Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Free Market Capitalism as the Highest Value (Part Two)


Returning to Ira’s question:

Is it inherent in the nature of free market capitalism for the most wealthy individuals and/or corporations to capture government power?

I begin with the conclusion of part one, as I believe it will be valuable to restate and summarize my earlier thoughts:

Certainly, building wealth has always been of value, throughout man’s history.  But it has only been the highest value in the last centuries, at least in the West – and the best means to achieve this value is through free markets and capitalism…in other words, respect for private property.  It need not be the highest value for each individual for it at the same time to be the highest value on which society could agree.

In fact, isn’t this precisely the message by advocates of free markets and capitalism?  When we trade, it is irrelevant the other values we do or don’t hold, whether we agree or disagree on these.  This is quite true.  Few of us need to hold free markets as the highest value for us to have agreed that it should be (at least for a time) the highest common value.

I think it can be argued that this has been the case since the Enlightenment, at least until recent decades, where this hierarchy based on egalitarianism is being attempted.  It is on this topic that I will focus next, when I begin to address Ira’s request to address “the historical context, the current dilemma, and future directions.”

I say “begin,” as I don’t think it will happen in one additional post.

We are speaking of the highest common value, the value which is supposed to hold society together.  Depending on the ends of any particular individual or entity, there are various different values placed at the highest.  For example, if the end is to win a championship in basketball, the hierarchy would be determined based on the ability to score points, defend, rebound, facilitate one’s teammates, etc.  But winning a basketball championship isn’t the highest end in life – and certainly not for the overwhelming majority of individuals on the planet.

If our highest common value we hold is free-market capitalism, there is only one way by which we can measure success: wealth.  Wealth is the objective measurement used to determine those who are best at the game of free-market capitalism. 

Yet, it is contrary to human nature for those who have achieved wealth to place it at risk in defense of the abstract idea of free-market capitalism – just as it is contrary to human nature for those who achieve success at what is held as the highest end in life to place their position in the hierarchy at risk (well, other than for one specific end, but I am skipping ahead an installment or two).

Returning to Ira, and his challenge:

My challenge to the LRC community is to refute this charge against capitalism addressing the historical context, the current dilemma, and future directions.

If free market capitalism (with success measured in the accumulation of wealth) is the highest end, this cannot be refuted.  As I noted previously, free-market capitalism requires a respect for private property – all other factors can be derived from this fundamental position.  As the non-aggression principle also requires this condition as foundational – with all other factors derivable from this – my thoughts apply equally to this.

In other words: just as free market capitalism, if held as the highest end, will devolve into crony capitalism, the non-aggression principle if held as the highest end, will devolve into a loss of liberty.

“But no one is claiming either of these as the highest end.”  While recognizing that there are exceptions, I can agree with this statement – very few, individually, claim either of these as the highest end in their lives.  But, as a society, what have we claimed – certainly since at least the Enlightenment?

We have claimed that as long as we trade freely, we need not concern ourselves with the behaviors or choices of others – we need not concern ourselves with what is chosen by others as their highest end.  Live and let live, anything peaceful, free minds and free markets.  As offered by Jacques Barzun: the unconditioned life.  We have claimed that as long as no one initiates violence, we similarly need not concern ourselves with the value-choices of others.

Sounds good in theory, but history has certainly proven otherwise.  As Ira has first asked for a historical context, I will begin here.  This obviously has to be considered a simple overview, as the subject and the threads of history are quite involved.

What we have come to know as both free-market capitalism and libertarianism both have been born in the West.  This seems to me to be an undeniable fact of history, and, therefore, quite relevant to the reality.  Yes, many aspects that are important to these specific economic and political philosophies are also found in other philosophies, but not in total – and not on some very key matters.

What was it in the history of the West that made this so?  What was unique about the West – different than the cultures or traditions found elsewhere in the world – that brought this about?  What we know today as Western culture and tradition cannot be divorced from its foundation in Christianity.  Therefore, I will begin here.

First, some similarities with non-Western traditions: thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not murder.  Commandments such as these can be found in many ethical codes throughout history; there is nothing uniquely Christian about these.  Both speak directly to the property rights that underlie both free markets and the non-aggression principle.

Similarly, the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This, also is found in many ethical codes, in all major religions.

But what is different?  And here, I accept that some of these might be found in other religious / ethical traditions – but I don’t believe all of these, taken together, are to be found in any other:

God made man in His image; God breathed into man, giving him a soul and reason; God was made manifest, giving us the embodied perfect form of the Good; Jesus did not advocate the stoning of the adulteress; we are to lay up treasures in heaven, not here on earth.  Most importantly, the ultimate sacrifice was made.  After sacrificing God – the Creator – no better or more complete sacrifice can be offered; there can be no higher story.

What does this have to do with free market capitalism, or libertarianism?  A detailed examination of each of these factors and the relationship to free markets and libertarianism is well beyond the scope of this essay, but I offer the following overview:

That we are all made in God’s image suggests something of how we should consider our fellow man (and woman, for those who feel this clarification is necessary).  Considering that the other is made in God’s image is a much stronger deterrent to murder or theft than can be offered by a mere intellectual argument.

That God breathed into man suggests something of the unique character of man when compared to other animals.  This speaks of man’s place in the world, above other animals; it speaks of man’s unique characteristic – he has a soul, he is to employ reason.  He is to utilize this understanding to shape his entire purpose – not merely a purpose of economic trade or exchange.

That Jesus offers the perfect example, or archetype – as no physical example can top the example of God on earth – suggests something of how we should pattern our lives, of how we should deal with others.  Really, if it is good enough for Jesus to suggest that we treat the injured man on the road with respect and care, as the Samaritan did, then it ought to be good enough for us.

That our objectives on earth should look beyond our lifetime, suggests much about the accumulation of capital – physical capital in this world, and ethical and moral capital stored up in the next.  At minimum, this requires respecting the non-aggression principle.  It also speaks to the value of thinking of the future, even beyond our lifetime – tangentially (and I know I am stretching the meaning far beyond its immediate intent, although the behavior expected is the same) rather important in free market capitalism.

Finally, if God has sacrificed Himself for our benefit, there is nothing greater than this that we can use to hold over our fellow man – no other sacrifice is necessary; no greater sacrifice is possible; no sin is too great for this sacrifice.  No harm is too great that forgiveness is impossible.

All of these more unique characteristics of Christianity help to place some context into commandments prohibiting murder, theft, and the like.

But all of this is to be found in Christianity both East and West.  So, what was unique about the West?  Again, a question well beyond the reach of this examination, but I offer: Here, it is something of the Germanic tradition of honor, that a man’s word made his law, that no law was valid without the consent of those it affected; that any noble could veto a law that was not grounded in these principles. 

Most importantly, a meaningful and effective separation of Church and king – each with authority over the other, neither with monopoly authority; each offering to a party aggrieved by one of these two institutions an avenue of appeal to the other.  In other words, a culture in which there was no such thing as a state.  This was not the case in the East, at least to my understanding.

This all started to come apart in the West with the Renaissance and Reformation.  As the offsetting authority of the Church waned, the authority of the king increased.  The so-called Wars of Religion were more accurately wars of state creation, as the many princes saw a way out from under Church authority and a move into monopoly power.  The state was birthed in this climate, culminating with the Peace of Westphalia. 

At the same time that states were being created in the West, economic prosperity as measured in goods and services was flourishing.  In other words, we might consider this as the fruit of free-market capitalism, where property took the forefront – where Western man decided that this value was to be the highest value to be held in common, with nothing to hold a greater social authority. 

Unleashed from other obligations, technology flourished (although it may have similarly flourished in any case).  Yet, the Christian culture and tradition continued to strongly influence the West even during this transition – until, at the latest, the dawn of World War One.

Which brings me to Ira’s second request: what of our current dilemma?  This dilemma is driven by the reality that man does not live this way nor function in this manner.  Human beings live in a story, not merely in a comfortable chair under a roof with a warm fire.  Man shall not live by bread alone; the satisfaction in material goods is insufficient for a human as human.  If it was sufficient, Ira would have no reason to ask his question, and none of us would have a reason to complain about our condition.  The poorest person in the West enjoys a level of material prosperity unheard of in history.  Who can complain?

The West lost its story.  The West is in such chaos because different of us are grappling with different aspects of the story, and very few are looking to the whole.  We demand love, but ignore truth; we demand respect, yet ignore humility; we demand liberty, yet ignore responsibility; we demand repentance, yet ignore forgiveness.  The Christian story demanded each of these.   Today’s chaos is driven by a society that chooses only one side without being held responsible for the other.


Alexandr Solzhenitsyn summarizes this much better than I can:

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. …the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him.

Living in the Christian story completely changed the culture and ethics of the Roman world that preceded it, and resulted in an ethic far different than much of what is found in much of the rest of the world today.

It is easy to point to the faults of the West – as if these same faults did not exist and do not persist elsewhere today.  But it was in Christianity that the citizen’s right to rape any man, woman, or child came to an end; that slavery ended; that women were treated as fully human; that the sick were cared for instead of stepped over.

Without the Christian story, why would not the strong – those who most excel at whatever the current culture deems the proper value system – once again rape (figuratively or otherwise) the weak?  I can think of no reason why not.

Hence, our history and current dilemma.  This, then, leads to the last part of Ira’s request: what of future directions – the way out?

Next time.


  1. Great post, BM.

    As the interconnected ideas pertaining to liberty come into focus for me, I am starting to think that the pursuit of liberty is folly. In fact, it now seems to be nothing more than a barometer for how properly ordered a society's hierarchy and value system is.

    1. Indeed. Similar to how Jeff Deist thinks "libertarian" should only be used as an adjective; I'm of the opinion that "market" should only be used as a verb.

    2. And this...

      "Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people." - J.R.R. Tolkien

  2. I love it when BM starts talking history and the narrative of liberty!

    Speaking of history, I came across this late 15th century morality play called "Everyman." Here is an excerpt from the beginning from the mouth of God Himself:

    "I perceive, here in My majesty,
    How that all creatures be to Me unkind,
    Living without dread in worldly prosperity.
    Of ghostly sight the people be so blind,
    Drowned in sin, they know Me not for God.
    In worldly riches is all their mind;
    They fear not My righteousness, the sharp rod;
    My love that I showed when I for them died
    They forget clean, and shedding of my blood red;
    I hanged between two, it cannot be denied;
    To get them life I suffered to be dead;
    I healed their feet: with thorns hurt was My head.
    I could no more than I did, truly.
    And now I see the people do clean forsake Me.
    They use the seven deadly sins damnable,
    As pride, covetise, wrath and lechery,
    Now in the world be made commendable;
    And thus they leave of angels, the heavenly company.
    Every man liveth so after his own pleasure,
    And yet of their life they be nothing sure.
    I see the more that I them forbear,
    The worse they be from year to year.
    All that liveth declineth fast,
    Therefore I will in all haste
    Have a reckoning of every man's person;
    For, if I leave the people thus alone
    In their life and wicked tempests,
    Verily they will become much worse than beasts;
    For now one would by envy another eat up;
    Charity they do all clean forget.
    I hoped well that every man
    In My glory should make his mansion,
    And thereto I had them all elect;
    But now I see, like traitors deject,
    They thank Me not for the pleasure that I to them meant,
    Nor yet for their being that I them have lent;
    I proffered the people great multitude of mercy.
    And few there be that ask it heartily;
    They be so cumbered with worldly riches,
    That needs on them I must do justice,
    On every man living without fear.
    Where art thou, Death, thou mighty messenger?"

    Sounds familiar, except now those with worldly riches have taught the population to fear death so much that they would live like animals in cages if only they could live a little longer.


  3. Bionic tells us that private property is fundamentally important to free market capitalism, but then draws the conclusion that "free market capitalism, if held as the highest end, will devolve into crony capitalism, the non-aggression principle if held as the highest end, will devolve into a loss of liberty."

    But this means that if property rights are held as the highest end, they will devolve into a violation of property rights, and that if non-aggression is held as the highest end, it will devolve into aggression.

    That doesn't seem plausible. The "devolve" premise contradicts the "highest end" premise.

    I would argue that the problem in our world is that property is not at all held as the highest end - as it should be, and never has been. We have never experienced free market capitalism.

    I blame this in part on the moral code of self-sacrifice and altruism which encourages the passive acceptance (turn the other cheek) of violations of property, the most egregious of which is aggression itself, as well as encouraging contempt for the rich (camels through needle eyes, etc.) and glorifying poverty, not wealth.

    What the world needs is not more Christianity, but to discover that the right of private property is the most important moral principle ever invented. "Thou shalt not steal" does not require religion, and centuries of religion has failed utterly to convince most people of how important that rule is. A right rule accepted on faith rather than for reason is easily ignored.

    1. The West hasn't been controlled by a Christian consensus for centuries now and the its influence has drastically decreased since World War 1.

      The issues Ira and BM are raising were not issues when there was a Christian consensus and a higher level of influence.

      Rousseau, Hegel, Ely are all guys who have played a major role in stripping Christian influence away from the West and the US indirectly and diminishing the priority given to private property rights.

    2. I think what Bionic is saying is that "man shall not live by bread alone." As important as it is, there is more to life and liberty than property and prosperity. As I often say, the NAP is the low bar of ethics; if you can't make it over this one, you deserve to be hit with it. But there is much more to life than the mere negation of tyranny.

      In a boxing match, you don't want to stop your punch at your opponent's face; you want to punch through it. The face isn't your ultimate target; the vanquishing of your foe is, but if you aim only at the face and no further, your punches won't have any effect. In a similar way, property rights and prosperity isn't our target, but a meaningful and beautiful life is. We should not stop short on property rights and wealth but follow through into beauty and meaning. That is how we will vanquish the foes of liberty and meaning.

      Bottom line is that property rights don't motivate or captivate people (well, maybe libertarian nerds like us), but beauty does; meaning does. Property rights will not be enough to achieve and maintain a 'state of liberty.' Only beauty and meaning, and specifically beauty and meaning which transcends man, can accomplish that. Christ offered us this at the cost of His death on the cross.

      If you want liberty, "seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matt 6:33) It took me a long time to come to this conclusion.

      "and centuries of religion has failed utterly to convince most people of how important that rule is"

      And how has reason faired in this endeavor? I would say much worse. With Christianity at the helm, liberty was built up over centuries. With the bloody succession of Reason, true liberty has only decayed and what liberty we did gain early on came with a Devil's bargain, brokered by the unholiest of institutions, the state, and bore the poisonous fruit we have seen since and continue to see around us now.

      "A right rule accepted on faith rather than for reason is easily ignored."

      And reason can't be similarly ignored? I would say it is even more easily denied. At least religion enjoys the benefit of an ultimate judgement by an all-seeing God upon one's death regardless of position or rank in society. A similar moral utility could only be attempted through some sort of Benthamite Panopticon administered by a totalitarian state, and even then it would have no good effects on the behavior of the most important individuals: those in the central watchtower with the keys to all our cells.

      Disciplined Christianity fostered the development of reason for centuries. It gave the West the university and taught it's scholars that God made the world through discoverable objective laws. It also gave us Western liberty. Perhaps liberty, in real life, is not separable from it.

    3. Great comments ATL.

      To add to what you are saying, the current system isn't built on reason. What I mean is the current, secular, Enlightenment based system specifically rejected reason. They don't tell you that part in history class. But Enlightenment philosophers claimed to be throwing off dogma and basing their insights on reason. But those claims were hollow because very soon after rejecting Christ, they rejected reason as well. Rousseau, Hegel, DeCarte, Kant. Nietzsche.

      They taught that for true freedom mankind needed to go back to living as savages, outside of civilization. They taught that reason got in the way of true freedom which was following animal impulses and irrational passions.

      It is a big deception that the world lies in today, thinking that our world is built today on science, reason, logic, and freedom. It is built on non-reason. On arbitrary whims of intellectual and political leaders.

    4. Thanks RMB! I enjoy reading all of your comments.

      I agree with you to a great extent. I certainly would not consider the 'Reason' parading around as such today as something reasonable nor logically consistent nor coherent with history nor grounded in objective science. But I think as in the pattern outlined by Ira and BM, in the Enlightenment, reason became the highest value, and those who excelled most at it rose to positions of power (or those born on the backs of their ideas) and once at the helm, they began shifting the sails in order to fix the course ever more in their favor, as we fallen humans are apt to do.

      I think disciplined reason and disciplined faith lead to the same end, as BM does: the natural law, beatitudo, and in the realm of force, natural rights (or NAP).

      Reason is not the enemy, but without faith, it can become easily corrupted as we have seen. Faith without reason, can also have dire consequences, as so many passages in the Bible can be easily taken out of context. I believe faith and reason need each other and that we were meant to employ them both to bring about a just and beautiful society.

      "They taught that for true freedom mankind needed to go back to living as savages, outside of civilization."

      Funny that you would mention that! I recently just read the opening paragraphs of Ovid's "Metamorphosis", written around the time of the birth of Jesus. Apparently he (Ovid) was a proto-Rousseau...ite?

      "The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
      No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
      And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
      Unforc'd by punishment, un-aw'd by fear,
      His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
      Needless was written law, where none opprest:
      The law of Man was written in his breast:
      No suppliant crowds before the judge appear'd,
      No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
      But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
      E're sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
      And happy mortals, unconcern'd for more,
      Confin'd their wishes to their native shore.
      No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
      Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet's angry sound:
      Nor swords were forg'd; but void of care and crime,
      The soft creation slept away their time.
      The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
      And unprovok'd, did fruitful stores allow:
      Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
      On wildings and on strawberries they fed;"

    5. I tend to agree with John Howard’s argument in the first three paragraphs above. He makes a good point.
      I also agree that we have never experienced FREE market capitalism. There has only and always been “power-brokered crony capitalism” which uses the force of law to limit competition. True freedom in the market means that no one, regardless of wealth and power, can stop anyone else from practicing that freedom. That situation has never existed. We may never come to it.

      “…the problem in our world is that property is not at all held as the highest end - as it should be…” -- JH

      I disagree with this. That belief can be boiled down to a popular saying, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” More properly, this should read that, “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”

      IF the highest end in life is property (accumulating and keeping) AND there is nothing more after life, then this might have some validity. However, IF the highest end is property, then what difference does it make HOW you accumulate it. IF the HOW is not important, then we are right back to power-brokered crony capitalism, in which ‘might makes right’ and ‘Damn everything and everyone else’. If “property” is the ultimate end, then using an atomic bomb to destroy your adversary’s power to compete becomes a useful and proper tool. IF it is irrelevant HOW we acquire property AND all that matters is that we do so, then this entire discussion is nothing more than wasted time and breath.

      However, the methods by which we gain and keep property are more important than the property itself. The means by which property is gained and held is, and always has been, a higher end than the property itself. This then becomes a matter of ethics, right living, and interpersonal relationships, which inevitably lead into metaphysical reasoning, which is, of course, the base on which religions and beliefs are built.

      I ask a simple question. Which is more important? Hard, physical goods (evidence-based?) which can be seen, touched, heard, smelled, and tasted? Or the manner with which we treat and relate to other people who own those goods?

      The answer is obvious to anyone who cares to see.

  4. Texas libertarian says there is more to life and liberty than property and prosperity, such as beauty and meaning. But beauty and meaning won't do you much good if thieves are stealing your food or murdering your family.

    I did not say or imply that property was the ONLY value. I said it was the most important moral principle (actually, I think it is the only moral principle).

    Also, I have no idea what is referred to by "meaning" in this context. That word usually refers to symbols which, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Property, on the other hand, is a gravely objective necessity if life is your purpose.

    1. "But beauty and meaning won't do you much good if thieves are stealing your food or murdering your family." --JH

      Neither will property and prosperity. “All your money won’t another minute buy.” –Kansas, Dust in the Wind.

      "I did not say or imply that property was the ONLY value. I said it was the most important moral principle (actually, I think it is the only moral principle)." –JH

      Property is not a value. It HAS value because people attribute value to it. The marketplace is the mechanism by which people exchange some property which has value for other property which also has value. Without human assessment of value, property means nothing at all.

      Property is not a principle. Principles are standards by which people live and interact with each other. The way people acquire and hold property is the principle. The property which is acquired and held is not. It is only stuff. Stuff.

      Property is amoral. There is no difference, right or wrong, between a stack of gold coins, a stack of Hustler magazines, and a stack of cocaine bricks. The only reason any of these carry any sense of morality (immorality) is because people attribute that sense to them.

      People spend their entire lives collecting and keeping property, but in the end, they die and leave everything for someone else to pick up and claim as their own. In the end, all that stuff is meaningless, but the way a person has lived life is priceless and cannot be separated from that person.

      “…Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!” – Matthew 25:23

      Notice that the value spoken of here is in the administration of the things (property), but not in the things themselves. Happiness comes about, not from possessing the property, but from the faithful (right, proper, moral) administration of that property. Faithful administration leads, not only to happiness, but also to more responsibility, influence, and power over property.

      On the other hand.

      “Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and will build bigger ones, and there I will store up all my grain and my goods. Then I will say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry!” But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you. Then who will own what you have accumulated?’…” -- Luke 12:19

      Don't have enough room for all your stuff? Rent a storage facility and eventually someone else will cut the lock off and dispose of the stuff. You will have nothing to say about it.

      “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” –Mark 8:36, 37

      Should we live for property? I think not. I would rather be happy.

    2. I wrote that, "... beauty and meaning won't do you much good if thieves are stealing your food or murdering your family."

      And Roger replies: "Neither will property and prosperity."

      The enforcement of the principle of property rights will indeed prevent theft and aggression. It appears that Roger is inaccurately interpreting my use of "property" to mean "unprotected property" rather than "property rights", which was the subject of my comments.

      I wrote that, "I did not say or imply that property was the ONLY value. I said it was the most important moral principle (actually, I think it is the only moral principle).

      And Roger replies, "Property is not a value. It HAS value because people attribute value to it."

      Of course. To say that property IS a value MEANS that it HAS value, which MEANS that someone values it. All these rhetorical forms mean the same thing.

      Roger writes, "The marketplace is the mechanism by which people exchange some property which has value for other property which also has value. Without human assessment of value, property means nothing at all."

      Of course, that is obvious.

      Roger: "Property is not a principle."

      The context of my use of the term "property" should have made it clear that I was referring to property rights, not the objects themselves. Roger spends a number of paragraphs assuming that when I say "Property is a moral principle" I actually mean that the table over by my window is a moral principle. That is obviously not a plausible interpretation of my words.

      Roger: "Should we live for property? I think not. I would rather be happy."

      I have never suggested that we live FOR property, but rather that we live BY property. That we don't need property when we are dead is irrelevant to the important point that we certainly do need property while alive in order to BE alive.

      How does one arrive at happiness without property? And how does one retain property without the enforced moral principle of property rights?