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Reblogged:A Near-Miss at The New Yorker

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John Cassidy of the New Yorker correctly notes that the zombie-like rise of socialism from the grave is in part due to self-proclaimed pro-capitalist politicians failing to deliver prosperity. Unfortunately Cassidy incorrectly refers to the mixed economy said politicians gave us instead as "capitalism." Such confusion is quite common, but it doesn't hold a candle to another one that surfaces in Cassidy's closing paragraph:

The legitimacy of the market economy is at stake. From Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, defenders of capitalism have argued that it is ultimately a moral system, because competition ensures that it harnesses selfishness to the common good. But where is the morality in a system where the economic gains are so narrowly shared, and giant companies with substantial market power -- the heirs to the trusts -- exercise dominion over great swaths of the economy? Until a twenty-first-century Friedman provides a convincing answer to this question, the revival of the S-word will continue. [bold added]
Cassidy is correct to note both the efforts of many advocates of capitalism to justify the system on moral grounds and the incompleteness of the job. But he doesn't seem to realize just how incomplete the job was.

The good news is that there is no need to wait for the arrival of a moral justification for capitalism. That has already been provided by a twentieth-century radical, Ayn Rand. Although Rand is far better known as a defender of capitalism, she deserves even better renown as an ethicist, for her thoughts on the matter were clear and deep. Tellingly, she starts with a question I dare say none of the previous defenders of capitalism Cassidy was thinking about addressed:
Image by Edgar Chaparro, via Unsplash, license.
What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions -- the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all -- and why?
If my selection of this quote has you scratching your head, it is because the good news is, in a sense, also the bad news. Cassidy is more right than he realizes because -- as one might suspect from the ease with which opponents of capitalism attack it on moral grounds -- capitalists today must ask and answer for themselves some very fundamental questions, beginning with that one.

Practically everyone today assumes that altruism -- a type of morality -- is morality. But if this is wrong -- and Ayn Rand has convinced me that it is -- making a moral argument from such a basis is doomed to failure. But don't take my word for it: Note how easily people get away with making moral and political hay out of the fact that some (highly productive) people make and keep lots more money than others (whom they have not harmed and whose lives they have benefited directly through trade and/or indirectly). They feel safe ignoring the context, part of which I have supplied in parentheses, because altruism so successfully short-circuits moral and political thinking to cause people to circumscribe their focus to the money they can see right now and how much of it anyone has (regardless of why) at this moment. Rand successfully argues that morality helps the individual live and flourish, and shows how (trade) and why (mutual benefit) men should (yes, that is a moral "should") cooperate.

The heavy lifting is like initial research and investment, or like a foundation: Performed correctly, the rest is relatively easy. Ignored, it can doom all further efforts. Given the alternate (a) need some capitalists feel to justify the system on "moral" grounds (noted by Cassidy), or (b) urge others show (not noted by Cassidy) to dodge the issue entirely; it seems strange that capitalists would not have already at least consulted Rand to better understand the nature of the moral attacks coming from anti-capitalists. But until at least some do exactly this, enemies of capitalism will continue to enjoy misrepresenting capitalism and morality with impunity, and an undeserved ease in undermining the economic system that raised the West from destitution and slavery in a very short amount of time.

-- CAV

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