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For the good of all mankind: Public culture and the morality of capitalism in the United States

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Public Culture and the Morality of Capitalism in the United States
Tobin Spratte
Bachelor of Science, Journalism
University of Colorado, 2007
A thesis presented to the faculty of
the Graduate School of the University of Colorado, Boulder
in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of
Master's of Arts in Mass Communication
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
UMI Number: 1481168
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This thesis entitled:
For the Good of All Mankind
Public Opinion and the Morality of Capitalism in the United States
written by Tobin Spratte
has been approved for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Professor Michael Tracey, PhD; Mass Communication
Professor Andrew Calabrese, PhD; Mass Communication
Professor Lee Alston, PhD; Economics
The final copy of this thesis has been examined by the signatories, and we
find that both the content and the form meet acceptable presentation
standards of scholarly work in the above mentioned discipline.
Adamant support for a market economy has long been a staple of public
culture in the United States. Nowhere else in the world do citizens rigidly
adhere to the underlying values of capitalism: liberty, self-interest, and individualism. However, beneath these values rests a profound moral sense,
one based on the predominant Judeo-Christian ethics of altruism. Because
of this, Americans are willing to support a market economy insofar as they
perceive the outcome to be moral, that is, capitalism must serve the good
of all.
Dedicated to all who value the sovereignty of the individual...
The mind of a man is the single-greatest treasure the natural world has to offer us. It is
not to be devalued, destroyed, or diminished. It must be free from constraint so that a
man may think, act, and create as he sees fit, even if only for his own end.
Special thanks goes out to all my fellow liberty-loving friends from the
Front Range Objectivists and Liberty on the Rocks, especially to Orson
Olson, without whose cocktail conversations this thesis would not have
been possible; to Diana Hsieh, for her invaluable knowledge of ethics; to
Jeff O'Holleran, whose friendship has more than inspired me to continue
the battle in the face of adversity; to Zach, Tex, Darren, and Isaiah for being there when I needed it most; to Pelka and Doyle for our conversations
criticizing American culture; to the entire Hawkins family and Ian for your
outstanding friendship and support; to Steve Bodman, who encouraged me
to pursue graduate school; to my parents for fostering intellectualism in
our family; to my grandparents, for your indispensable help throughout
college; to all my professors, each one of you has influenced me in some
manner; to Professor Lee Alston for his invaluable assistance; and of
course, to Professor Michael Tracey, without whose teaching, support, and
encouragement, I would be lost.
The American Ethos.....................................................................................1
The Relationship Between Capitalism and Democracy..........................3
Capitalism in the United States...............................................................9
Reconciling Capitalism and Democracy...............................................32
The Morality of Capitalism in America.....................................................47
Amoral Defenses of Capitalism............................................................51
Altruism: Is Capitalism Moral?.............................................................61
Capitalism: Ayn Rand's Unknown Ideal................................................86
Capitalism and Egoism.........................................................................94
The Morality of Capitalism and the American Ethos............................99
Table 1.1: The Prevalence of Libertarian Economic Attitudes in the
United States (2000-2010)..................................................................125
Chart 1.2: American Attitudes Toward Regulation of Business and
American public culture is built on a series of paradoxes. Citizens
often demand the United States government take action, only to later condemn it. The most obvious of such examples comes in the realm of
campaign finance legislation. In 2002, just prior to the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, 72 percent of the American public
supported the law, which included restrictions on campaign contributions
and banned issue advocacy advertisements paid for by corporations and
non-profit issue organizations.1 Yet, on January 21, 2010, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled the latter part
of the McCain Feingold Act unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment rights of corporations and non-profit
organizations.2 Fifty-seven percent of Americans (almost equally distributed among Democrats and Republicans) agree with the Supreme Court's
decision. Oddly, they do not understand the impact of the Court's decision,
as 52 percent of American adults also wish to place equal limits on campaign contributions for individuals, corporations, and unions. 3 While it is
easy to interpret this data to mean the public supports equal limits for all
1 Jeffrey M. Jones, “Seven in 10 Support New Campaign Finance Legislation,” Gallup
(February 13, 2002),
2 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. ___ (2010).
3 Lydia Saad, “Public Agrees With Court: Campaign Money Is Free Speech,” Gallup
(January 22, 2010),
campaign contributors, rather than to single out corporations and unions,
this Fourteenth Amendment argument misses two crucial points. For one,
it does not address the question polled, and further, it would still imply
that 20 percent of Americans changed their mind about campaign finance
law between 2002 and 2010. Rather, what this data truly exposes is the
poor understanding many Americans have of their own government and
even their own attitudes. Unfortunately, this public opinion phenomenon is
not isolated to individual issues, nor even to constitutional law. Indeed, it
permeates American culture to its very core.
For more than two centuries, observers and critics of American
culture have noted that the American ethos is an ideological oddity. It “can
be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.”4 Though such beliefs can be found in other parts
of the world, nowhere do these seemingly-polarized values harmoniously
exist with such prominence as in the United States. As Alexis De Tocqueville first remarked, nowhere else in the world do people demonstrate
such religious devotion to a national identity, an identity built not on borders, classes, or ethnicities, but on a singular, all-encompassing ideology.
The historian Richard Hofstadter comments, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.”5 As Louis Hartz observes:
4 Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New
York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 19.
5 Trevor B. McCrisken, “Exceptionalism,” in Vol. 2 of Encyclopedia of American
Foreign Policy, 2nd ed., ed. Alexander DeConde, Richard Dean Burns, and Fredrik
Logevall (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002), 63-65.
In a society evolving along the pattern of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian
eras, where the aristocracy, peasantries, and proletariats of Europe are
missing, where virtually everyone, including the nascent industrial
worker, has the mentality of an independent entrepreneur, two national
impulses are bound to make themselves known: the impulse toward
democracy and the impulse toward capitalism. The mass of people, in
other words, are bound to be capitalistic, and capitalism, with its spirit
disseminated widely, is bound to be democratic.6
Hartz adds that the irony of these impulses is that while in the modern
United States, they walk hand-in-hand as staples of what it means to be an
American, in the nation's infancy, these sentiments fought “a tremendous
political battle.”7 Hartz's statement about the stability of the American ideology is, however, premature. To say that the people of America have built
their ethos, like the biblical wise man, on a steady foundation of rock is erroneous. Rather, they have chosen for themselves an unstable foundation
of antagonistic values, one constructed of two pillars: the first, capitalism,
the second, democracy.
The Relationship Between Capitalism and Democracy
Both capitalism and democracy have a rich, storied tradition, in the
case of the latter, dating back to fifth-century B.C. Athens, in the case of
the former, dating back to the collapse of feudalism in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries. And yet, at no time in human history have either existed in a pure form. No nation in the world has ever been truly democratic.
No economy in the world has ever been truly laissez-faire. More importantly, no nation has ever officially adopted both together, and where
6 Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt and Brace,
1955), 89.
7 Ibid., 89-90.
elements of democracy and capitalism have co-existed, one system ultimately met its demise, save for one exception: the United States.
Scholars attribute this phenomenon to the antagonistic nature of
capitalism and democracy. This wildly-popular thesis stems from Joseph
Schumpeter's 1942 study Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, in which
contrary to the Marxist prophecy, the economist argues if left to run freely
without government interference, capitalism can “generate enough economic growth to raise all social classes to a decent, continually improving,
standard of living.”8 However, he does not believe “unfettered capitalism”
can survive in a democratic climate because the public, “led by alienated
and irresponsible intellectuals,” will vote for increasing governmental interference in the economy, greatly impeding economic activity. 9 With a
rope around its neck, placed on the gallows of public opinion, capitalism
will no longer function as it should; it will only be a matter of time before
the public votes to pull the trap door.
Countless scholars agree with Schumpeter, though their reasoning
varies as widely as their academic disciplines. The first of such amenable
theories comes from rational-actor models of political economy: If the
masses possess political power, they will vote in their own economic interests. Simply put, the socioeconomic system of any democratic nation
8 Herbert McClosky and John Zaller, The American Ethos: Public Attitudes toward
Capitalism and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 130.
9 Ibid.; Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 2nd ed. (New York:
Harper and Brothers, 1947), 145-155.
should reflect the preferences of the socioeconomic class with the most
political power (assuming the majority opinion truly rules, whether constrained by representative government or not).10 Douglass North develops
a more sophisticated version of the above analysis, arguing that “in a popular democracy, the losers try to recoup their losses from free-market
economic processes through the political system, where their vote
counts.”11 The best example of this phenomenon is Great Britain. After
“the working classes got the vote – in 1867, but especially in 1884-5 – it
became only too obvious that they would demand – and receive – substantial public intervention for greater welfare.”12
Such rational-actor theories suggest something about capitalism is
undesirable by the majority of citizens, something that must be reconciled
through government action. What it refers to is what few politicians willingly, openly discuss: the wealth inequality generated by laissez-faire
capitalism. Economists dating back to Adam Smith recognize that free
markets generate vast amounts of wealth. And for most scholars, there is
little question capitalism raises the standard of living for all citizens in any
nation which practices the socioeconomic system.13 However, the majority
10 See Seymour Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1981), 469.
11 Jonathan Hughes and Louis P. McCain, American Economic History, 6th ed. (Boston:
Addison Wesley, 2003), 367; Douglass North, “Structure and Performance: The Task
of Economic History,” Journal of Economic Literature 16, no. 3 (September 1978).
12 Eric Hobsbawn, Industry and Empire (1968, repr., New York: The New Press, 1999),
13 For those who dispute this claim, see Stanley Lebergott, The American Economy:
Income, Wealth, and Want (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976); Peter T.
Leeson, “Escaping Poverty: Foreign Aid, Private Property, and Economic
Development ,” Journal of Private Enterprise 23, no. 2 (2008): 39-64.
of the wealth remains in the hands of a few. Eric Hobsbawm notes this
phenomenon in Great Britain. “Before the First World War, the top five
percent of the population owned 87 percent of personal wealth, the bottom
90 percent, eight percent.”14 And in 1889, 86.5 percent of Britons were described as poor or struggling, one percent as millionaires, 2.2 percent as
rich.15 Whether or not such disparities are moral is a highly-contentious
matter, one which, according to Rousseau, has been subject to debate since
the first man first claimed ownership of the first property. 16 Regardless, the
basic fact of the matter remains: Capitalism produces great wealth inequalities.
A socioeconomic system that produces inequality, of course, is potentially a major problem for democracy, a political system predicated on
egalitarianism. Aristotle first made this observation in his criticisms of
democracy, noting that democracy in its truest form is “based upon the
recognized principle of democratic justice, that all should count equally.”
He adds, “If justice is the will of the majority, they will unjustly confiscate
the property of the wealthy minority.” 17 The Greek philosopher's admonition is not without warrant. The father of modern democracy, Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, in challenging the inequality of men, writes:
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, thought of saying,
14 Hobsbawn, Industry and Empire, 258.
15 Ibid., Diagram 41.
16 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on Inequality,” Rousseau's Political Writings,
trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella, ed. Alan Ritter and Julia Conaway Bondanella
(New York: Norton, 1988), 34-44.
17 Aristotle Politics 6.2.1318a4-6, 6.3.1318a25-26.
'This is mine' and found people simple enough to believe him was the
true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how
many miseries and horrors might the human race have been spared by
the one who, upon pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had
shouted to his fellow men: 'Beware of listening to this impostor; you
are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all and that
the earth belongs to no one.'18
Rousseau's proto-Marxist argument is very much a rail against private
property, and thus, a rail not only against aristocracy but also against capitalism.19 Property rights, for him, are theft, the origins of all inequality
among men. Because of this, the purpose of the just democratic state, by
Rousseau's account, is to ensure the communal ownership of property,
thereby, maintaining equality among all people. 20 To Rousseau, democracy
and economic egalitarianism are synonymous, therefore, democracy and
capitalism are fundamentally incompatible.
Many scholars have successfully proven capitalism and democracy
to be at odds with each other, and most of their theories are backed by historical data. Rousseau's work manifested itself in the the tripartite battle
cry of the French Revolution, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and though the
Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) asserts property rights, to say
capitalism survived in France would be a joke. Following World War II,
the nation embraced socialist policies, and even today, despite liberalization, the government owns significant shares in many economic sectors,
and public spending in France is higher than any country in the Group of
18 Rousseau, “Social Contract,” 34.
19 See Eric Engle, “Social Contract and Capital: Rousseau, Marx, Revolution, and the
Dictatorship of the Proletariat, ” (working paper, Harvard University, Cambridge,
MA, September 17, 2008).
20 Ibid., 9-11.
Eight. And Rousseau need only point to the modern French to show their
democracy's extremely limited support for capitalism.21 The rational-actor
models are exemplified in Great Britain (though governments since the
1980s have significantly liberalized the economy, ironically, mostly
through the efforts of elected politicians). And Schumpeter's asphyxiation
hypothesis, while not coming to complete fruition, has a significant kernel
of truth, especially in Europe, but even in the United States. Schumpeter
himself, only four years after the publication of Capitalism, Socialism,
and Democracy, writes “Government control of the capital and labour
markets, of price policies, and by means of taxation, income distribution is
already established.”22 He adds:
Control needs only to be complemented systematically by government
initiative in indicating the general lines of production (housing programs, foreign investment) in order to transform, even without
extensive nationalization of industries, regulated, or fettered, capitalism
into a guided capitalism that might, with almost equal justice, be called
His above prediction, however, is a bit hyperbolic. As much as government has grown in the last century, the United States is by no means a
socialist nation. In fact, if Schumpeter were alive today, he may wonder
why his prognosis was wrong, why in this country, capitalism and its values have survived.
21 Only six percent of French believe free-market capitalism works, 43 percent say
capitalism is fatally flawed. BBC World Service, “Wide Dissatisfaction with
Capitalism – Twenty Years after Fall of Berlin Wall ,” news release, November 9,
22 Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed., rev. 1946, s.v. “Capitalism.”
23 Richard V. Clemence, ed., Essays of J.A. Schumpeter (Cambridge, MA: AddisonWesley Press, 1951), 204.
Capitalism in the United States
Each year, since 1995, the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street
Journal publish the Index of Economic Freedom, which scores the economic liberty of countries around the world and ranks them accordingly.
Its purpose is to show the link between economic prosperity and liberty, an
idea as old as Adam Smith's 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations, though it
can be said that the list is a really an ideological statement about which
countries best adhere to the practice of free-market capitalism. 24 Every
year, unsurprisingly, the United States scores in the top ten, making it one
of the freest economies in the world. In other words, even by some of the
country's harshest critics of recent fiscal and monetary policy, it is by and
large a capitalist nation.25
As one would expect from a free-market nation, public support for
capitalism in the United States has, in its past, and continues, in its
present, to remain high. An October 2007 poll reveals that 70 percent of
Americans support free markets, and even in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis, according to a January 2010 Gallup poll, 86 percent
24 Despite its obvious free-market bend, the index can hardly be said to be partisan, as
its ranking of the United States falls and rises in both Republican and Democratic
presidencies and Congresses. Nor is it biased against ethnicities or nations, as
Denmark, who ranked as low as 34th in 1998, has since risen to ninth, and Hong Kong
and Singapore have ranked first and second, respectively, since the list began in 1995.
25 Terry Miller, Kim R. Holmes, and Anthony B. Kim, “2010 Index of Economic
Freedom,” The Heritage Foundation (January 20, 2010),
index/. Past editions of the index are available in summary at Wikipedia, “Index of
Economic Freedom historical rankings” (February 10, 2010),
maintain a positive image of “free enterprise.” 26 However, whether or not
the public truly understands what these terms mean is somewhat unclear.27
When specifically asked about capitalism in the same January Gallup poll,
only 61 percent of Americans report a positive view. 28 And another April
2009 Rasmussen poll found public support for capitalism to be as low as
53 percent, however, it is clear this poll was influenced by the fresh memories of Wall Street's investment crisis.29 When Rasmussen asked
Americans the same question exactly one year later, hostilities decreased,
with 60 percent expressing positive feelings toward capitalism. 30 But as
many public opinion scholars agree, the word capitalism carries a strong
negative connotation, often appearing only when criticized, even in the
United States, where business leaders consciously avoid its use. 31 One former Chamber of Commerce president comments, “We fear that the word
capitalism is unpopular.”32 Its practices and its values, however, are not.
26 Pew Global Attitudes Project, “World Public Welcome Global Trade – But Not
Immigration,” Pew Research Center (October 4, 2007),; Gallup, “Just off the top of
your head, would you say you have a positive or negative image of each of the
following,” (January 26-27, 2010),
27 A 1989 survey found only 35 percent of the public correctly defined capitalism. See
Robert A. Peterson, Gerald Albaum, and George Kozmetsky, Modern American
Capitalism (New York: Quorum Books, 1990), 120.
28 Gallup, January 26-27, 2010.
29 Scott Rasmussen, “Just 53% Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism,” Rasmussen
Reports (April 9, 2009),
30 Scott Rasmussen, “60% Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism,” Rasmussen Reports
(April 23, 2010),
31 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 102.
32 Francis X. Sutton et al., The American Business Creed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1956), 3.
“There is probably no people on earth with whom business constitutes pleasure, and industry amusement, in an equal degree with the
inhabitants of the United States of America,” writes Francis J. Grund, a
nineteenth-century Austrian immigrant. “Business is the very soul of an
American.”33 A recent poll shows Americans cling to this attitude as much
as ever; 95 percent of Americans have a positive image of small businesses, 84 percent think the same of entrepreneurs.34 And though positive and
negative views of “big businesses” are evenly divided at 49 percent each,
this figure should be looked at as testament to Americans' beliefs in competition and individualism more than a hatred of large corporations. 35 To
them, as will be discussed later, any institution that threatens the American
ethos is looked at with skepticism, if not disgust. To underscore this point,
far more individuals fear big government than big business. 36 Even in the
midst of economic chaos, to quote Max Weber, for Americans, “business
is indispensable to life.”37
33 Quoted in George E. Probst, ed., The Happy Republic (New York: Harper and Row,
1962), 7.
34 Gallup, January 26-27, 2010.
35 Also, to conclude Americans are tired of big business from polling data is hardly
prudent. Every year, they spend billions of dollars freely supporting them, which
suggests most people do not hate corporations as much as polls may indicate. For
example, in fiscal year 2009, Americans dumped $401.2 billion into big-box giant
Wal-Mart, a figure that matches more than 15 percent of the federal government's
budget, yet Wal-Mart endures countless criticisms in the public sphere. John Simley,
“Wal-Mart Reports Financial Results for Fiscal Year and Fourth Quarter,” Wal-Mart
Stores, Inc. (February 17, 2009),
36 Gallup, “In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the
country in the future: big business, big labor, or big government?”
(March 27-29, 2009), Thirty-two percent
answered “big business,” 10 percent “big labor,” 55 percent “big government.”
37 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Stephen Kalberg, trans.
(Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2002), 31.
Such widespread public support for business requires equally wide
support for the underlying values of capitalism, values the nineteenth-century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson perfectly summarizes.
Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. The man who
knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will
always be his boss.38
Simply put, they are ambition, hard work, competition, and individualism.
While recent polling data on the actual values themselves is difficult to
come by, surveys taken in 1958 show massive public support for all of
them. Seventy-five percent believe there is something wrong with a person
who is not willing to work hard, an additional 77 percent call laziness “a
sin.”39 When asked about competition, 81 percent view it as a path to “better performance and a desire for excellence,” and fully 88 percent agree
that “having to compete with others keeps a person on his toes.” 40 Desires
for success are equally high, with 74 percent calling themselves ambitious;
the same number believe that a person should try to amount to more than
his parents did. Though the survey data of these Protestant-based attitudes
(McClosky and Zaller prove the Weberian thesis quite successfully) is
more than a half-century old, many of the same values are still quite evident in twenty-first-century culture.
For example, when the Pew Research Center asked Americans
38 Ted Goodman, ed., The Forbes Book of Business Quotations, 90th ed. (New York:
Black Dog and Leventhal, 1997), 51.
39 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 108.
40 Ibid., 122.
which life goals are “very important” to them, 61 percent identify being
successful in their careers, while only 53 percent include marriage, though
61 percent include having children. 41 And when asked about their present
outlook on their future lives (“five years from now”), 49 percent of adults
are optimistic, only 12 percent pessimistic. Positive attitudes are even
higher among young people, as 72 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 and 60
percent of adults aged 30 to 49 report an optimistic outlook. 42 When
specifically questioned about their future economic prospects, these age
groups were again very optimistic, as 88 percent of Millenials (American
adults born after 1980) and 76 percent of Generation X (those born between 1964-1980) say they will earn enough in their future to lead a
happy, fulfilling life.43 All three of these surveys exhibit Americans' strong
commitment to ambition, particularly in their economic lives.
As countless scholars have noted over the years, Americans obsess
over their labor. Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, in a classic
demonstration of the Protestant work ethic, began work at age sixteen and
by twenty, formed his own produce-shipping partnership with Maurice
Clark. Clark later recalled that Rockefeller frequently held “intimate conversations with himself, counseling himself, repeating homilies, warning
41 Richard Morin, “Who Wants to Be Rich?” Pew Social and Demographic Trends
Project (April 30, 2008),
42 Paul Taylor, Cary Funk, and Peyton Craighill, Looking Backward and Forward,
Americans See Less Progress in Their Lives (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center,
2006), 3.
43 Andrew Kohut et. al, Millenials: A Portrait of Generation Next (Washington, D.C.:
Pew Research Center, 2010), 20.
himself to beware of pitfalls, moral as well as practical.” 44 While few
Americans can relate to Rockefeller's success, virtually all recognize his
ascetic nature, his self-induced psychological torture. Numerous “psychological studies have found that individuals often express feelings of guilt if
they are unable to work, or if they are unable to work as hard as they
would like to.”45 Several other studies have found a strong correlation between unemployment and clinical depression. 46 And other authors still
“found that making internal attributions for economic success was related
to increased feelings of happiness and confidence.” 47 These psychology
studies demonstrate people in the United States still maintain a profound
belief in the Protestant work ethic, a belief confirmed by surveys about
American attitudes toward economic inequality. When asked in 1987
about the reason people become wealthy, 95 percent said personal drive
and the willingness to take risks play an important part, 91 percent said
hard work and initiative are important factors, and another 88 percent
mentioned great ability or talent. And while substantial majorities cited
dishonesty, luck, and taking “unfair advantage of the poor” as factors in
economic success, less than 27 percent said any of the three are very im-
44 Daniel Yergin, The Prize (1992, repr., New York: Free Press, 1993), 36.
45 Issac Heacock, “Defining the Work Ethic” (paper presented at the annual meeting of
the American Sociological Association, Philadelphia, August 12, 2005), 3.
46 David Dooley, Ralph Catalano, and Georjeanna Wilson, “Depression and
Unemployment: Panel Findings from the Epidemiological Catchment Area Study,”
American Journal of Community Psychology 22, no. 6 (1994): 745-765.
47 Diane M. Quinn and Jennifer Crocker, “When Ideology Hurts: Effects of Belief in the
Protestant Ethic and Feeling Overweight on the Psychological Well-Being of
Women,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 2 (1999): 402-414.
portant, and a third of the interviewees said they are not important at all. 48
More recent data shows this belief in personal empowerment actually increased. In 1987, just 37 percent of Americans attributed personal success
to forces beyond their control, while twenty years later, that number decreased to 34 percent. More interestingly, in 1987, 44 percent of
Democrats, the statistically most economically deterministic party, thought
an individual's success in life is beyond her control, while today, only 35
percent of Democrats express the same view. And even among Republicans, these deterministic sentiments sunk by ten whole percentage points
since the 1980s. In fact, since Pew Research first asked the question, only
independent voters have become more discouraged with the American
work ethic, but even among this segment, only 38 percent believe economic success is out of their hands. 49 Clearly, the view that most men earn
their wealth through legitimate success, that is, ambition and hard work, is
still dominant.
A value closely related to worth ethic is individualism. Again, to
understand what this means to Americans, it is best to defer to the value's
nineteenth-century champion, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He writes:
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take
himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but
through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him
48 James R. Kluegel and Eliot R. Smith, Beliefs About Inequality: Americans View of
What Is and What Ought to Be (Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transaction, 1986), 77.
49 Andrew Kohut et al., Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes (Washington,
D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2007), 15.
to till.50
While Emerson's language is somewhat equivocal, its meaning is not. As
Tara Smith comments on the subject, “More colloquially, it is a matter of
making one's own way in the world.” 51 This is one of the United States'
most unique values, one to which her citizens tightly cling. Stanley Feldman and John Zaller's research on public attitudes toward welfare
demonstrate this phenomenon. During interviews about job guarantees and
living standards, “a high proportion of respondents invoked some value or
principle. Altogether, about three out of four people invoke [individualism] in some way.”52 While government-funding policies prevent the
authors from including verbatim transcripts of individual responses, Feldman and Zaller “convey the flavor” of respondents' remarks.
Individuals should make it on their own; people must make use of the
opportunities they have; people should be responsible for themselves;
people should just work harder; people have the right to work as much
or as little as they want; they control their own fate.
Dependency; living off handouts is bad; welfare makes people dependent; “if it's too easy to get welfare, no one would work anymore”;
people become lazy or lose self-respect if they are on welfare; “the
more you give, the more they want.”
People who don't/won't work don't deserve help; people who are poor
deserve to be poor; “if you can't make it in America, you have only
yourself to blame”; anyone who really tries can make it.53
Such remarks are consistent with the lack of support for strong welfare
50 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841, available online at the National Center
for Public Policy Research, accessed February 14, 2010), http://www.nationalcenter.
51 Tara Smith, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press,
2006), 107.
52 Stanley Feldman and John Zaller, “The Political Culture of Ambivalence: Ideological
Responses to the Welfare State,” American Journal of Political Science 36, no. 1
(February 1992): 278.
53 Ibid., 280.
programs in the United States, as well as earlier research by Kluegel andSmith, McClosky and Zaller.54 And such remarks have changed little in
decades, even among the nation's youth. In 1924, Helen and Robert Lynd
administered a famous survey to the students of a local high school, asking
them if the following statement was true or false: “It is entirely the fault of
the man himself if he cannot succeed.” Forty-seven percent answered true.
When the “Middletown” study, as it was called, was precisely reproduced
in 1977, the results were exactly the same. 55 Similarly, in a contemporary
Harris poll, 45 percent of American adults say the poor mainly have themselves to blame for their poverty, and 77 percent believe most people who
are unemployed can find work if they really want. 56 Americans, both
young and old, believe in the power of the individual.
Trying to prove the existence of competition in the United States is
easy, for it is everywhere, in the classroom, on the practice field, in the
arena, in the country's media, on the mouths of its people, even its children. If American attitudes from the 1958 survey remain relatively
unchanged, as I contend, the strong belief in competition easily translates
to the economic realm. Proof of its existence in the twenty-first century, as
is the case with other capitalist values, is not difficult to find. For instance,
54 Kluegel and Smith, Beliefs about Inequality; McClosky and Zaller, The American
Ethos, 123-127.
55 Theodore Caplow and Howard M. Bahr, “Half a Century of Change in Adolescent
Attitudes: Replication of a Middletown Survey by the Lynds,” Public Opinion
Quarterly 43 (Spring 1979): 1-17.
56 Humphrey Taylor, “The public tends to blame the poor, the unemployed, and those on
welfare for their problems,” Harris Interactive (May 3, 2000),
in 2008, college enrollment hit an all-time high, mostly attributed to “difficult labor market prospects facing youths.” In other words, American
youths want to remain competitive in the U.S. labor market, and a college
diploma is becoming increasingly important to do so. Likewise, the number of high-school graduates are also at a peak (84.9 percent of today's
young adults finish high school), again, an indication that education is important to stay ahead in the job market. 57 Rather than blaming capitalism
or the government for their problems, most young Americans are content
to take action themselves, to remain competitive. Further, even though
American citizens remain adamantly committed to free enterprise and dislike government intervention in the economy, they also fear any inhibitor
of free, open competition, whether from large corporations or from the
government itself. Historically, Progressive Era legislation was political
leaders' response to a public belief that “big businesses” ruled the United
States, not outrage against capitalism itself. As the Supreme Court explains:
Every violation of the antitrust laws is a blow to the free-enterprise system envisaged by Congress. This system depends on strong
competition for its health and vigor, and strong competition.58
The purpose of the [Sherman Antitrust] Act is not to protect businesses
from the working of the market; it is to protect the public from the failure of the market. The law directs itself not against conduct which is
competitive, even severely so, but against conduct which unfairly tends
to destroy competition itself.59
57 Richard Fry, “College Enrollment Hits All-Time High,” Pew Research Center
(October 29, 2009),
58 Hawaii v. Standard Oil Co. of California, 405 U.S. 251 (1972).
59 Spectrum Sports, Inc. v. McQuillan, 506 U.S. 447 (1993).
While conservative commentators claim such remarks are merely elitist
views forced onto an undiscerning, uninterested public, regardless of their
origin, there is little question similar sentiments exist in the public sphere.
For instance, public demand for health care reform during the first year of
Barack Obama's presidency was largely the result of concerns over rising
health insurance costs, those costs themselves believed to be a result of
“corporate greed” and the absence of competition in the health insurance
industry.60 Surveys show that 51 percent of Americans approve of the creation of a government-run insurance plan to compete with private
insurance plans, a figure that despite perceived opposition toward the infamous “public option” remains quite steady. 61 And most opposition to the
proposed bills comes from the public perception that a government-run
health care system lacks competition.62 So ingrained is the value of competition in American society, one can safely state, it is not markets that the
public fears, but rather the absence of them.
To further this point, that Americans fear the absence of markets,
one need only examine public opinion about alternatives to capitalism.
Only 36 percent show a positive image of socialism, while 58 percent hold
60 Ben Furnas and Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, “Health Care Competition” (report,
Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., June 2009), http://www.
61 Ipsos Public Affairs, “Do you favor or oppose the creation of a public entity to
directly compete with existing health insurance companies?”
(January 28-31, 2010),
62 John Stossel, “Health Care Competition,” (July 15, 2009),; Tea
Party Patriots, “Tea Party Patriots is Fighting Government Take Over of Our Health
Care,” (accessed February 16, 2010),
a negative view.63 When broken down into political ideology, a mere 20
percent of conservatives express a positive view of socialism, and though
that figure is significantly higher for liberals (61 percent), an equally high
number of liberals express a positive image of capitalism. And when the
federal government is mentioned alongside market-oriented institutions,
only 46 percent express a favorable image, 51 percent a negative. 64 Further
still, a strong majority (66 percent) of Americans see tax cuts as a better
way to create jobs than government spending. 65 However, again, as is the
case with capitalism, public understanding of what socialism is or what a
socialist economy entails is lackluster at best. Despite conservative opinion leaders' insistence that America is headed for socialism in the near
future, such admonishments have little empirical backbone. 66 According to
McClosky and Zaller, only 11 percent of Americans actually support the
adoption of socialism (though this figure is from 1958, so it may have
been tainted by the rampant anticommunism of the 1950s), and 87 percent
of the public believe private ownership of property to be “as important to a
63 Gallup notes, “Exactly how Americans define socialism or what exactly they think of
when they hear the word is not known. The research simply measures Americans'
reactions when a survey interviewer reads the word to them – an exercise that helps
shed light on connotations associated with this frequently used term.”
64 Frank Newport, “Socialism Viewed Positively by 36% of Americans,” Gallup,
(February 4, 2010),
65 Scott Rasmussen, “66% See Tax Cuts As Better Way To Create Jobs Than More
Government Spending,” (April 30, 2010), http://www.
66 Jodie Allen and Richard Auxier, “Socialism, American-Style,” The Atlantic (March
16, 2009),
good society as freedom.”67
However, despite the significant public support for capitalist values
demonstrated in opinion polls, one should not be too quick to jump to conclusions about the American ethos. While there is little doubt that most
Americans cling to the values of economic individualism and embrace the
free market in general, to suggest the public welcomes all “varieties of
capitalism” would be a monumental mistake.68 Just as various institutions
in various countries the world over create different interpretations of capitalism, so too does the United States have its own version of the free
market, a version grounded in the ideals of its citizenry. But unlike most
other nations, where opinions about capitalism are quite homogeneous,
American attitudes toward the socioeconomic system are comparatively
Because of this diversity of opinion, precise measurements of how
Americans feel about “free-market capitalism” tells scholars almost noth-
67 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 135, 140.
68 For the first common usage of this term, see Peter A. Hall and David Soskice, “An
Introduction to Varieties of Capitalism,” in Varieties of Capitalism, Peter A. Hall and
David Soskice, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1-70. While the idea that
capitalism can take different forms dates back to at least Karl Marx, the term itself
seems to have been coined by Geoffrey M. Hodgson in “Varieties of Capitalism from
the Perspectives of Veblen and Marx,” Journal of Economic Issues 29, no. 2 (1995):
69 According to a recent worldwide poll, citizens from most countries overwhelmingly
say free-market capitalism is either fatally flawed or it requires regulation and reform.
Only 11 percent on average believe the system works as is. However, in the United
States, 25 percent say free-market capitalism works, 53 percent say it needs reform,
and only 13 percent say it should be replaced. Opinions about the role of government
in the economy are also far more mixed among Americans than other nations. BBC
World Service, “Wide Dissatisfaction with Capitalism – Twenty Years after Fall of
Berlin Wall ,” news release, November 9, 2009.
ing. As shown in the second paragraph of this section, aggregate opinions
of the socioeconomic system are inconsistent, primarily due to semantics.
To borrow some terms from structuralist semiotics, the referents of the
signs “free market” and “capitalism” are completely obfuscated by one's
Weltanschauung. In other words, what the phrase free-market capitalism
means for one person is not what it means for another. While most Americans define capitalism to be an economic system characterized by the
private ownership of capital, beyond this, they agree upon little about its
exact characteristics. Indeed, to find two neighbors on the same street of
America who agree on what capitalism truly is, who conjure up the same
image in their heads, is next to impossible.
For members of the far Left (speaking in terms of the clichéd left-right continuum), relying mostly on the works of Karl Marx, any market
economy which has not yet transitioned to a true socialist economy can be
called capitalist, even to the point where Marxist diehards refuse to acknowledge several allegedly communist nations, such as the Union of
Soviet Socialist Republics, as possessing socialist economies.70 Capitalism, nor any state-backed economic system for that matter, for Marx and
his followers, does not provide true freedom, competition, individualism,
or any of the values purported by liberalism. In fact, the goal of all revolu70 Raya Dunayevskaya, “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a Capitalist
Society,” Internal Discussion Bulletin of the Workers Party (March 1941),;
Samuel Kucherov, “The Soviet Union is Not a Socialist Society,” Political Science
Quarterly 71, no. 2 (June 1956): 182-202.
tionary activities is to liberate the people, intellectually, economically, socially, and politically. Any advocacy for government control of the modes
of production serves only a teleological goal: the destruction of capitalism.71
But for all their rhetoric on the people's will and liberation, such
views on capitalism are extremely limited among members of the American public, isolated mostly to universities and other intellectual circles;
even there, they rarely appear in their purist form. However, the influence
of Marxist beliefs on the development of American attitudes toward capitalism cannot be ignored. While few Americans believe in a genuine class
struggle, much less, economic determinism, as will be discussed later, elements of socialism span across many American ideologies, including those
which many would regard as very mainstream.
Libertarian tenets of capitalism stand in stark contrast to the system's Marxist interpretations, so much so that both worldviews have but
one common belief (though for entirely different reasons): a moral socioeconomic system is one where government stays away, far, far away (While
this is counterintuitive to popular left-wing discourse on government involvement in the economy, which tends toward state control, it should be
remembered that Marx, Engels, and Lenin all believed proper socialism
only exists after, to paraphrase Engels, the state withers away. This society
71 Vladimir Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” in The Lenin Anthology, Robert C.
Tucker, ed. (New York: Norton, 1975), 311-325.
then becomes pure, classless, stateless communism). 72 For most libertarians, capitalism is synonymous with freedom, and a free market means a
free market: one in which the socioeconomic system is largely, if not, entirely unregulated. As the French minister René de Voyer, Marquis
d'Argenson, famously outburst, Laissez faire, telle devrait être la devise de
toute puissance publique, depuis que le monde est civilisé...Laissez-faire,
morbleu! Laissez-faire!73 The passionate advocate of free trade added,
Pour gouverner mieux, il faudrait gouverner moins. 74 Most libertarians,
echoing this motto, would prefer the United States in 1870, prior to the
Slaughter-House Cases and Munn v. Illinois, both milestones of constitutional law that broadly expanded the government's ability to regulate the
economy.75 But like many ideologies throughout the history of the world,
sundry meanings of laissez-faire capitalism make pinpointing an exact interpretation impossible. Views of the role of government in a laissez-faire
society range from the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard to the strict
separation of state and economy taught by Ayn Rand to the classical liberalism advocated by Fredrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman.76 But since
72 See Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” 320-325.
73 “Let it be, such should be the motto of every public power, ever since the world is
civilized...Let it be, damn it! Let it be!” in John Maynard Keynes, The End of LaissezFaire (London: Hogarth Press, 1926), chap. 2.
74 “To govern better, one must govern less.” in Ibid.
75 See Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873); Munn v. Illinois 94 U.S. 113 (1877).
76 Whether or not Hayek and Friedman are supporters of laissez-faire economics is
matter of some controversy among libertarians. Austrian economist Ludwig von
Mises once called both men “a bunch of socialists” for their discussion of certain
economic policies, and libertarian historian Walter Block comments Hayek is only a
lukewarm laissez-faire capitalist, and that his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom,
while “a war cry against central planning,” gives undue credence to state intervention
in the economy. Brian Doherty, “Best of Both Worlds,” Reason, June 1995; Walter
the purpose of this section is to contrast American attitudes on capitalism,
not to chip at the mammoth iceberg that is libertarian philosophy, for all
intents and purposes, the term laissez-faire broadly refers to any form of
capitalism in which the government takes a very weak role in economic
affairs, if any at all, and in which the individual remains sovereign.77
While opinion polls show a greater support for economic libertarianism than for outright socialism (likely because of the dominance of
individualism in nineteenth-century America) laissez-faire capitalism still
exists mainly as a fringe ideology, most prominently among registered
Libertarians and neoliberal Republicans (not to be confused with neoconservatives), who, by one estimation, make up around 21 percent of the
The vast majority of the American public, however, is not made of
ideologues (a term, which though used pejoratively in the mass media,
refers to individuals who strongly adhere to an ideology). Despite hyperbolic language in recent election cycles, the United States is not made of
red states and blue states, red people and blue people, laissez-faire capitalists and democratic socialists. Morris Fiorina quickly dispels this myth in
Block, “Hayek's Road to Serfdom,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 12, no. 2 (Fall
1996): 339-365.
77 For a complete discussion on laissez-faire capitalism, see George Reisman,
Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, IL: Jameson Books, 1998).
78 See Table 1.1, page 125. This figure is an average of respondents with libertarian
economic leanings amalgamated from questions from several polling organizations
and may contain some degree of error. Also, most Americans who possess
economically libertarian beliefs are likely not as laissez-faire as Rothbard, Rand, or
even Hayek.
Culture War, showing that the majority of the American public is not polarized about any political issue, let alone economic policy. Since 1976, 40
percent of Americans self-identify as ideological moderates, and when
self-placed on a seven-point scale, the ideologies of the majority of voters
land between three and five; less than five percent of combined respondents identify as either extreme, one or seven. In fact, the political
ideology of the American electorate is basically a bell curve. 79 A 2006 Pew
Research Center study supports his research, finding that few individuals
fit into the liberal-conservative dichotomy (18 percent liberals, 15 percent
conservatives), and even fewer support radical forms of either. When put
on a four-directional axis, 16 percent of the public tests as statist (or populist, as Pew labels them, meaning they support stricter governmental
control of both social and economic spheres) and 9 percent libertarian (favoring less control in both spheres). Exactly how libertarian the
libertarians are and how statist the statists are is impossible to tell from the
six-question survey, same with both conservatives and liberals. But such a
limited questioning does not render the survey useless. The most revealing
fact from the study is that 42 percent of the United States population tests
as politically ambivalent (not meaning apathetic but indescribably moderate).80
79 Morris P. Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 3rd ed. (Boston:
Pearson Longman, 2010), 33-56, 262.
80 Scott Keeter, “In Search of Ideologues,” Pew Center for Research and the Press
(April 11, 2006),
What this means for capitalism is that most Americans identify neither with laissez-faire capitalism nor social democracy. As McClosky and
Zaller remind readers, while the public remains deeply committed to capitalism, as both a socioeconomic and value system, such strong beliefs
exist only insofar as capitalism fits the Weltanschauung of most Americans.81 To revisit the discussion on semantics, this means that for the
majority of Americans, the referent of “free market” is not absolute freedom. Nor is it pure Orwellian doublethink for socialism.82 Rather, it is
...a system in which the basic institutions of private enterprise are retained, but in which the government plays a major role in regulating the
economy and redirecting resources to individuals, groups, and even
business enterprises in need of help.83
For example, in their study, McClosky and Zaller find that 67 percent of Americans on average support increased federal regulation of
business, with the highest demand naturally going to industries with the
most frequent public interaction or industries whose goods and services
are most likely to cause irrevocable harm, that is, disease or death. For instance, in 1979, 80 percent of Americans favored increasing federal
involvement in the drug industry, 73 percent for oil (which incidentally
followed the late 1970s energy crisis), 73 percent for food, 71 percent for
utilities, and 68 percent for the chemical industry. 84 Such data is consistent
with the historical advent of federal and state regulation, beginning first
81 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 290-302.
82 See George Reisman, “Freedom is Slavery: Laissez-Faire Capitalism is Government
Intervention,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 20, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 47-86; Ludwig
von Mises, “Freedom Is Slavery,” Freeman, March 9, 1953.
83 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 301.
84 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 146-147. This data from 1979.
with railroads (Munn v. Illinois), followed by antitrust legislation (Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890) aimed at Standard Oil, then continuing with
the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
Recent polling data shows much more mixed feelings about regulation. Even in the wake of the financial crisis, one poll shows only 50
percent of Americans think government regulation of business is necessary
to protect the public interest, while fully 57 percent believe government is
almost always wasteful and inefficient.85 Another poll shows 50 percent of
the population thinks the government should be less involved, and 57 percent worries about too much regulation of government business. Yet, as
recently as February 2010, Pew Research finds 59 percent of Americans in
favor of stricter regulations for financial institutions. 86 Initially, such data
discrepancies suggest substantial inconsistency in attitudes on regulation,
inconsistency best illustrated by the following line graph:87
85 “Public Not Desperate About Economy or Personal Finances,” Pew Research Center
for People and the Press (October 15, 2008),
86 Gallup, “Which of the following do you most agree with? The federal government
should become more involved in regulating and controlling business. The federal
government should become less involved in regulating and controlling business, or
things are about right the way they are,” and “Which worries you more -- that there
will be too much regulation of business by the government, or not enough regulation
of business by the government?” (January 26-27, 2010); Pew
Research Center, "All in all, do you think it is a good idea or a bad idea for the
government to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do
business?" (February 3-9, 2010),
87 See Chart 1.2, page 126.
Government Regulation of Business and Industry
Too Much
Right Amount
Too Little
Polling Date
However, such scattered results show three common trends: (1) business is
too broad of a category for most Americans to blanket with unspecified
regulations, (2) public support for regulation, as shown by the McClosky
and Zaller study, depends on what industry is being discussed, and (3) support for regulating a specific industry shares some relationship with
current events. As seen in the above chart, most of the time, the public is
evenly split in their opinions about whether to decrease or maintain current levels of government regulation, with few Americans clamoring for
more controls. But in times of well-publicized scandals or crises, public
opinion inverts, as observed in June 2002, when demands for increased
business regulation resulted from sustained press coverage of the Enron
and WorldCom scandals, and September 2008, when similar desires followed the investment crisis, particularly in the financial sector, as some
polling organizations reported as much as 76 percent of the public in favor
of stricter government controls.88 Likewise, most regulatory legislation has
been passed following public outcries for government involvement, the
most famous examples being the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and
Drug Act, both of which followed the publication of Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle.89
Contrary to the belief of many pundits, there is a large amount of
support in the United States for minimal welfare programs (what some describe as a social safety net), though not on the same scale as other
Western nations. For example, a Pew Research Center survey finds that 69
percent of the public believe the government should care for those who
cannot care for themselves, an additional 54 percent say the government
should help the needy, even if it means greater debt (both figures are increases from their 1994 lows). Probably the most astounding statistic in
the Pew report is that 69 percent of Americans think the government is obligated to guarantee food and shelter for all its citizens, including 47
percent of Republicans, long-time criticizers of the welfare state.
Americans also seek some level of distributive fairness in their so88 ABC News and Washington Post, “Do you support or oppose stricter federal
regulations on the way banks and other financial institutions conduct their business?” (February 19-22, 2009),
89 Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 111.
The irony of The Jungle is that Sinclair, an avowed socialist, wrote the novel to
highlight the plight of the working class, famously remarking, “I aimed at the public's
heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” The author actually despised the
legislation and said that it unjustly placed the $30 million-a-year inspection burden on
the American taxpayers.
cioeconomic system. For instance, in 2007, prior to the passage of the
then-new law, more than eight out of ten people, regardless of party or income level favored increasing the federal minimum wage.90 The public
also shows high levels of support for progressive taxation, with strong majorities believing that both upper-income people and corporations do not
pay enough in taxes, while significant portions of the population say both
lower and middle-income Americans pay too much.91 While there is a risk
here that such preferences are nonattitudes (most people seem to be unaware that the richest five percent of Americans pay over half of all
federal income tax and that forty percent pay no income tax at all92), when
heads of United States households (presumably, those who actually file the
taxes) were asked specific questions about what taxation rate would be
fair, respondents express a preference for a distribution similar to what
currently exists, that is, most Americans prefer a progressive system.93
As shown by the preceding polling data, most American's definition of capitalism is neither laissez-faire nor completely statist, but rather,
a combination of the two, featuring both freedom as well as control.
90 Andrew Kohut et al., “Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes,” (report, Pew
Research Center for People and the Press, Washington, D.C., March 22, 2007).
91 Gallup, “As I read off some different groups, please tell me if you think they are
paying their fair share in federal taxes, paying too much, or paying too little,” (April 6-9, 2009),
92 Charles Babington, “Spreading the wealth? US already does it,” USA Today (October
21, 2008),;
For other information on nonattitudes about progressive taxation, see Michael L.
Roberts, Peggy A. Hite, and Cassie F. Bradley, “Understanding Attitudes Toward
Progressive Taxation,” Public Opinion Quarterly 58, no. 2 (1994): 165-190.
93 Michael L. Roberts and Peggy A. Hite, “Progressive Taxation, Fairness, and
Compliance,” Law and Policy 16, no. 1 (1994).
Numerous laws now cover such matters as industrial and banking practice, labor relations, the hiring of minorities, the safety of manufactured
products, protection against environmental damage, minimum wages
and pension programs, and in some cases, even the prices a business
enterprise may charge for its products or services. The laissez-faire
economy of the nineteenth century, in short, has given way to a more
regulated economy in which business and government share responsibility for many key economic decisions.94
It is what McClosky and Zaller call welfare capitalism, what other authors
call a mixed economy.95 It is a uniquely American brand of capitalism, a
capitalism invented by and maintained for the American ethos.
Reconciling Capitalism and Democracy
As examined earlier, sundry scholars across diverse disciplines
have long maintained that capitalism and democracy are fundamentally
opposed to each other. History seems to have proven their presuppositions
correct in all but one country, the United States, a representative democracy where, as just shown, the practice and values of capitalism are alive and
well. Thus, those same scholars remain perplexed, asking what it is about
the United States that allows the preservation of a socioeconomic system
that results in inequality in a political system grounded in equality.
The most popular response to the above conundrum is to begin a
discussion on ideology. What this phrase means is a matter of some dispute, and as Giovanni Sartori points out, “The word ideology points to a
black box...[T]he growing popularity of the term has been matched, if anything, by its growing obscurity.”96 Further, the phrase has come under
94 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 291.
95 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 301.
96 Giovanni Sartori, “Politics, Ideology, and Belief Systems,” American Political
some attack in recent decades by social scientists, particularly as a liberal
backlash to Marxist scholarship. Many scholars refuse to recognize the existence of an American ideology at all, basing this claim on empirical
analyses that show dissension and inconsistency among the public, even in
relatively simple matters, such as fundamental beliefs about the nature of
democracy.97 However, such criticisms miss the point. Ideology is not
about social consensus, about a given population sharing the same fundamental attitudes and opinions about every detail of a given social order. It
is not about whitewashing the grey matter of society's collective brain. It is
about basic maintenance of the social order, nothing more, nothing less. To
put a definition on it, an ideology is a broadly coherent framework of beliefs and values that both economizes and limits the options available for
social and political action in society. It does not mean, as many political
scientists contend, that an ideologically-constrained society is free from
internal dissent. Even the most ideologically-driven societies in history
had their detractors.98 Nor does it mean, as some Marxists contend, that individuals in an society containing a dominant ideology are without free
will. Rather, what ideology involves is that the substantial majority agrees
upon a set of basic values, values which may be extremely broad, such as
Science Review 63 (June 1969): 398.
97 See Herbert McClosky, “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics,” The
American Political Science Review 58, no. 2 (June 1964): 361-382; Philip E.
Converse, “The nature of belief systems in mass publics,” in Ideology and Discontent,
David E. Apter, ed. (London: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964).
98 See Tobin Spratte, “Illusions of Legitimacy: Ideology and the State in Non-Capitalist
Societies” (paper, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, December 2009).
freedom or equality, adopted by many civilizations, albeit in very different
forms, or values which may be more narrowly-defined, such as the altruism and self-sacrifice taught in Christianity. In the United States, both
types exist.
It is the opinion of many fine historians that the uniqueness of the
American ethos is its peaceful maintenance of a unified, national ideology.
Unlike other nations, where ideological differences violently magnify
themselves to the point of permanent division or insurrection (for some
examples, see the French and Russian Revolutions, the Korean War, the
Vietnam War, the conflict between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, modern revolutionary violence in Chechnya, the 1995 Bosnian War),
Americans seem content to bask in the effervescent glow of their shining
city on a hill. Save for the Civil War, the political story of the United
States is the story of a predestined church, “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” “Its articles of faith, a sort of
American Holy Writ, are perfectability [sic], progress, liberty, equality,
democracy, and individualism,” writes the historian Clinton Rossiter. 99
Few figures in American history have challenged this confession of faith.
Fewer still have challenged it publicly. As Hofstadter comments:
The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often
been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons
of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues,
the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of prop99 Clinton Rossiter, Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion (New York:
Vintage Books, 1962), 71.
erty, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of a capitalist culture as
the necessary qualities of a man...American traditions also show a
strong bias in favor of egalitarian democracy, but it has been democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy in fraternity.100
What Hofstadter means is that both capitalism and democracy, for Americans, are not about avarice and mob rule; they are about values, those of
liberty, equality, and individualism. Capitalism lives in the United States
not as a slave to the iron fist of egalitarianism. Democracy lives not as a
subject of the new aristocracy, the interested industrialists. Rather, both are
intravenously kept alive with the same blood type: the American ethos.
Such a strong claim seems intuitively correct. Better yet, it is historically
and empirically supported. Samuel Huntington writes:
Prevailing ideas of the American creed have included liberalism, individualism, equality, constitutionalism, rights against the state. They
have been opposed to hierarchy, discipline, government, organization,
and specialization. The major periods of fundamental change in American history have occurred when social forces have emerged to
reinvigorate the creed and hence stimulate new attacks on established
authority. Such a confrontation took place during the Jacksonian period
with the attack on the undemocratic elements of the constitutional system, at the time of the Civil War with the opposition to the extension of
slavery and the slave system in the southern states, and in the 1890s
with the populist and progressive responses to the rise of industrial organizations. The confrontation between ideology and institutions in
postindustrial society thus fits into a well-established American pattern.101
McClosky and Zaller prove this statement beautifully in their work on the
American ethos, remarking that the decline of laissez-faire capitalism was
not a fundamental shift in the American ideology but the democratic maintenance of the ideology. “Certain components of the ethos have been used
100 Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (New York: New Vintage
Edition, 1972, xxxviii.
101 Samuel Huntington, “Postindustrial Politics: How Benign Will It Be?” Comparative
Politics (January 1974): 188.
at times to justify strong government action.”102 This helps to explain the
rise of regulation, as Huntington notes, the growth of government, and the
majority view of the government's role in a capitalist society.
However, this consistent ideology thesis (to parody Marx) contains
one major flaw, one McClosky and Zaller more than hint at in their conclusion, one public opinion researchers have criticized for decades: that
even if one recognizes any semblance of consistency of the American
ethos, as Lipset, Rossiter, Hofstadter, and Huntington do, ideological consistency has not translated into consistent attitudes toward policy. As has
been observable in polling data since the 1950s, Americans' support for
government welfare programs remains high, but when asked specific questions about their ideology, Americans more than remain committed to an
ethos of economic individualism. Scholars explain this contradiction in
three ways: (1) this inconsistency between values and practice is an integral part of the American ethos, (2) this consistency reveals Americans
true commitment to egalitarianism, or (3) there is another factor at work.
The first explanation, while an observable fact, is overly simple. 103 It ignores the overall consistency of the American ethos (meaning values, not
attitudes), and more importantly, does not explain the United States' transformation from the land of laissez-faire to the home of welfare capitalism.
102 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 322.
103 Free and Cantril famously described public opinion as “a schizoid combination of
operational liberalism with ideological conservatism.” Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril,
The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1968).
If anything, this explanation would be better addressed in a paper on mass
society theory, in which the totality of American culture is evaluated, not
just political beliefs. The second theory seems more promising and is
therefore worth examining.
Alexis De Tocqueville says the distinguishing characteristic of the
democratic age, its ruling passion, is the love of equality.104 He writes:
Democratic nations are at all times fond of equality, but there are certain epochs at which the passion they entertain for it swells to the
height of fury. This occurs at the moment when the old social system,
long menaced, is overthrown after a severe internal struggle. At such
times men pounce upon equality as their booty, and they cling to it as
some precious treasure which they fear to lose. The passion for equality
penetrates on every side into men's hearts, expands there, and fills them
entirely. Tell them not that by this blind surrender of themselves to an
exclusive passion they risk their dearest interests; they are deaf. Show
them not freedom escaping from their grasp while they are looking another way; they are blind, or rather they can discern but one object to be
desired in the universe.105
Such an astute observation is an attractive explanation for the growth of
government welfare programs and the rise of big government. And
Rousseau's animosity toward property rights surely proves that true
democrats possess an ardent “passion for equality,” so much so that capitalism and democracy, for the democratic radical, are fundamentally
incompatible. Stanley Feldman logically restates this argument.
Societal arrangements to encourage achievement invariably lead to
some measure of inequality, and equality of results limits the ability of
people to pursue individualism to its extreme.106
However, as Feldman points out, this has not happened in the United
104 Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America Vol. 2, trans. Henry Reeve, ed.
Phillips Bradley (New York: Knopf, 1994), 95.
105 Ibid., 96-97.
106 Stanley Feldman, “Economic Individualism and American Public Opinion,”
American Politics Quarterly 11, no. 1 (1983): 6.
States for two reasons. First, “[t]his conflict has been at least partly resolved by refashioning equality into formal or political equality rather than
equality of results.”107 As David Potter writes, equality, for Americans,
means “parity in competition...a means to advancement rather than as an
asset in itself,” equality of opportunity, not of outcome. 108 And secondly,
economic individualism plays such a large ideological role in the American ethos that it has managed to keep opposition to a total welfare state
high, even if the public supports a minimal social safety net. Because of
these two factors, Feldman says scholars should be careful in their assumption that opinion polling on welfare lacks internal structure or
constraint.109 Just because 69 percent of Americans agree that the government should help those who cannot help themselves does not indicate
public support for a massive welfare state, much less a rejection of capitalism. And the 69 percent who believe the government should provide food
and shelter may indicate support for homeless shelters and soup kitchens,
not for public housing projects and bread lines. “Paradoxically,” Feldman
says, “patterns of individualistic beliefs may simultaneously generate support for and hostility toward government programs to help the poor and
unemployed.”110 Consensus on this “individualism hypothesis,” as
Lawrence Bobo calls it, is not unanimous.
107 Ibid.
108 David M. Potter, People of Plenty (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1954), 92.
109 Feldman, “Economic Individualism,” 20.
110 Ibid.
Bobo concedes that economic individualism remains an extremely
important factor in the shaping policy attitudes, but rejects the notion that
egalitarianism has no part whatsoever in American beliefs about economic
policy. For one, polling data shows “a pattern of the idea
that government should provide a basic minimum standard of living.” 111
He also cites several studies that show individualistic beliefs have “a small
to moderate positive relationship to socioeconomic status,” most notably,
that lower-income individuals are more likely to perceive inequality and
support redistributive policies. He then hypothesizes that “a commitment
to a certain kind of egalitarianism is a basic and consequential component
of U.S. Stratification ideology.”112 Bobo's claims are further supported by
recent polling data on progressive taxation, a federal policy that cannot
possibly be justified under the auspices of economic individualism. Bobo
concludes from his study that it is not egalitarianism per se that motivates
attitudes toward economic policy to address inequality but a closely-related value, social responsibility.
Responding to Bobo's thesis, Feldman and Zaller revisit the American commitment to economic individualism in a later study, again, trying
to explain the lack of support for a massive welfare state in a democratic
nation. After extensive analysis of attitudes toward various government
programs, the authors find, “The American political culture provides few
111 Lawrence Bobo, “Social Responsibility, Individualism, and Redistributive Policies,”
Sociological Forum 6, no. 1 (1991): 74.
112 Ibid.
explicitly egalitarian (as against pragmatic or humanitarian) arguments
that are useful for justifying welfare state policies.”113 Jennifer
Hochschild's qualitative research backs Feldman and Zaller. Using in-depth interviews she finds that people are aware of the tension between
support for social welfare policies and economic individualism, but few
resolve the conflict through an appeal to equality. 114 And most importantly,
as Feldman writes in a separate study:
Egalitarianism cannot easily account for the nature of welfare policy
support in the United States. If egalitarianism was the driving force behind public attitudes toward welfare, we would expect Americans to
express greater support for redistributive policies since these most
clearly contribute to equality.115
Because the authors find only minimal evidence for egalitarianism in
American attitudes toward economic policy, they search for another explanation (the third option, as it was previously refered to). What Feldman
and Zaller uncover is a new a dimension to the American ethos, one which
proves crucial to understanding the development of capitalism and democracy in the United States: humanitarianism.116
Feldman and Steenbergen define humanitarianism as “a sense of
responsbility for one's fellow human beings that translates into the belief
113 Stanley Feldman and John Zaller, “The Political Culture of Ambivalence: Ideological
Responses to the Welfare State,” American Journal of Political Science 36, no. 1
(1992): 286.
114 See Jennifer L. Hochschild, What Is Fair? American Beliefs About Distributive
Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
115 Stanley Feldman and Marco R. Steenbergen, “The Humanitarian Foundation of
Public Support for Social Welfare,” American Journal of Political Science 45, no. 3
(July 2001): 659.
116 Feldman and Zaller, “Ideological Responses to the Welfare State.”
that one should help those who are in need.” 117 While it has many features
in common with social responsibility (as Feldman and Steenbergen admit
in a footnote), it is not the same. Bobo derives social responsibility from
egalitarianism. Humanitarianism is entirely its own component of the
American ethos. As the authors write:
Although egalitarianism – and limited government and economic individualism – undeniably are important components of the American
political and social creed, they do not exhaust it...Humanitarianism is
not only an important element of the American ethos, but it also has a
distinctive character...a prosocial orientation.
According to the social psychologist Staub, “a prosocial orientation consists of (a) a positive evaluation of human beings, (b) concern about their
welfare and (c) feelings of personal responsibility for people's welfare.” 118
This differs from egalitarianism because it depends on an emotional component, while egalitarianism is more cognitive, more closely tied to
normative values. Normally, such assumptive distinctions raise eyebrows,
but Feldman and Steenbergen make it work, backing the distinction with
results. In their study, individuals with humanitarian values want to provide direct assistance to the disadvantaged; such people support only a
residual welfare state. Egalitarians “perceive structural problems in society,” advocating an institutional welfare state. The authors then remark
that because most Americans are not egalitarians, but humanitarians, the
public rejects policies of the institutional welfare state (such as those
117 Feldman and Steenbergen, “The Humanitarian Foundation,” 660.
118 Ervin Staub, “Individual and Societal (Group) Values in a Motivational Perspective
and Their Role in Benevolence and Harmdoing,” in Social and Moral Values:
Individual and Societal Perspectives, Nancy Eisenberg, Janusz Reykowski, and Ervin
Staub, ed. (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1989), 50.
found in many European nations), while they widely support residual policies (for example, assistance to the elderly and poor). 119 “Thus,” the
authors conclude, “humanitarianism makes it possible for people to support specific welfare policies without embracing the welfare state as an
alternative to capitalism.”120
Feldman and Steenbergen underscore one crucial point about humanitarianism: It does not erode the cultural foundations of capitalism,
economic individualism. In fact, for the authors, capitalist values do not
exist in conflict with those of humanitarianism but in harmony. “As De
Tocqueville noted, Americans are humanitarian not in spite of their individualism, but because of it.”121 Initially, this poignant, nineteenth-century
observation seems to miss the mark. To suggest that humanitarianism, said
to be based on the ethics of altruism, is interrelated with, if not, born of
economic individualism, said to be based on the ethics of egoism, seems
nothing short of absurd. Yet, history proves De Tocqueville correct. Research on the origins of humanitarianism and capitalism finds that indeed,
both ideologies grew up as a product of Enlightenment thought. Recall
that the great liberal theorist John Locke, an adamant supporter of property
rights, establishes his state of nature on two principles, liberty and equality.
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we
119 Feldman and Steenbergen, “The Humanitarian Foundation,” 673.
120 Ibid.
121 Ibid., 660.
must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of
perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions
and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature,
without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
A state also of equality, wherein all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more
evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same
faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection...This equality of men by nature, the judicious
Hooker looks upon as so evident in itself, and beyond all question, that
he makes it the foundation of the obligation to mutual love amongst
men, on which he builds the duties they owe one another, from whence
he derives the great maxims of justice and charity.122
The first principle in the Lockean state of nature, liberty, gives way to
property rights, to capitalism, the second, equality, to moral obligations, to
justice and charity, the underlying values of humanitarianism. Locke's liberal successors write similarly, including the classical economist Adam
Smith, who most remember only for his invisible-hand capitalism. Yet,
Smith also expresses much interest in humanitarianism.
[W]ould a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hun dred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human
nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest
depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our
passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes
it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?
When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which
prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to
sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not
the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence
which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of
counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love...[W]e are but one of
the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we
prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the
proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.123
122 John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, C.B. MacPherson, ed. (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1980), 8.
123 Adam Smith, “On the Influences and Authority of Conscience,” in Theory of Moral
Sentiments (1759; Marxists Internet Archive Library, 2010), sec. 3, pt. 3, chap. 3,
Such lucid statements about humanitarian moral obligations coming from
champions of individualism vis à vis capitalism demonstrate their similar
philosophical origins (more than likely such sentiments stem from Protestantism). But the dual nature of these ideologies does not end at words.
Voltaire writes of the tolerance and humanity of capitalists in eighteenthcentury England.
Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable
than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations
meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and
the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts.124
As significant as such behavior was in Voltaire's time, exhibitions of capitalists' humanity extends far beyond religious tolerance. The historians
Howard Temperley and Thomas Haskell successfully argue that contrary
to orthodox beliefs among historiographers that free-markets perpetuated
slavery, that it was humanitarian sensibilities born as the Enlightenment
twin of capitalism that eventually eliminated the slave trade. Temperley
Here we have a system – a highly successful system – of large-scale
capitalist agriculture, mass producing raw materials for sale in distant
markets, growing up at a time when most production was still small
scale and designed to meet the needs of local consumers. But precisely
at a time when capitalist ideas were in the ascendant, and large-scale
production of all kinds of goods was beginning, we find this system
dismantled. How could this happen unless “capitalism” had something
to with it? If our reasoning leads to the conclusion that “capitalism” had
nothing to do with it, the chances are that there is something wrong
with our reasoning.125
124 Voltaire, “On Presbyterians,” in Lettres Philosophiques (1910; Modern History
Sourcebook, August 1998),
125 Howard Temperley, “Capitalism, Slavery, and Ideology,” Past and Present 75
(1977): 105.
Haskell adds, “In explaining the new humanitarianism, historians have repeatedly pointed to changes in what Marxists generally call the economic
base...that is, the growth of capitalism.” 126 While the historians' argument
is more structuralist than anything, their point remains: Capitalism and humanitarianism have substantially parallel historical and philosophical ties.
It is no accident that the man who spearheaded the abolition of the British
slave trade, William Wilberforce, was a wealthy merchant. It is no accident that Lysander Spooner, author of The Unconstitutionality of Slavery,
was a staunch individualist. It is no accident that most American abolitionists lived in the industrialized, wealthy North. But the firmly-tied knot
between humanitarianism and capitalism does not end with slavery. John
D. Rockefeller, himself an ardent abolitionist, set an industry standard not
only in petroleum but also in humanitarian endeavors, donating millions to
scientific and medical research, various religious charities, and universities, including Spelman College, the first black female college in history.
Following suit, Andrew Carnegie preaches both philanthropy and individualism in “The Gospel of Wealth.” 127 In the contemporary United States,
the world's wealthiest billionaire, Bill Gates, is a self-admitted admirer of
Rockefeller and Carnegie's work, personally giving more than $28 billion
to charity.128 And finally and most importantly, as Feldman and Steenber126 Thomas L. Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part
1,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 2 (April 1985): 339.
127 Andrew Carnegie, “The Gospel of Wealth,” North American Review, 148 (June
1889): 653-664.
128 “The 50 Most Generous Philanthropists,” BusinessWeek (April 21, 2010),
gen prove in their research, the knot between individualism and humanitarianism lives extraordinarily well in the American ethos.
Americans believe that people should take responsibility for solving
their own problems. At the same time, problems are sometimes too
large for a single individual to solve, and when this is the case it is a
moral right to ask for help and a moral duty to provide it.129
The co-existence of individualism and humanitarianism in the
American ethos is undeniable. And though Feldman and Steenbergen do
an excellent job proving this, they unknowingly open the doors to the
wardrobe of another academic universe, that of philosophy, more specifically, that of morality. To make public support for capitalism contingent on
the relationship between individualist and humanitarian values, as Feldman, Zaller, and Steenbergen do, is to invite a discussion on morality. For
morality is nothing but a code of values. Therefore, in an attempt to resolve the contradictions that are so prevalent in American public culture, I
suggest the discussion on the American ethos, more specifically, attitudes
toward capitalism be moved from one of empirical inconsistency and ideological abstractions to one on morality. In that spirit, I propose the
following thesis: American support for capitalism is conditional on
whether or not its outcome is perceived to be moral.
129 Feldman and Steenbergen, “The Humanitarian Foundation,” 673.
Morality has been a strong component of American civilization
since the nation's inception. Indeed, it could be said the very essence of
American public culture is an innate moral notion that the land and its inhabitants are set apart by God, that it truly is Winthrop's “city upon a hill,”
and as such, its people, united as one, are bound by their Creator to obey
his commandments, to always uphold the moral and the righteous, to be a
model of virtue for the entire world. 130 Such a notion first manifested itself
in the early law codes of New England, in which, as De Tocqueville notes,
many statutes were regulations on proper moral conduct, which “constantly invaded the domain of conscience,” enacted “as if their allegiance was
due only to God.”131 The moral tradition was eventually extended to revolutionary activities, which never shied away from vitriolic condemnations
of British rule and passionate ebullience of the virtues of independence
and liberty. Thomas Paine's incendiary pamphlet Common Sense reads
more like a sermon than a political document (hence, its appeal to eighteenth-century colonial society), again reflecting the moral nature of the
American cause.
130 “The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his one people, and
will command a blessing upon us in all our ways. So that we shall see much more of
his wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with.
We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist
a thousand of our enemies...For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a
hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian
Charity,” (1630; Wikisource, 2008),
131 De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1:37-38.
The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind.
Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are
affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested. The
laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the
natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from
the face of the earth, is the concern of every man to whom nature hath
given the power of feeling.132
Paine's first line is particularly powerful, capturing the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy and bringing it to the American public: not only is it a
noble idea to throw off the chains of despotism but it is a moral imperative, one demanded of all men by virtue of being human. This
deontological notion eventually was used as the primary justification for
the American Revolution, one immortalized in the Declaration of Independence.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably
the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and
to provide new Guards for their future security.
As Morton White adds, “The notion that they had a duty to rebel is extremely important to stress, for it shows that they thought they were
complying with the commands of natural law and of nature's God when
they threw off absolute despotism.”133 Thus, breaking off from Britain was
not about what was pragmatic or expedient but about what was right; doing nothing was not an option, as Paine notes.134 This revolutionary sense
of moral righteousness never left the United States, returning only decades
132 Thomas Paine, Common Sense (New York: Peter Eckler, 1918), x.
133 Morton White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1978). Natural duty is by definition a moral concept. See H.L.A
Hart, “Are There Any Natural Rights?” Philosophical Review 64 (1955).
134 Paine, Common Sense, ix.
later in the debate on slavery, wherein arguments against the slave trade
were not about its inefficiency or its economic downside (on the contrary,
the slave trade was incredibly efficient, if such a phrase means anything
when discussing human bondage135), but about its inherent immortality.
The prominent abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison writes:
That those laws which are now in force, admitting the right of slavery,
are therefore, before God, utterly null and void; being an audacious
usurpation of the Divine prerogative, a daring infringement on the law
of nature, a base overthrow of the very foundations of the social compact, a complete extinction of all the relations, endearments and
obligations of mankind, and a presumptuous transgression of all the
holy commandments; and that therefore they ought instantly to be abrogated.136
Such strong words need little commentary, however, their significance
cannot be overstressed. It was these arguments that dismantled the slave
trade in Great Britain, that tore apart the United States and caused the Civil War, that eventually emancipated the slaves in America. But again,
moral arguments did not disappear from politics at the close of the nineteenth century or even the twentieth. Moral values have played huge roles
in recent election campaigns and opinion formation, causing many academics and other public intellectuals to prematurely conclude the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 was exclusively the result of the socalled moral majority.137 Nonetheless, their confusion is understandable.
Karl Rove's
brilliant campaign strategy, his
of base
135 See Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of
American Negro Slavery (1974, repr., New York: Norton, 1995).
136 William Lloyd Garrison, “Man Cannot Hold Property in Man,” in The Libertarian
Reader, 78-79.
137 See Larry M. Bartels, “What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?”
(paper presented at the meeting of the American Political Science Association,
Washington, D.C., September 1-4, 2005).
mobilization,” necessitated an inundation of rhetorical appeals to JudeoChristian values, one which not only have a deeply-embedded history but
also are incredibly effective. Recent political science research shows
American public opinion to be mainly an aggregate of individual responses to fundamental values (namely those which make up the American
ethos), and further studies prove moral claims to be highly effective in
shaping American public opinion.138 Both these theories are well backed
by recent political events. Did George W. Bush not justify the invasion of
Iraq as “the right thing to do”? Did Barack Obama not sell the recent
health-care legislation on the grounds that taking care of our human beings
is a moral imperative? Additionally, the most consistent polling data of the
last thirty years has been attitudes formed on the basis of moral beliefs, the
most obvious example being abortion. As Ted Jelen and Clyde Wilcox
note, “In the aggregate, abortion opinion is remarkably stable,” in large
part due to its moral basis.139 Yet despite overwhelming evidence that
morality is as much a part of the American ethos as capitalism and democracy, scholars continue to ignore its role in the formation of attitudes
toward economic policy. For them to do so is simply wrong. If morality is
such an integral, effective, and consistent part of American public culture,
138 William G. Jacoby, “Value Choices and American Public Opinion,” American
Journal of Political Science 50, no. 3 (Jul., 2006): 706-723; Kathleen M. McGraw,
“Manipulating Public Opinion with Moral Justification,” Annals of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science 560, no. 1 (1998): 129-142.
139 Ted G. Jelen and Clyde Wilcox, “Causes and Consequences of Public Attitudes
Toward Abortion: A Review and Research Agenda,” Political Research Quarterly 56,
no. 4 (2003): 489-500.
it deserves equal consideration in any discussion of capitalism and public
culture in the United States.
To claim, as I do, that public support for capitalism in the United
States is somehow related to perceptions of the system's morality begs the
obvious question: Is capitalism moral, more specifically, is capitalism, to
the majority of Americans, moral? However tempting it may be to quickly
respond “yes” or “no,” such answers are insufficient and assume far too
much about both capitalism and morality. Therefore, before the question
specifically regarding the United States can be answered, several broader
issues must be explored. First, one must ask if capitalism requires a moral
defense at all. As long as the system works, does it really matter whether
or not it is moral? Is not the beauty of the free market, as many prominent
intellectuals contend, its moral subjectivity, its simultaneous compatibility
with multiple philosophies and religions? Pending the failure of this
proposition, altruism and egoism, the two major American ethical systems,
must be examined, beginning with their origins, continuing through their
actualization in Western civilization, ending at their moral implications for
capitalism. For then and only then can a discussion of the morality of
American capitalism proceed.
Amoral Defenses of Capitalism
Defending capitalism has never been easy. Defending it on moral
grounds has been a nightmare. As such, most proponents of capitalism
have sidestepped its morality entirely, adhering instead to value-neutral
justifications based on cold, rational evidence of the free market's undeniable success. Capitalism, they say, is a science, not a moral philosophy. As
Lionel Robbins' famous definition of economics reads, “Economics is the
science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and
scarce means which have alternative uses.”140 Robbins adds, “Economics
is entirely neutral between ends,” meaning he is not concerned with what
is ultimately valued, but rather, how to achieve any end insofar as it is dependent on scarce means.141 Ludwig von Mises expounds:
Economics is a theoretical science and as such abstains from any judgment of value. It is not its task to tell people what ends they should aim
at. It is a science of the means to be applied for attainment of ends chosen, not, to be sure, a science of the choosing of ends. Ultimate
decisions, the valuations and the choosing of ends, are beyond the
scope of any science. Science never tells a man how he should act; it
merely shows how a man must act if he wants to attain definite ends. 142
The ultimate goal of human action is always the satisfaction of the acting man's desire. There is no standard of greater or lesser satisfaction
other than individual judgments of value, different for various people
and for the same people at various times. What makes a man feel uneasy and less uneasy is established by him from the standard of his own
will and judgment, from his personal and subjective valuation. Nobody
is in a position to decree what should make a fellow man happier.143
For Mises, the only objective end of economics is human flourishing,
meaning each individual in any given social order may freely pursue her
own ends without limitation, obstruction, or coercion.144 It is only happen140 Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, 2nd
ed. (London: Macmillan, 1945), 16. Italics mine.
141 Ibid., 24.
142 Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, Scholar's ed. (Auburn,
AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), 10.
143 Ibid., 14.
144 It is imperative to note Mises' concept of liberty is an entirely negative one, and that
he recognizes no obligation under any social order to provide individuals with
positive liberty, “the conditions necessary for individuals to be self-sufficient or to
stance that laissez-faire capitalism is the only system which reasonably allows individual human beings the freedom to act in accordance with
whatever goals or values she may desire. Other socioeconomic systems by
their very nature do not. For any action undertaken by a central authority
necessarily involves passing arbitrary value judgments about what ends its
citizen need, want, or desire, judgments governments and other regulatory
bodies cannot and should not make. According to the Austrian scholar,
only an individual can know what is best for herself.
Mises explains that well-intentioned government interventions interfere
with the tendency of the free market to respect the sovereignty of the
individual. Interventionism involves regulations and controls that divert
production from the projects that would have been undertaken if people
were free to follow their own judgments.145
While it can be said Mises inadvertently argues for individualism, thus
rendering his value-neutral theory no longer value-neutral, this objection is
a misunderstanding of Mises' work. Remember Mises is not interested in
the ends of human action, only the means by which to achieve those ends.
All ends are subjective; the means are not.
Praxeology [the study of human action] is indifferent to the ultimate
goals of action. Its findings are valid for all kinds of action irrespective
of the ends aimed at. It is a science of means, not of ends. It applies the
term happiness in a purely formal sense. In the praxeological terminology the proposition: man's unique aim is to attain happiness, is
tautological. It does not imply any statement about the state of affairs
achieve self-realization.” Ian Carter, “Positive and Negative Liberty,” Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy (October 8, 2008),
liberty-positive-negative/. As Mises' protégé Murray Rothbard puts it, for libertarians,
positive liberty “refers not to liberty at all but to an individual’s effective power or
mastery over himself or his environment.” Murray N. Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty
(1982, repr., New York: New York University Press, 1998), 215.
145 Edward W. Younkins, “Misesian Praxeology as the Path to Progress,” in
Philosophers of Capitalism: Menger, Mises, Rand, and Beyond, ed. Edward W.
Younkins (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005), 70.
from which man expects happiness. 146
It is the objective goal of the science of economics, one branch of the science of praxeology, to merely provide an a priori framework in which
individuals may freely maximize their own happiness, in which they may
freely achieve their own values and ends given the limitation of both material and nonmaterial resources. That the individual is and must be
sovereign is an a priori fact derived from praxeology's central axiom, the
proposition that men act, not a moral imperative. For Mises, capitalism is
the logical consequence of a priori facts of human nature, not a product or
derivative of morality.147
F.A. Hayek continues Mises' legacy in his work Road to Serfdom,
where he decries fascism, socialism, and other planned economies for their
moral presumptuousness, arguing that capitalism is the proper socioeconomic system exactly because it does not require a catholic ethic.
[A planned economy] presupposes, in short, the existence of a complete
ethical code in which all the different human values are alloted their
due place...In our society there is neither occasion nor reason why people should develop common views about what should be done in such
situations...The adoption of a common ethical code comprehensive
enough to determine a unitary economic plan would mean a complete
reversal of this tendency. The essential point for us is that no such complete ethical code exists.148
Hayek furthers this argument by noting the beauty of economic liberalism
is its lack of a creed, of rules that bind and constrain it, forcing individuals
146 Mises, Human Action, 15.
147 There is neither the space nor the need here for a complete reiteration of Mises' neoKantian epistemology, praxeology, or his actual economic views, all of which are
contained in his magnum opus, Human Action.
148 F.A. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, Definitive ed., ed. Bruce Caldwell, (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2007), 101.
to accept recognized values and ends. “There is nothing in the basic principles of liberalism to make it a stationary creed; there are no hard-andfast rules fixed once and for all,” he writes. 149 However, unlike Mises,
whose primary objection to noncapitalist economies is a priori, Hayek's
empiricist critique of state-planned economies (what he calls collectivism)
is more than just their ends, but their means too. In a variation on the trite
proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” he remarks, “The
principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded
as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the
supreme rule.”150 Citing Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as examples,
Hayek argues any attempt to lead men on a path to human progress is met
by a historical regression to tyranny, the road to serfdom. Thus, his argument is less supportive of free-market economies than it is critical of
planned ones.151
Because they are now more than a half-century old, these amoral
defenses have been widely adopted as the best vindications for capitalism.
The most famous of such economists, Milton Friedman, builds his work
on the Hayekian rules of argument, and he spent the majority of his career
149 Ibid., 71.
150 Ibid., 166. Hayek is not advocating consequentialism as the proper moral code for an
individual but criticizing its nihilism and its failure to establish any moral guidance
whatsoever, a criticism of consequentialism long held by ethicists. By comparing
collectivism to institutionalized consequentialism, he makes an effective argument,
one which resonates with many intellectuals of both his day and now, one which in
many ways has been proven as more and more evidence shows the atrocities and
horrors committed by fascist and communist states in order to achieve “progress.”
151 Ibid. Hayek's weak support for capitalism generates much criticism, particularly
because of his insistence upon work-hours regulation, a social safety net, and rent
controls. See Block, “Hayek's Road to Serfdom.”
empirically proving the dangers of collectivism. He believes, as do most
of his Chicago School contemporaries, that capitalism, to be properly defended in the public sphere, requires undeniable, empirical proof of its
success, its outcome. Milton Friedman, in a preface to a reprint of Capitalism and Freedom, writes:
The change in the climate of opinion [about capitalism] was produced
by experience, not by theory or philosophy. Russia and China, once the
great hopes of the intellectual classes, had clearly gone sour. Great
Britain, whose Fabian socialism reflected a dominant influence on
American intellectuals, was deep in trouble. Closer to home, the intellectuals, always devotees of big government and by wide majorities
supporters of the national Democratic party, had been disillusioned by
the Vietnam War...Many of the great reform programs – such guidons
of the past as welfare, public housing, support of trade unions, integration of schools, federal aid to education, affirmative action – were
quickly turning to ashes. As with the rest of the population, their pocketbooks were being hit with inflation and high taxes. These phenomena,
not the persuasiveness of the ideas expressed in books dealing with
principles, explain the transition from the overwhelming defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to the overwhelming victory of Ronald Reagan in
1980 – two men with essentially the same program and the same message.152
For Friedman, the neoliberalism embraced by world leaders in the 1980s
(and continuing through much of the 1990s) is about the harsh reality of
intellectuals and politicians that regulated and state-run economies are inefficient, corrupt, and in many cases, as Hayek so boldy asserts,
tyrannical. Friedman's comments are strengthened by the 1989 fall of the
Berlin Wall, by the Republicans 1994 “Contract with America,” said to be
the congressional manifestation of neoliberalism, by the economic prosperity of the 1990s, said to be the result of unbridled competition, both
152 Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962, repr., Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2002), xiii.
nationally and internationally.153
But the success of these amoral and empirical defenses of capitalism is also their greatest failure. For one, they do not explain certain
realities. For instance, as laissez-faire critics often point out, if free-market
capitalism is so great, why was the United States plagued by financial panics in 1792, 1796-1797, 1819, 1825, 1837, 1847, 1857, 1866, 1873, 1884,
1890, 1893, 1896, 1901, 1907, and 1910-1911? Why were such “banking
panics” relatively absent following the creation of the Federal Reserve? Of
course, free-marketeers respond with more empirical proof about the role
of the Bank of the United States, the National Banking Act of 1863, about
how the panics prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve were mild in
comparison to the disasters that followed: the stock-market crash in 1929
and the investment crisis in 2008. Milton Friedman among others blames
the severity of the Great Depression on the mismanagement of the Federal
Reserve.154 And many economists say terrible federal fiscal and monetary
policy contributed heavily to if not caused the recent financial crisis. 155 Of
course, Keynesian economists and socialists have their own version of
economic history too, but they have an immense advantage. The former
153 Paul A. London, The Competition Solution (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2005).
London's argument is particularly interesting because it shifts away from the popular,
partisan debate of Reagan's tax cuts versus Clinton's monetary policy. Rather, the
1990s prosperity was the product of competition driven by political infighting that
inadvertently relaxed controls and opened markets both in the U.S. and abroad.
154 Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose (San Diego: Harcourt, 1990),
155 See Thomas Sowell, The Housing Boom and Bust (New York: Basic Books, 2009);
Burning Down the House: What Caused Our Economic Crisis, Video; from (accessed March 7, 2010).
prescribe readily-accepted government policies, not ideologies, and the
latter can claim their socioeconomic system has yet to be implemented.
Therefore, in any public debate, the burden of proof will forever rest on
the free-market empiricists to show that their variety of capitalism is not
responsible for whatever economic disasters may arise, a challenge not
easily met. For public debate can be very cruel, especially to hard-line
capitalists who are disparagingly lampooned by critics as free-market fundamentalists.156 Often, the defenders of the free-market faith are left alone
at the public inquisition, where Keynesian economists pick apart their evidence and vociferously ask, “Where is your faith now?”
Secondly, such arguments have little bearing in politics, where the
rational voter who systematically evaluates all his options and votes in the
best interests of either himself or of his community, is a myth, a legend, an
apparition, call it what one will. The public does not generally possess the
needed knowledge to rationally distinguish between two candidates, let
alone between competing policy prescriptions.157 Nor does any voter short
of an economics professor have a deep enough understanding of economics, history, or better yet, economic history to truly say, “Oh, I get it.
Capitalism isn't so bad after all.” And those who come close to approach156 See Brian Snowdon, “Redefining the Role of the State: Joseph Stiglitz on building a
'post-Washington consensus',” World Economics 2, no. 3 (2001): 45-86; Lee
Boldeman, The Cult of the Market: Economic Fundamentalism and its Discontents
(Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2007).
157 See W. Russell Neuman, The Paradox of Mass Politics (1986); Robert S. Erikson
and Kent L. Tedin, American Public Opinion (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005),
ing this level of understanding are more than likely predisposed toward
capitalism, anyway. Otherwise, why search out the knowledge? Opportunity costs are simply too high for most voters, especially one who fits the
model of “the purely economic man.”158 Further, political science research
shows time and time again that individuals do not primarily vote out of
concern for their personal economic conditions, whether short term or
long term.159 While there is evidence that the public does reward or punish
incumbent political parties for economic performance, they never do so in
terms of long-term economic performance, which is how capitalism best
demonstrates its efficiency.160 “For the masses, it is the short-run view that
Finally, most importantly, the universal appeal of the arguments
used by the free-market empiricists, such as Friedman, and moral relativists, such as Mises and Hayek, is their greatest strength and also their
greatest weakness. Without an objective ethical base to stand upon, their
158 “The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron.” Amartya K.
Sen, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,”
Philosophy and Public Affairs 6, no. 4 (Summer 1977): 336. Sen's point is that the
rational-actor model so loved by economists and many social scientists does not exist.
No sentient human being acts in a manner exclusively in accordance with utility
maximization. This article, evident as its message may seem, caused many scholars to
revisit decades of assumptions about economic, political, and social behavior.
159 See Stanley Feldman, “Economic Self-Interest and Political Behavior,” American
Journal of Political Science 26, no. 3 (August 1982): 446-466; David O. Sears and
Carolyn L. Funk, “The Role of Self-Interest in Social and Political Attitudes,” in
Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Mark P. Zanna, ed. (San Diego:
Academic Press, 1991), 24:22-39; Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 18-19.
160 See William R. Keech, Economic Politics: The Costs of Democracy (Cambridge:
Oxford University Press, 1977); D.R. Kinder and D.R. Kiewiet, “Economic
Grievances and Political Behavior,” American Journal of Political Science 23
(August 1979): 495-527.
161 Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 145.
arguments lack depth and become inconsistent, not only among their peers
but even within the theories themselves. Mises once called Friedman and
Hayek “a bunch of socialists” simply because they disagreed on the
amount of state intervention in the economy. And Hayek's denunciation of
collectivism is full of so many holes that one wonders if his father was not
a Viennese scholar but a Swiss cheesemaker. For him, the greatness of
economic liberalism is its lack of a need for “a commonly accepted system
of ends” and “a definite system of morals,” exactly the qualities that render collectivism inevitably totalitarian. Yet he subtly encodes altruism
throughout Road to Serfdom by making provocative statements about a
properly-functioning civil society, inviting gratuitous amounts of state intervention into the “free market,” eventually eroding his entire argument
from beneath him, both in logic and in substance. 162 And Friedman, though
substantially more consistent in his application of liberty than Hayek, never actually tells us why freedom is a good thing, only that capitalism is the
only socioeconomic system that allows us to keep it. Inasmuch as these
objections are largely the product of libertarian nit-picking, this lack of
philosophical rigor has widely opened the door for capitalism's heaviest
162 This is largely my own criticism, however, I am not the first to suggest issues with
Hayek's ethics. See Block, “Hayek's Road to Serfdom,” and Arthur M. Diamond,
“F.A. Hayek on Constructivism and Ethics,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 4, no. 4
(Fall 1980): 353-365.
Altruism: Is Capitalism Moral?
“ an edifice without an inherent foundation in morality and religion, which...engenders a shallow and dubious order of life,”
writes the sociologist Jerome Himmelstein. “Thinkers from Karl Marx to
Irving Kristol, whatever their political differences, have agreed that capitalism is a system that undermines all ultimate values and hence its own
moral foundations.”163 This grandiose statement presupposes that all men
agree upon a universal moral code. Initially, such a sweeping generalization appears specious, but for all intents and purposes, Himmelstein is
correct.164 However much professional ethicists differentiate among various moral philosophies, the vast majority of ethical approaches, whether
developed at university desks or in church pews, end at one conclusion,
one said by many to be completely at odds with capitalist values: altruism.
According to Auguste Comte, the French philosopher who coined the
term, altruism is disinterested concern for the welfare of others. He writes:
[We must] live for others. This definitive formula of human morality,
gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the
common source of happiness and duty...[Man must serve] Humanity,
whose we are entirely.165
Though Comte's purpose in his catechism is to establish a new “religion of
humanity,” he is not the first nor the last to propose “living for others” as
163 Jerome L. Himmelstein, “God, Gilder, and Capitalism,” Society 18 (SeptemberOctober 1981): 68.
164 This is not to say 100 percent of the world's inhabitants accept altruism as the only
proper moral code but rather to suggest the number of people who do so closely
approaches unanimity that for all intents and purposes, it is universally-accepted.
165 Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion, Richard Congreve, trans., 2nd
ed. (London: Trubner, 1883), 217.
an ethical maxim. Countless religions and philosophies in completely separate parts of the world all endorse a moral obligation to place the interests
of one's fellow men above one's own. 166 Indeed, as Himmelstein presumes,
so ingrained in Western civilization is altruism that it remains a virtually
unchallenged ethical doctrine, so much so that for most philosophers, to be
moral is to be altruistic. As Bertrand Russell writes:
Ethics is [sic] necessary because men's desires conflict. The primary
cause of conflict is egoism: most people are more interested in their
own welfare than in that of other people.167
Russell's synonymity between altruism and morality and his disdain for
egoism is not unique. His view is shared not only by the majority of scholars, including Himmelstein and Kurt Baier, who essentially replicate the
above statement, but also by Thomas Jefferson, who writes:168
Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly
substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with
others as constituting the boundaries of morality...Self-love is no part of
morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart.169
Such sentiments are further shared by billions across the world. But this
virtually universal acceptance of altruism and systematic denunciation of
egoism is more than just a mundane academic point. It has serious implications for any meaningful discussion on the morality of capitalism, and it
is upon this moral premise I shall begin.
166 See Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel, ed., A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the
Parliament of the World’s Religions (New York: Continuum, 1993) .
167 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2004), 703.
168 See Himmelstein, “God. Gilder, and Capitalism,” 68; Kurt Baier, The Moral Point of
View (New York: Random House, 1965).
169 “Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814,” in Andrew Lipscomb and Albert
E. Bergh, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial ed., (Washington, D.C.:
Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), 14:140.
Justifications for the moral theory of altruism are so numerous that
even ethics textbooks cannot begin to address them all, let alone a few
paragraphs of a thesis. However, one need not heavily tread through the
history of philosophy to understand the basics of altruism. The majority of
viable moral theories trace back to a handful of philosophers, most notably
Immanuel Kant, and even these philosophers are largely influenced by the
deontological ethics of Christianity, which I take to be the genesis of altruism in Western philosophy. Further, not forgetting the main subject of this
thesis, the American public is barely sophisticated enough or interested
enough to make judgments about who to vote for senator, let alone worry
about the metaphysics of morality. It is highly likely the majority of Americans accept altruism sola fide, either as an established part of what it
means to be human (which is Kant's justification, anyway) or as part of
their religious beliefs. And most importantly, the primary concern of this
discussion is not a metaphysical foundation for altruism, but its application to free-market economics. Our question is not why be an altruist, but
under the banner of altruism, is capitalism moral.
Just as any discussion of a universal ethic begins with altruism, so
too any discussion of Western altruism begins with its roots in religious
philosophy, in Christianity, where the idea serves as “the cornerstone of
Christian ethics.”170 Christianity's central figure, Jesus of Nazareth, lived
170 Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd rev. ed., comp. Simon Blackburn (London:
Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “Altruism.” Blackburn notes that altruism as a
category is unknown in Greek thought.
knowing his only purpose was to die so that others might forever live.
Backed by this powerful message of “living for others,” his was a life devoted the service of his fellow man, one both demonstrating and
encouraging forgiveness and sacrifice, both values central to Christian
thought. Jesus taught spirituality, equality, fraternity, solidarity, charity,
and frugality through aphorisms and parables, many of which are so influential that they continue to define and illustrate the quintessential man of
virtue, whether secular or sacred, Christian or atheist. Care not for this
world, Jesus says, but seek first the kingdom of God. Worry not of this
life, for God will take care of you. 171 Worry not of your position in this
world, for those who are last shall be first; those who are first shall be
last.172 The whore and the tax collector are equally valuable as the king
and the fisherman, for all people are equal in the eyes of God. 173 Just the
same, the rich man who easily spares millions of dollars to help the poor is
not more virtuous than the destitute widow who gives only a few dollars.174 Serve without recognition, without reward, and expect nothing in
return.175 Take care of your fellow men, both Christian and non-Christian.
Whatever a man does for the least of his brothers, he also does for God. 176
And no one is greater than he who lays down his life for his friend. 177 All
171 Matt. 6:25-34.
172 Matt. 20:16.
173 Matt. 5:43-48. 9:9-13, 21:31-32.
174 Luke 21:1-4.
175 Matt. 6:1-4.
176 Matt. 25:33-40.
177 John 15:13.
these values, all these proverbs, all these stories point to two basic duties,
a fact Jesus himself says. When asked by his disciples what the greatest
commandment in the law is, Jesus replies:
'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind'
(Deut. 6:5). This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is
like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself' (Lev. 19:18). All the Law and
all the Prophets hang on these two commandments.178
The Greek word for love, as written here, is agápē, which denotes fraternal or filial love, charity, most specifically, sacrificial love, and beautifully
summarizes the Christian ethics.179 Humans are called to selflessly love
each other as God loves them. As the Bible says, “We love because He
first loved us.”180 Just as Comte commands men to “live for others,” so too
God vis à vis Jesus Christ commands all men to live by his example, to
live for others, to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”181
Even long after his crucifixion, Christ's words continue to be well
heard. Christian scholars consistently reiterate his deontological ethics of
sacrificial love, of placing the interests of others above one's own. In 1
Corinthians 13, the famous biblical passage on love so often quoted at
weddings, the apostle Paul outlines Christianity's three theological virtues:
faith, hope, and love. He adds, μείζων δὲ τούτων ἡ ἀγάπη, translated, “but
178 Matthew 22:37-40 (New International Version).
179 Of the four Greek words which translate as love (érōs, passionate desire, romantic
love, philía, dispassionate, virtuous love, storgē, natural affection, and agápē), the
theologian C.S. Lewis notes agápē to have little usage in ancient Greek, believing the
terms did not achieve significant meaning until it was adopted by early Christians,
notably Paul and John. See C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace,
1960). This Christian extension of love into “new dimensions” is also echoed in
Catholic theology. See Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est 1.3-8.
180 1 John 4:19 (NIV).
181 Mark 8:34 (NIV); see also Luke 9:23.
the greatest of these is agápē.”182 This preeminence assigned by Paul to
agápē gives the virtue a powerful place in Western ethics, so much so that
Thomas Aquinas, in extensively analyzing the verse, remarks that the
greatness of love is in its intrinsic divinity. Unlike faith and hope, which
God reveals to men so that they may know his nature, agápē reflects the
very nature of God.183 The theologian's august claim is backed by scripture, as the apostle John writes in his first epistle, “Whoever does not love
does not know God, because God is love.”184 Thus, unconditional, sacrificial love, caritas, as Aquinas calls it, becomes synonymous with the
summum bonum, which as Augustine of Hippo writes, “is nothing else but
God himself.”185
By assigning divine eminence (what Plato in his Republic calls intrinsic value) to an otherwise abstract concept, the Christian theologians
firmly cement agápē into Western philosophy as the ultimate end in itself,
the object of all human desire and will. By seeking agápē, by living for
others, one seeks truth, light, and understanding; for it is no coincidence
that God, the summum bonum, and absolute truth all share the same
archetype in Western literature: the eternal, exalted Light. As Dante experiences in Paradiso:
182 1 Cor. 13:13 in The Greek New Testament, 3rd. ed. (London: United Bible Societies,
183 Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica
184 1 John 4:8 (NIV).
185 Summum bonum here means “the highest good,” a term borrowed by Augustine from
Plato. The church father writes, “For the good plainly exists; and we have shown by
reasoning, as far as we were able, and by the divine authority which goes beyond our
reasoning, that it is nothing else but God Himself.” Augustine De natura boni 14.24.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.
Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already – like
a wheel revolving uniformly – by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.186
Here, in the final moments of his journey, one which begins in hell and
ends in heaven, one which reveals both the best and worst of humanity, the
sinners and the saints, Dante experiences an elucidation – both figuratively
and literally – by meeting Love for the first time. Love (agápē), in this
context, is a clearly a metaphor for God, a nod to the poet's Thomistic
background. Obvious though this may be, especially to those familiar with
medieval literature, Dante's use of this literary technique must not be discounted. By choosing to end his masterpiece with an allusion to 1 John 4:8
( θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν – “God is love”187), the Florentine leaves the reader
with a single thought: Agápē is the final end in mankind's quest for moral
truth, the highest of all human virtues, the summum bonum.
Though originally a Christian concept, one predicated on the existence of a deity, the primacy of agápē did not disappear from Western
ethics upon “the death of God,” as Nietzsche writes. 188 For even after the
growth of atheism in the nineteenth century, philosophers never really
186 Dante Paradiso 33.140-145.
187 1 John 4:8 in The Greek New Testament.
188 See Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th ed.
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), 96-110. Much to Nietzsche's
frustration, eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophers, many of whom either
tried to reject or outright rejected the existence of a deity, never actually questioned
Christian morality but rather sought alternative explanations for it. Ayn Rand, herself
an admirer of Nietzsche, shares his critique, denouncing modern philosophers for
questioning everything taught by the Catholic Church except altruism. See Ayn Rand,
For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), 35.
moved past the idea that agápē is the summum bonum. Nor did they need
to. As Louis Feuerbach explains in The Essence of Christianity, God has
always been one thing and one thing only to mankind: “the epitome of all
realities or perfections.”189 If, as Feuerbach holds, God is an anthropomorphism of human perfection, and if, as Augustine and Aquinas hold, God is
agápē, then is agápē not the quintessence of what it means to be human,
the ultimate moral good?
Such is the position taken by Immanuel Kant, the most prominent,
most influential thinker in modern philosophy, who, without an appeal to
God, develops a summum bonum, a will without limitation, without ulterior motive (self-interest, self-preservation, sympathy, or happiness), one
which is “good in and of itself, the sum of all inclinations.” 190 He accomplishes this through the a priori assertion that all human beings, due to
their rational nature, exist as ends in themselves and command equal
moral consideration. Any summum bonum must comply with these metaphysical facts. In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes:
If, then, there is to be a supreme practical principle and, with respect to
the human will, a categorical imperative, it must be one such that, from
the representation of what is necessarily an end for everyone because it
is an end in itself, it constitutes an objective principle of the will and
thus can serve as a universal practical law.191
He calls one formulation of this categorical imperative the principle of humanity, which, for the German philosopher, means all people must act
189 James Thrower, A Short History of Western Atheism (London: Pemberton, 1971),
190 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Mary Gregor, trans.
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 7-8.
191 Ibid., 35.
such that they “use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person
of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a
means.”192 What this principle actually means is a bit vague. Some of its
implications are quite obvious, for instance, it is immoral to harm oneself
or another, to commit suicide or murder, to steal, to lie, to cheat or deceive, all of which are essentially universally-accepted ethical
commandments in the Western world (whether or not people obey them is
a completely different issue), but its other implications are somewhat misleading. Does the principle of humanity mean one may never use another
man as a means, period? Or does the word merely qualify the imperative,
barring only “action to which [other people] could not in principle consent?”193 What does it mean to treat persons as ends in themselves? Is this
a statement on justice? Or on beneficence? Philosophers vary on their interpretations of Kant, however, there is no question the principle of
humanity is in essence altruistic. As Kant writes, “The end of a subject
who is an end in itself must also as far as possible be also my ends.” 194 In
other words, to be moral, a person must always consider the interests of
others, doing her best to promote not just her own well being, but that of
her fellow human beings as well. All human action must be beneficent,
that is, all acts must “try to achieve what others want,” to “seek others'
192 Ibid., 36.
193 Onora O'Neill, “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems,” in Reason and
Responsibility, 11th ed., Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau, ed. (Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, 2002), 717.
194 Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 38.
happiness.”195 This is the very essence of altruism. For Kant, to be moral,
to obey the categorical imperative, one must live for others.
Kant's categorical imperative, his Moral Law, is remarkably similar
to the Christian ideal of agápē. Both share the same underlying notion,
that all people are of equal moral worth and deserve equal treatment, both
command men to serve one another, even at a cost to oneself (though neither Christians or Kantians view altruism in this utilitarian manner), and
both believe the actualization of their moral imperatives becomes the summum bonum, whether this is an earthly social goal, in this case of Kant's
Moral Law, or in the case of agápē, the nature of God himself.196 Why
Kant, in rejecting a divine foundation for ethics, returns to altruism is a revisitation of the Euthyphro dilemma that only Nietzsche dare answer. 197
“Kant wanted to prove in a way that would dumbfound the 'common man'
that the 'common man' was right,” the German radical comments. 198 Disparaging sarcasm aside, Nietzsche makes an astute observation: By
providing a rational basis for the Christian ethic at a time when scholars
questioned not only Christianity but the very existence of God, Kant secured the dominance of altruism in Western ethics.
195 O'Neill, “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems,” 718.
196 Debate continues among Kantian philosophers about whether Kant's summum bonum
can only be realized in another world, namely, Heaven, or whether it is possible to
achieve “the final end of the Moral Law” on this planet. See Andrews Reath, “Two
Conceptions of the Highest Good in Kant,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26,
no. 4 (October 1988): 593-619.
197 “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved
by the gods?” Plato Euthryphro 10a. Likewise, did Kant adopt altruism because it is
the proper moral code, and thus, the code taught by Jesus Christ, or did Kant simply
rationalize Christian morals, which happen to be altruism?
198 Kaufmann, Nietzsche, 103.
Thus, to return to the thesis, capitalism, for the vast majority of the
Western world, whether atheist or theist or anything in between, must be
moral not on its own accord, but on the humanitarianism of Kant and the
agápē of Christianity. In other words, to be moral, capitalism must be altruistic, according to many scholars, a near impossible feat. This is
primarily for two reasons: (1) As thinkers building on Kant's moral philosophy argue, a moral socioeconomic order must be built on humanitarian
and altruistic principles. Thus, due to its egoistic nature, capitalism is a
priori immoral. (2) Capitalism may begin under the auspices of beneficence and justice, but a posteriori, the socioeconomic system results in
significant inequalities, which must either be reconciled to be made just or
the system declared immoral and scrapped.
The first argument, though shared by many intellectuals and nonintellectuals alike, is best articulated by John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls defines justice to be “the principles that free and rational
persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial
position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association.”199 Effectively, this builds on interpretations of Kant, which suggest
in order not to use humanity as a “mere means,” one must never involve
another human in “a scheme of action to which they could not in principle
consent.”200 He then creates a hypothetical situation called the “original
199 John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” in Reason and Responsibility, 654.
200 O'Neill, “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems,” 717.
position” (a version of contract theorists' state of nature, but with little
concern for history or anthropology) in which a group of persons agree to
a set of principles that will become justice.
Thus we are to imagine that those who engage in social cooperation
choose together, in one joint act, the principles which are to assign basic rights and duties and to determine the division of social benefits.
Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims
against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society. Just as each person must decide by rational reflection what
constitutes his good, that is, the system of ends which it is rational for
him to pursue, so a group of persons must decide one and for all what is
to count among them as just and unjust.201
Such a scenario, for capitalism, seems innocuous enough, and is not unlike
the theories espoused by Locke and Rousseau, a fact Rawls himself acknowledges. Rawls differs by adding that such principles are to be chosen
behind a “veil of ignorance,” that is, in the original position, “no one
knows his place in society, his social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence,
strength, and the like,” ensuring “no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in
the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances.”202 It is only under such conditions, Rawls
claims, that men can democratically agree upon what is truly just, what is
truly fair, what is to the benefit of all people, to revisit Kant, to choose a
socioeconomic and political scheme to which all human beings can consent. Of course, this begs the questions, what is fair, what is just, what is
201 Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” 654.
202 Ibid.
For Rawls and for other theorists building on his tradition, the answer is again to be found in Kant: All human beings are of equal moral
worth, and thus, must be given equal moral consideration in any socioeconomic order. How then do people acquire equal moral worth? Rawls
replies not by advancing an egalitarian argument, but a humanitarian one.
Echoing the sentiments of the American public, it is not equality of outcome he is interested in but equality of opportunity (in the De Tocqueville
sense).203 Men can and do fairly earn their wealth, however, not all men
are given the same basic advantages to do so. For him, economic success
is not exclusively the product of individual mental and physical effort,
rather, “the effort a person is willing to make is influenced by his natural
abilities and skills and the alternatives open to him.” 204 This point is best
illustrated by John Isbister in his version of the classic childhood story
The Little Red Hen.205
Strict equality of outcomes is unjust. The fictional hen in our parable
may not have a just claim to the entire loaf. Because she has worked
and the other three have not, however, she deserves a greater share. In
this tale, justice would be violated by insisting upon an equal distribution of the bread, because we conceive of the four animals as beings
who are responsible for their actions. [Nonetheless], we could amend
the story so that the circumstances are a little different. The cat has
203 Equality of opportunity means only that there are no institutional constraints
preventing economic or social advancement, namely, laws of divine right or laws that
exclude or favor certain groups from attaining wealth. See De Tocqueville,
Democracy in America Vol. 1, 46-54.
204 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999),
205 This Russian folktale has been an important part of American culture for more than a
century, teaching children about work ethic, honesty, and justice, however, in recent
decades, beginning with a Ronald Reagan monologue, the story has been used to
advance arguments both for and against government-mandated wealth distribution.
See Ronald Reagan – The Little Red Hen, Video; from
watch?v=sitac-iMdYw (accessed March 19, 2010).
been denied an education in bread making because of antifelinist discrimination, the rat is physically disabled, and the pig is a single mother
with infant piglets. They would like to help but they cannot. In this story, we are back in the realm of unequal opportunity. The cat, the rat,
and the pig are handicapped by characteristics for which they should
not be penalized. They are of equal moral worth, and justice requires
that they get some of the bread.206
It is unjust, unfair, and immoral, according to Isbister, to let those without
the same opportunities as the hen starve. To do so is to assign unequal
moral worth to different actors, to ignore the fourth dictum of Kant's categorical imperative, to consider the interests of others in performing one's
actions. To incorporate this idea into the original position, upon leaving
the veil of ignorance, any one person could become the hen, the cat, the
rat, or the pig. Without knowing for sure, not only is it in everyone's self-interest but it is a moral imperative to adopt a socioeconomic and political
order which considers the interests and happiness of all actors. 207 Thus, for
Rawls, in considering the equal moral worth of all people demands two
principles of of justice: (1) each person must have an equal right to extensive basic liberties, insofar as those liberties are compatible with similar
206 John Isbister, Capitalism and Justice (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian, 2001), 12-13.
207 It is possible to read Rawls' argument as egoistic since members of his original
position congregate to “further their own interests.” However, to do so is a gross
misinterpretation of both Rawls and egoism. Rawls fully admits his theory assumes
all those involved in the original position are moral persons, which he takes in the
Kantian sense to mean “rational beings with their own ends and capable of a sense of
justice.” Already then before concluding what justice is, Rawls asserts the categorical
imperative. Where Kant's extension of the principle of a humanity ends, Rawls
begins. All justice as fairness really accomplishes is to extend the categorical
imperative to the realm of the socioeconomic. Further, Rawls is not an egoist, never
was an egoist, and never will be an egoist. As both Frederich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand
say, to be an egoist is to consider oneself of greater moral worth than one's fellow
man, to puts one's interests above those of the “common good,” the democratic mob;
it is to become the Übermensch. Put more philosophically, an egoistic man who must
become an altruist in the interest of self-preservation is no egoist at all. See Rawls,
“Justice as Fairness,” 655; Kaufmann, Nietzsche, 307-333; Harry Binswanger, ed.,
The Ayn Rand Lexicon (New York: Plume, 1988), s.v.v. “Selfishness,” “Altruism.”
liberties for others, (2) social and economic inequalities must be reasonably be to everyone's advantage.208 Without worrying about the realistic
compatibility of these two principles (this raises the liberty versus equality
debate outlined by McClosky and Zaller), their logical conclusion is a social democracy, not a capitalist republic.209
The advent of secular arguments for altruism via Kant and Comte
and their subsequent application to political economy via Rawls (though
he certainly is not the first to do so) does not invalidate the role of religion
in the morality of capitalism, especially for the vast majority of the public,
who has neither read nor desires to read Kant, Comte, or Rawls. If anything, the secular arguments supplement the sacred ones, not the other way
around. Theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, both critical and supportive, long before the rise of twentieth-century philosophy have written
on the subject of Christianity and capitalism, specifically on whether the
teachings of Jesus Christ, namely, those of sacrificial love, are compatible
with a socioeconomic system held by most economists and moral philosophers to be predicated solely on love for oneself.
Bans on certain capitalistic practices have long been a part of
Judeo-Christian theology. As early as 325, the Council of Nicaea forbade
the clergy to loan money at interest (presumably because of their status as
208 Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” 660.
209 Social democracy is a hybrid economy in which the state retains in inordinate
amount of control over the market and private enterprise, such to the point that for all
intents and purposes, capitalism, especially as it is known in the United States, does
not exist. See Gøsta Esping-Andersen, Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).
God's representatives on earth and their commitment to a life of unselfish
service), and by 1179, the Third Lateran Council condemned usury (loaning money at interest) as both a crime and a sin.
Nearly everywhere the crime of usury has become so firmly rooted that
many, omitting other business, [practice] usury as if it were permitted,
and in no way observe how it is forbidden in both the Old and New
Testament. We therefore declare that notorious usurers should not be
admitted to communion of the altar or receive Christian burial if they
die in this sin.210
The Church duly observes usury to be against scripture and against God,
citing verses in Exodus and Luke.
If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do
not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.211
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.212
Though the first verse, taken from Old Testament law, explicitly forbids
usury, the second better summarizes the Christian ethic. Men must not act
out of expectations of reciprocity, reward, or personal gain. For to do so is
contrary to the teachings of Jesus, the commandment to selflessly love
one's neighbor as oneself, agápē as it is known by modern scholars, caritas, or charity, as it is known by Aquinas. Pope Sixtus V emphasizes the
point, passionately condemning interest as “detestable to God and man,
damned by the sacred canons and contrary to Christian charity.”213
Thus, usury, by all medieval accounts, is the worst form of the
210 “Third Lateran Council,” in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, trans. and
ed. Norman P. Tanner (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990).
211 Exod. 22:25 (NIV).
212 Luke 6:35 (NIV).
213 Conrad Henry Moehlman, “The Christianization of Interest,” Church History 3, no. 1
(March 1934): 7.
Thomistic cardinal sin of avarice, the very antithesis of agápē, the highest
of all Christian virtues. Whereas agápē is sacrificial, unconditional love
for others, avarice, or greed, is excessive, unconditional love of oneself.
Agápē is born of God.214 Greed is born of Mammon, of Plutus, the Satanic
personification of material wealth. As Jesus himself says, “No one can
serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will
be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God
and Money.”215 Dante illustrates this theological polarization in his Divine
Comedy, poetically contrasting greed and charity, the former as the fourth
circle of hell, the latter as the eighth sphere of heaven.216
However, as scholars argue through secular interpretations of Kant,
agápē, in the Christian tradition, is not necessarily something achievable
only in another plane of existence, as it is for Dante. For many theologians, agápē is the summum bonum “on earth as it is in heaven,” to quote
the Lord's Prayer.217 Men must not wait only for the afterlife, but they must
also bring the Kingdom of God to man. Among the first thinkers to envision such an ideal is Thomas More, whose Christian-inspired Utopia,
according to More scholar Paul Turner, is an unapologetic endorsement of
communism.218 The former Lord Chancellor's fictitious island, the first of
214 “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves
has been born of God and knows God.” 1 John 4:7.
215 Matt. 6:24 (NIV). Many translations actually personify “Money” as Mammon.
216 Dante Inferno 7; Paradiso 26.
217 Matt. 6:10 (NIV).
218 “Appendix” in Thomas More, Utopia, trans. and ed. Paul Turner (London: Penguin
Books, 2003), 114-117.
its kind since Plato's Republic, is a celebration of Christian love, tolerance,
and virtue, a condemnation of all sins, including greed and lust. Clearly,
for More, economic self-interest and capitalism are both incompatible with
Christian teaching. While More's work is radical, he is not alone in his political and socioeconomic opinions. The Italian Dominican philosopher
Tommaso Campanella devises a similar theocratic society in La città del
Sole.219 And Walter Rauschenbusch later revives the idea of a Christian
world in his works on the Social Gospel, laying the foundation for
capitalism's harshest Christian criticisms. Using a normative biblical
foundation, “Rauschenbusch is able to make a prophetic denunciation of
numerous economic and social conditions of his day,” offering instead an
earthly Kingdom of God, which involves service to the common good and
“the organized fellowship of humanity acting under the impulse of
Such a social ethic is notable for its optimistic portrayal of human
nature (with its conviction that Christian love can directly transform
individuals and social structures) and for its reduction of a social ideal
(The Kingdom of God) into a particular political and economic
program. Such capitalist institutions as private property and profittaking, which feed upon self-interest, are considered inherently inimical
to the religious demands of the historical realization of the Kingdom of
Taking the Catholic Church's position against usury to its logical extreme,
Rauschenbusch declares capitalism to be utterly without redeeming
219 See Tommaso Campanella, The City of the Sun (Project Gutenberg, 2009),
220 David A. Krueger, “Capitalism, Christianity, and Economic Ethics: An Illustrative
Survey of Twentieth Century Protestant Social Ethics,” in Christianity and
Capitalism, ed. Bruce Grelle and David A. Krueger (Chicago, IL: Center for the
Scientific Study of Religion, 1986), 26.
221 Ibid.
Christian value, against God, and against man. It runs contrary to the
agápē taught by Jesus Christ and is nothing more than the socioeconomic
manifestation of selfishness and greed, idol worship and gluttony, the very
pathway to every crime against man and sin against God in human history.
For him, as it is for the apostle Timothy, “The love of money is a root of
all kinds of evil.”222
Altruist arguments against capitalism, both sacred and secular are
not limited to a priori evaluations of the system's intrinsic morality. As
long as capitalism has existed, their have been people to challenge its legitimacy in delivering the greatest overall happiness to the greatest
number of people. As John Maynard Keynes writes:
The decadent international but individualistic capitalism, in the hands
of which we found ourselves after the War, is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous – and it
doesn't deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it and are beginning to
despise it.223
This Depression-era criticism challenges more than a century of classical
and neoclassical economic theory, pointing out the empirical failure of
Adam Smith's invisible hand. For Keynes, for his disciples, the problem
with free markets is not their innate immorality, for like most economists,
no such thing exists. Rather, it is capitalism's outcome he castigates. The
British economist questions the ability of market operations on their own
to accomplish all the goals nineteenth-century capitalism set for itself.
222 1 Tim. 6:10 (NIV).
223 John Maynard Keynes, “National Self-Sufficiency,” The Yale Review 22, no. 4
(Summer 1933), 760.
What did the nineteenth-century free traders, who were among the most
idealistic and disinterested of men, believe that they were accomplishing? They believed they were being perfectly sensible, that they alone
of men were clear-sighted, and the policies which sought to interfere
with the ideal international division of labor were always the offspring
of ignorance out of self-interest. They believed that they were solving
the problem of poverty, and solving it for the world as a whole, by
putting to their best uses, like a good housekeeper, the world's resources and abilities. They believed, further, that they were serving, not
merely the survival of the economically fittest, but the great cause of
liberty, of freedom for personal initiative and individual gift, the cause
of inventive art and the glorious fertility of the untrammeled mind
against the forces of privilege and monopoly and obsolescence. They
believed, finally, that they were the friends and assurers of peace and
international concord and economic justice between nations and the diffusers of the benefits of progress.224
Essentially, for Keynes, though he is careful not to denounce markets entirely, everything neoclassical economists believe about the morality of
laissez-faire capitalism is wrong. The self-interest enacted by a few does
not inevitably lead to economic prosperity for the many. Free markets do
not magically eliminate or reduce poverty; more often, they exacerbate it.
And as Keynesian scholars John Elliot and Barry Clark highlight, in General Theory, Keynes also addresses the wealth and income inequalities
produced by capitalism, which he believes to be unjust and immoral. 225
The Keynes-influenced Robert Pollin further comments:
There is no question that free-market economic capitalism—what
Adam Smith termed the “system of perfect liberty”—creates effective
material incentives within a competitive environment, and thereby can
succeed in encouraging discipline and innovation. But this same freemarket “system of perfect liberty” also produces deep and chronic
problems of unfairness. This becomes blindingly clear through even
observing casually the degree of income and wealth inequality in societies that more closely approximate the free-market ideal, such as the
United States.226
224 Ibid., 756-757.
225 John S. Elliot and Barry S. Clark, “Keynes's General Theory and Social Justice,”
Journal of Post Keynesian Economics 9, no. 3 (Spring 1987), 381-394.
226 Robert Pollin, “Globalization, Inequality and Financial Instability: Confronting the
Marx, Keynes and Polanyi Problems in the Advanced Capitalist Economies” (working
Though Pollin is far more critical of capitalism than most Keynesian economists (this can be attributed to an overt Marxist streak), virtually all
conclude that unfettered capitalism is demonstrably impractical, unjust,
and immoral. For these scholars, capitalism need not be rejected from the
start, markets, competition, and inequality need not be eradicated, but they
need significant reform.227
While certain aspects of Keynesian economics permeate the public
sphere, even for the least intellectual members of the population, few
come to understand a posteriori critiques of capitalism by studying political economy. Rather, the public's introduction to the alleged immorality of
markets comes from reality, whether through personal experience or second-hand accounts. The most famous examples are found in nineteenthcentury literature, wherein writers such as Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, Victor Hugo, and Nikolay Chernyshevsky write of the moral failures
of profit-driven industrialism. They point to disgusting working conditions, allegedly unjust wages, the pervasiveness of child labor, and other
business practices to show their abundant, often decadent readers the inhumanity needed to produce a mere yard of textile or a single steel beam.
These iconic authors' novels serve many as undeniable proof of capitalism's injustices, complete with inconspicuous titles and characters reflecting
their authors' criticisms: Capitalism is but a jungle, a habitat where les
paper, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, Amherst,
MA, 2000), 1.
227 See Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent (New York: Verso, 2003), 193.
misérables desperately struggle to survive as they slave through unreasonable, unhealthy conditions for a greedy Scrooge, asking themselves but
one question, “What is to be done?” Their books are long, their message
short. “Capitalism survives,” they cry, “But at what cost?”
Such critiques live well into the twenty-first century, only the battle for social justice and workers' rights has moved from the First World to
the Third. Pollin writes of the increasing wealth of Western countries at
the expense of the less-developed Southern continents, arguing that neoliberal globalization comes with a high price tag: the exploitation of
cheap labor through sweatshops.228 Citing terrible working conditions and
unfair wages, Pollin argues unregulated global capitalism has brought the
same problems the Industrial Revolution did, only this time, the burden
has been transferred. Like the nineteenth-century realists before him, for
Pollin, global capitalism thrives but at immeasurable costs.
Because Christian theology bases itself off biblical interpretation,
most Christian criticisms of capitalism are a priori. However, the Catholic
Church is one of the few exceptions, which aside from its position on
usury remained unusually silent on economic issues until the late
nineteenth century. Faced with the reality that most of their New and Old
World believers were working-class laborers, who increasingly rescinded
their faith in favor of atheistic socialism, the Church was forced to take a
firm position on the modern socioeconomic order. In a series of papal
228 Ibid., 153-163.
encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum, continuing through
Populorum Progressio, and ending recently with Caritas in Veritate, the
Church has become increasingly critical of capitalism. What began as an a
posteriori response to a crisis of faith has evolved into a priori
condemnations of any socioeconomic order which does not protect the
rights and dignity of human beings and promotes economic justice,
including capitalism.229 However, these a priori criticisms are not truly
antecedent to the system's outcomes. As much as the Church believes it is
making biblically-based claims about capitalism's morality, most of its
papal encyclicals closely follow historical events which jeopardize the
Church's legtimacy. Since so many of its followers are wage workers and
day laborers, idly sitting and watching Catholics across the world be
seduced by the siren songs of atheist labor struggles is not an option. This
is not to suggest Catholic clerics are concerned only with maintaining
power; rather, capitalism's outcome directly influences how the Church
views the system's morality. If free markets produced conditions that did
not cause otherwise devout Catholics to question all established authority,
there would be little need for the Church to say anything about the
However, just because many academics and theologians heavily
criticize and even condemn capitalism does not mean it is without an altru229 John T. Pawlikowski, “Modern Catholic Teaching on the Economy,” in Christianity
and Capitalism, 3-23; Benedict XVI Caritas in Veritate 3.34-43.
istic justification. Building on Friedman's claim that capitalism demonstrates its success through results, Martin Wolf argues capitalism can and
should be defended on altruistic, humanitarian grounds.
The market economy rests on and encourages valuable moral qualities;
provides unprecedented opportunities for people to engage in altruistic
activities; underpins individual freedom and democracy; and has created societies that are, in all significant respects, less unequal than the
traditional hierarchies that preceded them. In short, capitalism is the
most inherently just economic system that humankind has ever devised.230
Wolf, echoing the sentiments of Adam Smith, adds that though the moral
crux of capitalism is self-interest, people in capitalist economies are not
completely self-interested. “Prosperous market economies generate a vast
number of attractive opportunities for those who are not motivated by
wealth alone.”
In the advanced market economies, people care deeply about eliminating pain and injustice and ensuring the welfare of fellow humans and,
more recently, animals. This concern exists because a rich, liberal society places an enormous emphasis on the health and well-being of the
individual. Life is no longer nasty, brutish, and short; rather, it is gentle,
kind, and long, and more precious than before.231
Wolf does not stand alone in his claim. Certainly millions, perhaps even
billions of everyday citizens from six continents believe capitalism to be
the best way to achieve “the common good.” This utilitarian justification
reads as follows: Capitalism, regardless of the selfish motivations of its actors, of its microeconomic imperfections or macroeconomic inefficiencies,
is moral because in the end, it provides the greatest amount of aggregate
utility (overall happiness) to the greatest number of people.
230 Martin Wolf, “The Morality of the Market, Foreign Policy, September 1, 2003.
231 Ibid.
Christian defenses of capitalism also exist, some very similar to the
utilitarian argument offered above, others take a more Austrian approach.
According to Ronald Nash, while Christians have an obligation to live for
others, to practice altruism, they also have an obligation “to become informed as to the best means by which this might be done.” 232 He rejects
Rauschenbusch's notion that the Bible commands socialism, reminding
Christians that Jesus taught a strict separation of church and state. “Render
to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are
God’s.”233 Nash also insists capitalism is neither inherently altruistic or
egoistic, writing, “What transpires in the market will be as moral or immoral as the human beings who are active in the market.” 234 Revisiting
Mises' argument in Human Action, Nash adds that laissez-faire capitalism
alone provides the best means for all individuals to attain their ends, including the intrinsic virtues of Christianity. If agápē is the highest
Christian good, then capitalism is the best means by which to achieve it.
This argument remains powerful with many Christian capitalists, who
adamantly argue free markets are truly the best way practice Christian
virtues, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to cure the sick, to bring
faith and hope to those who have none. In this sense, capitalism is no
longer the enemy of the poor, as Marx charges, or the antithesis of agápē,
232 Gary R. Habermas, “Review: Poverty and Wealth,” Fundamentalist Journal 6, no. 4
(1987): 58.
233 Mark 12:17 (English Standard Version).
234 Ronald H. Nash, Social Justice and the Christian Church (Milford, MI: Mott Media,
1983), 57.
as the medieval Church holds, but the ticket to eternal happiness, for both
rich and poor.
It then appears Himmelstein is only partially correct. Though many
philosophers and theologians find capitalism to be inherently at odds with
the Western world's dominant ethical code, there are many fine thinkers
who refuse to cave into a priori criticisms of the free market. For them, as
it is for Milton Friedman, capitalism's harshest criticisms have no basis in
reality and are concocted in thought experiments by interested ivory-tower
intellectuals and clerics trying to impose their beliefs onto the broader
population. However, it has not reduced the impact of such criticisms. Every time the taxpayers bailout a large corporation, every time an individual
unjustly loses his job, every time a company cheats a consumer, the public's faith in reality is shaken. They begin to wonder to if the critics were
right all along: Maybe capitalism really is selfish, both in principle and in
Capitalism: Ayn Rand's Unknown Ideal
Economists and moral philosophers dating back to the eighteenth
century have long recognized that capitalism is, at its heart, an egoistic socioeconomic system. Adam Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker,
that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and
never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.235
235 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (1904, repr., New York:
However, few thinkers, including Smith, dare extend this ethic beyond the
economic realm. The Scottish philosopher himself is an avowed humanitarian and an altruist, a position he makes clear in Theory of Moral
Sentiments.236 And even in his economic writings, though an honest notion
of self-interest initiates economic exchange, the actual virtues of the free
market, for Smith, come from its inherent utilitarian altruism.
By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a
manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his
own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible
hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it al ways the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his
own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually
than when he really intends to promote it.237
The free market is not moral because it allows men to freely exercise their
self-interest. Rather, it is moral because in the end, by pursuing their own
interests, men advance the interests of society as a whole. But for the true
egoist, such a defense is hardly moral. As Ayn Rand writes:
The moral justification does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve 'the common good.' It is true that
capitalism does – if that catchphrase has any meaning – but this is
merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism
lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man's rational
nature, that it protects man's survival qua man.238
But what does Rand mean by this statement? What is the rational nature of
man and how is it related to morality?
For Ayn Rand, the root of morality stems from life itself. As Rand
Bantam Dell, 2003), 23-24.
236 See page 52.
237 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 572. Italics mine.
238 Ayn Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York:
Signet, 1967), 20.
scholar Tara Smith explains, “The common denominator among plants,
animals, and humans is that all are alive – and can cease to be alive.” Because of this fundamental, inescapable fact of existence, all living
organisms face a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. “Life is an
ongoing either/or; it can continue or cease, and its continuation imposes
requirements. Life is contingent on certain needs being satisfied.”239
It is only this conditional character of life, Rand argues, that enables us
to distinguish some things as valuable on the grounds that they contribute to the sustenance of an organism's life. Without that goal and the
possibility of death, we would have no basis for evaluating the impact
of various events.240
In other words, life makes values possible and necessary. What is valuable
to a living organism depends on what it needs to survive. What it needs to
survive depends on the nature of the organism. Anything which furthers its
life is good and that which threatens or destroys it is evil.241
For a cheetah, for example, the nature of being a cheetah entails
what she should do to sustain her end value of life, to survive. Her needs
and the actions she takes to fulfill them are predetermined by her physiology. The carnivorous mammal is equipped with claws, a strong jaw, good
vision, and most notably, incredible speed (a cheetah can sprint short distances at speeds up to 75 miles per hour and accelerate from 0-64 miles
per hour in three seconds, faster than all but a handful of supercars). 242 Be239 Tara Smith, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality
(Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 86-87.
240 Ibid., 87.
241 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 16-17. For a complete explication of the relationship
between life and values, see Tara Smith, Viable Values, 83-124.
242 Theodore Garland, Jr., “The relation between maximal running speed and body mass
in terrestrial mammals,” Journal of Zoology, London 199 (1983): 157-190.
cause of these characteristics, she is most suited to hunt on the wide-open
savannas of Africa; her habitat is a value to her; the gazelle are a value to
her, as are any prey that she is uniquely equipped to hunt, prey that other
predators simply cannot catch.
Humans, however, are unique. We have no automatic means of survival. We do not function exclusively by automatic sensory or chemical
reactions.243 Instead, for Rand, who remains true to her intellectual forefather, Aristotle, it is reason that separates us from the animals; reason is our
basic means of survival.244 In terms of values, what this means for man
qua rational being is “that which is proper to the life of a rational being is
the good, that which negates opposes or destroys it is the evil.”245
Tara Smith remarks, because it is life that makes values possible
and necessary, distinctions between good and bad values “are intelligible
only in relation to the quest for life.”246 By making values conditional on
what is beneficial to one's survival, Rand makes the case for egoism. For
each individual must pursue his own life as an end and not let others pur243 In light of recent scientific research, it is possible to suggest that Rand may have
been wrong about this, particularly with studies about human sexuality and hormones.
See Helen Fisher, “Lust, Attraction, Attachment: Biology and Evolution of the Three
Primary Emotion Systems for Mating, Reproduction, and Parenting,” Journal of Sex
Education and Therapy 25, no. 1 (2000). However, as Rand mentions, while chemical
and biological reactions may initiate needs or desires in human beings, they will not
tell a person how to fulfill such needs or desires. Instinct alone cannot tell a man how
to reproduce anymore than it can light a fire, build a shelter, forge tools, nor invent a
computer. It is only reason that ultimately leads to action. See Rand, “The Objectivist
Ethics,” 22-23.
244 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 22-25; Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1139a201139b7.
245 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 25.
246 Smith, Viable Values, 155.
sue it for him. In the words of Frederick Douglass:
I am myself; you are yourself...I am not by nature bond to you, or you
to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon mine, or mine
to depend on yours. I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine; I
cannot breathe for you, or you for me. I must breathe for myself, and
you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided
with faculties necessary to our individual existence.247
“If a person wishes to live, he must hold his own life as his highest value,”
to do otherwise, to place the lives of others above his own, to place his
own life into the hands of others, would be detrimental to his survival,
even destructive.248
Just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in
himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of must
live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.249
In other words, to be moral involves “the paramount commitment to one's
own well-being.”250
This commitment to one's own well-being, including one's happiness, however, does not imply that a man may do whatever he wishes as
long as it does not kill him.251 Life, as a man's highest value, is a full-time
pursuit. “Man cannot survive, like an animal, by acting on the range of the
moment.” If he is to survive, he must act as man qua rational being,
choosing his course and his values “in the context and terms of a
247 Frederick Douglass, “You Are a Man, and So Am I,” in The Libertarian Reader, ed.
David Boaz (New York: Free Press, 1997), 82.
248 Smith, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, 24.
249 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 30.
250 Smith, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, 24.
251 Rand is not a Nietzschean or a hedonist. Zarathustra did not come down from the
mountain and declare, “God is dead,” so that men may irrationally wander the earth
without a compass, indulging in their whims, pursuing nothing but immediate
satisfaction or pleasure.
For Rand, acting as man qua rational being is not optional but an
objective requirement for survival. Just as a cheetah cannot survive by eating nothing but grasses, so too man cannot survive by acting in a manner
that is not consistent with being a man, that is, in order for a man to survive, he must willingly use his basic tool of survival, his mind. As Rand
writes of man, “Life is given to him, survival is not. To remain alive, he
must think.”253 However, unlike other creatures, who instinctively exercise
their physical attributes in order to survive, man must be man by choice.
He cannot simply wake up, climb out of bed, and automatically be rational. He cannot automatically know the good from the bad. He must make
the volitional choice to be rational, to survive as man qua man. He must
discover his values for himself – what is good for his life, what will destroy it.
Nothing is given to man on earth except a potential and the material on
which to actualize it. The potential is a superlative machine: his consciousness; but it is a machine without a spark plug, a machine of
which his own will has to be the spark plug, the self starter and the
driver; he has to discover how to use it and he has to keep it in constant
action. The material is the whole of the universe, with no limits set to
the knowledge he can acquire and to the enjoyment of life he can
achieve. But everything he needs or desires has to be learned, discovered and produced by him – by his own choice, by his own effort, by
his own mind.254
Such facts about the nature of man require an environment in
which the individual can flourish. Just as a cheetah can only survive in an
252Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 26.
253Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1012.
254 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 23.
environment conducive to her nature, man can only survive in an environment that allows him to freely choose to exercise his rational faculty. A
suitable habitat for man is not defined geographically, but politically. He
requires not the savannas of Africa, but freedom. He needs not an open
space in which to sprint, but a place in which he is free to think, to acquire
knowledge, to perform rational action, to pursue his own values, his own
course, to achieve his ultimate goal of survival.“Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man's mind. A rational mind does not work under
A man's political habitat, for Rand, means more than the absence
of coercion. It means a “social recognition of man's rational nature – of the
connection between his survival and his use of reason.”256 This recognition
is the moral concept of individual rights. While a full treatise on individual
rights is not necessary to understand the justification for capitalism, it is
worth noting that Rand recognizes only one fundamental right: the right to
life. Just as life is the root of values, so too is the right to life the root of all
other rights. All human beings by virtue of being human possess the right
to life, which in turn, creates a singular correlative duty to one's fellow
men.257 This duty, called the nonaggression principle, holds that no man
may initiate the use of force against another; in other words, no human be255 Rand, “What is Capitalism?” 17.
256 Ibid., 18.
257 For Rand, the right to life is exclusively “a moral claim to freedom of action,” not to
be conflated or confused with arguments in favor of a welfare state or against abortion
rights. Tara Smith, Moral Rights and Political Freedom (Lanham, MD: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1995) , 18; Ayn Rand, “Man's Rights,” in Virtue of Selfishness, 110.
ing may violate the rights of another human being. While this idea becomes paramount in the context of her political philosophy, it deserves
equal consideration in the context of everyday human action. The right to
life and the correlative duty not to harm are metaphysically-derived moral
concepts, meaning that they exist independently of all human institutions.258 A woman living alone on a south Pacific island possess the same
rights as a man living in New York City.
Because men are morally-obligated not to initiate the use of force
against other men, that is, not to violate another man's rights, all human
action, by Rand's account, must be uncoerced and voluntary. For man is “a
sovereign individual, who owns his own person, his mind, his life, his
work and its products.”259 Only a social system which protects the
sovereignty of the individual and his rights, which prohibits the initiation
of physical force, which provides the freedom necessary for an individual
to act on her rational judgment about her own self-interest, which recognizes “the metaphysical fact of man's nature – the connection between his
survival and his use of reason,” can be legitimate and moral. According to
Rand, it is only capitalism which is capable of this. Unlike other scholars,
who argue that capitalism is moral because it is the best way to achieve the
so-called common good, “the moral justification of capitalism lies in the
258 See Ayn Rand, “Man's Rights,” and “The Nature of Government,” in The Virtue of
Selfishness; Tobin Spratte, “The Problem with Ayn Rand's Politics” (paper, University
of Colorado, Boulder, December 2009).
259 Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” 18.
fact that it is the only system consonant with man's rational nature, that it
protects man's survival qua man.”260
In summary, Ayn Rand is one of the twentieth century's most fierce
defenders of capitalism, and she accomplishes this not only by arguing
that capitalism is practical but by arguing that it is only moral social system in human history. This is because it is the only socioeconomic system
which recognizes political and economic freedom. It is the only system
which recognizes individual rights and bans initiating the use of force
from human relationships. It is the only system which recognizes the
metaphysical reality of the nature of man – that he is a volitional, rational
being who survives by discovering and attaining objective values, values
which are derived from man's highest value: his own life.
Capitalism and Egoism
It is important to note that egoism is not about blindly ignoring
one's fellow men, pursuing one's own interests without concern for humanity and no matter the cost. An egoistic world is not Hobbes' bellum
ominum contra omnes.261 Egoists like Nietzsche and Rand are not opposed
to assisting others in emergencies, to donating money to charitable organizations, or voluntarily helping your friend paint his house. 262 Such value
260 Ibid., 20.
261 “War of all against all,” from Thomas Hobbes, “Of the Natural Condition of
Mankind,” in Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 76.
262 For a full discussion of such situations, see Ayn Rand, “Ethics of Emergencies,” in
Virtue of Selfishness, 49-56; Smith, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, 247-304.
trades are important for a properly-functioning society. However, there is
no moral obligation to perform any of the above tasks (unless of course,
one is bound by legal contract). One may take care of their neighbor's dog
while she is on vacation for any number of reasons, for example, the personal satisfaction of helping others. One may be the Good Samaritan for
any number of reasons, including the Golden Rule: “Would I want someone to help me if I was lying on a desert road, bloodied, beaten, and
thirsty?”263 One may donate money to a charity for any number of reasons,
such as the charity advocates something valuable to oneself. 264 The difference between altruism and egoism, for the egoist, is not in the details, but
in their fundamental principles. Altruism, for Rand, “holds that man has no
right to exists for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty,
value, and virtue.”265 Love for your neighbor or agápē, for Nietzsche, is a
denial of one's potential, of a man's very existence, and is nothing more
than a reflection of poor self-esteem. “Your love of your neighbor is your
bad love of yourselves,” he writes. 266 The virtue of selfishness is not about
263 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Matt. 7:12 (King James
Version). As Kant points out in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, the
Golden Rule is not altruism. For him, it is only a principle of reciprocation and tells
men not how to universally act, but how to imagine others in a situation would act.
264 For example, a young man may donate money to breast cancer research because his
grandmother died from breast cancer or because eradicating disease from the world is
in his self-interest, even if it does not directly affect him. He may be single without
children, but what's to say there will not be a woman in his future life of high value to
him (a friend, wife, daughter, or physical therapist) who is at risk for breast cancer?
265 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 37-38.
266 Frederich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans, R.J. Hollingdale (1961, repr.,
London: Penguin, 1969), 86-88.
acting out of contempt and denying the existence of others, it is about
holding oneself as one's highest value.
Further, in terms of economic activity, egoism is not a license for
relentless, unabashed greed. In Thomistic philosophy, greed is the excessive pursuit of wealth for wealth's sake, as though money has some divine,
intrinsic value. For those who view money this way, it becomes an object
of lust, the Shakespearean “common whore of mankind” who all men in
the village covet and crave, the Venus kallipygos desired by all but touched
by few, the Helen for whom all men would willingly go to war. Capitalists
become lechers; the indigent become martyrs and saints. While such comparisons may have meaning for the man who covets only what others
possess, for the principled egoist, they do not. For such a man, greed does
not and cannot exist. Money is merely a tool of exchange and on its own
serves no purpose whatsoever.267 It is only a means to some other value.
Men accept it for their efforts, for the products of their labor, for their labor itself so that they may trade it for something of value to themselves,
something which furthers their lives and their happiness. But it cannot and
will not buy happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants,
of what he values. For the truly moral man will not trade money for a
higher value nor an arbitrary value. He will not become Midas and turn his
267 “Money is, as it were, our guarantor for future exchange...So money makes things
commensurable as a measure does, and equates them; for without exchange their
would be no association with people, without equality no exchange, and without
commensurability no equality.” Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 5.5.1133b.
daughter into solid gold. And he cannot and will not earn wealth through
treachery or dishonesty, through force or deceit; to do so is criminal. Only
the virtuous earn their wealth.268
One final note about capitalism and egoism: while economic principles are irrelevant to Rand's moral defense of free markets, it is certainly
worth pointing out that capitalism is not a zero-sum game. As Socrates
first observes in Plato's Crito and Gorgias, men and women, acting in their
own interests, often promote the good of the society around them. For the
ancient Greeks, who had no understanding of the sacrificial ethics of
Christianity, egoism does not stand in contrast to altruism but in parallel.
Like Adam Smith's invisible hand, Socratic egoism is about pursuing justice and virtue for one's own sake but more often than not, these individual
pursuits result in the pursuit of the common good as well. 269 Empirically
this is best demonstrated through the increased standard of living provided
by various inventions throughout the capitalist age. Thomas Edison may
have invented the light bulb for any number of reasons (though it is doubtful promoting the common good is among them), yet it is an invention
from which all mankind benefits. Or think of a skyscraper. A man may
fund its construction entirely out of self-interest, but at the same time, he
must hire construction crews, engineers, architects, and many other labor268 See Ayn Rand, “The Meaning of Money,” in For the New Intellectual (New York:
Signet, 1963), 88-94. Rand's Aristotelian conception of money holds that most people
justly earn their money, but she is aware the this is not always the case. But her goal is
not to defend the Bernie Madoffs of this world but the Bill Gates.
269 R.E. Allen, The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
1984), 202-203.
ers who all financially benefit from his decision to build the structure.
Even on a microeconomic level, egoism is not a zero-sum game. In
his seminal work on game theory, Robert Axelrod proves that over time,
mutual cooperation does emerge among rational egoists and in the long
run, this cooperation proves to be beneficial to all actors involved. 270 In
other words, it is in the egoist's interests not to harm others to achieve his
goals, even if the short-term benefits are high and short-term costs low. 271
Over time, social cooperation is not only beneficial for the egoist, even if
it initially comes at some initial cost, but in many cases necessary, having
stood for more than a century as a crucial evolutionary advantage (however, social cooperation and some concern for the interests of others is not
altruism).272 For example, it may be in Wal-Mart's short-term interest not
to provide health-care coverage for its employees, since providing benefits
is very expensive and cuts deeply into its quarterly profits. However, even270 Robert Axelrod, “The Emergence of Cooperation Among Egoists,” The American
Political Science Review 75 (1981): 306-318. Axlerod shows when egoists play the
prisoner's dilemma an indefinite number of times, cooperation can emerge, further
contending that numerous examples of such cooperation exist in people's day-to-day
271 Rand does not frame issues of physical harm in this manner, and for her, it is always
wrong to harm others, regardless of the outcome. Further, Axlerod is not suggesting
this is the only reason not to harm our fellow man. His research is not a study on
morality itself but a study on the economic outcomes of rational self-interest.
272 “But it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It
is the conscience—be it only at the stage of an instinct—of human solidarity. It is the
unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice
of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one's happiness upon the happiness of
all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the
rights of every other individual as equal to his own.” Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A
Factor of Evolution (1902; Project Gutenberg, 2002),
cache/epub/4341/pg4341.html. Kropotkin argues while social cooperation may have
influenced the rise of altruistic ethics, altruism itself is not an evolutionary necessity,
as many modern sociobiologists insist.
tually, this decision will immensely cost Wal-Mart. Only substandard employees will want to work for a company that does not provide medical
benefits, and customers begin to receive poor service as a result, causing
many people to shop elsewhere, and eventually, Wal-Mart loses far more
money. In summary, to be an egoist does not mean doing whatever is expedient and provides the greatest immediate payoff. And to be a part of an
egoistic socioeconomic system does not mean only a handful of people actually benefit from its practices.
The Morality of Capitalism and the American Ethos
The question of whether or not capitalism is moral has become the
Sphinx's riddle of modernity. But unlike the ancient myth, there is no definitive, universal answer; not even a wily Theban king can simply reply
yes or no. What is evil to some men will always be good to others, and
what is good to some men will always be evil to others. This is not an argument in favor of moral relativism but a mere observation that the
morality of capitalism depends on one's ethical code. To the altruist, defending capitalism is a Herculean task, one which more often than not
requires proof that markets can function and achieve the common good.
To the altruistic critic, tearing apart capitalism could not come easier: a socioeconomic system predicated on self-interest is inherently immoral. For
the egoist, it is the opposite. Capitalism is moral because it is fundamentally egoistic. The difficulty for the Nietzschean or Randian thinker, then, is
not a moral defense of markets but a Socratic apology of an ethical code
that runs counter to two millennia of Western ethics. However, these academic debates and esoteric moral philosophies mean little to an American
public fixated on their own moral code. And just as the Greek traveler's
life depended on his response to the Sphinx's enigma, so too does American capitalism's survival depend on the public's answer to this question: Is
capitalism moral?
Though there is no question a common morality is an integral part
of the American ethos, as discussed on page 47, it is not an arbitrary, unfounded ethical code. Indeed, the very reason morality is a component of
American culture at all is because it refers to a very specific ethical code:
the altruism commanded by the Christian scriptures. The reasons for this
are simple: (1) the historical and contemporary dominance of the Christian
religion in the United States, and (2) the continued practice of these Christian ethics, even as the nation statistically becomes more secular.
Though the United States is officially a secular nation, its Constitution demanding a strict separation of church and state, as De Tocqueville
rightfully points out, the Christian religion is as much a part of American
society as democracy and capitalism.
It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American
society. In the United States, religion is therefore mingled with all the
habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism, whence it derives
a peculiar force...Christianity has therefore retained a strong hold on the
public mind in America; and I would more particularly remark that its
sway is not only that of a philosophical doctrine which has been adopted upon inquiry but of a religion which is believed without discussion.
In the United States, Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perceptually modified; but Christianity itself is an established and
irresistible fact, which no one undertakes either to attack or defend. 273
De Tocqueville's observation is not without historical basis. He reminds
his readers many of the original thirteen colonies were founded by various
religious groups seeking freedom. New England was established as a Puritan haven, Pennsylvania as a refuge for Quakers, Maryland as a Catholic
sanctuary. And though these sectarian walls have since crumbled, Christianity as a religion is as strong as ever. Fully 78 percent of Americans
continue to identify themselves as Christians, another three percent as
members of an Abrahamic faith, while only sixteen percent claim no religion, including only four percent who call themselves atheist or agnostic.
On average, 39 percent of Americans attend church at least once a week,
35 percent read scripture weekly, 58 percent pray daily, and 39 percent
meditate weekly.274 For all intents and purposes, the public culture in the
United States is a Christian culture.
However, it is not the sheer religiosity that is of concern to either
De Tocqueville or myself, but the way in which it has led to the development of a common American morality. As the French observer writes:
The Americans, having admitted the principal doctrines of the Christian
religion without inquiry, are obliged to accept in like manner a great
number of moral truths originating in it and connected with it. Hence
the activity of individual analysis is restrained within narrow limits, and
many of the most important of human opinions are removed from its
273 De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:6.
274 Alan Cooperman, Gregory Smith, Allison Pond, and Scott Clement, Religion Among
the Millenials (Washington, D.C.: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2010).
275 De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:6.
For De Tocqueville, Christian ethics not only effectively dictate policy
outcomes but also constrain public discourse. This is easily observable in
the modern political culture. There is no question the success of state ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage, even in socially-liberal states like
California and Oregon, is directly related to the orthodox Christian view of
homosexuality.276 There is also no question the abortion policy in this
country is largely a product of religious beliefs about the life-potential of a
fetus, even if those beliefs can be scientifically justified. 277 Nor is it of any
wonder whatsoever that America has not yet elected a non-Christian president.278 Yet much to the misunderstanding of intellectuals, pundits, and
ideologues, the primary influence of Christian ethics in American public
culture is not conservative populism (as the above political phenomena
could be termed) but altruism.
Speaking on the subject of Christian ethics, Martin Luther King
writes, “Every person must decide to walk in the light of creative altruism
or the darkness of selfishness. This is the judgment. Life's most persistent
and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” 279 As shown in part
two, such a powerful ethical statement is the unavoidable conclusion of
276 See Alan S. Yang, “Attitudes Toward Homosexuality,” Public Opinion Quarterly 61,
no. 3 (1997): 477-507.
277 See Jelen and Wilcox, “Public Attitudes Toward Abortion.”
278 A handful of presidents have identified as nonreligious, however, this has not
happened since the nineteenth century, and none openly identified as non-Christian.
See Franklin Steiner, The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents: From Washington to
F.D.R. (New York: Prometheus Books, 1995). There is also an interesting correlation
between the religiosity of presidents and the rise of media-oriented campaigns.
279 James R. Ozinga, Altruism (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), v.
biblical interpretation, an altruistic statement permeating the hearts of the
vast majority of Americans, one with roots in the colonial period. 280 Massachusetts's spiritual founder John Winthrop writes:
We must delight in each other, make other's conditions our own, rejoice
together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members
of the same body.281
The pith of Winthrop's 380-year-old sermon, “That every man might have
need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together
in the Bonds of brotherly affection,” is very much alive and well in the
United States, both in principle and in practice.282 Feldman and Steenbergen find that more than 95 percent of Americans agree that a person
should always find ways to help others less fortunate than oneself. With
little hesitance, the public has put its money where its mouth is. In 2006
alone, Americans gave about $295 billion to charity (to put this in perspective, in the same year, the government provided $359 billion for
unemployment and welfare relief), and in 1995, Americans privately donated more than three and a half times as much money as the most
charitable European nations.283 Additionally, more than 88 percent believe
a person should always be concerned about the well-being of others, and
280 While Christianity is a significant source of these beliefs, it is not the exclusive
source, as 41 percent of Americans believe one can be moral without believing in God
(compared to only 57 percent who say a belief in God is necessary to be moral).
Andrew Kohut, Richard Wike, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Pew Global Attitudes
Report (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2007), 33-34. Given the formulation
of the question, I take “moral” and “good values” in this survey to mean altruism,
especially given altruism's dominance in American public culture.
281 Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity.”
282 Ibid.
283 Arthur C. Brooks, “A Nation of Givers,” The American, March 2008.
only 8.7 percent strongly agree it is best not to be involved in fulfilling
other people's needs.284 Based on this polling data, the American ethical
position is crystal clear. Like Bertrand Russell, they believe to be moral, to
have “good values” is to live and die by the ethical code of altruism, to
place the lives of others above or equal to one's own.
Such a predominant morality (according to Feldman and Steenbergen, more than 90 percent of the population consistently believe in
altruistic values285) has sweeping implications for capitalism. To be moral
in the eyes of the both consumers and voters, capitalism must operate under altruistic premises; anything less renders the system immoral. In
combining the polling data from part one with the philosophical discussion
from part two, this seems rather contradictory. Does not the American
public have an overwhelmingly favorable view of free markets (at least 70
percent, if not more)? Does not this same public believe all men have a
moral obligation to place the interests of others above those of their own?
The obvious solution to this conundrum is to present evidence that Americans conceive of capitalism as an altruistic socioeconomic system, one
which serves merely as a vehicle, to paraphrase Mises, for the utilitarian
goal of human flourishing. In other words, do Americans, like Ronald
Nash, think capitalism to be the best way of fulfilling God's laws (or the
Kantian moral imperative for the secular altruists)? The answer is yes.
284 Feldman and Steenbergen, “Humanitarian Foundation,” 664.
285 Ibid., 659-664.
More than 66 percent of Americans believe capitalism provides maximum
benefits for society as a whole, 77 percent believe it provides people with
the highest living standard in the world (as opposed to another socioeconomic order), and only 38.4 percent think the system needs to be altered
before any improvements in human can be realized. 286 However, for the
public, this is an a posteriori defense, one predicated on results. A strong
majority (77.5 percent) say capitalism basically relies on self-interest, that
is, capitalism is inherently an egoistic system, its altruistic moral justification dependent on the performance of Smith's invisible hand. 287 In this
sense, while capitalism is not inherently ethical, it is not inherently unethical either. Its morality, for Americans, depends on its perceived outcomes.
The important qualifying adjective here is “perceived.” Technical
analyses of the socioeconomic system's actual performance means nothing
to the public. Similarly, whether or not one truly justly earned his wealth
makes little difference. Though widely-known business scandals, such as
the recent Bernie Madoff and Enron fiascos, will certainly doom anyone
publicly implicated in such affairs to the fourth circle of hell, many businessmen who fairly earn their profits end up roasting on a congressional
subcommittee spit, where lawmakers decry exorbitant profits as a betrayal
of the American sense of life (for example, the public backlash against oil
companies after ExxonMobil reported record windfall profits amid record
286 Peterson, Albaum, and Kozmetsky, Modern American Capitalism, 43.
287 Ibid.
gasoline prices or the similar backlash against Wall Street following the
2008 financial collapse, where investment bankers were branded as inconsiderate profit-mongers who would sell their daughters into the sex trade if
it meant even the smallest of quarterly profit increases). Even if these economic actors did nothing illegal or transparently unethical, the public may
condemn them simply for being “too greedy” or becoming wealthy at the
expense of the average American. Many members of the public still have
not forgiven ExxonMobil for the 1989 Valdez oil spill, claiming corporate
haste to achieve profits resulted in irreparable damage to the environment,
to the Alaskan tourism industry, and to many fishermen. 288 And despite his
humble roots, his extensive philanthropy and community outreach, Bill
Gates is constantly ridiculed for being the world's richest man. 289 Regardless of the facts, what matters to Americans is their perception of
capitalism's outcome.
When the public becomes discontented with capitalism's outcome,
they clamor for legislation to address the market's alleged failures. The
first such case came in the late-nineteenth century, when disgruntled farmers sought to clamp down on falling agricultural prices and discriminatory
rate-fixing by the railroads. Using the growing power of the agrarian interests in state legislatures, they took action by regulating railroad rates, and
288 See David Savage, “Justices slash Exxon Valdez verdict,” Los Angeles Times (June
26, 2008),
289 This charge is not simply for the acquisition of wealth but that such wealth came by
offering an inferior product at an inflated price, as well as accusations of maliciously
driving out competition. See U.S. v. Microsoft, 98 D.D.C. 1232 (1998).
Illinois, in 1871, began to require the licensing of grain elevators. Two
Chicago grain-elevator companies, Munn and Scott, refused to comply
and subsequently faced legal action. The case, though initially about grain
elevators, was a turning point in United States economic history and involved the legal question of whether or not such regulations were
constitutional, whether or not private companies were subject to public
control. Finally making its way to the Supreme Court as Munn v. Illinois,
the high court ruled “any firm 'clothed in the public interest,' was, by ancient tradition, subject to government regulation.”290 It was not capitalism
the Granger movement objected to but its results, which the farmers and
other populist groups viewed as unjust. It was not the inherent immorality
of capitalism the Waite Court objected to but the free market's imperfections. While the Court's opinion has since been substantially revised, its
ideological impact is immeasurable. Following Munn, all capitalist practices are subject to significant public scrutiny; all businesses must operate
in the public interest, to the benefit of all, under the auspices of altruism.
Once the minority opinion of interested business leaders, union
bosses, lawyers, politicians and other elites, since the late nineteenth century, such sentiments are now shared by virtually all Americans. 291
290 Hughes and Cain, American Economic History, 285, 361-362.
291 See Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan, [ ]. According to Higgs, until the twentieth century,
few Americans thought it the government's responsibility to intervene in economic
affairs. The veritable 180-degree change in thought between the panics of 1893 and
1907 was the result of social and political elites instituting a new ideology on a
largely ignorant electorate. However, I disagree with Higgs on this point. Late
nineteenth-century public discontent with laissez-faire capitalism is well documented,
and one cannot fairly claim the public was completely unaware of the positions of
McClosky and Zaller, for evidence, point to the way in which entrepreneurial activities, once championed by businessmen as the natural right of
all human beings, are now justified in a strictly altruistic sense. “The public defense of capitalism boasts that the system aims above all to serve the
interests of the people.”292 Truer words could not be written. With the exception of third-party candidates and libertarian think tanks, long gone
from campaign rhetoric are appeals to Adam Smith's butcher and baker. 293
Indeed, while in 1882, William H. Vanderbilt incautiously uttered, “The
public be damned,” today, companies build entire divisions to carry out
the elusive art of public affairs, and one textbook on the subject has an entire chapter on “corporate social responsibility.” 294 To further illustrate the
change of attitude, compare the full extent of Vanderbilt's remarks to those
made by ExxonMobil Vice President for Public Affairs Ken Cohen in
The public be damned. What does the public care for the railroads except to get as much out of them for as small a consideration as possible.
I don’t take any stock in this silly nonsense about working for anybody’s good, but our own because we are not. When we make a move
we do it because it is our interest to do so, not because we expect to do
somebody else some good. Of course we like to do everything possible
for the benefit of humanity in general, but when we do we first see that
popular Progressive Era politicians, many of whom were elected by substantial
majorities. While it is fair to say elites contributed to the development of increasingly
anticapitalist sentiments, they were not the sole solicitors of progressivism.
292 McClosky and Zaller, The American Ethos, 300.
293 “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we
expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves,
not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own
necessities but of their advantages.” Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin
Cannan (1904, repr., New York: Bantam Dell, 2003), 23-24.
294 Fraser P. Seitel, The Practice of Public Relations, 11th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Prentice Hall, 2010), 84-85.
we are benefiting ourselves.295
ExxonMobil has been a good corporate citizen in Alaska for more than
30 years. We have been a major contributor to Alaska's economy, to
community programs, to education, and the arts. ExxonMobil employees in Alaska, as individuals, have volunteered and worked hard to
make their Alaskan communities better places in which to live. 296
Though the passionate plea to populism in the latter quotation is obvious,
a more important message lies at its core: Businesses exist to serve the
public interest; it is only by the good graces of the American public that
capitalism survives, and when the outcome appears immoral to a substantial majority, the public is not afraid to take action.
That capitalism in the United States must ultimately operate under
altruistic premises has predictable and extensive implications for both
government policy and public opinion. For one, it means capitalism is free
to flourish as long as its outcome does not appear immoral, even if the basis of individual economic action is self-interest. Only when self-interested
individual economic action produces immoral results does the public believe government should interfere. Examples of this abound: the Sherman
Antitrust Act and other anti-monopoly laws, the trials and imprisonment of
fraudulent corporate executives, congressional committee hearings on unfairly earned profits, punitive damages in lawsuits, such as those paid to
the American people by tobacco companies. Second, as Feldman, Zaller,
and Steenbergen demonstrate, it means the creation of and support for cer295 John Steele Gordon, “The Public Be Damned,” American Heritage Magazine,
September/October 1989.
296 ExxonMobil, “ExxonMobil sets Valdez record straight,” news release, October 6,
tain social programs to ensure all people are taken care of, that all individuals are given equal moral consideration, to paraphrase Kant. While
Americans are generally against using the government to solve their problems (according to a Pew Research survey, only 25 percent of Americans
believe the government to be the best way to help the needy, while 65 percent say religious and nonreligious organizations are better capable of
eradicating poverty297), there are times when governmental action is seen
as crucial, if not necessary to curing the free market's ails and to maintaining a moral society.298
For decades, intellectuals have searched for an explanation for the
strong and pervasive support for capitalism in the United States. But of all
the competing hypotheses, only one sufficiently explains why, unlike other
democratic states, free markets have not succumb to egalitarian influences,
only one has enough empirical proof in the American culture: the notion of
a powerful, innate ideology, the American ethos. Comprised of economic
individualism, political egalitarianism, and moral altruism, this ethos not
only defines what it means to be an American, but it serves as the single
most-influential factor in shaping public opinion on any notable issue, including the socioeconomic system and the government's role (or lack
297 Luis Lugo, Alan Cooperman, Sandra Stencel, John Green, and Gregory Smith,
Faith-Based Programs Still Popular, Less Visible (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research
Center, 2009), 7-8.
298 See page 40.
thereof) in it. Because of this, the United States features its own unique
variety of capitalism, one which cannot be described using any preexisting
terms, one which is neither the democratic socialism of many modern European countries nor the laissez-faire capitalism of the nineteenth century.
McClosky and Zaller call it welfare capitalism, others a mixed economy.
But regardless of its title, it is a market-based economy invented by and
maintained for the American ethos. Like many features of American public culture, it is a seemingly-incoherent, ideological oddity, one which to
be feasible must clandestinely operate as an egoistic, individualist system
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as long as its rewards serve to glorify God. 299 Similarly, for the American
individualist, capitalism and its self-interested practices can be and are
completely moral as long as its rewards serve all mankind.
299 “If God show you a way in which you may, in accordance with His laws, acquire
more profit than in another way, without wrong to your soul or to any other and if you
refuse this, choosing the less profitable course, you then cross one of the purposes of
your calling. You are refusing to be God's steward, and to accept His gifts, in order to
be able to use them for Him when He requireth it. You may labor for God, to become
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Table 1.1: The Prevalence of Libertarian Economic
Attitudes in the United States (2000-2010)300
Approve of allowing corporations to spend on behalf of candidates in elections
Strongly support tea party movements
Responsibility of government to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves
Rich get richer, poor get poorer – disagree
Government should guarantee food and shelter for all – disagree
Want smaller government
Against increasing minimum wage in 2006
Agree that when something is run by the government, it is usually wasteful and inefficient
Think government regulation of business does more harm than good
Business corporations make too much profit – disagree
Business corporations strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest – agree
Labor unions necessary to protect interests of working persons – disagree
Against stricter environmental regulation
Strongly disagree that government should place requirements on businesses to offer health insurance
Strongly disagree that government should require insurance companies to cover pre-existing condition
Oppose stricter regulations on financial institutions
Oppose a special tax on bonuses over one million dollars
A substantial amount of confidence in big business
A substantial amount of confidence in banks
A substantial amount of confidence in HMOs
A substantial amount of confidence in major companies
A substantial amount of confidence in Wall Street
Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals
Very negative effect of government on your life
Unfavorable view of postal service
Very unfavorable view of social security
Very unfavorable view of the EPA
Very unfavorable view of the FDA
Very unfavorable view of the IRS
2000 political quiz done as phone poll by Portrait of America
CATO calculation of libertarian population
Pew Research Center – those who tested as libertarian
Percentage who would vote for Ron Paul in Republican primary as averaged over Jan-Feb 2008
Tea Party activist
Highly favorable view of Tea Party
Those who attended a Tea Party
Those who self-identify as libertarians
Expressed an unfavorable view of local government
20.92 Calculated percentage of Americans with libertarian economic attitudes
300 Data taken from various reputable polls cataloged by (February
20-21, 2010),
Chart 1.2: American Attitudes Toward Regulation of
Business and Industry301
Government Regulation of Business and Industry
Too Much
Right Amount
Too Little
Polling Date
Polling Date Too Much Right Amount Too Little
Recorded responses to the question: In general, do you
think there is too much, too little, or about the right amount
of government regulation of business and industry?
301 Raksha Arora, “Government Regulation: Public Back to Business as Usual,” Gallup
(November 8, 2005),; Opinion Research Corporation, “In general, do
you think there is too much, too little, or about the right amount of government
regulation of business and industry?” (December 16-20, 2009),
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