Capitalism and Culture

by | Sep 5, 2015

There will be no real and lasting political-economic improvement until the metaphysical, epistemological, and moral principles underlying capitalism are firmly grasped and understood in a first-handed way by at least a sizable minority of the intellectuals.

Though the culture has in many ways degenerated to an even lower state than it occupied in the 70s, there has been noticeable political-economic improvement since then, both in America and abroad. This caused me to wonder: might a gradual, incremental movement towards the free market end us up in laissez-faire or something close to it–even if it takes forty or fifty years? After all, the lesson that freedom is practical and moral is contained in and reinforced by each step of the incremental process.

A minute’s thought made me realize that, alas, the answer is: No.

First of all, the “lessons” of the value of freedom, in order to be grasped, still require a conceptual approach–a mind that is thinking in principles. I see no evidence of such a mind among the intellectuals on the current scene. Quite the contrary.

Further, what one considers a value depends on one’s standard. The altruist standard of value is, from what I can judge, completely unshaken in our culture.

Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that tomorrow morning we magically woke up to find that, existentially, America was a laissez-faire utopia. But the culture’s philosophy is unchanged. Imagine, further, that no one recalled the previous political situation–people thought that America had always been this way; the political and economic state of affairs was taken as a given.

The question is: what would happen next?

Within a week someone in the media or in Congress would suggest that we put a small–almost unnoticeable–tax on just the very richest individuals in order to finance some altruistic project–say a re-training program to ease the transition for those who have to find new, more technological jobs. He would argue, “These people are the deserving poor, who only need a little help in order to meet the challenges of the age; and the only cost is that a few tycoons will have to buy slightly smaller diamond cufflinks.” Who would object? On what basis?

Then, in a week, there is some natural disaster, say mudslides in California. “Society has to help,” would be the cry. Disaster relief would be provided, out of tax money.

Then, in two weeks, someone would observe that opera cannot survive on its own, and needs a government subsidy.

Then, in three weeks, the price of something goes higher than it had been (gasoline, milk, sugar–it doesn’t matter what). Well, the solution is obvious: have the government set a ceiling on the price.

Each of these interventions creates both its own problems and a precedent for the next step away from laissez-faire. The process feeds on itself. After all, America did have near- laissez-faire after the Civil War. The intellectual causes of its progressive abandonment would have the same effect again, even if somehow we woke up in political utopia tomorrow.

In a way, this is what’s wrong with libertarianism. Libertarianism is premised on the idea that the value of capitalism is self-evident. Libertarians assume that if people could ever just see what happens under laissez-faire, they would unhesitatingly endorse it. Well, they didn’t in 1886, why would they in 2006? Or 2036?

We can improve a little politically, and that’s not something to be sneered at: each improvement makes our daily existence better and buys us time for the intellectual battle. But we can’t stumble into the ideal. And even if we could, we couldn’t remain there for more than a month.

There will be no real and lasting political-economic improvement until the metaphysical, epistemological, and moral principles underlying capitalism are firmly grasped and understood in a first-handed way by at least a sizable minority of the intellectuals.

A value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The value of freedom can neither be gained nor kept without a proper philosophical base.

Bottom line: I’m increasing my donation to The Ayn Rand Institute.

Dr. Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, is an professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation and is the creator of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Dr. Binswanger blogs at HBLetter.com (HBL)--an email list for Objectivists for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. A free trial is available at: HBLetter.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.

29 Comments

  1. Libertarianism is easy. I call it,

    The Platinum Rule

    “All actions are allowed except those involving the initiatory use of force, threats of force or fraud.”

  2. Defining indirect force like stealing patented idea is hard, and evaluating method for proportional response is even harder.

    In any case primary focus of ideology has to be on how values are created. Only then can means for protecting values be effectively framed. Libertarianism fails in such instances, even politically.

    And people need methods of thinking(epistemology) and acting(ethics), before they can make any meaningful contribution to political and economic aspects.

  3. Binswanger is exactly right.

    Let’s review the libertarian explanation of history. America circa 1870 wasn’t perfectly libertarian. For example, the government subsidized railroad construction which ruthlessly pushed famers off their land. One unintended consequence led to more regulation which led to other excesses that required even more regulation, etc. Since we were basically capitalist, the side effects of regulation were always blamed on capitalism itself. The libertarian says “if only we were perfect” there would not have been the first step.

    At each point in time one could do an attribution analysis and decide if it was the predominately capitalist economy or the introduction of statism. But this is a conceptual analysis. There were great men who did this (i.e. Bastiat) and that bought us time. Nevertheless the moral hostility towards capitalism, the anti-conceptual utilitarian/pragmatist approach, and the revival of religious sentiment led us to our current sorry state. Only a philosophical revolution can give us a solid foundation.

  4. Prohibiting the initiatory use of force does protect values so libertarianism does not fail. How people contribute is of no concern. The only important thing is that they leave others alone.

  5. Libertarianism cannot even help in evaluating how much should Samsung pay apple for stealing their key idea.

    That is at least give framework for evaluation.

  6. There are courts with judges and juries in Libertopia or they could hire a private arbitrator.

  7. The unfortunate truth is that very few people are concerned about intellectual issues today. They have lost confidence in their ability to understand reality, and really do not believe that it can be understood. A large part of the blame for this goes to the Public School System, a system that promotes the ideology that government wants to be propagated. The solution is to get government out of the education business, and let a flourishing private school system become established through the free market.

  8. It was Aristotle’s logic that gave Newton tools to develop science and Advanced mathematics. The conception of logic needs to develop further to be in tune with time.

    Without advancing logic and it’s applications, even the best expert cannot be consistent enough.

    And given the culture where most key evaluations have emotions rather than reason at their base….. Any serious political philosophy ought to study and connect ethics and methods of thinking to political issues, explicitly.

  9. This excellent analysis provides some added “meat” to the long-standing position Ayn Rand took — that only a moral revolution (towards egoism and away from altruism) would fundamentally change the world. Dr. Binswanger’s inventive example of the American culture waking up with laissez-faire, but still holding an altruist morality, really puts a fine point on her great insight.

  10. I like the article and the unique perspective it offers. But I’m curious about the basis for this statement: “Libertarianism is premised on the idea that the value of capitalism is self-evident. Libertarians assume that if people could ever just see what happens under laissez-faire, they would unhesitatingly endorse it.”
    Although I don’t doubt that examples can be found, I’m not aware of this being core libertarian perspective. I’m certainly not aware of it being a “premise” of libertarianism. I think most libertarians well understand the necessity of persuading society at large to the benefits of economic liberty and how those benefits disappear quickly in liberty’s absence.

  11. libertarianism is a ‘poor mans’ Ojectivism. Objectivism is ‘too strict and demanding,’ so dilute it for the commoners.

  12. Apple patents ideas that children can think up, then tries to sue Samsung and similar for millions of dollars for ‘stealing’ their ideas. Such is the power of money and lawyers. Samsung should pay Apple nothing, and be reimbursed by Apple for legal harassment.

  13. It’s implied.

    In its critiques of the welfare state; in its emphasis on economic liberty, etc., etc. See, for instance, Reason Mag’s website, e.g., videos on the nanny state, etc.

    This doesn’t include, of course, Lib’s leading intellectuals’ position on competing govs, which attempts–erroneous as it may be–to offer a politico-economic solution that requires first metaphysical, epistemological and ethical ones.

  14. Substantiate that.

    That is, explain why “the initiatory use of force, threats of force or fraud” is wrong. You’ll need an ethical system to do so.

    But before that, you’ll need an epistemology that validates your use of the reason you use to validate your ethical system.

    Finally, along with such an epistemology, you’ll need also to validate a realist metaphysics.

    None of which Libertarianism does.

  15. Man survives by the free use of his mind. The initiatory use of force negates that.

  16. If ideas like multiple touch for mobiles were so simple, why didn’t traditionally mobile players invent them first.

  17. It’s like a race, someone is always first.

  18. So? Man’s suffering and death get him into Heaven.

    “He that loveth his life shall lose it and he that hateth his life in this world shall keepeth it unto life eternal.”

    Or the secular supernaturalist position: What makes Man’s life so special? Why ought we be concerned about it? Sounds awfully selfish to me. It’s mankind as a whole that we need be concerned with; and history shows while some men die, society endures by the selfless sacrifice of individuals.

    Or: Prove it. How do you know that? On what do you base that statement? And, finally, how can you know anything for certain?

    Gets a bit complex, doesn’t it. Assertions don’t make for an argument–nor do they validate a philosophy, political or otherwise.

    See (if you haven’t already): “The Objecytivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness.

  19. Why the cheap shot at Christianity? If eternal life is a possibility, why not make acquiring it the number one priority in life.? You conveniently left out “i’ve come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.’ Rand ran down down the ‘opposition’ of the Republican party (according to her, they are worse than the Democrats, since the democrats don’t know any better – ridiculous) and Christianity. Only hers is the true religion.

  20. “Gets a bit complex, doesn’t it.”

    Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

  21. “Cheap shot? If eternal life is a possibility…” Based on what – someone’s fantasies or speculation that anything is possible if you can only imagine it? Faith and reason are opposites. Christianity expects you to believe its dogma on a leap of faith in conflict with the facts of reality, not on a logical argument which, in turn, would be based on the facts of reality. Ayn Rand substantiated all her ideas by a process of reason based on the facts of reality, including why she thought conservatives (what you refer to as Repubicans above) were more detrimental than liberals to Capitalism ….note: because they did not defend Capitalism on the moral/ethical base of individual rights, but instead tried to defend Capitalism on the same moral/ethical base that the liberals use to attack it – altruism, along with some form of utilitarianism in some cases. This inappropriate defense of Capitalism by conservatives who are viewed as supporting Capitalism, undermines it even more than the liberal attacks. Ayn Rand went into much more detail on why. To say “only hers is the true religion” is to negate the fact that she didn’t expect anyone to accept her ideas on faith. She based her ethical arguments on the facts of reality via a process of reason and it was up to you, using your independent mind, to evaluate those arguments for yourself. If you disagree, state why and give a logical argument as to why – that is, if you want to be taken seriously….rather than making mindless ad hominem attacks and saying things like “only hers is the true religion”, when there is not one iota of evidence that she ever intended that.

  22. To explain means just that – explain, even if it is simply explained. The statement, “All actions are allowed except those involving the initiatory use of force, threats of force or fraud” is an statement that must be explained and validated as noted above. It is a conclusion that requires the arguments in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics that would support it. It is an end point, not a starting point. Trying to make it a starting point is like building a house of cards as you will soon realize that the people you thought supported it really don’t support it fully, as their mixed premises will soon find all sorts of exceptions to it. There are no short cuts. A statement is NOT an explanation.

  23. Enter Ayn Rand and her philosophical and ethical defense of reason, individual rights, and Capitalism.

  24. explanation:
    a statement or account that makes something clear.

    My statement makes clear what is moral and immoral.

  25. Ah, yes. I’ve run into people like you before on these venues. All the comments are one or two sentences, addressing only one small aspect of the discussion. Minimal effort. But your are correct as far as you go, which isn’t very far since you don’t address my main point above. Although, looking over your comments in total, I do think you have more to offer. Yes, your statement is clear, but clarity is not the only thing we are striving for – what about understanding, or the “why” something is correct and/or important or moral? The Ten Commandments are clear to most people although they don’t encompass the various contexts one may be facing in order to follow them (assuming you believe in them and want to follow them). Rules at a community pool (no running, no food allowed, etc.) are clear, although you may question why the rules are what they are – some are apparent when you give it some thought, while others are contextual and may be violated in certain situations. It is not the “statement” of the rule per se that is of utmost importance, it is the understanding of it, of why it is correct. While your statement makes clear what is moral, it doesn’t explain why. Libertarians think that as long as “you” believe in freedom, it doesn’t matter where you come from philosophically. It is as if you can build a skyscraper on quicksand. Without a solid foundation, any statement, however clear (and certainly clarity is a plus), is not enough. To “unthinking robots” who are ready to follow any order, it may be sufficient; but to people who think and ask why, it is not. Again, your statement is a conclusion, not a starting point for a thinking person.

  26. I think people who read the comments section of “Capitalism Magazine” understand.

  27. You got your reply down to one sentence – can’t do any better than that. Thank you for the intellectual effort.

  28. Excellent article! I too will keep on fighting by continuing to promote the Ayn Rand Institute, The Undercurrent etc. We will not compromise and we will not quit!

  29. I agree with all the reasons given. But the symptoms of the problem were presented and not the cause of it. The cause of the problem lies in the State and in Democracy. Without these tools the described actions would not be possible. For laissez-faire to happen it is necessary to end the state and democracy.

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