The Tree of Liberty: Why Defend Capitalism?

The Tree of Liberty

My column this quarter will be focusing on political issues from a laissez-faire capitalist perspective. However, rather than offering a full philosophic defense or discussing abstract technical issues, I will primarily be exploring what a pro-capitalist perspective looks like when it is applied to concrete cases and attempting to elucidate why I think capitalism is good.

In light of the fact that capitalism is often misunderstood or misrepresented as a political system, I think it is helpful to begin by asking the question: “What is capitalism?”

People often associate capitalism with economic freedom, such as a market with few regulations, the absence of subsidized industries and free trade between countries. On an individual level, people often identify capitalism with entrepreneurship or businesses primarily oriented towards maximizing profit. These are indeed aspects of capitalism, but none of these identify the essential characteristic of capitalism in its purest form.

When I write about capitalism, I am writing about pure laissez-faire capitalism — the political/economic system that is based on individual rights — and upholds them as absolute and inviolable. In this system, the government’s only purpose is to protect these rights and arbitrate conflicts with objective laws. Today, we do not have a true capitalist system –– instead, we have a mixed system, with many government controls, subsidies and wealth redistribution; for instance, minimum wage laws, subsidies in agriculture or entities such as the FDA or the EPA.

The United States was very close to achieving laissez-faire capitalism in the 1800s (with some unfortunate flaws), especially in the North where slavery was scarce. As a result, the Industrial Revolution flourished and humans were able to freely pursue wealth and knowledge and improve their standard of living.

During that period, people were not granted many of the “rights” that people now explicitly or implicitly claim to have, such as the right to healthcare, a job, or a minimum wage –– all of which can only be provided by the effort of other humans.

What they did have, and what the Founding Fathers identified, were the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are not guarantees of property or livelihood; rather, they identify the freedom to act and think that is necessary in a social context.

Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher who was a champion of laissez-faire capitalism, once wrote, “Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned. The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force. In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others.”

It is clear that our rights are violated when we are robbed by thieves or kidnapped. But when the government intervenes in economic activity, whether it is via regulations or wealth redistribution, it is also initiating force against its citizens and to that extent violates their rights.

The principle of individual rights and the restriction of government to doing nothing but protecting them (via retaliatory force) is what allowed the United States to develop into a moral and productive society, a sharp contrast from the monarchies of Europe and the empires of Asia.

In a free society, then, we can receive the greatest benefit from the productive and rational behavior of others –– consider the thousands of jobs and the increase in standard of living made possible by humans like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford or Bill Gates.

Why has capitalism, despite its greatness, so often been disparaged and condemned as evil?

This is because capitalism was never given a proper moral defense. If pursuing one’s rational self-interest and profit is considered wrong, capitalism cannot be vindicated. Ayn Rand identified a system of morality based on rational selfishness that provides this defense.

So long as this moral issue is not grasped, the enemies of capitalism will be successful. This is the trend that has dominated the politics of the United States since the latter half of the 20th century. Our political system today is dominated by a plethora of regulations on economic activity, improper government institutions and wealth redistribution –– all of which violate our rights in their attempt to eradicate the “evils” of capitalism.

The only possible result of this trend, if it continues, is the eradication of our liberty.

The only solution is laissez-faire capitalism.

TRISTAN de LIÈGE is a fourth-year undergraduate philosophy and political science major. He can be reached at tflenaerts@ucdavis.edu.

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