Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.
Western societies are routinely denounced from within and without for the sin of selfishness—a sin with which they are said to be afflicted not in some incidental or private way, but deep down and by the very nature of their social system.
In its milder forms the opprobrium finds expression in a kind of embarrassed silence that tends to fall whenever a cleric or professor makes bold to raise for discussion the moral basis of a capitalist economy. In its more energetic appearances, assault upon the West’s economic system may adopt the logic of Marx. Thus we hear things like: “Based on a philosophy of avarice, the spirit of capitalism promoted the idea that the individual’s duty was to increase his capital.” “Under capitalism, when A wins, B loses.” “One group produces the surplus and another appropriates it.” In this bill of particulars, religion is often charged with a class-subservient role: “The creed of Calvin changed the moral standards and converted a frailty into an ornament of the spirit, canonizing vices as economic virtues.” The United States is said to have invented myths to obscure the system’s terrible human costs: “Since capitalism required losers, the myth of the melting pot was necessary to promote the belief in individual mobility through hard work and competition.”
These quotations, the sort of thing one would not be surprised to encounter in a Soviet text, actually come from a handbook for American teachers issued in 1973 by the National Council for the Social Studies, an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA). Since these bodies strongly shape what children are taught in America’s public schools, and since the NEA is one of the most influential lobbies in today’s Democratic party, their view of our society, a view which is hardly limited to them alone, needs to be taken seriously, and not least for its deleterious effect on what Jean-François Revel refers to as the West’s “energy and conviction to defend itself.”
Without falling into the temptation to justify by specious arguments what may be endemic flaws of our economic system, we are entitled to ask: is it fair to say that, overall, ours is a social system based on selfishness? Before addressing this puzzle directly it may be helpful to consider briefly two unsatisfactory answers. One is that offered by Ayn Rand and her libertarian followers. The other, more ingenious, comes from George Gilder.
With a certain courage, Ayn Rand approaches the dilemma posed by capitalism by stating flatly that the Marxists are correct. Yes, she says, capitalism is a system based on selfishness. Her quarrel with the Marxists comes down to this: where they argue that capitalism impoverishes and dehumanizes, she holds that what impoverishes and dehumanizes, rather, is the collectivist state, whether democratic or totalitarian. Capitalist selfishness, in her view, is not only rational, it is heroic—even godly.
The term “godly” may sound like an odd word to use in discussing the view of a declared atheist, but it is Rand’s own. Thus in her 1938 novelette, Anthem, she has her hero say (in a passage she liked enough to include in a 1961 collection titled For the New Intellectual): “And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth…. This god, this one word: I.”
According to Rand, what is “responsible for the collapse now threatening to destroy the civilized world” is not selfishness but its opposite, the cult of altruism and self-sacrifice which is at the base of the collectivist idea. With a sort of Nietzschean bravado, Rand hails the glories of unfettered individualism and condemns altruism, a morality for which religion must bear heavy blame, as an ethos fit for slaves. “Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights. One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.”
One does not have to be a socialist to see the absurdities of this position, which leads in fact to a bizarre sort of anarchism. Rand’s libertarian followers envisage an End of Days in which government and taxes will be abolished and in the ensuing stateless paradise purely rational and selfish individuals will arrange everything—from paved highways to the punishment of wrongdoers—by private contracts alone. Even setting aside the obvious impracticality of a modern society operating without a government, it is easy to show that the very ills which Randian libertarians deplore in the current state of things—such as businessmen avoiding competition and seeking special guildlike advantages for themselves or their industry—are themselves the products of a highly rational selfishness, an anti-social derangement Adam Smith was the first to notice and denounce.
Ayn Rand remains far more popular in contemporary America than observers of our culture like to grant. One wonders, in fact, how much of the erosion of traditional concern for the public good, from indifference to acts of business amorality to disdain for defending the West, can be attributed to her influence. Private selfishness, however “rational” its form, is a morally dangerous creed. To defend the innocent, and the free world, may well require personal sacrifices, whether in taxes or soldiering, which the citizens of a society in thrall to private rewards alone cannot be expected to assume. Still, this much must be said for Rand’s philosophy of egoism: the ethic of pure selfishness needs to be disciplined, but it cannot be appealed to by fuehrers and ayatollahs to rouse whole nations to acts of insanity, mass cruelty, and suicide. Only a cult of radical self-sacrifice is equal to such ambitions.
As against Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness, George Gilder, one of our most imaginative defenders of conservative instincts and institutions, has developed a moral case for capitalism based on, of all things, an ethic of altruism. The entrepreneur who risks his private capital and energy with no assurance of a return, Gilder argues in Wealth and Poverty, is offering a gift, much like the potlatch observed in primitive societies, a public “feast” which may or may not be reciprocated by others. Gilder puts it this way:
By giving a feast, the mumi imposed implicit debts on all his guests. By attending it, they accepted a liability to him. Through the gifts or investments of primitive capitalism, man created and extended obligations. These obligations led to reciprocal gifts and further obligations in a growing fabric of economic creation and exchange, with each giver hoping for greater returns but not assured of them, and with each recipient pushed to produce a further favor. This spreading out of debts could be termed expanding the money supply. The crucial point is that for every liability (or feeling of obligation on the part of the guest), there was a previous asset (meal) given him. The mumi, as a capitalist, could not issue demands or impose liabilities or expand money without providing commensurate supplies. The demand was inherent in the supply—in the meal.
The next step above potlatching was the use of real money.
Gilder glides toward a final definition of capitalism closer in language to what one might expect from an 18th-century Anglican bishop than from any traditional economist: “Under capitalism, the ventures of reason are launched into a world ruled by morality and Providence. The gifts will succeed only to the extent that they are altruistic and spring from an understanding of the needs of others.”
It is a nice argument, certainly, and quite as good as the eristic arabesques of John Rawls in support of socialism. Unfortunately, and for the same reasons, it will not wash. An entrepreneur is not a giver of public feasts; a new business is not a potlatch. The fact that an entrepreneur has no guarantee of a return on his investment does not make him any more of a philanthropist than is a gambler pushing silver dollars into a Las Vegas slot machine. Though both by their investment provide employment to others (even if they themselves fail), this forms no part of their intentions, and hence can hardly be credited in a listing of their ethical acts. True, we rightly respect the creative function of the entrepreneur, a function which the gambler lacks, but that by itself is not enough to earn him the name of “giver,” or altruist, or public benefactor.
In the end, Adam Smith still said it best: in economic life the individual tends naturally to use his talents and his resources to assure himself the greatest gain, and since the only lawful way of doing this in any tolerably run society is by answering the needs of others, he must provide goods or services which others will voluntarily choose to buy. The individual thus contributes to creating a generalized prosperity, but this larger good is not part of his original intent. It is not exceptional acts of private altruism but the system of free trade and reliable contracts that channels individual energies to produce more, invent new ways of doing things, and thus cumulatively augment the prosperity of all, a point at once so subtle and so modest that it took a Scottish genius to see it, and discern that it is the principal cause of the wealth of nations.
There is, consequently, no need to posit altruism as an obscure ingredient of capitalist economics, when common sense tells us that altruism belongs to a different order of human activity—the charitable, the religious, the civic, and the political. Asking for altruism in economics is like asking for fancy in a medical diagnosis: it simply does not belong there.
Gilder’s error, like that of the libertarians (and the Marxists), comes quite simply from asking too much of economics. For a corrective we might look to Michael Novak, who like Irving Kristol (and indeed like Adam Smith) has argued, in sum, that economics is not enough. In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Novak usefully distinguishes three spheres through which power operates in Western societies. There is the economic sphere, or business. There is the realm of politics, or formal government. And there is the moral-cultural sphere, made up of such diverse elements as the press, the universities, writers and artists, and the churches. Rare is the individual whose power extends meaningfully beyond a single one of these three systems of power, and in none does he wield power alone.
“Oddly,” observes Novak, “many scholars have missed the fact that capitalism—the economic system—is embedded in a pluralistic structure in which it is designed to be checked by a political system and a moral-cultural system.” Just so. And the failure to observe this, whether by libertarians on the Right or by Marxists on the Left, leads to a fetishism of economics, and hence to a picture of Western society that is at odds with the functioning reality.
Totalitarian systems, significantly, insist on merging the three societal spheres into one, under the centralized direction of a one-party state. The abolition of the several spheres is what makes totalitarianism something novel and frightening in history, as no society where it has firmly established itself has found the internal means to get rid of it. Traditional societies of the authoritarian type, by contrast, do not attempt so radical a despotism, leaving to religious authorities the moral-cultural sphere, and to traders and businessmen the diversified management of the economy. The latter two can combine and overthrow the first, as occurred recently in the Philippines, and as occurred centuries earlier throughout the West following the Reformation. But if, as under totalitarianism, the three are fused into one, this option is foreclosed.
Where our self-definition as a society is atrophied by the simplistic term “capitalist,” with all it leaves out of the picture, from the democratic political system to Jewish-Christian morals, the tripartite model offered by Novak invaluably expands our conception, supporting the view that businessmen are mortals—not gods, but also not devils. Like the rest of us, they require the restraint of law and of ethics.
But if we agree, morally speaking, that capitalism is “not enough,” while affirming the countless benefits that a free-enterprise economy provides; if we judge that Adam Smith was essentially correct in observing that the market is driven not by charity or self-sacrifice but by contracts based on mutual self-interest; and if we nonetheless hold to the traditional faith (against Ayn Rand) that altruism and on occasion real self-sacrifice retain their place in the moral scheme of things—then we need to transcend the easy opposition of selfishness versus altruism and find some third or middle term to describe the ethos of capitalism.
The word “selfishness” is plainly a term of moral censure, applied to individuals who are not merely serving their own interest but doing so in such a way as to abuse, or grossly neglect, the interests of others. We apply this term selectively. No one would expect a sports commentator at a pole-vault match, for instance, to say of the victor, “John is unfortunately rather selfish, for by his victory he made the other pole-vaulters feel bad.” The point of athletic competition is excellence, and we would justifiably feel cheated if the performers—for whatever reason—failed to give their best effort. It goes without saying that the self-interest of the athlete lies in winning, but no one in his right mind would on that account denounce the victor for selfishness.
What is true of sports is equally true of business. We expect a company to put forth the best effort it can, and we reward that effort with hard cash when we choose one company’s product over another’s. One would hardly take seriously a company president, answering a complaint about a faulty product, who said it was his compassion for his competitors that caused him, in an outburst of altruism, to ease their lot by issuing shoddy goods. Such “generosity” would seem as inappropriate in the marketplace as on the playing field. So long as the businessman, like the athlete, plays by the rules, we expect the highest level of performance of which he is capable. And the reason is very simple. That is what serves the greater social good.
Some of these principles extend even into private life. Bertrand Russell once gave an example that makes the point. What would we think of a man who, seeking to win the love of a woman, but overwhelmed with compassion for his rivals, immediately abdicated the field the moment a competing male appeared on the scene? The examples could be multiplied, because they form a surprisingly large sample of real life.
“Autonomy” is a term for describing the behavior of persons serving their legitimate self-interest. It is how we normally deal with others at work, in business, in politics, at school, at play, even in love. It is a corollary of the principle that all men are created equal, and must therefore deal with others as autonomous beings. Duties or obligations entered into toward others must follow from individual choice. The richest man cannot compel the poorest girl to marry him; the President of the United States cannot order the humblest citizen to join his party. And because so much of ordinary life in democratic society is based on autonomy, on legitimate self-interest (which in America is sustained by no less a document than the Bill of Rights), it is a severe distortion of reality to name such behavior selfishness, and to place it under moral censure.
Self-interest is not only not the same as selfishness, it is rather, as Aristotle and Hume affirmed, a positive good. The terms we use when we praise a man, says Hume in The Treatise of Human Nature, are not restricted to qualities that are of service to others:
If we examine the panegyrics that are commonly made of great men, we shall find that most of the qualities which are attributed to them may be divided into two kinds, viz., such as make them perform their part in society; and such as render them serviceable to themselves and enable them to pursue their own interest. Their prudence, temperance, frugality, industry, assiduity, enterprise, dexterity, are celebrated as well as their generosity and humanity.
This is very striking. The final goal of morals being mankind’s happiness, our personal improvement, Hume is saying, must have some place in the enterprise. Society rightly censures those who do not apply themselves accordingly, with terms like “lazy,” “feckless,” “improvident,” “spendthrift,” and even looks askance at those who do not maintain their physical appearance. The reason, as with economic self-sustenance, is that persons who neglect their own welfare end up becoming a burden on others. And before one can assist others, one must take due care of oneself. This was pointed out by Luther two centuries before Hume, and by Aristotle two millennia before Luther: “Therefore the liberal man, like other virtuous men, will give for the sake of the noble, and rightly. . . . Nor will he neglect his own property, since he wishes by means of this to help others.”
Similarly the Hebrew Bible is replete with injunctions to work hard and show diligence in order to achieve the good life, side by side with exhortations to defend the rights of the poor and materially assist them when in need. Upon the joyful return from the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people are urged: “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared” (Nehemiah 8:10). Working for one’s own sustenance and aiding others are not seen as contradictory, but as complementary and mutually sustaining. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Rabbi Hillel timelessly put it, immediately adding, “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Since maintaining oneself is the precondition for assisting others, as well as being a positive good in and of itself, surely it deserves a formal place in our moral categories alongside the polarized simplicities of selfishness and altruism. In particular we need to inquire into given instances of human behavior, and to distinguish whether they are abusive (or grossly neglectful) of others; merely self-interested, often in a way that concurrently benefits others, as in commercial contracts; or involve a conscious risk to oneself in order to assist or defend others. We rightly condemn the first of these, selfishness; we often encourage the third, altruism; at the least we should sustain the second, autonomy, and approve the economic system it permits. The Mosaic code, which explicitly states, “You shall not steal,” nowhere says, “You shall not trade.”
While the best economic system for fostering autonomy is free enterprise within a framework of legal rights for all, or “the system of natural liberty,” as Adam Smith called it, it nevertheless remains true that free enterprise alone cannot do the tasks appropriate to the other social spheres, the political and the moral-cultural. Ironically, the moral-cultural sphere in the West today, where the blessings of liberty would appear incontestable, is marked by little regard and less understanding for how a free-enterprise economy works, and how—by fostering wealth, initiative, and the spirit of inventiveness—it provides a foundation for addressing social problems that is altogether missing in systems where the economy has been massively transferred from the people to the state. But instead of supporting our economic pillar, Western moralists work tirelessly to disparage it. They demand the spirit of altruism where it does not belong, and belittle it where it does.
By any statistical measure, the level of “selfishness” in the United States is one of the lowest on earth. Americans contribute very significant sums to charitable and philanthropic causes, and, not content to abide by voluntary giving alone, have adopted most of the government-mandated mechanisms of the welfare state long an article of faith among European social democrats. The generosity of Americans is something Tocqueville remarked upon 150 years ago—just as he also noted that Americans disliked boasting about their charitable instincts, preferring to explain their philanthropic actions in terms of enlightened self-interest. “I think,” wrote Tocqueville, “that in this they often do themselves less than justice. . . .”
What has changed since Tocqueville’s time is the advent, both abroad and at home, of an aggressive anti-Americanism, inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology and placing the ethos of democratic capitalism and its principal champion on the moral defensive. This makes it all the more necessary that we develop a clear vision of how capitalist democracies actually function, as distinct from left-wing animadversions about a “selfish society.” Man being fallible, there will always remain, as there are today, moral shortcomings of intention and performance worthy of critical scrutiny. But the idea that all behavior is either selfish or else self-sacrificing leaves out a vast geography where most behavior by decent and self-sustaining persons takes place. Autonomy is the term that describes the basis of this voluntary interaction, and it completes a table of moral categories which otherwise distorts human conduct by forcing it into the terms of selfishness and altruism alone.
One area of moral shortcoming in this regard, rarely if ever mentioned by our mainstream moralists, has to do with the question of whether we are exerting ourselves sufficiently to help prevent weaker nations from falling into the hands of Soviet despots and their proxies. To assist the cause of freedom in the world is one of those long-term goals at the heart of which, as Tocqueville might say, self-interest and altruism are conjoined. For the corollary to Revel’s apothegm is also true. Societies with a just pride in their freedom, including their economic freedom, and graced with a concern for the freedom of others, will respond with self-confidence to assaults by systems erected upon tyranny.
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