Is Capitalism morally justifiable?

In answer to Quora question "Is Capitalism morally justifiable?"

Capitalism is morally justifiable to someone whose altitude of moral function is (by almost any standard) immature, delusional or stunted. If someone believes that individuals operate in an antisocial vacuum and according to purely self-serving impulses, then they have invested in a 3-year-old’s rigid emphasis of I/Me/Mine egotism. And this level is where capitalism functions best.

On the other hand, as we mature through adolescence into increasingly prosocial expectations and relations, we tend to recognize the importance of sharing, compassion, community, compromise, and indeed altruism. Part of growing up is (usually) coming to appreciate that no one operates in isolation without complex interactions and interdependencies with others, and that the only truly satisfying moments in life are a consequence of these trust relationships and communal experiences. As a consequence, a more mature moral orientation engages the world with empathy, kindness and generosity, and relaxes the self-absorbed and protective I/Me/Mine fixation of ego. Again, this is really about growing up. And once we grow up, we realize that capitalism seems to flourish at a rather banal, childish and emotionally stunted level of moral function – according to a very narrow definition of what is beneficial (i.e. “greed is good”) that doesn’t take into account a broader wealth of human experience, relationships, courage and love.

As a consequence of the cognitive bias inherent to willfully childish morality, there is a lot of misleading information, revisionist history and ideological distortion in pro-capitalist rhetoric. I’ll try to set some of it straight.
Here are some assumptions expressed in support of capitalism that are factually incorrect:

1. Capitalism has improved the quality of life for people all over the Earth. Actually, it was widespread public education (and scientific experimentation and technological innovation driven by that education), in concert with democracy and expanding civil rights, that has improved the quality of life for people all over the Earth. It is the feedback loop of democracy, education and civil liberties supported by the rule of law that created the middle class and stabilized economic opportunity for more and more citizens. Even innovation isn’t mainly from capitalism; if you carefully analyze what has done the most good for the most people – be it a new scientific understanding, a new vaccination, a new technology, etc. – it is almost always a result of academic research at public institutions or government-funded research, not innovation that resulted from free markets. These leaps forward have indeed been made more efficiently and effectively by a single product of capitalism: mass production. But that’s it. That’s the only real contribution capitalism has made to humanity’s progress – the rest came from the Enlightenment and the evolution of democratic civil society thereafter. It can also be confidently argued that even the success of “free markets” in producing wealth was a result of the flourishing of this civil society – for “free markets” don’t exist in the wild, they are created by civic institutions and the rule of law. So again, it is the Enlightenment that really should receive primary credit for amplification of the common good…not capitalism.

2. The benefits of profit-driven productivity outweigh its negative externalities. This declaration is as ignorant as it is arrogant. It’s why the rabidly pro-capitalist peeps are still denying climate change (sigh). It’s why that farmer a few years back ate spoonfuls of pesticide every morning to prove how safe it was. It’s why Ayn Rand thought cigarettes were her “Promethean muse,” dismissing any negative health impacts (until she contracted lung cancer). In order for the prevailing strain of growth-dependent global capitalism to keep producing wealth, it requires four things: a) unlimited, easily-accessed natural resources; b) a continuous supply of cheap labor; c) a growing consumer base whose affluence is also increasing; and d) no accountability (and no cost accounting) for negative externalities – and ideally no acknowledgement of them. Unfortunately for the pro-capitalist ideologues, it is extremely likely that none of these conditions will persist for more than another fifty years or so. Why? Well for one, the negative ecological externalities (climate change, loss of biodiversity, resource depletion, disruptive pollution, species extinction, etc.) resulting from human industry are increasingly interfering with productivity – and doing so quite directly. And for another, the affluence that supports a growing consumer base is directly at odds with cheap labor in our global economy, and these two dependencies will inevitably collide. And, finally, large numbers of people are waking up to the fact that the traditional engines of commerce are destroying the planet and need to be more accountable to their impacts – which will change the available opportunities and cost accounting for capitalist enterprise.

3. The “tragedy of the commons” has been empirically validated. In reality, it has not. This is a thought experiment in the abstract, and its "inevitability" has been soundly debunked by the work of Elinor Ostrom. Check out her research on successful self-governance of the commons in the real world (common pool resource management) which relies neither on private property nor State management of land and resources, but on local, community-based solutions.

4. Private property in an exchange economy produces freedom. This is ridiculous. Private property restricts freedom – 99% of everything around us is privately owned and we can’t use it, access it - or sometimes even touch it. That’s not freedom, it’s a world of fences that corral us into the few remaining spaces that are still publically owned (or the spaces we ourselves privately own). Exchange economies likewise benefit those with the most resources and influence who can game the system for their own benefit, deceiving both consumers and workers into believing that “working and consuming” is what life is all about. But being a wage slave is not freedom. Having Type II Diabetes from eating fast food is not freedom. Becoming addicted to cigarettes is not freedom. Premature disease and death from industrial pollutants is not freedom. Having lots of cool stuff you can buy on the Internet may feel like freedom…but it’s just a poor substitute for the real thing.

5. The theory of labor appropriation as a “natural law” is sound. This is laughable. Locke based this on a naïve misconception of Native Americans and other hunter-gatherer societies. In reality – as validated by decades of careful research – hunter-gatherer societies frequently have no conception of private property or of appropriating property by adding value with labor. Locke was simply wrong.

6. Capitalism is not violent, coercive or fraudulent. This is so misinformed it’s just silly. State capitalism has either been directly responsible – or has engineered the perfect conditions – for most of the military actions around the globe since WWII. Industrial capitalism has resulted in the violent, lethal or injurious exploitation of workers since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Capitalist expansion has created endless varieties of forced appropriation of land, resources and indeed labor – from outright slavery to sweat shops. Capitalist commercialism is responsible for defrauding millions of consumers through false advertising, creating artificial demand, outright deception and fear-mongering, and deliberate theft. And to say that corporations haven’t used coercive force to intimidate workers and consumers is to ignore about half of the available history on consumer and worker rights.

7. Capitalism is morally neutral. Hogwash. Please see points 1-6.

The common thread here, you will notice, is that pro-capitalist idealists tend to avoid more complex and nuanced views of the world, holding rather blindly to a cherished individualism and economic opportunity for the privileged class, and loudly resisting when anyone questions their oversimplified definitions of negative liberty. Again, any moral justification for capitalism invokes a sort of immature blindness to the prosocial realities that likely helped human societies flourish since the dawn of our species (at least that’s what most of the research in group selection and prosocial genetic dispositions seems to indicate). But if we allow capitalism to continue destroying our society and the planet, humans will become a sad footnote in the annals of the extinct.

In closing, I recommend you read my latest essay for more clarification on many of these issues: The Goldilocks Zone of Integral Liberty: A Proposed Method of Differentiating Verifiable Free Will from Countervailing Illusions of Freedom.

My 2 cents.


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