Why No One Cares That Capitalism Helps The Poor
In case you haven’t had your share of clever titles today, AEI released a new video called “Don’t Eat Your Dog: The Surprising Moral Case for Free Enterprise.”
The video is a brief encapsulation of Arthur Brooks’s recent book, The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise. For those of you who didn’t have time to watch the video or read the book, the argument goes like this:
- We all know that some things are right and other things—eating dogs, for instance—are wrong, and no logical argument will change our minds.
- If we believe that a political policy is immoral or unfair, therefore, we won’t be swayed by a rational argument saying it’s really okay.
- This is why free markets are eroding and government intervention is growing: Everyone knows that free markets lead to prosperity, but the left offers us emotional sob stories and the right merely cites GDP stats. Morality beats materialism every time.
- We need a moral argument for free markets, one based on three principles:
- Free markets promote earned success
- Free markets promote real fairness
- Free markets best help those in need
Given that both Arthur Brooks and Ayn Rand stress the need for a moral defense of capitalism, it’s worth pausing to distinguish their two views.
For Brooks, capitalism needs a moral defense because people don’t realize that capitalism really does live up to their standards of right and wrong. Capitalism’s defenders, he thinks, have been so focused on facts, statistics, and rational arguments that they have never thought to point out to people that capitalism, for example, helps the poor.
Ayn Rand’s view is that capitalism has a bad moral reputation because of what people think is right and wrong. If you believe, as most people do, that selflessness is the essence of morality, then, Rand argues, you cannot consistently uphold capitalism.
Capitalism is a system based on the pursuit of happiness and of private profit. That is simply not compatible with an ethic that demands sacrificing your life, wealth, and happiness to others. Rand’s moral defense of capitalism consists in large part of challenging this notion that it is wrong to pursue your self-interest and that it is right to sacrifice your interests to others.
Who has the better case? You could write a whole book on it—and, of course, Yaron and I have—but for now I would simply say this. It’s just not true that no one has thought to point out that capitalism helps the poor. Free market supporters have done that ad nauseam since the time of Adam Smith, and to no effect.
Why to no effect? Because although capitalism does help the poor, that is not what altruism actually demands. It demands self-sacrifice—surrendering the things you care about for the sake of things you don’t care about. Altruism doesn’t say to help your friend—it says to love your enemy. It does not say to say to work hard today in order to reap rewards tomorrow—it says to give up any rewards you earn to those who haven’t earned them. A real moral defense of capitalism needs to challenge—openly and self-confidently—the notion that we have a duty to sacrifice to others.
Only Ayn Rand does that.