A Journal for Western Man




Capitalism is Moral

Don Watkins III

Issue V- September 18, 2002


When I think of the state of our country, today, a certain quote comes to mind: "I've fallen and I can't get up."

The rise in drug use, the decline of education, the culture of violence and amoralism - all are symptoms of a disease that has been attacking our country from its inception and which, if left uncured, will destroy it.

The cause is not the media, nor the young, nor is it primarily political. The problem is not that Americans have lost morality - our once great nation is eroding because we have never
discovered morality.

Our founders gave birth to a nation founded on the principles of individual rights and individual liberty. There were contradictions and inconsistencies in their thinking, but the essence in which they created America has yet to be equaled.

They laid the groundwork for what was to become the freest nation in history, and which, during the 19th century, came closer than any other to a system of laissez-faire capitalism.

However, the founders failed to identify the moral basis for capitalism. They failed to discover that capitalism is the only moral social system because it is based on the moral standard of egoism.

Thus, capitalism was destroyed, as men began to realize that a system of justice could not co-exist with a morality of mercy. A system based on a man's right to pursue his own happiness could not co-exist with the morality of altruism, which demanded that men become sacrificial animals with no justification for living save serving the needs of their neighbors.

Altruism and capitalism could not co-exist, and so men let capitalism die in order to retain a morality of self-sacrifice.

In order to save capitalism, in order to save this country, we must identify what was only implicit in the principles of the founding fathers: that capitalism is moral because the moral is the selfish.

This is the thesis I will be defending: that complete, laissez-faire, capitalism is the only moral social system for all men to live in.

***What is capitalism?***

While few people are willing to defend capitalism on any grounds, virtually none will rise to defend it on moral grounds.

But, to understand why capitalism is moral, one must understand what capitalism is.

America, today, is not a capitalist nation. It is a mixed economy - an unstable hybrid of socialism and capitalism that will necessarily keep drifting towards one poll or the other.

Capitalism, in the truest sense, is "a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned" (Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal 19).

This means, as I will demonstrate later, that the only proper function of the government is to protect men's rights, i.e., protect them from physical force and fraud. This means, a government reduced to three primary functions: the police, the military, and the court system. This means, a complete separation - a brick wall - between the state and economics. No welfare, neither for the poor nor the rich. No regulation, taxation, or coercion.

It is important to note that there has never existed a truly capitalist nation. Some countries have come close - the United States during the 19th century closer than any other - but none have limited their function to consistently guarding man's rights.

So, that is what capitalism is. But, why is it desirable? My answer is - because it is the only social system that allows for man's survival.

***Capitalism and man's survival***

For every living entity there are certain actions, determined by its nature, that make it possible for that entity to survive. For plants and animals, these actions are automatic. A dog has no choice but to act in ways that further its life.

But, for man, his basic means of survival is reason, and reason has to be exercised by choice.

In every human endeavor, it is thinking that makes our lives possible. To grow food, or make a wheel, or build a home, or design a car - it is reason that makes it possible. Factories don't spring out of the ground, and a thousand mindless assembly line workers will produce nothing without the man who, by the use of his mind, designs a car (not to mention an assembly line).

This kind of thought and action is not automatic. It depends on man's volition, his choice - to focus his mind, look at reality, and draw certain conclusions - or, to exist as a parasite off those who do. Note that a criminal counts on the existence of men who produce that which he then loots. A parasite counts on men who think, so that he may feed off the products of their thought. A man who unthinkingly parrots the actions of other men counts on the fact that there was someone who discovered which actions produced desirable results. In any case, the lesson is clear: to whatever degree men survive, it is by virtue of thought.

But thinking is a function of the individual. We are all alone in our minds. Just as there is no collective stomach, heart, or liver, so there is no collective brain. Although it is true that we can learn a great deal from other men, they cannot think for us. It is up to each individual to weigh the evidence presented and decide for himself, what is true and what is false.

Now, because thinking is not automatic (and not automatically correct) and because it is a function of the individual, if men are to survive, they must be free to disagree. They must be free to act on their own conclusions, right or wrong.

According to Rand, "A rational mind does not work under compulsion; it does not subordinate its grasp of reality to anyone's orders, directives, or controls; it does not sacrifice its knowledge, its view of the truth, to anyone's opinions, threats, wishes, plans, or 'welfare.' Such a mind may be hampered by others, it may be silenced, proscribed, imprisoned, or destroyed; it cannot be forced; a gun is not an argument" (Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal 17).

This is an essential point. If man's survival depends on his thinking then that which prevents him from thinking (and acting on his conclusions) is that which makes his survival impossible. In a social context, then, the fundamental requirement of man's survival is that he be left free from force.

Writes Dr. Leonard Peikoff, "Physical force, to the extent it is wielded or threatened, denies its victim the power to act in accordance with his judgment. Such treatment…places the individual in an impossible metaphysical position. If he does not act on the conclusions of his mind, he is doomed by reality. If he does, he is doomed by the forcer" (Peikoff 314).

Political freedom, then, can have only one meaning: to be free from coercion initiated by both other men and the government.

Capitalism, then, is the only social system that secures for man the ability to survive. By leaving him free of (and protecting him from) coercion, capitalism allows a man to be free to think, to create - free to dispose of his life, his effort, and the products of his effort.

Under a system of capitalism, men are free to think and produce and they are free not to. But, as in nature, they are forced to bear the full consequences of their choice, and - if they fail to think, or make a mistake in their thinking - they will be the only victim.

That is why, as I said, capitalism is a system of justice. Each man is rewarded in direct proportion to his ability and effort.

Interestingly enough, this is the root of much of the antagonism towards capitalism. "What about those who don't want to think, or don't want to work?" As if their laziness is license to punish those who do think. "What about those who can't think, or can't work?" As if their need is a claim on the lives of those who aren't needy. "What about those of little ability who can't produce much?" As if that entitles them to the products of the men who
are able.

Capitalism, then, is essential to man's survival. It is the only social system that leaves men free to think, to act on his conclusions, and keep the products of such effort - thus, enabling man to live.

But, I have not yet addressed explicitly why capitalism is moral. My answer to that question is an extension of my previous discussion: capitalism is moral because it is the only social system consistent with man's survival needs.


Taking a step back, we must ask ourselves - what is morality?

Contrary to popular belief, morality is not synonymous with the ethics of Christianity or altruism. Those are types of morality - codes of morality. Morality, as such, is any code of values to guide men's choices, goals, and actions.

The ethics of Christianity tells man that God determines these values. Altruism tells man that sacrifice to others is the proper standard of value. Ayn Rand demonstrated, though, that nature determines the proper code of values for man -- that there is an objective standard of what is truly valuable.

Rand did not begin, as other philosophers had, by observing that human beings pursue certain ends and by then asking which ends should they pursue. Instead, she began at the most fundamental level by asking, "what are values and why does man need them?"

A value, she observed, is anything that an entity acts to gain and/or keep. She then observed that it is only life that makes the concept of value possible and necessary.

Can things be good or bad to a rock? Or a building? Or a piece of paper? Does it matter to a slab of marble whether it is smashed to pieces are cut into the form of a Greek statue? Obviously, no. For inanimate objects, their form can change shapes, but they cannot cease to exist.

Life, on the other hand, is a process of self-generated, self-sustaining action. A living entity can cease to exist if it does not succeed in meeting certain needs. As Rand said, "There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence - and it pertains to a single class of entities: living beings" (Rand, For The New Intellectual 121).

Thus, for a plant, or an ant, or a man, things can be good and bad, the good being that which sustains an organism's life and the bad, the evil, that which destroys it.

Rand's conclusion: it is life that makes the concept of value, the idea of good and evil, possible. Not only that, life makes the concept of value necessary. Living organisms must achieve certain ends - certain values - determined by their nature, in order to remain alive. A dog must eat. A plant must photosynthesize. A man must work - in order to live. Living beings must differentiate between that which is good for their life and that which is evil or they will die.

The only proper standard of morality, then, can be life, because it is only life that makes the concept of value tenable.

For plants and animals, this process is automatic. They have no choice but to seek their own good. A plant cannot choose to mangle its roots; a bird cannot choose to break its wings. For them, the pursuit of values is given - they do not need (nor do they have the capacity to grasp) the guidance morality offers.

For man, however, seeking the values that will sustain his life is not automatic. Man's basic means of survival, as we have seen, is reason and reason is volitional. Man does not know - instantly, automatically, or by instinct - what is to his benefit. Thus, if a man chooses to live, he must determine which values to gain and keep by a process of thought. He needs guidance as to which values to pursue in order to sustain his life across the whole of his life span. Morality offers him this guidance.

A proper code of morality offers man a
standard of value by which to gauge his actions as life furthering or life hindering.

The moral standard he must adhere to, if he chooses to live, is what Rand called: man's survival qua man, or simply, man's life. This means, "the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan - in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice" (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness 26). This is an extension of the fact that life must be the moral standard, and that the life proper to a bug is not the life proper to a man.

From this abstract standard, specific values are defined. Rand identified three fundamental values that serve the ultimate value, one's life: reason, purpose, self-esteem.

Ethics also tells man
how to go about pursuing these values. It proscribes certain principles, or virtues, according to which a man must consistently act in order to achieve his values. Here, Rand identified six crowning virtues: rationality, independence, justice, productiveness, honesty, and pride.

Implicit in this discussion of the standard and purpose of morality is that morality - properly - is egoistic, or, selfish. In other words, the proper beneficiary of one's own actions is oneself.

"The life that is pivotal," writes associate professor of philosophy, Tara Smith, "is not life per se, the life of mankind or all of flora and fauna. Rather, value is contingent on the aim of serving one's own life. The fact that life makes values necessary means that the person who seeks his life must act morally in order to achieve values to sustain his life. That is the foundation for moral obligation. As such, morality is egoistic through and through" (Smith 155).

This is an obvious extension of the fact that the proper purpose of morality is life. Only individual men exist, can choose to live, can think, and need the guidance of morality in order to live.

An egoist, then, is not a monster trampling over innocent bodies in order to achieve some short-sighted end, momentary whim, or any other indulgence. An egoist is a man of principles pursuing his life consciously and purposefully, recognizing that other men ought to act in the same way.

An egoistic knows that his interests do not conflict with those of other rational men. Other egoists are not a threat to his happiness (in fact, they can greatly contribute to it), and are to be treated with respect and benevolence - not fear or hatred.

His purpose is to pursue his own life - his own happiness - not at the expense of others. He does not sacrifice himself to other men and he does not sacrifice other men for his own supposed benefit. He rejects both those false alternatives as two sides of the same coin - both, he understands, are forms of sacrifice and, as such, are anathema to his survival.

Rand, thus, provided an objective moral basis by which we can evaluate things as being good or evil
in fact: that standard is - man's life. She also identified whose life this morality is to serve: your own.

***Man's Rights***

Now, the question arises, what happens when men live together - what happens when they form a society? How does one apply morality in a social context?

It is the concept of rights that provides us with a transition from morality to politics. It is the bridge that will connect egoism with capitalism.

Rights, are "moral principles defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context" (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness 110).

Because rights are moral principles and the purpose of morality is life, a right, properly, sanctions the actions necessary for man's survival. As I have previously noted, in a social context, the only requirement is that a man be left free from force.

The founding fathers correctly identified this fact in their naming of man's fundamental rights - the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and property.

The fundamental right, from which all others are derived, is the right to life. That means, the right to take all the actions necessary for one's survival, while recognizing every other man's right to do the same.

The right to liberty means, the right to be left free from interference in this pursuit - by other men and by one's own government.

The right to pursue one's happiness means, the right to take all the necessary actions required for one's own survival. It means the right to pursue one's own life and one's own joy, without being forced to sacrifice for the supposed good of others.

The right to property means the right to keep that which one earns and to dispose of it in the manner he sees fit. Today, property rights are the most contested and opposed of man's rights, but, as Rand pointed out, without property rights, no other rights can exist.

"Just as man can't exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one's rights into reality - to think, to work and to keep the results - which means: the right to property" (Rand, Atlas Shrugged 986).

These rights, because they are based on moral principles, are absolutes. As such, they cannot be morally violated.

Note, also, that a right is a right to action. It means the right to take the actions necessary to survive, to be happy, to gain property, without interference. Just as nature doesn't guarantee man's survival - it doesn't guarantee him food, or shelter, or a DVD player - neither does his rights. Rights are not entitlements.

No man is born entitled to property he has not earned, or a job no one wants to give him, or happiness that others must provide him with.

This modern idea that a man's mere existence requires others to feed, cloth, and shelter him if he is unwilling or unable to do so - that a right imposes an obligation on other men, is, in fact, proof of today's intellectual, moral, and political bankruptcy.

One man's rights requires no obligation on other men save one - to leave him alone.

The idea of "economic rights", such as one's so-called right to a minimum sustenance or an education, destroys man's actual rights. If a man has a right to money he has not earned, that means that some men must be forced to give him their money; if a man has a right to a job, that means that some men must be forced to provide him with a job against their own judgment; if a man has the right to a home, that means that some men must become slaves, financing and building a home they will gain nothing from; if a man has a right to health care, that means that doctors must be forced to become servants to his illness.

A right is that which protects a man from force - it is not that which forces some men to live as slaves for others. It is not that which forces the able to sacrifice for the unable. Not if a right is a moral principle.

Now, because it is essential that these rights be protected when men choose to live together, there must be an objective means of protecting such rights. In a proper society, governments are instituted for the purpose of protecting individual rights.

"A government," according to Rand, "is an institution that holds exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographic area" (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness 107). Morally, the only proper function of a government is to act as a servant of society, protecting men from physical force - at home and abroad - by means of retaliatory force.

The only means of protecting oneself from force is by force. Retaliatory force, i.e., using force to defend oneself from an aggressor, is thus perfectly moral. However, the purpose of government is to place such use of retaliatory force under objective control. The government's role is to define, arbitrate, and enforce the laws based on the rights that men hold by their nature.

It should now be clear why capitalism is the only moral social system for all men to live in.

***Capitalism is Moral***

Capitalism, as I have said, is the social system based on the protection of individual rights, including property rights, where all property is privately owned.

In other words, a capitalist government is one that limits its function to protecting man's rights - to protecting man from force - so that he can live. As such, it is the only moral social system.

And since capitalism and egoism are based on the needs fundamental to man's nature - i.e., are based upon his rationality, capitalism is proper for all men. Not just the productive genius but the assembly line worker. Not just white Anglo-Saxon males, but all races and sexes.

Historically, capitalism - to the extent that it has existed - has proven its practicality. Despite the objections that capitalism leads to monopolies, or dog-eat-dog competition, or adulterated food and drugs, or that the rich get richer and the poor poorer, or that it leads to depressions - anyone who cares to study history or economics will quickly realize that all the evils commonly ascribed to laissez-faire capitalism are actually the result of its opposite - of government interference in the economy.

Capitalism, instead, unleashes the great productive geniuses who raise all of our standard's of living. Capitalism leaves everyone free to develop their full potential. In a phrase, capitalism enables man to live.

What could be a stronger argument for capitalism's morality?

Don Watkins III is a businessman, poet, college student, and profound Objectivist. He is the author of a site titled The Essence of Objectivism, which you can access at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Oracle/9035/essence.html.

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