The Philosophical Foundations of Capitalism

by | May 6, 2021 | Economics

The greatest era of capitalist development—the last two centuries—has taken place under the ongoing cultural influence of the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, Volume I.

This book shows that the laws and social institutions necessary to the successful functioning, indeed, to the very existence, of the division of labor are those of capitalism. Capitalism is a social system based on private ownership of the means of production. It is characterized by the pursuit of material self-interest under freedom and it rests on a foundation of the cultural influence of reason. Based on its foundations and essential nature, capitalism is further characterized by saving and capital accumulation, exchange and money, financial self-interest and the profit motive, the freedoms of economic competition and economic inequality, the price system, economic progress, and a harmony of the material self-interests of all the individuals who participate in it.

As succeeding chapters of this book will demonstrate, almost every essential feature of capitalism underlies the division of labor and several of them are profoundly influenced by it in their own operation. When the connections between capitalism and the division of labor have been understood, it will be clear that economics, as the science which studies the production of wealth under a system of division of labor, is actually the science which studies the production of wealth under capitalism. Economics’ study of the consequences of government intervention and of socialism will be shown to be merely study of the impairment or outright destruction of capitalism and the division of labor.

1. The Philosophical Foundations of Capitalism and Economic Activity

Economic activity and the development of economic institutions do not take place in a vacuum. They are profoundly influenced by the fundamental philosophical convictions people hold.15 Specifically, the development of capitalist institutions and the elevation of the level of production to the standard it has reached over the last two centuries presuppose the acceptance of a this-worldly, pro reason philosophy. Indeed, in their essential development, the institutions of capitalism and the economic progress that results represent the implementation of man’s right to life, as that right has been described by Ayn Rand—namely, as the right “to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.”16 Capitalism is the economic system that develops insofar as people are free to exercise their right to life and choose to exercise it. As will be shown, its institutions represent, in effect, a self-expanded power of human reason to serve human life.17 The growing abundance of goods that results is the material means by which people further, fulfill, and enjoy their lives. The philosophical requirements of capitalism are identical with the philosophical requirements of the recognition and implementation of man’s right to life.

It was no accident that the gradual development of capitalist institutions in Western Europe that began in the late Middle Ages paralleled the growing influence of pro-secular, pro reason trends in philosophy and religion, which had been set in motion by the reintroduction into the Western world of the writings of Aristotle. It is no accident that the greatest era of capitalist development—the last two centuries—has taken place under the ongoing cultural influence of the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Philosophical convictions pertaining to the reality and primacy of the material world of sensory experience determine the extent to which people are concerned with this world and with improving their lives in it. When, for example, people’s lives were dominated by the idea that the material world is superseded by another, higher world, for which their life in this world is merely a test and a preparation, and in which they will spend eternity, they had little motive to devote much thought and energy to material improvement. It was only when the philosophical conviction grew that the senses are valid and that sensory perception is the only legitimate basis of knowledge, that they could turn their full thought and attention to this world. This change was an indispensable precondition of the development of the pursuit of material self-interest as a leading force in people’s lives.

The cultural acceptance of the closely related philosophical conviction that the world operates according to definite and knowable principles of cause and effect is equally important to economic development. This conviction, largely absent in the Dark Ages, is the indispensable foundation of science and technology. It tells scientists and inventors that answers exist and can be found, if only they will keep on looking for them. Without this conviction, science and technology could not be pursued. There could be no quest for answers if people were not first convinced that answers can be found.

In addition to the emphasis on this-worldly concerns and the grasp of the principle of cause and effect, the influence of reason shows up in the development of the individual’s conceptual ability to give a sense of present reality to his life in decades to come, and in his identification of himself as a self-responsible causal agent with the power to improve his life. This combination of ideas is what produced in people such attitudes as the realization that hard work pays and that they must accept responsibility for their future by means of saving. The same combination of ideas helped to provide the intellectual foundation for the establishment and extension of private property rights as incentives to production and saving. Private property rights rest on the recognition of the principle of causality in the form that those who are to implement the causes must be motivated by being able to benefit from the effects they create. They also rest on a foundation of secularism—of the recognition of the rightness of being concerned with material improvement.

Thus, insofar as production depends on people’s desire to improve their material conditions, and on science, technology, hard work, saving, and private property, it fundamentally depends on the influence of a this-worldly, pro reason philosophy.

And to the extent that production depends on peace and tranquility, on respect for individual rights, on limited government, economic and political freedom, and even on personal self-esteem, it again fundamentally depends on the influence of a this-worldly, pro reason philosophy.

From the dawn of the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century, the growing conviction that reason is a reliable tool of knowledge and means of solving problems led to a decline in violence and the frequency of warfare in Western society, as people and governments became increasingly willing to settle disputes by discussion and persuasion, based on logic and facts. This was a necessary precondition of the development of the incentive and the means for the stepped-up capital accumulation required by a modern economic system. For if people are confronted with the chronic threat of losing what they save, and again and again do lose it—whether to local robbers or to marauding invaders—they cannot have either the incentive or the means to accumulate capital.

During the same period of time, as part of the same process, a growing confidence in the reliability and power of human reason led to the elevation of people’s view of man, as the being distinguished by the possession of reason. Because he was held to possess incomparably the highest and best means of knowledge, man came to be regarded, on philosophical grounds, as incomparably the highest and best creature in the natural order, capable of action on a grand and magnificent scale, with unlimited potential for improvement. In conjunction with the further philosophical conviction that what actually exist are always individual concretes, not abstractions as such, and thus not collectives or groups of any kind, the elevated view of man meant an elevated view of the individual human being and his individual potential.

In their logically consistent form, these ideas led to a view of the individual as both supremely valuable—as an end in himself—and as fully competent to run his own life. The application, in turn, of this view of the individual to society and politics was the doctrine of inalienable individual rights, and of government as existing for no other purpose than to secure those rights, in order to leave the individual free to pursue his own happiness. This, of course, was the foundation of the freedom of capitalism. The same view of man and the human individual, when accepted as a personal standard to be lived up to, was the inspiration for individuals to undertake large-scale accomplishments and to persevere against hardship and failure in order to succeed. It inspired them when they set out to explore the world, discover laws of nature, establish a proper form of government, invent new products and methods of production, and build vast new businesses and brand new industries. It was the inspiration for the pioneering spirit and sense of self-reliance and self-responsibility which once pervaded American society at all levels of ability, and a leading manifestation of which is the spirit of great entrepreneurship.

Finally, the ability of economic science itself to influence people’s thinking so that they will favor capitalism and sound economic policy is also totally dependent on the influence of a pro reason philosophy. Economics is a science that seeks to explain the complexities of economic life through a process of abstraction and simplification. The method of economics is the construction of deliberately simplified cases, which highlight specific economic phenomena and make possible a conceptual analysis of their effects. For example, in analyzing the effects of improvements in machinery, an economist imagines a hypothetical case in which no change of any kind takes place in the world except the introduction of an improved machine. The truths established deductively in the analysis of such cases are then applied as principles to the real economic world. Consequently, the ability of economics to affect people’s attitudes depends on their willingness to follow and feel bound by the results of abstract reasoning. If economics is to have cultural influence, it is indispensable that people have full confidence in logic and reason as tools of cognition.

* * *

Not only are economic activity and economics as a science dependent on a pro reason philosophy in all the ways I have described, but also it should be realized that economics itself is a highly philosophical subject, potentially capable of exerting an extremely important pro reason influence on philosophy. As the subject that studies the production of wealth under a system of division of labor, economics deals both with essential aspects of man’s relationship to the physical world and with essential aspects of his relationship to other men. Indeed, the subject matter of economics can be understood as nothing less than the fundamental nature of human society and the ability of human beings living in society progressively to enlarge the benefits they derive from the physical world. For this is what one understands when one grasps the nature and ramifications of the division of labor and its effects on the ability to produce. In this capacity, economics overturns such irrationalist philosophical doctrines as the notion that one man’s gain is another man’s loss, and the consequent belief in the existence of an inherent conflict of interests among human beings. In their place, it sets the doctrine of continuous economic progress and the harmony of the rational self-interests of all human beings under capitalism, which doctrine it conclusively proves on the basis of economic law.

Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, Volume I. Copyright 2020 George Reisman. All rights reserved. The encyclopedic Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics is a required reference for every Capitalist’s library. Reisman’s treatise is now available in two volumes: Volume I (focuses on microeconomic issues) and Volume II (focuses on macroeconomic issues).


15. This section was inspired by and draws heavily on the content of a lecture delivered by Dr. Leonard Peikoff in Chicago, in May 1980, under the title “The Philosophic Basis of Capitalism,” before the Inflation and Gold Seminar of the US Paper Exchange/Tempor Corporation.
16. Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” in Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 124-125.
17. See below, pp. 27-28.

George Reisman, Ph.D., is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics and the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics. See his author's page for additional titles by him. Visit his website and his blog Watch his YouTube videos and follow @GGReisman on Twitter.

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