Defending Alasdair MacIntyre’s Economics

Alasdair MacIntyre may be wrong about the details of finance, but he is right on the largest questions of political economy.

In the February issue of First Things, Robert T. Miller criticizes Alasdair MacIntyre’s economic thought. After expressing admiration for MacIntyre’s moral philosophy, Miller says that he hopes to show that MacIntyre’s opinions about economic questions are unrelated to it. But in fact MacIntyre’s economic opinions—his informed ones, at least—are related quite fundamentally to his moral philosophy. In defending capitalism against MacIntyre, Miller undermines some of the most basic principles of the philosophy he professes to admire.

It should be noted that a major portion of Miller’s article relates to comments MacIntyre made about the recent global financial crisis, and Miller’s response to these comments is unobjectionable. Whether or not the financial profession is indeed engaged in a form of legal burglary, as MacIntyre claims, it does not do so in the manner he describes, and for the reasons Miller outlines.

But Miller goes astray when he attempts an answer to MacIntyre’s two “philosophical” objections to Capitalism, as he calls them. Compared to his antique theories of the value of labor, these objections stand on much firmer ground, much nearer to MacIntyre’s fields of accomplishment. Yet Miller devotes less space to answering them.

These two objections, as Miller describes them, are as follows:

First, MacIntyre argues that capitalism is immoral because it systematically teaches people to regard as a virtue the vice of greed.

And:

As an Aristotelian, MacIntyre holds that the true final end can be pursued only by human beings acting together in a community [and capitalism makes acting together in this way impossible].

Even without any discussion of the Protestant work ethic and bourgeois consciousness, one way capitalism promotes greed is quite straightforward: under capitalism, people who structure their lives around the pursuit of wealth are frequently richly rewarded, both with riches and with the praise and respect of their fellow citizens. This praise and respect is natural, since the very power and ubiquity of business ensure that the practice of acquiring money is a central one in our society, and it is natural for people to praise excellence in practices central to their society. By contrast, pre-capitalist societies often used various means to check the acquisitive impulse in their members. The anti-usury laws common in Medieval Europe, for instance, strongly discouraged people with access to capital from structuring their lives around acquiring wealth, because it directly prohibited an easy way of doing so.

Needless to say, this does not mean that on balance it is better to have anti-usury laws than a modern financial system. But it does mean that greed has often been publicly suppressed, when now it is publicly promoted. The early modern theorists who created our tradition of economic analysis understood this clearly; they just thought inducement to private vice was a fair price to pay for the great material benefits to all that Capitalism provided. As Mandeville wrote, allegorically describing how a Capitalist economy works:

Millions endeavouring to supply
Each other’s Lust and Vanity […]

Thus every Part was full of Vice,

Yet the whole Mass a Paradise.

Miller’s answer to the second MacIntyrean objection holds together better. Many of the great theorists of Liberalism have articulated a version of it. It is unsurprising, then, that it is not compatible with the Aristotelian concept of human flourishing. Miller states the argument in this way:

The final end for human beings can be adequately pursued only in community with other human beings, but it does not follow that every community in which human beings participate must be dedicated to that end. Everyone participates in many different communities—nuclear family, extended family, school, business firm, church, military unit, government, etc. As long as enough of these are cooperative endeavors aimed at the human good, there is no need that all be such, provided only that none aims at an end incompatible with the true human good.

Essential to the idea of cooperation towards human flourishing is that the cooperation is oriented not merely towards some constituent element of flourishing but towards comprehensive flourishing. There is a distinction in kind between organizations established for some end other than comprehensive flourishing and those established precisely for the sake of comprehensive flourishing. The former may be organizations of any kind, but the latter are political organizations, paradigmatically cities. No collection of the first kind of organization sums up to the second kind because its aim is different from any of theirs. That this was Aristotle’s view is clear enough. Here is Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics (9.1160a.10):

the other [i.e., non-state] communities aim at some particular advantage … but all of these seem to fall under the political community; for it aims not at present advantage but at what is advantageous for life as a whole.

It is equally clear that under a social arrangement liberal in politics and capitalist in economics there can be no community that answers to this description unless it constitutes itself as an economic isolate exactly as in the examples given by MacIntyre. Miller suggests that private, non-economic associations are all that is needed by way of a state in Aristotle’s sense, but this cannot be true. In Aristotle’s view a state addresses itself to the flourishing of each of its members in sufficiency (note, for example, Politics I.2). A community that does not aim to comprise all that its citizens need is not a political community, and no private, voluntary community in a liberal society can do so. Nor does the liberal state itself aim at comprehensive human flourishing, by definition.

There is thus an enmity between the liberal idea of society and the Aristotelian idea. Miller’s argument pretends that this enmity is an eccentric and crabby invention of MacIntyre’s, but it has been widely discussed. And so MacIntyre is hardly being “dogmatic,” as Miller says, when he notes that capitalist societies do not allow for “constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved,” at least in their best and most perfect mode.

Miller’s failure to appreciate the radical difference between liberal and Aristotelian societies is perhaps connected to his unfortunately Whiggish reading of history: “Throughout history … cooperation usually has been secured by coercion and, ultimately, the use of force,” he writes. This statement requires Miller to ignore actual reports about life in pre-modern societies and to neglect basic inductive reasoning about the world around him. It is in fact very difficult to secure cooperation from large numbers of people purely by coercion. Much more powerful are shared ideology and culture, shared ambition, social scripts, and material interest. But because pre-modern societies often looked askance at cooperation aimed at material interest, Miller suggests that only brute force could possibly have allowed their members to cooperate for any common end. In doing so he dismisses communities as various as the University of Paris, the Roman Catholic Church, the Vestal Virgins, sports teams immemorial, Junior Women’s Clubs, and the secret societies of the Pythagoreans.

Undoubtedly Miller can articulate many reasons for preferring liberal societies to Aristotelian ones, even without resort to such specious parochialisms. Economists no doubt find much to criticize in Aristotle’s treatment of trade as a marginal phenomenon in human communities, for instance. But it is idle to suggest that these concerns do not militate against Aristotle’s concept of cooperative flourishing, or that there is no real opposition between capitalism and Aristotelianism. Very possibly the advantages liberal states offer over Aristotelian political communities do make them preferable, but they do not preserve in the private realm the community they displace from the public. MacIntyre’s opposition to Capitalism is not accidental, or merely a holdover from his youthful Marxism. In fact it is difficult to see how anyone strongly committed to Aristotle’s account of flourishing in common could fail to think capitalism radically defective.

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