Wealth and moral character
Jonah Goldberg makes some very good points about human welfare and markets:
I’m no unmitigated fan of Wal-Mart, but it can’t be denied that Wal-Mart—and stores like it—have improved the lives of a lot of low-income families by making life’s necessities, and even its luxuries, affordable. Lightbulbs put a lot of candle makers out of business[*], but lightbulbs also made indoor lighting cheaper, safer, and more widespread. That’s a good trade.
Indeed, the market is the only thing that transforms luxuries into affordable indulgences. A low-end car today has features that the best Mercedes didn’t have a generation ago. Teenagers have phones that are more powerful than the computers that NASA used to put men on the moon. Indeed, even leisure has become democratized.
One last point. I love the Templeton Foundation and I think they do fantastic work. But questions like “Does the Free Market Erode Moral Character?” bother me a great deal. As opposed to what? Socialism? Socialism certainly erodes moral character. Some of the most alienated, selfish, deracinated people I’ve ever met were people who grew up under the yoke of Communism. Arthur Brooks’s work has definitively shown that large welfare states siphon off philanthropy and erode altruism.
Adam Smith’s case for the free market rested on the fact that it encouraged good character (as Yuval Levinrecently detailed), and I think Smith won that argument a long time ago. A more fruitful question, with deep religious and philosophical implications and precedents, would be “Does wealth erode moral character?” Debating that would still allow for some healthy attacks on the free market, because without free markets, wealth really isn’t something to worry about.
First of all, I know citing Goldberg round these parts will earn me a whole host of angry comments. How dare I quote the man who wrote Liberal Fascism!? He’s a fascist! He’s not very nice! He strawmans liberals!
I admit, I have a fondness for Goldberg which allows me to ignore our many points of disagreement long enough to point out the many smart, sensible things he does write. And this is one of them.
Indeed, this follows up on what I’ve been writing about vis-a-vis markets and the language of markets and so forth, because he – like Jason – asks the important question: what is the alternative to free market capitalism?
I think the important policy debate will become one not between communism and capitalism, but between the sort of high-tax free market society in Western Europe and the American system of much lower taxes, fewer services, etc. This debate must be framed properly. We are not Europe after all, nowhere near as homogenous culturally, and far more populous than any one European democracy. What works there will not work here. But certainly the success of social democracies in Europe requires that some debate between the American and European system be had. Marxism may be dead – and good riddance – but cradle-to-grave nanny statism is alive and kicking, and has largely embraced a relatively free market approach to economic policy.
How morality figures into all of this is a much more difficult question to answer. Does wealth erode our moral character? It certainly can. Does state-provided welfare similarly effect moral character? I imagine it could.
But where should morality figure into policy – especially economic policy? Again, I think these are the debates worth having. As is the question of how to centralize or decentralize power. Simply firing back and forth about markets themselves seems as futile as arguing for or against state-provided safety nets. It’s the how, not the what, that is at question. Markets and social welfare are both here to stay, at least for a good long time.
* for more on candlemakers and protectionism, see this Petition From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from the Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.
I love me some Bastiat.