Clive Crook, a columnist at BloombergView, recently challenged what he calls the “Aspen Consensus,” a set of unquestioned assumptions by the Intellectual Class that capitalism is a “morally tainted enterprise.” Such a view, Crook finds, is held most fervently and unironically by the moneyed young at the Aspen Institute’s annual gab-fest.
If capitalism is a demon of our own design, which many assuredly believe, then business must do more than “be less evil.” It must actively seek to “do more good,” they argue. Corporate philanthropy is merely a form of penance.
Yet does business demand a Faustian bargain? Not so, says Crook:
When I think about the most successful capitalists of the age—Bill Gates, let’s say, or Steve Jobs—I’m not mainly struck by the great harm they’ve done. Gates, of course, has done enormous good twice over, first as a capitalist innovator and then as a philanthropist. But even when he was single-mindedly making money, he was still doing the rest of us an immense service. And the good he did in that role resided precisely in his desire to sell us things we were free to buy or not buy—it resided, that is, in capitalism.
Such freedoms are essential to the market’s moral weight. People voluntary choose to exchange products and services for value. In so doing they are free to pursue the good and the true. Coercion, on the other hand, is socialism’s original sin.
[pq]To argue for capitalism isn’t to excuse its costs, but to show what it affords.[/pq]
Crook calls the lazy assumptions of capitalism’s immorality the “Brooklyn Consensus,” a reference no doubt to the low price of one’s soul on rent day in the borough. Capitalism is merely an extractive exercise meant to exploit the weak in favor of the wealthy. “Workers of the world unite,” they mutter over plates of artisanal cheese.
To argue for capitalism isn’t to excuse its costs, but to show what it affords. “Advances in social justice were enabled by rising prosperity,” maintains Crook, “and rising prosperity was the product of capitalist development.” Even in Brooklyn, where moral judgement is perhaps better directed toward City Hall.
The Brooklyn Consensus at its best condemns a guilty generosity. Yet viewed rightly, individual earned success is a necessary prelude to the essential project of constructing social good. Capitalism is made more complete by a sense of right and wrong.