Part five in a series of eight on the morality of capitalism.
“All things are subject to the law of cause and effect.”
The opening sentence in Carl Menger’s 1871 “Principles of Economics“ seems at first glance little more than a truism, but it is an idea so foundational and so often ignored that it deserves great attention. It applies not only to economic activities, but to all human endeavors. If we seek to live moral lives and promote what is morally good, we ought to heed these words.
What often passes for praiseworthy is any action, or cause, whatsoever that is taken with a sincere desire to achieve a noble effect. The relationship between cause and effect is wholly ignored. But is it moral to take uninformed action that has no causal relationship to the ends sought?
To whom much is given
If I told you that one sick child would get well for every window you smashed, would you be a person of high moral character if you spent the night naively smashing windows with a sincere belief you were doing good? While your heart may be pure as the driven snow, doing good requires at least a genuine effort to understand the world and the likely effects of your actions. As C.S. Lewis said of moral busybodies, “They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”
None of us has perfect knowledge, but to the extent that we are able, we are responsible for using sound judgment. In the age of the Internet it would be hard to claim you didn’t know better for taking actions that hinder rather than help the target of your good deeds. A valiant self-education effort is possible in almost every field. To whom much is given, much is required.
Once we accept the fact that genuine moral good requires more than intentions, it becomes immediately apparent that capitalism has a leg up on every other economic system when it comes to the noble goals of poverty alleviation, peace and health.
The desire to help the poor is nearly universal. But when it comes to actual efforts to do so, there is a spectrum of outcomes ranging from absolute oppression to life-changing relief. We need to consider the outcome before we advocate a course of action. Capitalism is the most powerful force for the material betterment of humanity in the world. State interventions like minimum wages, price caps, foreign aid, immigration restrictions, and professional licensing and regulations do unspeakable harm to those of limited means.
Economic theory predicts better outcomes from markets than governments. Observation backs the prediction. The evidence is abundantly clear that economic freedom does more than government interventions (and private charity) for improving living conditions by every measure. This video gives a brief overview of some of the data.
Many people base their arguments for economic freedom entirely on the fact that it produces better material outcomes. But don’t let that fool you into thinking capitalism “delivers the goods” and ignores morality. I’ve addressed just a few of the ways in which capitalism promotes moral values in previous posts, but let’s not overlook the moral component of an improved quality of life for the least of these. If helping the poor is good, and if good intentions must be coupled with results, a free economy is in excellent moral standing.
In addition to achieving the ends of poverty reduction, capitalism also promotes responsibility in individuals. Since it is a negative system in which we can’t force people to do what we want, we must learn patience and peaceful persuasion. We have to be ready to accept the consequences of our decisions and learn to act prudently. Freedom allows us to become responsible.
Poet and theologian John Milton famously argued for free speech by saying that without it, the ability to become a morally responsible individual would cease. Milton said that without the freedom to choose wrongly what books to read or doctrines to believe, there would be no concept of choosing rightly. People would not become moral, but would be of a weaker character and less able to resist evil when they encountered it. There is no righteousness in not making bad choices that are not available to you. A truly free market leaves open the possibility of bad decisions, but any system that does not allow these decisions makes us less, not more, morally responsible.