Contrary to what you’ve heard, there is nothing immoral about capitalism.
A couple of weeks back, the New York Times published a truly scandalous opinion piece by essayist William Deresiewicz with the provocative title, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths.” The views expressed in the piece are not just false, but dangerous.
The central claim of Deresiewicz’s essay is that “capitalism is predicated on bad behavior.” In fact, capitalism in no way requires bad behaviour. Indeed, to function even moderately well, capitalist markets rely on a general pattern of basic goodwill and honesty of its participants. Commerce of any kind requires trust, and trust is predicated on the expectation that the other person is going to follow some basic rules of decent behaviour. The niceties of the rules that ought to govern business are up for debate, but the basic need for some sort of rules is not. Capitalism, in other words, presumes ethics.
Deresiewicz is right, of course, that bad behaviour does go on within capitalist systems. That’s not exactly a news flash. Nor is it unique to capitalism. There’s no evidence that either feudalism or communism magically turns humans into selfless and cooperative purveyors of peace, love and understanding.
The beauty of a free market, as Adam Smith taught us, is that it can generate benefits even among the mean-spirited. The taxi driver who took me to the airport this morning doesn’t have to like me, and he doesn’t have to be a particularly lovely human being. All that’s necessary, in order for me to get to the airport, is that he wants to make a living. But in no way does capitalism require that people be vicious or even indifferent to each other’s fates. As Nobel laureate Ronald Coase put it, “The great advantage of the market is that it is able to use the strength of self-interest to offset the weakness and partiality of benevolence.” We are limited in our sympathies for others. The good news is that, in the marketplace, our commitment to our own welfare, and the welfare of those we hold dear, inspires a great deal of creative and industrious activity that has as its very useful side-effect the provision of benefits to others.
Deresiewicz’s essay also takes a particularly gratuitous pot-shot at business school education. “I always found the notion of a business school amusing,” he writes. “What kinds of courses do they offer? Robbing Widows and Orphans? Grinding the Faces of the Poor?” This may be a joke, but it’s a baffling one. Is business management really so trivial a task that it couldn’t possibly require any advanced training? (The old-guard communists thought so, and look where it got them.) Say what you will about business schools, but there’s little doubt that the better ones, at least, teach a serious and difficult curriculum. Deresiewicz’s slam here is also terribly and unnecessarily insulting to millions of business school graduates who work diligently and honestly to produce a bewildering array of goods and services. Yes, yes, we all know about Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff. Those men deserve, and have already received, ample criticism. But why impugn the honesty and integrity of every single executive, mid-level manager and accountant along the way?
The key to understanding Deresiewicz’s error is to see that he thinks ethics should be exactly the same in all situations. Not just present, but the same. The virtues of the marketplace, he suggests, should be the same as those of the Christian Bible; the norms we apply to commercial exchange should also be (or include?) those of civic life. But does anyone really believe that? If a company rips you off should you really “turn the other cheek,” in good Christian fashion? Should Apple and Dell really debate the qualities of their competing products and then have us all vote for the one winning product that we will then all buy? To expect the same behaviour in the market as in a townhall meeting makes about as much sense as to expect people to behave on a football field the same way they do in a church pew.
It goes without saying that Deresiewicz is not alone in his misunderstanding of the fundamentals of capitalism. But his misunderstanding is especially corrosive in that it suggests there’s nothing about capitalism worth saving. If capitalism is intrinsically unethical—if it has the immorality baked right in—then why try to fix it? Why try to make things work better? We all might as well just settle in and enjoy our smug cynicism. Because like a lot of really trenchant critics, Deresiewicz offers us no alternative.