Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pennies from Heaven

I tend to read a fair amount, and being somewhat eclectic in my reading (at least when it comes to politics) I sometimes read National Review just as I sometimes read The New Republic, and sometimes Reason and sometimes The Nation.  I came across an article in National Review which attempted to make the interesting point that conservatives would be well advised to tout capitalism for moral reasons as well as, or perhaps even more so than, for reasons related to its purported efficiency as a tool for creation of wealth.   The author noted that the Right is at a disadvantage because the Left typically attacks capitalism on moral grounds but the Right fails to defend it from such attacks.  Appeals to morals are generally more persuasive than appeals to efficiency is, essentially, the argument made.  Therefore, the Left is winning the ideological battle , because it positions itself on the moral high ground and the Right makes no effort to take it.

Just what, though, is compellingly moral about capitalism?  Well, it can be said that it is founded on the idea that we should all have the benefits of our own labor, and on the idea that those who work harder and more efficiently are entitled to more than those who don't, and on the idea that those who demand benefits while not inclined to work for them shouldn't receive those benefits, particularly to the disadvantage of others.  It can be maintained, then, that capitalism's moral basis is its appeal to and incorporation of the concept of fairness.

There is a certain danger in this approach, though, if it is used to justify the great accumulation of wealth by some in light of the poverty of others.  Even those of the Right must recognize that it is at least conceivable that some are poor not due to their own laziness but for other reasons and that many of the wealthy have far more than they could possibly need to live comfortably.  Is it fair that some have such wealth while others do not?  What use is such wealth, unless one is interested in living a life of unmitigated self-indulgence?  Does the fact that the extremely wealthy worked for their wealth (if that is the case) justify their retention of that wealth for no reason but for the fact it is their wealth?

The call for the moral justification of capitalism is presumably prompted by the hue and cry over taxing the rich more than others (said to be unfair, or class warfare), and fears that our President and his cohorts are determined to socialize the United States and redistribute wealth.   But the Right has a difficult task in front of it in this respect, as it is difficult, very difficult sometimes, to sympathize with the "plight" of the wealthy.

For someone like me, who has concerns regarding government regulation of our lives, the idea of the government stepping in to assure that all is right and well is frightening.  The belief that government should do this goes back at least to Plato, a kind of archetypal anti-democrat.  He was rather fond of analogies, and one of them was that of the ship; the ship of state.  We wouldn't trust a novice to sail a ship, we would want an expert captain to do so.  Only such a captain would have the knowledge to guide the ship safely to its destination.  We need an expert to captain the ship of state.  We wouldn't want the passengers to do so, would we?

The problem is that in Plato's system, and I fear in the case of any government which considers itself to be the best judge of what is good for its citizens, the captain of the ship not only sails the ship, the captain determines where it is to go as well.  Normally, of course, if we charter a ship we wouldn't presume to operate it, but we would expect it to go where we want it to go, not where the captain and crew think we should go.

I think that if the Right wants to make a moral case for capitalism, it will have to proceed cautiously, especially as to claims of fairness.  The Right must resign itself to the fact that there is nothing admirable about the accumulation of great wealth, i.e. wealth beyond that needed for someone to live comfortably and assure that those one loves may do so as well.  The claim sometimes made by the defenders of the wealthy that they "create jobs" will not play well, and it is questionable that most of them do this unless they invest that wealth, which would seem to require that they part with it.  In these times especially, we can't rely on pennies falling from their pockets like those once dreamed to be falling from heaven. 

For one who professes to be a Stoic, the accumulation of wealth would seem to be the accumulation of things which are indifferent, to which we should be indifferent.  It would seem to lessen the chance of attaining wisdom and serenity, and increase the chance of corruption of mind and body.  This is of course the great problem Seneca had in claiming to be a Stoic.  Someone who tries to be a Stoic in these times walks on an edge, like many others do.  The accumulation of wealth, and the wealthy, are not admirable, but for government to take their property or restrict their liberty is not admirable either.  How, then, should we proceed?

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