system under Comte’s ethics up to the reader’s own imagination. Whatever economic universe Comte envisioned (if any) as perfectly attuned to his creed, to the expunging of the ego, it would clearly not be this world, not the world of American capitalism.

The economic lesson to be learned from Comte’s altruism is a profound one: The attempt to put his creed into action leads to the destruction of the free market. So, the next time you hear a fashionable modern intellectual raving about altruism and sacrifice—make sure you know whether he’s referring to Comte’s worldview, or that of most Americans. The difference holds the future of capitalism in its grasp.

Mises once discussed the differences between the outlooks of citizens of authoritarian regimes (the kind to which Comte’s altruism leads) on the one hand—and on the other hand, citizens of the liberty-oriented lands of the West (of which America is the best example). Of the authoritarians, Mises said, “all roads toward personal distinction were closed but one . . . They could try to make their way in serving [their rulers].” In contrast, he wrote, “The alert youth of the West looks upon the world as a field of action in which he can win fame, eminence, honors, and wealth; nothing appears too difficult for his ambition.”9

And that, in actual practice, is the precise difference between Comte’s altruism—which depends on force for its implementation, and the common American view of altruism—which depends on freedom—and leads to capitalism.

1.   Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels (Stein and Day, 1982), p. 83. (This book, reviewed in The Freeman, December 1982, contains valuable—and thoroughly documented—historical notes on the development of altruism and ideas which led to it.)
2.   Ibid.
3.   Ibid.
4.   “Can Capitalism Survive?” Time, July 14, 1975, p. 68.
5.   Charles Dykes, “Is There a Moral Basis for Capitalism?” The Freeman, August 1983, p. 474.
6.   Ibid.
7.   Bill Anderson, “Why Socialism Fails—Why Markets Survive,” The Freeman, December 1983, p. 727.
8.   Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1956), p. 102.
9.   Ibid., 104.

  • Mr. Ross is an Oregon commentator and writer especially concerned with new developments in human freedom.