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Making the Moral Case for Capitalism

Are there any moral arguments for capitalism? Take note of two pieces out this week by Arthur Brooks of AEI and James Otteson, professor of philosophy and economics at Yeshiva University in New York. Brooks writes in the Washington Examiner:
Liberals often accuse conservatives of being obsessed by morality. But the truth is, many conservatives are reluctant to talk about morals or make a moral case for anything in politics and policy. They’re willing to talk about principles, perhaps. Values, maybe. But morals? That evokes unpleasant memories of the “culture wars” of the 1990s, which focused on schismatic issues like abortion and homosexuality. As a result, many who strongly believe in free enterprise steer clear of all public “moral” arguments. This is a mistake and a missed opportunity. A great deal of research shows that people from all walks of life demand a system that is morally legitimate, not just efficient. The moral legitimacy of free enterprise depends largely on how the system enables people to flourish, whether the system is fair, and how the system treats the least fortunate in society.
Read more. James Otteson writes at the Manhattan Institute, “An Audacious Promise: The Moral Case for Capitalism:”
Milton Friedman once said that every time capitalism has been tried, it has succeeded; whereas every time socialism has been tried, it has failed. Yet President Obama has oddly claimed that we’ve tried free-market capitalism, and it “has never worked.” This is rather remarkable. Since 1800, the world’s population has increased sixfold; yet despite this enormous increase, real income per person has increased approximately 16-fold. That is a truly amazing achievement. In America, the increase is even more dramatic: in 1800, the total population in America was 5.3 million, life expectancy was 39, and the real gross domestic product per capita was $1,343 (in 2010 dollars); in 2011, our population was 308 million, our life expectancy was 78, and our GDP per capita was $48,800. Thus even while the population increased 58-fold, our life expectancy doubled, and our GDP per capita increased almost 36-fold. Such growth is unprecedented in the history of humankind. Considering that worldwide per-capita real income for the previous 99.9 percent of human existence averaged consistently around $1 per day, that is extraordinary. What explains it? It would seem that it is due principally to the complex of institutions usually included under the term “capitalism,” since the main thing that changed between 200 years ago and the previous 100,000 years of human history was the introduction and embrace of so-called capitalist institutions—particularly, private property and markets. One central promise of capitalism has been that it will lead to increasing material prosperity. It seems fair to say that this promise, at least, has been fulfilled beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Yet people remain suspicious of capitalism—and more than just suspicious: as the Occupy Wall Street movement is only the latest to have shown, we seem ready to indict capitalism for many of our social problems. Why? A widespread consensus is that capitalism might be necessary to deliver the goods but fails to meet moral muster. By contrast, socialism, while perhaps not practical, is morally superior—if only we could live up to its ideals. Two main charges are typically marshaled against capitalism: it generates inequality by allowing some to become wealthier than others; and it threatens social solidarity by allowing individuals some priority over their communities. Other objections include: it encourages selfishness or greed; it “atomizes” individuals or “alienates” (Marx’s term) people from one another; it exploits natural resources or despoils nature; it impoverishes third-world countries; and it dehumanizes people because the continual search for profit reduces everything, including human beings, to odious dollar-and-cent calculations.
Read more. And listen as Otteson discusses the moral case for capitalism with Howard Husock, vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute.