Charles Murray is one of the great social commentators on the cultural/political right. A libertarian, he is famous for writing incredibly well researched and argued books liberals love to hate. His article in a recent Wall Street Journal defending capitalism is sure not to win him any fans on the left. It’s titled “Why Capitalism Has an Image Problem.”
It doesn’t help that we have a president who is basically socialistic in disposition and consistently plays the class warfare card in his political and policy actions, but it’s more involved than that. Basically Murray sets out to make the case for capitalism in light of Democrat attacks on Mitt Romney’s business record; the beating capitalism has taken from our cultural elites, and in the acts of capitalists themselves. I wonder if he can do this successfully based on his philosophical foundation, or more accurately lack thereof, but more of that later.
He starts by pointing out an indisputable fact that capitalism’s enemies ignore:
[C]apitalism is the best thing that has ever happened to the material condition of the human race. From the dawn of history until the 18th century, every society in the world was impoverished, with only the thinnest film of wealth on top. Then came capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Everywhere that capitalism subsequently took hold, national wealth began to increase and poverty began to fall. Everywhere that capitalism didn’t take hold, people remained impoverished. Everywhere that capitalism has been rejected since then, poverty has increased. . . .
The creative destruction that is at the heart of a growing economy is now seen as evil. Americans increasingly appear to accept the mind-set that kept the world in poverty for millennia: If you’ve gotten rich, it is because you made someone else poorer.
And a pernicious and inaccurate mind-set that is. Yet this is the line consistently pushed by our culture producers. As Murray puts it, “the elite centers with the most clout in the culture are filled with people who are embarrassed to identify themselves as capitalists, and it shows in the cultural effect of their work.”
One significant cultural effect has been to segregate capitalism from virtue. Work itself for most of human history was drudgery and was seen by all as a curse, a necessary evil to survive. The ancient Greeks were big on virtue, but not big on work. Because there was so little wealth in the Roman Empire and every other culture in the ancient world, along with rudimentary technology, only a very small sliver of society’s elites knew anything like leisure. For everyone else, it was grinding survival.
All the aversion to work began to change with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. Martin Luther and John Calvin, the most influential reformers of the period, came up with the idea of calling, which gave religious significance to the worldly activity of work. Os Guinness writes in The Call that “for most people in Christendom in medieval times, the term calling was reserved for priests, monks, and nuns. Everyone else just had ‘work.’”
The Reformers thought and influence dismantled the idea of a secular-sacred divide in life; obedience to God now had implications for how one made and handled money. This road from the Reformation led eventually to Adam Smith via the Scottish Enlightenment, a strand of the larger European Enlightenment that was much more religious than secular. It is no surprise that Smith, who is taken as the founder of modern economics, studied and taught moral philosophy. Economics to him was not about cold statistics or the study of scarce resources or human psychology, but of the human person acting in the world of commerce.
America became the great proving ground of Smith’s economic views. Alexis de Tocqueville saw this in his visit to America in the 1830s. Being an aristocratic Frenchman he was often ambivalent about American democracy and commerce, but he had some amazing insights into how the religion and the unique characteristics of the American people created an economic dynamism he had never seen anywhere else. In due course this leads to what German sociologist Max Weber called “The Protestant work ethic.” To Weber, it was Puritan ideas and ethics that lead to capitalism. Surely the secularists among us would contest that religion, especially Protestant Christianity, is essential to the success of capitalism, but this faith had a powerful role in creating the historically massive amount of wealth of the last two centuries.
So the question arises which I implied earlier: can you sell the American people on the value of virtue without a religious or philosophical foundation? I would argue that the human soul isn’t primarily motivated by things that work or pragmatism, e.g. virtue leads to the accumulation of wealth and success so be virtuous, but by truth, e.g. there are such things as goodness and truth, God is the source of those, and the virtue that arises from pursuing those can lead to wealth and success.
Even though I’m pretty sure Murray isn’t the religious sort, he does say something we can agree on even if we wouldn’t agree why these things exist in the universe:
To accept the concept of virtue requires that you believe some ways of behaving are right and others are wrong always and everywhere. That openly judgmental stand is no longer acceptable in America’s schools nor in many American homes. Correspondingly, we have watched the deterioration of the sense of stewardship that once was so widespread among the most successful Americans and the near disappearance of the sense of seemliness that led successful capitalists to be obedient to unenforceable standards of propriety.
So regardless of the metaphysical issues I present, if we want to revive the national consensus he calls for, we must affirm that “capitalism embraces the best and most essential things about American life.” This will only happen if we return to what he calls “the vocabulary of virtue” that once informed the American view of capitalism. He concludes that nothing less than our liberty is at stake:
Personal integrity, a sense of seemliness and concern for those who depend on us are not “values” that are no better or worse than other values. Historically, they have been deeply embedded in the American version of capitalism. If it is necessary to remind the middle class and working class that the rich are not their enemies, it is equally necessary to remind the most successful among us that their obligations are not to be measured in terms of their tax bills. Their principled stewardship can nurture and restore our heritage of liberty. Their indifference to that heritage can destroy it.