This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 5, No. 4.
Editor’s note: Ms. Sloan is the first-place winner among twenty-eight entrants in the first annual TOS essay contest. She won a cash prize of $2,000 and publication of her essay in the journal. The topic for the contest was “The Moral Foundation of Capitalism.” Ms. Sloan’s essay has been edited only for typos and to conform to TOS’s style guide.
When Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, he knew that he had created something of enormous value with the power to raise everyone’s standard of living. What a spectacle it would have been if, upon completing his magnificent invention, Mr. Edison had sheepishly and halfheartedly offered it on the market with little explanation as to exactly what it was or why anyone would want to use it, even as he bent over backward not to challenge the merits of the old, reliable methods of illumination, such as candles and torches.
This, however, is precisely the approach taken by capitalism’s mainstream proponents—conservatives and Republicans—who neither seem to fully understand what capitalism is nor are particularly certain that they want it. They advocate ambiguous and even contradictory policies while giving the benefit of the doubt to leftists, whom they regard not as malevolent villains but merely as misguided idealists who are too occupied with their crusade to end human suffering on Earth to notice that their policies are impractical and counterproductive. These starry-eyed visionaries of the left should stop trying to create “Heaven on Earth” and recognize that such a feat is impossible: Only God can create Heaven, and we have to wait until we die to get there. For now, while we are stuck here on Earth, capitalism is the lesser of evils, and we should stop trying to aspire to anything better. Capitalism, though amoral at best, is what “works.”
Tragically but not surprisingly, this approach has helped to embolden secular statists on the left and religious statists on the right by granting them the moral high ground and allowing them to obscure the meaning of capitalism while divorcing it from morality. To correct these enormous errors and moral defaults, one who wishes to defend capitalism effectively must first understand what this political system is and why it does have enormous moral significance. To begin with, it is necessary to understand morality and politics and to examine what role each properly plays in a person’s life.
Ayn Rand observed that the primary task in regard to ethics (the science of discovering and defining a code of morality) is not to decide which particular moral code men should live by, but to determine whether we need morality at all.1 By evaluating the nature of man and of living entities, she arrived at an answer.
Man is a living being, and each living being possesses certain common characteristics that distinguish it from inanimate matter: a finite existence—matter can change forms but cannot be fully destroyed while life has a beginning and an end; the ability to act, though this action may or may not be volitional; and a distinct, immutable nature that determines which conditions and actions are necessary for the preservation of its life. Plants have no choice about where they grow, but their roots automatically take in nutrients and water from the soil, and their leaves automatically absorb energy from the sunlight to fuel the photochemical reactions that sustain their lives. Animals have instincts—automatic knowledge of what they require for their survival. When confronted with external stimuli, they act automatically based on these instincts; an animal is not able to act in a manner that contradicts its instinctive knowledge.2 For instance, a cow will not attempt to fly over the edge of a cliff to hunt for food, and an eagle will not try to obtain its nutritional sustenance by eating grass instead of meat. These creatures, like all living things, act in a manner that is consistent with what their nature demands for the preservation of their lives, and they do so automatically.
Man, however, does not have instincts. What would a man do if he found himself near the edge of a cliff, like the cow in the previous example? As formulated, this question is impossible to answer, because man’s choices are not automatic and his actions in a given situation depend on the context of his entire life. If the man is a hang glider or a BASE jumper, possessing the proper equipment, he may fling himself over the edge of the cliff with delight for the purpose of exhilarating entertainment. If he is a pilot, he might be standing near the cliff for the purpose of determining whether the conditions are proper for his airplane to take off, so that he can soar safely over the chasm below and the landscape beyond. If he is a rock climber, he could be looking down with proud satisfaction at the sheer wall of rock he has conquered. A hiker may stop to admire the beauty of the landscape from his elevated vantage point but would know to avoid wandering too close to the edge. This is by no means an exhaustive list of possibilities for how and why a man might find himself near a cliff, which actions are possible to him once he is there, which of these actions he should choose, and which he will choose. People have no automatic programming that determines in advance the right thing to do in a given situation. By the awesome gifts of consciousness and free will, man has a range of choices and possibilities infinitely greater than those of any other living being on Earth.
With this freedom comes a great responsibility, however. Because man is not limited to act in an automatic, instinctive manner, he also does not automatically know which courses of action will enhance his life and which will destroy it. In fact, he is capable even of choosing his own destruction, as evidenced by much of recorded human history. Because his choices are not automatic, man must discover a means of choosing and a standard by which to evaluate his choice. Because the choices are so numerous and complex, the means for choosing must be abstract, logical, and systematic. Because his means of choosing is not infallible, the proper choice is unique to each individual depending on the context of his life. And because he will bear the consequences, each individual must discover his own code to guide the choices of his life, apply this code as he sees fit in a given situation, and act accordingly. This is a code of morality. As Ayn Rand explained, “Morality is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.”3 She also observed that the means by which man discovers such a code, his primary tool for survival, is reason.4
Man’s nature requires each individual to think critically and act in accordance with his own rational judgment for his own sake, evaluating his choices using the life proper to a human being as the standard, with his own life and happiness as his ultimate end. This summarizes a particular moral code called rational selfishness.5 Because the survival of an individual is not automatically guaranteed by his nature, he needs to support himself by engaging in productive activities to the best of his ability. These two moral values, reason and productivity, are necessary for everyone; this applies even to a recluse who lives in total isolation and never encounters another human being in all the days of his life. It is important to note this, because an enormously pervasive misconception is that morality is a social phenomenon—usually taken to be a joyless burden—that has no relevance to one’s life outside the context of participation in a society.
Though not the essential component of a proper system of morality, participation in some kind of society is a fact of life for almost every human being, and with good reason: The economic benefits from the division of labor, the availability of knowledge discovered by others in a vast array of fields, and the simple joy of making friends and enjoying their company are just a sampling of the values one obtains from living in a society among others. Just as he needs a code of morality to deal successfully with any other area of life, so man needs to apply this code to his relationships with other people; and large groups that comprise nations need to establish societal codes that govern their interactions. This is the purpose of politics. Ayn Rand summarized this by writing that “[t]he answers given by ethics determine how men should treat other men, and this determines the fourth branch of philosophy: politics, which defines the principles of a proper social system.”6
When people interact, there are essentially two different means by which they can do so: reason or force. Reason is the primary tool by which men survive, while force is the means by which one man imposes his will on another, forcing the victim to act against his rational judgment and thereby cutting off this victim from his ability to live. Force is the primary tool of destruction and death, and is only proper in retaliation against force.
If a man chooses to deal with others by means of reason, he is compelled to persuade those with whom he wishes to associate, using logic applied to provable facts of reality, and he ultimately has to accept that people will sometimes disagree with him and that they must be left free to pursue their own course, independent of his goals and wishes.
If a man chooses to deal with others by means of force, their minds become obstructions to be smashed and destroyed lest they prevent him from satisfying his wishes via their efforts. But because man’s mind is his only means of survival, the thug who chooses to negate it can only achieve destruction—either by a violent confrontation with some other subhuman pillager or by a drawn out period of starvation and disease, or some ghastly combination of both, as in the thousand years of darkness known as the Middle Ages. If man’s proper survival is the standard of value that determines the principles by which he lives, then each individual is compelled to restrain himself from initiating force against others, and to deal with them only by means of reason or not at all, leaving them free to pursue their own lives and choose their own values. This means that, when dealing with others, each man must act in accordance with the principle of individual rights.
Rights are what Ayn Rand identified as “conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.”7 This does not mean survival at any cost; if, for instance, a man sacrifices his freedom (and that of his neighbors) in exchange for a politician’s promise that he will be provided for by the state by means expropriated from others, he will not achieve a fully human life. He will not achieve the confidence, independence, and self-esteem that come from supporting himself by his own honest means. He is worse than a common criminal because this monstrous little Judas does not merely violate rights in a limited number of particular instances; he systematically destroys them for an entire society. He will not achieve long-term material prosperity, because the government actions he supports destroy the means by which wealth is produced.
The proper role of government is to protect individual rights by the retaliatory use of force in protection of its citizens, from whom it derives its power. This allows men to live together in a rational, free society and achieve all the corresponding benefits, while being kept safe from criminals who want to steal and destroy rather than think and produce.
This is the system of government envisioned by the American Founding Fathers—a benevolent government that protects individual rights and thereby leaves men free to live their lives as they choose in a manner that realizes the awesome potential of man the rational animal. Thomas Jefferson eloquently stated these rights in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”8 These sentences are among the greatest political statements made in human history, to advocate the greatest political system achievable: capitalism.
One can observe the similarities between the statements in the Declaration of Independence and the principles of individual rights as described by Ayn Rand. The most fundamental right is the right to life, upon which corollary rights are based. Rights are conditions necessary for man’s proper survival; this means the survival of man, the rational being, as an end in himself—not a means to the ends of others. Liberty is a necessary corollary: Because his nature requires it, a man must be free to act for his own sake on his own judgment. Because man is not merely a physical being but also a spiritual one, his nature requires the pursuit of happiness; he must be free to choose and pursue his own values by his own effort. This means that he must be left free not only to work and produce but to keep the wealth he produces and the property he earns, as required by the simple fact that each individual has to exist at some particular place and time; he cannot float through the atmosphere like a shapeless cloud nor achieve a human existence by simply roaming the countryside as a nomad.
This system of government, “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned,”9 is called capitalism. Capitalism is the political system under which men are free by right to act in accordance with their judgment, pursue their own values, and keep the product of their efforts. Because of the metaphysical identity that human beings possess, men must live by a rational moral code and deal with each other on a strictly voluntary basis, recognizing that each individual life is an end is itself and must be respected as such. Capitalism is the political system that makes possible the life proper to man, which is why it is a moral ideal, not merely a lesser of evils.
Though a perfect laissez-faire system of capitalism has not yet been achieved, America in its youth came very close. It is clear, as indicated above, that the Founding Fathers recognized and revered the principles of individual rights. Although these rights may have been self-evident to the exalted minds of Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, they are incomprehensible to a modern statist such as Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi. The great tragedy of our age is that without explicit moral justification and defense, the very concept of individual rights has been attacked from both sides of the political spectrum.
Generally, when conservatives speak about rights, they refer, selectively, to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, although the particular policies they advocate often contradict these documents. An individual is free to pursue his happiness—unless the individual is gay and wants to get married, or a woman who wants an abortion so she can focus on her career. Man’s rights are granted by God—the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.
A stunning example of the conservatives’ valuing of religion above individual rights emerged in June 2010. After seventeen months during which the country was ravaged by an explosion of the size and scope of government under the rule—not leadership, rule—of the Obama administration, seventeen months of horror and real, immediate fear for the future of our country and our own lives, a possible 2012 Republican presidential candidate offered a promising suggestion. Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, proposed that the Republican Party set aside the so-called “social issues,” which essentially consist of banning abortion and gay marriage but also include such issues as teaching “intelligent design” (i.e., creationism) rather than evolution in public schools. Daniels suggested that “maybe these things could be set aside for a while. But this does not mean anybody abandons their position at all. Everybody just stands down for a little while, while we try to save the republic.”10 One could only hope that this temporary solution would become permanent. Perhaps former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recognized this possibility, which to him is a threat, as indicated by his impassioned response: ”The issue[s] of life and traditional marriage are not bargaining chips nor are they political issues. They are moral issues . . . this is absolutely heartbreaking.” This outcry was followed by a chorus of similar objections from conservative “pro-life and pro-family activists.”
It is encouraging to note that Governor Daniels, despite a record of “social conservatism,” seems to recognize the primary importance of repairing what he describes as “the nation’s economic woes,” as opposed to promoting a primarily religious agenda at the expense of individual liberties. However, Daniels appears to fall into the category of Republicans who want to live in a free society and consider that to be of primary importance, at least in the realm of politics, but recognize on some level that a political system must have a moral base and thus choose religion by default. These Republicans, tragically, lose out to the Huckabees of the world for lack of the moral convictions the religious zealots possess.
Capitalism is an essentially selfish political system. Where, for a Christian, is the moral righteousness in taking a stand for a system that enables the shameless pursuit of profit and personal gain? In fact, the Bible very explicitly opposes the accumulation of wealth: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”11 The rich would necessarily be disobeying God’s command to give away their wealth to the needy: “if you refuse one in need, the Lord will hold you guilty of sin . . . I command you to open your hand to your countrymen who are poor and needy.”12 Given this statement, it is no wonder the Republicans, even better ones such as Governor Daniels, are ultimately unable to uphold capitalism and stop the advances of statism.
An essentially religious government is antithetical to freedom, because faith—the acceptance of a concept without evidence—is antithetical to reason. If reason and force are the only two essential means for men to deal with one another, and reason is rejected, force is all that remains. “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own,” Thomas Jefferson observed.13 No advanced technological society has taken religion seriously enough to institutionalize it politically since the end of the Dark Ages, described by Elihu Palmer as the “long and doleful night of ignorance, slavery, and superstition.”14
In the face of a secular alternative, Americans will not support or take seriously a theocratic political system, but that secular alternative must provide a moral justification for its existence: though they may not be conscious of it, people sense that they must live by some moral code—their lives depend on it.
The left offers just such a secular moral base: altruism. “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification for his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.”15 The left rejects God and substitutes equally undefinable nonentities to which one must sacrifice oneself, such as “the public,” or “the state,” or “society,” or simply “others.” It is one’s duty to provide for the needs of others, especially if this entails a great sacrifice. Thus “rights” are privileges temporarily granted to individuals at the behest of the political class, to be taken away as necessary to provide for the “common good,” which is impossible to define. This abhorrent moral code attempts to reverse causality: the hardworking, virtuous, rational, and successful men are punished with a lifetime of slavery, whereas the lazy, the irresponsible, and the incompetent are rewarded by becoming the masters to whom the virtuous are enslaved. It is a direct assault on man’s nature and his life, without bothering to include God as an intermediary. It is impossible to be fully altruistic and survive, so anyone who accepts this code of virtuous self-immolation will suffer from a lifetime of guilt; all the better—guilty men are much more submissive than confident ones.
Because the murderous nature of this moral code would be too clear if its proponents opened admitted the corresponding obliteration of rights, the liberals have stolen the concepts of rights and freedom and applied them in perverse ways. “Oh yes, we are fierce defenders of human rights,” the typical liberal activist proclaims, “all people have the right to health care, food, clothing, shelter, clean water, child care, a job or an unearned income, an education, a subsidized mortgage, and so on. It is a crime for some greedy capitalist to hoard his millions while others die penniless in the street—we should not allow that to happen!” Similarly, they speak up in defense of freedom—freedom from fear of bankruptcy in the event of a major illness, freedom from concern over losing one’s job, freedom from needing a job in the first place, and so on. “A hungry man is not a free man.”16
A quasi-secular breed of Republican attempts to rebut the practical political agenda of the left by accepting the moral goal of achieving “the common good” and offering pragmatic arguments about how capitalism works better than socialism in achieving this end. But the left quickly responds by pointing out some destitute victim of that heartless capitalist system, or blames capitalism for government-created disasters such as the economic collapse of 2008 and the recession that followed,17 or the offers a counterexample to undermine the argument that big government impedes economic growth, which is usually taken out of context, but that’s OK because the pragmatic capitalists often take things out of context, too.
On taxation, for instance, Alan Greenspan has come out in favor of raising taxes on Americans at all income levels by allowing the modest tax cuts put in place by the Bush administration to expire. According to CNN, Mr. Greenspan simply does not think the government can afford to allow individuals to keep as much of what they earn as they do currently.18 This is a clear example of the collectivist mentality: The implicit premise is that the income and wealth of individuals is the property of the state, and the fraction that they keep is theirs not by right, but by permission. Pragmatic defenders of capitalism come to the rescue, arguing in favor of the tax cut renewal, not because it is the right of productive individuals to keep what they earn but because it is the best way to optimize revenue for the government and stimulate the economy. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner argued, however, that in the late 1990s the economy was booming despite the fact that these higher tax rates were in place.
Because the supposed pro-capitalists have voiced no principled objections, this debate is merely a technical argument over whose policies best optimize a nonentity called “the economy” without making the government smaller. With the enormous complexities involved, this becomes more an argument over the exact nature of entities depicted by a Rorschach diagram than a substantive debate—and both sides agree in advance that the ambiguous shapes must point to a solution that optimizes the “general welfare” of society, whatever that is, because both sides hold altruism as their basic moral premise.
Both Christian and secular altruism proscribe sacrifice for others as the essential component of morality. By their nature, men cannot escape the necessity to seek a moral code on which to base their actions in all areas of life. Because morality is so crucial and so fundamental to man’s life, people are terrified to stand against its dominant cultural trends; they are afraid to be wrong about something so enormously important. Capitalism, the political system of individual rights, the system required by man’s life, the only truly moral political system, is based on the morality of rational selfishness, and therefore stands at odds with the essential elements of both prevalent moral codes that dominate Western civilization. No one will build a life on a moral code of which he is not certain, just as no one will build a skyscraper on a pool of quicksand. Many adults will defend the wrong moral code blindly and ferociously, in proportion to the extent to which they had lived by it in order to avoid the terror of discovering that the fundamental basis for all of their life choices was wrong. There are answers to the cries of “why” that so many people utter with great exasperation over the things that are destroying Western civilization. Yet these same people consider it self-evident that it is our duty to sacrifice for others, and so unknowingly tear down the foundation of the system that could save them.
We are reaching a point where the political and cultural atmosphere in which we live is intolerable, not just for those who really understand capitalism and want to implement it, but for society at large. Though this may be an age of moral crisis, it is also an age of unprecedented opportunity. People are truly confused and fed up, and they want answers that none of their mainstream ideologies can provide. This indicates a historically unique opportunity to teach people a new moral code that is consistent with the freedom, happiness, and prosperity they desperately desire despite all preexisting moral convictions to the contrary. Ayn Rand’s morality of rational selfishness answers the modern cries of despair by effectively saying, “You don’t have to live like this anymore, you are right to want your freedom, you are right to want to exist for your own sake—that is what you are supposed to do. Stop sacrificing, stop giving in, stop being afraid—and start living.”
The various species of altruist and collectivist may have fear and historical momentum on their side, but the advocates for capitalism have an incorruptible ally: reality. Man’s metaphysical nature demands that he live in a certain way, an immutable fact not open to his choice. Ultimately, that desire to live must leave people open, to some extent, to consider the possibility of a morality consistent with life—and the more dire circumstances get, the more incentive they will have to do so. Every cry of hopeless despair is an opportunity for capitalism’s advocates to explain that there is hope, and why. Every smug proclamation of destructive political aspirations uttered by collectivists with an air of moral superiority is an opportunity for capitalism’s defenders to refute the moral premise at the root of the proclamation. The battle may be difficult, and capitalism’s advocates may be outnumbered. But, to quote from a great American movie, “This is what I call a target-rich environment.”19 This quote exemplifies the American spirit: the spirit of freedom, independence, self-sufficiency, eternal optimism, and rebellious individualism. This is why we, the “radicals for capitalism,”20 can win.