Free Market Capitalism as the Highest Value (Part Two)


Returning to Ira’s question:

Is it inherent in the nature of free market capitalism for the most wealthy individuals and/or corporations to capture government power?

I begin with the conclusion of part one, as I believe it will be valuable to restate and summarize my earlier thoughts:

Certainly, building wealth has always been of value, throughout man’s history.  But it has only been the highest value in the last centuries, at least in the West – and the best means to achieve this value is through free markets and capitalism…in other words, respect for private property.  It need not be the highest value for each individual for it at the same time to be the highest value on which society could agree.

In fact, isn’t this precisely the message by advocates of free markets and capitalism?  When we trade, it is irrelevant the other values we do or don’t hold, whether we agree or disagree on these.  This is quite true.  Few of us need to hold free markets as the highest value for us to have agreed that it should be (at least for a time) the highest common value.

I think it can be argued that this has been the case since the Enlightenment, at least until recent decades, where this hierarchy based on egalitarianism is being attempted.  It is on this topic that I will focus next, when I begin to address Ira’s request to address “the historical context, the current dilemma, and future directions.”

I say “begin,” as I don’t think it will happen in one additional post.

We are speaking of the highest common value, the value which is supposed to hold society together.  Depending on the ends of any particular individual or entity, there are various different values placed at the highest.  For example, if the end is to win a championship in basketball, the hierarchy would be determined based on the ability to score points, defend, rebound, facilitate one’s teammates, etc.  But winning a basketball championship isn’t the highest end in life – and certainly not for the overwhelming majority of individuals on the planet.

If our highest common value we hold is free-market capitalism, there is only one way by which we can measure success: wealth.  Wealth is the objective measurement used to determine those who are best at the game of free-market capitalism. 

Yet, it is contrary to human nature for those who have achieved wealth to place it at risk in defense of the abstract idea of free-market capitalism – just as it is contrary to human nature for those who achieve success at what is held as the highest end in life to place their position in the hierarchy at risk (well, other than for one specific end, but I am skipping ahead an installment or two).

Returning to Ira, and his challenge:

My challenge to the LRC community is to refute this charge against capitalism addressing the historical context, the current dilemma, and future directions.

If free market capitalism (with success measured in the accumulation of wealth) is the highest end, this cannot be refuted.  As I noted previously, free-market capitalism requires a respect for private property – all other factors can be derived from this fundamental position.  As the non-aggression principle also requires this condition as foundational – with all other factors derivable from this – my thoughts apply equally to this.

In other words: just as free market capitalism, if held as the highest end, will devolve into crony capitalism, the non-aggression principle if held as the highest end, will devolve into a loss of liberty.

“But no one is claiming either of these as the highest end.”  While recognizing that there are exceptions, I can agree with this statement – very few, individually, claim either of these as the highest end in their lives.  But, as a society, what have we claimed – certainly since at least the Enlightenment?

We have claimed that as long as we trade freely, we need not concern ourselves with the behaviors or choices of others – we need not concern ourselves with what is chosen by others as their highest end.  Live and let live, anything peaceful, free minds and free markets.  As offered by Jacques Barzun: the unconditioned life.  We have claimed that as long as no one initiates violence, we similarly need not concern ourselves with the value-choices of others.

Sounds good in theory, but history has certainly proven otherwise.  As Ira has first asked for a historical context, I will begin here.  This obviously has to be considered a simple overview, as the subject and the threads of history are quite involved.

What we have come to know as both free-market capitalism and libertarianism both have been born in the West.  This seems to me to be an undeniable fact of history, and, therefore, quite relevant to the reality.  Yes, many aspects that are important to these specific economic and political philosophies are also found in other philosophies, but not in total – and not on some very key matters.

What was it in the history of the West that made this so?  What was unique about the West – different than the cultures or traditions found elsewhere in the world – that brought this about?  What we know today as Western culture and tradition cannot be divorced from its foundation in Christianity.  Therefore, I will begin here.

First, some similarities with non-Western traditions: thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not murder.  Commandments such as these can be found in many ethical codes throughout history; there is nothing uniquely Christian about these.  Both speak directly to the property rights that underlie both free markets and the non-aggression principle.

Similarly, the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This, also is found in many ethical codes, in all major religions.

But what is different?  And here, I accept that some of these might be found in other religious / ethical traditions – but I don’t believe all of these, taken together, are to be found in any other:

God made man in His image; God breathed into man, giving him a soul and reason; God was made manifest, giving us the embodied perfect form of the Good; Jesus did not advocate the stoning of the adulteress; we are to lay up treasures in heaven, not here on earth.  Most importantly, the ultimate sacrifice was made.  After sacrificing God – the Creator – no better or more complete sacrifice can be offered; there can be no higher story.

What does this have to do with free market capitalism, or libertarianism?  A detailed examination of each of these factors and the relationship to free markets and libertarianism is well beyond the scope of this essay, but I offer the following overview:

That we are all made in God’s image suggests something of how we should consider our fellow man (and woman, for those who feel this clarification is necessary).  Considering that the other is made in God’s image is a much stronger deterrent to murder or theft than can be offered by a mere intellectual argument.

That God breathed into man suggests something of the unique character of man when compared to other animals.  This speaks of man’s place in the world, above other animals; it speaks of man’s unique characteristic – he has a soul, he is to employ reason.  He is to utilize this understanding to shape his entire purpose – not merely a purpose of economic trade or exchange.

That Jesus offers the perfect example, or archetype – as no physical example can top the example of God on earth – suggests something of how we should pattern our lives, of how we should deal with others.  Really, if it is good enough for Jesus to suggest that we treat the injured man on the road with respect and care, as the Samaritan did, then it ought to be good enough for us.

That our objectives on earth should look beyond our lifetime, suggests much about the accumulation of capital – physical capital in this world, and ethical and moral capital stored up in the next.  At minimum, this requires respecting the non-aggression principle.  It also speaks to the value of thinking of the future, even beyond our lifetime – tangentially (and I know I am stretching the meaning far beyond its immediate intent, although the behavior expected is the same) rather important in free market capitalism.

Finally, if God has sacrificed Himself for our benefit, there is nothing greater than this that we can use to hold over our fellow man – no other sacrifice is necessary; no greater sacrifice is possible; no sin is too great for this sacrifice.  No harm is too great that forgiveness is impossible.

All of these more unique characteristics of Christianity help to place some context into commandments prohibiting murder, theft, and the like.

But all of this is to be found in Christianity both East and West.  So, what was unique about the West?  Again, a question well beyond the reach of this examination, but I offer: Here, it is something of the Germanic tradition of honor, that a man’s word made his law, that no law was valid without the consent of those it affected; that any noble could veto a law that was not grounded in these principles. 

Most importantly, a meaningful and effective separation of Church and king – each with authority over the other, neither with monopoly authority; each offering to a party aggrieved by one of these two institutions an avenue of appeal to the other.  In other words, a culture in which there was no such thing as a state.  This was not the case in the East, at least to my understanding.

This all started to come apart in the West with the Renaissance and Reformation.  As the offsetting authority of the Church waned, the authority of the king increased.  The so-called Wars of Religion were more accurately wars of state creation, as the many princes saw a way out from under Church authority and a move into monopoly power.  The state was birthed in this climate, culminating with the Peace of Westphalia. 

At the same time that states were being created in the West, economic prosperity as measured in goods and services was flourishing.  In other words, we might consider this as the fruit of free-market capitalism, where property took the forefront – where Western man decided that this value was to be the highest value to be held in common, with nothing to hold a greater social authority. 

Unleashed from other obligations, technology flourished (although it may have similarly flourished in any case).  Yet, the Christian culture and tradition continued to strongly influence the West even during this transition – until, at the latest, the dawn of World War One.

Which brings me to Ira’s second request: what of our current dilemma?  This dilemma is driven by the reality that man does not live this way nor function in this manner.  Human beings live in a story, not merely in a comfortable chair under a roof with a warm fire.  Man shall not live by bread alone; the satisfaction in material goods is insufficient for a human as human.  If it was sufficient, Ira would have no reason to ask his question, and none of us would have a reason to complain about our condition.  The poorest person in the West enjoys a level of material prosperity unheard of in history.  Who can complain?

The West lost its story.  The West is in such chaos because different of us are grappling with different aspects of the story, and very few are looking to the whole.  We demand love, but ignore truth; we demand respect, yet ignore humility; we demand liberty, yet ignore responsibility; we demand repentance, yet ignore forgiveness.  The Christian story demanded each of these.   Today’s chaos is driven by a society that chooses only one side without being held responsible for the other.


Alexandr Solzhenitsyn summarizes this much better than I can:

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. …the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him.

Living in the Christian story completely changed the culture and ethics of the Roman world that preceded it, and resulted in an ethic far different than much of what is found in much of the rest of the world today.

It is easy to point to the faults of the West – as if these same faults did not exist and do not persist elsewhere today.  But it was in Christianity that the citizen’s right to rape any man, woman, or child came to an end; that slavery ended; that women were treated as fully human; that the sick were cared for instead of stepped over.

Without the Christian story, why would not the strong – those who most excel at whatever the current culture deems the proper value system – once again rape (figuratively or otherwise) the weak?  I can think of no reason why not.

Hence, our history and current dilemma.  This, then, leads to the last part of Ira’s request: what of future directions – the way out?

Next time.

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