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Capitalism Must Seize the High Ground

If economic liberty is valued today, it is rarely because it is considered more just or more proper than any alternative. It is valued primarily on managerial and technical grounds.

We feel free to argue about how many jobs this or that piece of legislation creates, but we remain squeamish about asking whose property will be used to create these jobs. An argument over whether there ought to be ceilings on corporate remuneration centers on whether high salaries are economically justiable, but not on whether government ought to have a say over such matters. We might dispute a proposal to force another function on private business on grounds of cost, but not on grounds of the right and wrong uses of private enterprise.

A secure liberty must be based on a moral foundation, and yet the moral terminology of contemporary political debate is often secretly at war with liberty. Advocates of capitalism and economic liberty can and must assume the moral high ground. So long as economic liberty—and its requisite institutions of private property, free exchange, capital accumulation, and contract enforcement—is not backed by a generally held set of norms by which it can be defended, it cannot be sustained long-term. Into the moral vacuum left by capitalism's defenders rush notions hostile to economic liberty—notions drawn largely from the values and vocabularies of interventionism and socialism.

The link between economic liberty and public morality is more than suggestive; it is direct. A historian would be hard pressed to identify a society with a deep and unyielding respect for the sanctity of private property that did not also have a relatively intact culture. Similarly, cultural decline, family collapse, and widespread secularization have historically corresponded with statism and socialism.

The moral defense of liberty must make a series of distinctions between rights and privileges, between society and government, between community and the collective. Rights, society, and community are all part of the natural order of liberty. Privileges, government, and the collective are not entirely separate, but they are essentially different in that they rest on preemptive coercion. In the terminology of the public philosopher Albert Jay Nock, what is done by political means should not be confused with what is done by social means.

Further, a moral argument for economic liberty should not shrink from its own logical implications, however politically unfashionable. An imperative against theft and in favor of the security of private property must also suggest caution about taxes above the minimum necessary for the rule of law. Freedom of contract must include the freedom not to contract.

Finally, it is sometimes said that no one dreams of capitalism. This, too, must change. Rightly understood, capitalism is the name for the economic component of the natural order of liberty. It means wide ownership of property, fair and equal rules for all, strict adherence to the boundaries of ownership, opportunity for charity, and wise use of resources. Further, it means creativity, growth, prosperity, abundance, and, most of all, the economic application of the principle that every human person has dignity and should have that dignity respected. It is a dream worthy of our spiritual imaginations.