Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Capitalist Tool

Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes Magazine, is a continuously fresh thinker and a sparkling writer with an expansively Reaganesque view of our world. His columns, books and blog at www.Forbes.com are among the writings to which I most look forward. My surprise in the differences in our perception of and appreciation for the concept of “capitalism,” a central focus for each of us, is the greater because in so many other matters the differences between our views are so slight.

In his column “How Moral is Capitalism?” in the February 12, 2007 edition of the printed magazine, Rich defends his and my favorite economic system with rhetorical tools and standards that more properly apply to religious debate. He comes to the conclusion that capitalism is moral, but, sadly, insufficiently so.

Rich’s slippery slope begins with the premise that capitalism is good (in an economic sense, I believe, and in which sense I strongly agree) and slides rapidly from there:

“Can we go even further and say that capitalism is good because it is moral? Following that logic, can we say: The purer the form of capitalism, the more moral it is? Is capitalism perfectly moral—enough to sustain itself over many generations?

“Yes, say Ayn Rand’s followers. But most of us would not go that far.”

Not to perfection, apparently, but to some moral state nonetheless.

My view is that capitalism is a construct of man; a device to use, much like cloth, a sheet of glass, a match, a gun or an alphabet. In such instruments, there are no intrinsic moral or immoral values, just moral neutrality pending the uses to which they can be put in pursuit of our individual and morally diverse goals.

I would argue that man’s tools make a moral life easier to achieve when used in a morally aware manner and that they create the potential for moral precariousness when used diffidently. Cotton woven to clothe modestly, glass installed to protect, a match struck for heat, a gun fired in defense, an alphabet created to spread words liberty or faith, none of these achieves even a rudimentary level of morality of its own, but each can support the efforts of a human master seeking a moral (or immoral) end.

Capitalism is good in the economic sense, where economic logic defines good and bad. It has a good effect because it enables and empowers economic freedom more readily than any other model. Capitalism allows greater practice of real freedom, the ability amongst its practitioners to make thousands of individual and unfettered personal choices each day. Thus, in the limited sense, it is both good and produces a good effect within the economic realm.

More broadly, just as it is impossible to imagine real freedom without capitalism, it is difficult to imagine a truly moral civilization without freedom for those within it. After all, what value does “moral” describe without the ability to chose to do either the more or the less good? Karlgaard acknowledges the difficulty liberals have in this area with his recognition of the conservative counter argument that “Forced help hurts everyone…” Applying force to capitalism to make it better is to apply heat to water to make it more pliable. Sure, but… Professor Friedman illustrates the point more forcefully and more accurately with his recognition that forced charity is an oxymoron that does real harm to all, the putative giver, the recipient and the agent applying the force even if with the best of intentions.

I view capitalism is an implement that makes it easier for man to do good, to step more frequently on the moral path than would happen if capitalism were missing from our tool bag. To draw a metaphor from another area where Karlgaard and I share enthusiasms: Good airplanes, those that are dynamically stable, are designed to return to a smooth flight path after a disturbance or interruption. Other designs, those that are dynamically unstable, careen into ever wider and wilder oscillations after each little bump or bit of turbulence. The first makes good flight easier and safer, the other can destroy airframes and lives. Capitalism is the dynamic stabilizer of our civilization, providing real time feedback and a self-dampening effect that limits its own excesses.

Capitalism is one of western society’s greatest inventions. It’s not a religion and it creates neither a moral standard nor hazard. Capitalism is a tool for us to use the best ways we know how. It’s a better tool than any of the others.

Capitalist tool.

Has a nice ring to it, Rich.

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