Capitalism and the Monkey Cage
Unlike monkeys, humans are capable of deserving things for morally significant reasons. These reasons go far beyond simple Pavlovian conditioning or the whims of a capricious experimenter.
Humans form complex plans of all different kinds. As to their social consequences, some plans are good, and some are bad. But a given plan does not deserve reward or punishment based on some mysterious intrinsic property that it carries within itself, or because of some property of the person who conceived it — he may, after all, have been lucky.
But even a lucky plan still deserves reward or (in some cases) punishment. That’s because of what we hope to see in the future — because of the incentives that reward and punishment set up. We punish murderers because we want less murder, and for that reason, any particular murderer deserves what he gets.
We reward successful entrepreneurs because we want more of them. They are the people in our society who have found ways to meet consumer needs while using fewer resources. This is a good thing, and we should want lots more of it. We should want lots more of it even if it does mean some unemployment. Unemployment can be fixed, but there’s no cure for arbitrarily refusing to improve economic efficiency.
The problem is that capitalism viewed from the outside looks morally arbitrary. There are very obvious winners and very obvious losers — for no obvious reason. And this looks like the monkey cage.
But that’s a false analogy. The efforts of entrepreneurs toward improving efficiency may not look like much, and we may be tempted to think that showering huge rewards on some of them is disproportionate.
In our society, that’s sometimes the case. Many so-called entrepreneurs make their fortunes through cronyism, favorable regulations, or shady business practices. But it’s also sometimes the case that entrepreneurs deliver a product more efficiently than the competition, at a lower price, or maybe with better quality.
The ways to improve economic efficiency are not obvious. If they were obvious, everyone would already be doing them. Entrepreneurs discover non-obvious, more-efficient things. That’s the essence of what they do. And when that happens, we should want to reward it. Even at the risk of appearing, from the outside, a little bit arbitrary. We still want more efficiency, so we should still reward it.
My sense is that the American people realize all this, and they also realize that whatever problems may exist within our incentive system, we have not reached the level of a cageful of monkeys.
To the extent that liberals make analogies like this one, they lose what little of my sympathy they had. To the extent that the Romney campaign actually makes a moral defense of capitalism, I’m… well, I’m newly intrigued.
 Addendum: I ought to have credited David Hume for this, even if it does open a theoretical can of worms:
Who sees not, for instance, that whatever is produced or improved by a man’s art or industry ought, for ever, to be secured to him, in order to give encouragement to such useful habits and accomplishments? That the property ought also to descend to children and relations, for the same useful purpose? That it may be alienated by consent, in order to beget that commerce and intercourse, which is so beneficial to human society? And that all contracts and promises ought carefully to be fulfilled, in order to secure mutual trust and confidence, by which the general interest of mankind is so much promoted?
Examine the writers on the laws of nature; and you will always find, that, whatever principles they set out with, they are sure to terminate here at last, and to assign, as the ultimate reason for every rule which they establish, the convenience and necessities of mankind.