No system is as revered and reviled as capitalism. Proponents celebrate the wealth capitalism brings to nations, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty around the world by billions: “Between 1990 and 2010, their numbers fell from 43% to 21% – a reduction of almost 1 billion people.” Most of the credit for this reduction goes to free markets and capitalism, "for they enable economies to grow – and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution."
When you look at these results, it is easy to see why proponents of capitalism believe it to be the most moral system. How can something that increases freedom, lifespan, and happiness by reducing global destitution be considered bad?
This noble intuition tends to change when anti-capitalist systems are in place and start racking up their own collateral damage. What is wrong with the people who wish to replace capitalism and free markets with central planning and micromanaging governments? It becomes increasingly hard to understand the reasoning and motivations of ‘the other side’ the more you look at the ‘bigger picture’ of graphs and numbers.
The downside of these bigger pictures is that details tend to be left out. The price of scale is detail, and vise-versa. The adage of the bigger picture is, ‘If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he can eat many days.’
Anti-capitalists’ hearts bleed for the people, too young, too old, too simple-minded or simply too beat-down by destitution to learn how to fish. They want to protect the people who suffer now, unwilling to sacrifice those relatively few people who are unable to adapt in the present for the wealth of faceless billions in the future. The dirty details, not the bigger picture, determine their moral understanding of systems and situations.
Or so I thought until I remembered that this noble intuition tends to change when anti-capitalist systems are in place and start racking up their own collateral damage. The same intellectuals who lament the injustice of capitalism defend Stalin and Mao. The intuition that the many shouldn’t have to suffer to benefit the few, can apparently be flipped into a Spockian ‘sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’, depending on the system doing the outweighing.
Individual rights, nonviolence, concerns for suffering in the present, all go out the window when the argument for the injustices changes from ‘he’s doing it for selfish reasons’ to ‘he’s doing it for the greater good.' What on earth is going on here?
The wildly popular science website IFLScience.com published an article about new results in the research of psychopathy. In discussing the scientific article, the IFLScience-writer casually made the following remark: “When you think about it, capitalism is an ideal playground for ambitious psychopaths – climbing the social or career ladders without a thought to those pushed out of the way.”
Research into the professions (excluding inmates) where you’re most likely to find psychopaths puts CEOs at number 1 - outranking lawyers, police officers, public servants and the clergy. This seems to present a problem to the belief that capitalism and free markets are the most moral economic systems. For how is it possible that the economic system that brought us health, freedom, and happiness is also the perfect playground for psychopaths?
Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute and fierce defender of the morality of capitalism, phrased the anti-capitalist attitude as follows:
Businessmen sit in stoic silence while their pursuit of profits is denounced as selfish greed. Society tells businessmen to sacrifice, to serve others, to “give back” – counting on their acceptance of self-interest as a moral crime, with chronic guilt its penance.”
According to Brook, the fact that businessmen add to the economic growth of society implies that their selfish reasons for doing so are morally bonafide. The bigger picture is economic improvement. The actions of those acting within the system that brings about this improvement must, therefore, be moral.
A system can bring great wealth but that does not mean that people engage in it because they want to make the world a better place.
So why did anti-capitalists only acknowledge Bill Gates as a moral person when he started giving millions to charity, and not when he grew the economy and provided thousands of people with jobs and value through his company?
The difference in moral status between Bill Gates the businessman and Bill Gates the philanthropist is that people presume the primary intention of businessmen is making money, while the primary intention of the philanthropist is improving people’s lives, allegedly.
Only when the businessman turns philanthropist can the public be sure of his good intentions, and consequently good character, regardless of the abundance of good resulting from his business or the lack thereof from his philanthropic works.
I agree with Brook that this is a ridiculous situation, but I disagree with the conclusion that the moral superiority of capitalism translates to the moral superiority of capitalists simply by virtue of partaking in it.
Immoral Actors, Moral Actions
If we are to believe the data on psychopaths’ preferred professions, the claim that capitalism is a breeding ground for psychopaths might be closer to the truth than Brooks' claim that there is no moral problem with ‘selfish greed.’
A system can bring great wealth to a great many people, and capitalism has irrefutably done this, but that does not mean that the people who engage in the system are engaging in it because they want to make the world a better place, and their short-term choices often reflect this.
The intended goal was profits, the foreseen consequences were unsafe sweatshops, economic growth, and higher standards of living.
For example, a company hiring kids in Bangladesh to produce cheap clothes for the western market does this to cut production costs and increase its profits. The reason they chose Bangladesh is that there are fewer worker’s rights, and wages are a fraction of what they are in Western countries.
It is certainly possible that the company hopes to improve the economy of Bangladesh by taking their business there, but it is a stretch to claim that the reason they moved production to Bangladesh is helping the local economy. The intended goal was bigger profits, the foreseen consequences were unsafe sweatshops, economic growth, and higher standards of living within a generation.
Depending on which of these consequences is more important to your moral sensibilities, capitalism is either predominantly moral or immoral, and capitalists are either mostly bad or mostly good.
The connection people make between the intention behind an action and the moral status of both actor and action is almost universal in discussions about morality.
Leave Personal Feelings Out of It
If we like someone, we are more inclined to agree with - or ignore - what he does, even if those things have little or nothing to do with each other. For instance, when always-smiling Obama deported 2.5 million immigrants, we heard the loud chirping of crickets from liberal audiences. Even though he deported more people than any previous president and more than all the presidents of the 20th century combined.
Conversely, if we dislike someone we are more likely to disagree with his actions, even if his actions have little to do with the reason why we dislike him. Take for instance, Trump. He announces his plans for deporting all 11 million illegal immigrants using his characteristic big mouth and boastful superlatives. Suddenly, everyone who kept silent when Obama was the deporter-in-chief finds their moral compass, all the while ignoring that Trump will be using the well-oiled deportation machine he inherited from his friendly predecessor to make good on his promises.
Self-interest is the driving force behind prosperity but that does not dissuade people from their negative intuitions about the driving principles of capitalism.
To see reality more clearly, it is important that we separate our personal feelings about a person from the actions that person performs. We don’t want to be the people who renounce capitalist violence but excuse communist violence. Neither do we want to pretend that capitalism is all fun, games, and iPhones for everyone.
We need to see reality for what it is and base our conclusions on our observations. Our heroes can commit evil actions and our enemies can create things of beauty and value. To quote a moral philosopher, “A pure heart cannot make a wrong act right; neither can an impure heart make a right act wrong.”
It is a mistake to ascribe the moral status and motivations of (some) actors within a system to the system itself. I can wholeheartedly say that capitalism is the superior economic and social system so far, based on results. I can also wholeheartedly say that capitalists can be, and often are, complete psychopaths.
Conversely, I can love and admire my socialist and communist friends because I believe them to have good hearts and genuine intentions. This doesn’t change the fact that I hold communism and socialism responsible, in part and in whole, for some of the most horrific events in human history and never want to see it implemented in another country, ever again.
A worrying consequence of the intuitive association between the intention of the actor and the action itself it that genuinely free markets, where people act in each other’s and their community’s best interest, are being viewed as universally anti-capitalist and anti-market.
Capitalism has established itself as a system that is meant for making yourself happy first, and other people second. The fact that self-interest is the driving force behind the world’s explosive prosperity does not dissuade people from their strong negative moral intuitions about the driving principles of capitalism.
A New Category
Young socially engaged people are forming a new category of human action, free-market anti-capitalism. Markets, guilty by association and erroneous use by politicians and journalists, are in danger of being thrown out along with all other ‘capitalist’ concepts. We can see this in the reluctance of the new generation of laissez-faire entrepreneurs to describe themselves as capitalists, individualists, or free-marketeers.
Luckily, there are attempts to salvage free markets from the moral scrapheap. Going outside the known systems of the welfare state and crony capitalism, young socially engaged people are forming a new category of human action that can best be described as free-market anti-capitalism.
A free-market anti-capitalist acknowledges the free market’s power to create win-win situations, but also knows that capitalism as a system can make for lopsided win-win scenarios that sometimes more closely resemble win-lose scenarios. According to the writer and inventor of the term, Matt Ridley, the beliefs of the free-market anti-capitalist can be described as such:
Commerce, enterprise and markets are – to me – the very opposite of corporatism and even of “capitalism”, if by that word you mean capital-intensive organisations with monopolistic ambitions. Markets and innovation are the creative-destructive forces that undermine, challenge and reshape corporations and public bureaucracies on behalf of consumers. So big business is just as much the enemy as big government, and big business in hock to big government is sometimes the worst of all.”
This philosophy is reflected all over Europe where young people are setting up cooperations and creating ‘commons’.
My generation knows that voluntary human action is the basis of all prosperity, economic and social. This excludes the philosophy of central planning, but it also rejects the extremes of capitalism by creating systems that guarantee maximal reciprocity for all.
Good people doing good things. Maybe, in the future, it really is as simple as that.