A free market can better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.
In addition, capitalism can act as a civilizing agent. The social critic Irving Kristol argued, correctly, in our view, that the early architects of democratic capitalism believed commercial transactions “would themselves constantly refine and enlarge the individual’s sense of his own self-interest, so that in the end the kind of commercial society that was envisaged would be a relatively decent community.”
But capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself. It has a troubling history as well as a glorious one. And like America, it is an ongoing, never-ending experiment, neither self-sustaining nor self-executing. Capitalism requires strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement it. Such institutions are necessary to allow capitalism to advance human progress.
A capitalist society needs to produce an educated citizenry. It needs to be buttressed by people who possess and who teach others virtues such as sympathy, altruism, compassion, self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty. And it needs a polity that will abide by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome). Without these virtues, capitalism can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.
We need to understand that capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web. Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it. Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complementary. They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain.