“Defenders” of Capitalism

by | Mar 1, 2012 | POLITICS

One of the primary defenders of capitalism during the latter nineteenth century was the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Ethically, Mill was a Utilitarian, which holds that the moral is that which benefits the greatest number. Seeing the practical benefits of capitalism, Mill initially argued that capitalism benefited the greatest number, and therefore was superior. […]

One of the primary defenders of capitalism during the latter nineteenth century was the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Ethically, Mill was a Utilitarian, which holds that the moral is that which benefits the greatest number. Seeing the practical benefits of capitalism, Mill initially argued that capitalism benefited the greatest number, and therefore was superior.

Mill’s position holds that when the “public good” demands the violation of individual rights, individual should be forced to put aside their self-interest for the alleged “public interest.”

Mill demonstrates this point in one of his most famous works, On Liberty. Mill writes: “As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion.”

I submit that virtually every action in which we engage can have a negative affect on others, if one engages in sufficient imagination. If I spend my money to take a vacation, I have deprived Haitians of that money. If I compete in the marketplace and attract more customers than my competitors by offering superior value, I have a negative affect on them. My actions then, “become open to discussion”, and society may decide how I should and should not act.

Not surprisingly, Mill had to later reject his defense of free markets. If society may control the actions of individuals when it deems those actions harmful to others, then freedom is not to be tolerated. Freedom sanctions men to act according to their own judgment (so long as they respect the mutual rights of others) regardless of the impact it has on society or other individuals. Mill realized this and turned towards socialism later in his life.

A second defender of capitalism during the latter nineteenth century was the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, who was regarded as the most famous philosopher of his time. Echoing Hegel and Marx, Spencer argued that history is an evolutionary process. As with so many others, he put his own unique twist on this process. Spencer believed that evolution also applied to the moral character of individuals. In The Principles of Ethics, he wrote:

If the entire visible universe has been evolved—if the solar system as a whole, the earth as a part of it, the life in general which the earth bears, as well as that of each individual organism—if the mental phenomena displayed by all creatures, up to the highest, in common with the phenomena presented by aggregates of these highest—if one and all conform to the laws of evolution; then the necessary implication is that those phenomena of conduct in these highest creatures with which morality is concerned, also conform.

These “phenomena of conduct”—our choices and actions—are a result of evolution. In other words, the content of our mind is not a matter of volition, but inherited from our ancestors. As a Materialist, Spencer believed that our moral character is imbedded in certain areas of our brain tissue (I’m not making this up), and this is passed on from one generation to the next. Those characteristics that are most beneficial in an industrial society result in individuals more likely to survive, and thus pass on their genetic and moral traits. And what moral traits did Spencer regard as most beneficial in an industrial society? In a word, altruism.

In a primitive culture, Spencer believed that aggressiveness has survival benefits. Fighting savage beasts requires certain physical skills, and those who are strongest, fastest, and physically more capable are more likely to survive. But in a civilized society, such abilities are not required. What is required is cooperation.

In most regards, Spencer believed that this was to be accomplished through voluntary agreement and contract. For this reason, he was regarded as a defender of capitalism. But Spencer did not regard this as a sufficient guide to human conduct. In Negative Beneficence and Positive Beneficence, he wrote:

A society is conceivable formed of men leading perfectly inoffensive lives, scrupulously fulfilling their contracts, and efficiently rearing their offspring, who yet, yielding to one another no advantages beyond those agreed upon, fall short of that highest degree of life which the gratuitous rendering of services makes possible. Daily experiences prove that every one would suffer many evils and lose many goods, did none give him unpaid assistance. The life of each would be more or less damaged had he to meet all contingencies single-handed. Further if no one did for his fellows anything more than was required by strict performance of contract, private interests would suffer from the absence of attention to public interests. The limit of evolution of conduct is consequently not reached, until, beyond avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others, there are spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others.

In other words, if we really want to evolve as humans then we must consider the welfare of others, and at times engage in gratuitous aid. This, according to Spencer, is what an enlightened man should do. To which statists could, and did reply, then we will make men be enlightened. If it is moral for men to serve others, then we will make them do so.

With arguments like this, is it any wonder the statists won?

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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