Celebrate with ARI

Yes! I want to celebrate Independence Day with the Ayn Rand Institute. Sign up to attend the live event July 2, 3:00PM E.T.

Just What Is a “Moral Case” for Capitalism, Anyway?

When Yaron Brook and I started working on our book Free Market Revolution, which offers Ayn Rand’s moral defense of capitalism, the idea that capitalism needed a moral defense was virtually unheard of. Today, it’s so common that I was able to participate in a contest for who could make the best moral case for free markets. (I suspect that most of the credit for popularizing this idea goes, not to us, but to AEI’s Arthur Brooks.)

I just got back from the finals, and although I didn’t win, I learned a lot about what many on the right think is involved in making a moral case for capitalism. At the finals, one of the event’s organizers summed up the view this way (I’m quoting from memory): “We often talk about winning the war of ideas. But this isn’t a war of ideas: it’s a war of emotions.”

On this view, a “moral case” is virtually synonymous with an emotional case. The right has failed because it has focused on facts rather than emotions, while the left has done the opposite and won debate after debate.

The left, in this view, wins because it tells emotionally evocative stories that suggest its policies promote fairness and help the poor. And so what the right needs to do is tell stories that suggest that its policies promote fairness and help the poor. This is what it means to make a moral case.

But it isn’t. Not even close.

To understand the real issue, let me tell you about my semi-finals event. I and four other semi-finalists were asked to make a moral case against Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. During the Q&A portion, we were all asked by one of the judges, “Do people deserve health care or not?”

All three of the other contestants gave a version of the same answer: Yes, people deserve health care whether or not they can pay for it, but Medicaid is a lousy way to provide them with health care.

In other words, there is no clash of values or goals between the left and the right. We all want to achieve the same things, but we disagree about the means. We all believe that people have a right to health care, even if they can’t pay for it, but we disagree about how to make sure they get that health care.

This view explains why many people think a moral argument is an appeal to emotions. They don’t think there is a clash of values, requiring us to argue over which values are correct. Rather, there is a clash over which means actually promote the values we all agree on, and since people don’t seem to be convinced about means by data, the only solution is to convince them to embrace our means by manipulating their emotions.

But this approach is hopeless, because there is a clash of values here — a profound clash. As Yaron and I explain in our book, statism is based on the principle of collectivism, which says that we have a duty to serve society, and so the government has the right to control our actions and redistribute our wealth for the sake of “the common good.” Capitalism is based on the principle of individualism, which says that each individual has a right to exist for his own sake, and so has a right to be left free from the initiation of physical force.

The actual purpose of a moral defense of capitalism is to bring that issue to the surface and explain why individualism is right and collectivism is wrong.

But this puts many on the right in a difficult position. To challenge collectivism you have to challenge the morality of altruism: you have to challenge the notion that individuals have a duty to sacrifice for the needs of others. And that is something most people simply aren’t willing to challenge.

And so many of the left’s opponents are caught in a contradiction. They believe we have a moral duty to sacrifice for others — and they support a political system in which individuals are free to pursue their self-interest. And this contradiction, not any failure to appeal to emotions, explains why the right keeps losing against the left. It’s why many of them embrace all sorts of restrictions on capitalism, and why they twist themselves into knots trying to oppose things like Medicaid expansion while assuring everyone that they support Medicaid (as all my competitors did). If you accept altruism, then logically you commit yourself to collectivism. The left, in this respect, is consistent. The right is not.

A moral defense is really about providing people with moral clarity: helping them to understand what’s right and what’s wrong. But you can’t have moral clarity without intellectual clarity, and you can’t have intellectual clarity so long as you embrace contradictions.

A real moral case for capitalism would appeal to people’s hearts and minds. It would help Americans see that the issue at stake is individualism vs. collectivism, that individualism is not the straw man the left portrays it to be, and that the selfishness countenanced by individualism is not the straw man the right and the left portrays it to be.

This is what Yaron and I call Ayn Rand’s free market revolution.