This essay is part of our collection on common good economics. Read related pieces here.
Market economies, free enterprise, and private property are important, and so their defense is also important. But as important as these ideas and institutions are, they aren’t enough for a complete account of the rights and duties in the economic sphere of our lives. Nevertheless, many conservatives seem intent on downplaying social justice.
Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks provide a prime example as they helpfully lay out much of the case for democratic capitalism in their new book in the AEI Values and Capitalism series, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism. They start by arguing that democratic capitalism is the political-economic system that best corresponds to a human nature that is neither hopelessly flawed nor infinitely perfectible, but rather is a mix of beast and angel. The system allows citizens to pursue their self-interest, rightly understood, in a way that need not be either selfish or selfless, but still contributes to the common good. It also avoids the coercion and corruption present in the more totalitarian alternative regime structures while more satisfactorily helping the poor: “Markets, precisely because they are wealth-generating, also end up being wealth-distributing.”
They go on to recount the economic achievements of capitalism, which are, quite simply, staggering. Regardless of how you measure standards of living—infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy, hunger, disease, violence—the spread of capitalism has benefited everyone, they argue, and particularly the poor. As they note: “If you were born in London before the dawn of modern capitalism, the norm was destitution and grinding poverty, widespread illiteracy, illness and disease, and early death. And, even worse, your children could expect a similar fate. The possibility for progress was almost nonexistent for your progeny.” But with the rise of capitalism, all of this changed. Though they are careful to note the downsides of the Industrial Revolution, they argue that it needs to be measured against life prior to it, which was “bleak, cruel, and short.”
The attempts to fix the problems of industrialization proved to hurt the poor, not help them. Wehner and Brooks document the failures in worldviews that sought “a world with the benefits of capitalism, but without its costs.” So they tally the effects of communism, as it misread human nature and “shackled more people in more chains than any other political theory in history.” Concentrated power led to abuses, atheism devalued humanity, and a materialistic outlook viewed people as “merely economic units in the service of the state.” In the end, 65 million died under Mao, 20 million under Stalin and Lenin, and 2 million (a quarter of the Cambodian population) under Pol Pot. And for those who survived, living standards were poor.
But in “places where capitalism has taken root and flowered, income and living standards have shot up.” In “capitalist nations, extreme economic poverty has been largely eliminated. There is an abundance of food. Literacy is commonplace; so are clean water, vaccinations, and access to advanced medical care.” Wehner and Brooks note that where capitalism has not taken root, “people live under brutal tyrannies, political corruption, malnutrition, and even starvation; social and technological progress is stymied, economies are stagnant, and the quality of life is dismal.” They conclude that “Capitalism has done more to lift people out of abject poverty than any other system in human history. All the other models—including collectivism, socialism, and communism—have proved to be deeply flawed, and their human effects are often calamitous.”
What about the impact capitalism has on culture, morality, and the human character? While claiming they have sympathy with some of these criticisms of capitalism, Wehner and Brooks explore none of them and “begin with an obvious counterpoint: The material progress that flows from capitalism is no small matter. Lifting people out of poverty is a hugely impressive and important moral achievement.” They continue in this vein by arguing that capitalism avoids the coercion of alternative political regimes and thus preserves a crucial human value: freedom. Not only that, economic liberty helps bolster and support other political goods, especially civil rights and religious liberty, and it helps foster peace between nations.
So what about the Bernie Madoffs of the world? Wehner and Brooks argue that Madoff isn’t the result of “free markets corroding moral character,” but rather of “poor moral character corroding free markets.” They conclude that “the answer is not less capitalism. It is better capitalists.” But we can’t expect the economic order to produce this. Nor can we expect the political order (the government) to produce this: “A free economy, like a democratic political community, requires certain preconditions in order to best function, most especially a strong civic and social order and a shared belief in an underlying moral code.” In other words, the mediating institutions of society—families, churches, schools, voluntary associations—need to produce what the market and the state can’t—decent people—but without which neither can survive.
Wehner and Brooks conclude the book by asking, “Is capitalism unjust?” They claim that starting in the 1970s, academics in America “broke with previous political philosophers from the ancient Greeks to the American founding fathers in arguing that the fundamental task of the state is to end inequality.” And they claim that “the core of this belief is that inequality is intrinsically bad and even intolerable” and that government should do something about it. Their response is odd: “First, we note that jettisoning capitalism will not lead to greater equality.” But who is suggesting we jettison capitalism? Still, they go on for several pages recounting, again, the ills of communism, and then move on to ask a string of rhetorical questions about how far liberals want us to go in addressing inequality:
What would proper redistribution of income look like? Should everyone have the same income, regardless of one’s occupation and station in life? … Should their income be set by the federal government? If not, should income equality be achieved by taxing at such a prohibitive rate that the gap between LeBron James and the hotdog vender is largely eliminated? And, if so, what would be the negative impact on the performance and output of people who now earn huge salaries? In short, what lengths are the new egalitarians willing to go in order to eliminate or reduce the gap? And at what cost?
They answer none of these questions, cite no egalitarian scholars who support such a worldview, and entertain no alternative conceptions of social justice. Instead, they do their best to explain away many worries one might have about economic inequality and to argue that government measures to fix them would be worse than the problem itself. They conclude: “Efforts to achieve level income have failed everywhere they have occurred because such efforts cut against the human grain. Yet even if it were achievable, we would still reject it on moral and philosophical grounds.” On their view, “forced egalitarianism is itself unjust.” They cite select Biblical verses and church teachers to conclude that redistribution of wealth, “if it is done at all, it is done voluntarily, as an act of charity, out of gratitude for what God has done, not as an action of the state, through coercion.”
Wealth and Justice highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the conservative case for democratic capitalism. Yes, capitalism protects liberty and free enterprise, and it raises the standard of living as it creates and distributes wealth. But Wehner and Brooks say hardly a word about property duties or about what a just distribution of wealth on their view would look like (one fears that for them it is whatever the market produces). Also, in their rush to defend capitalism against critics, they fail to discuss any of its downsides. For a generation wrestling with economic questions (see: Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party), conservatives need to provide a more thoughtful consideration and response to what worries people about capitalism.
First, capitalism and culture. Much of Wehner and Brooks’s defense of capitalism relies on the strength of the civic and social order. But while they want this sphere to influence the economic sphere, they have little to say about how the economic sphere also influences culture. For them, capitalism didn’t corrupt Madoff, Madoff corrupted capitalism. One need not be a Marxist, however, to note that our economic arrangements influence our culture and morals. Every notable political thinker has thought this; start the list with Plato and Aristotle. So saying that the answer is “better capitalists” doesn’t take seriously the effect that capitalism can have on character, especially given its reward structure. And while Wehner and Brooks mention the neoconservative Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (only to dismiss his worries), they have little to say about the consumerist and materialistic culture that capitalism can promote. Ditto on the debasement of popular culture with mass-produced, market-driven “art.”
Second, social justice. Wehner and Brooks assert “that capitalism is best at doing what it is most often accused of doing worst: distributing wealth to people at every social stratum rather than simply to elites. The evidence of history is clear on this point—the poor gain the most from capitalism.” Is this really true? It depends on how one reads the passage. Yes, considered historically, the poor gain the most from capitalism as compared to alternative economic regimes, especially where communism is presented as the only alternative regime. But do the poor benefit the most from capitalism, as compared to the rich? This is a concern that animates many, and not only those in the OWS movement. Wehner and Brooks are silent about it.
In fact, they make an unfortunate claim that “what fundamentally separates capitalists from those who want to redistribute income is a different concept of justice—‘distributive justice’ versus what has been called the ‘productive justice’ of capitalism.” So after claiming that the 1970s egalitarians broke with the tradition of philosophical thought, Wehner and Brooks reject a central theme in that tradition, first articulated by Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy: distributive justice.
In its place, they believe in “productive justice,” the view that “economic growth will create opportunity and wealth for those in every social stratum—and, in the end, generate the best of all worlds: allowing people to succeed without penalizing excellence and achievement and providing opportunity for those at the bottom rungs of the ladder to move up.” But this ignores the issue: Are the gains of economic growth distributed justly? Noting that capitalism creates the highest Gross Domestic Product, and the fastest GDP growth, says nothing about how that wealth is distributed. Wehner and Brooks offer no standard, no principles of justice on how to think about this question. And the idea that we always will be able to grow ourselves out of economic problems is wishful thinking, as thinkers as diverse as the libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel and the economic scholar Tyler Cowen have argued.
Perhaps most disconcerting, however, is that Wehner and Brooks offer no principles of justice on how individuals should deploy their wealth, and in a book titled Wealth and Justice this is disappointing. Supporting free markets and limited government doesn’t even begin to address the question of how citizens should behave in the market: Can a citizen be guilty of injustice in how he uses his wealth? Do citizens have duties—in justice—to distribute their wealth? Wehner and Brooks are silent.
In framing their argument as a defense of capitalism against the alternatives of life pre-Industrial Revolution and life under communism, Wehner and Brooks have made their task too easy. The real question facing developed capitalist countries now is what type of capitalism to have, and what type of wealth distribution. Among the most thoughtful thinkers on these questions, few are strict egalitarians, and so even here Wehner and Brooks have engaged a strawman. One might think current disparities in wealth are unjust, not because material equality is the goal, but because human flourishing is, and too many people lack the requisite material goods for that flourishing. Income and wealth equality isn’t the concern, but having sufficient goods to meet one’s needs and fulfill one’s vocation is. Likewise, one might worry about the disparate political power that comes with gross material inequalities. Wehner and Brooks say nothing about these concerns.
When the godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, wrote Two Cheers for Capitalism, he intentionally held back from giving it a resounding three cheers. He knew there were downsides, and that conservatives had to be honest about these in order to address them adequately. But the conservative message about capitalism today glosses over these facts, proposes no principles of justice, and fails to engage—let alone persuade—our fellow citizens who worry about our economic order. Conservatives writing in defense of democratic capitalism need to spend less energy fighting off communism, and more energy developing a conservative vision of social justice, painting a picture of what a better capitalism could look like. If conservatives don’t, the only alternatives will be coming from the Left. And that would be an injustice.