The Free Society Requires a Moral Sense, Social Capital

R&L: Unlike defenders of capitalism such as Friedrich von Hayek and Philip Johnson, who view capitalism as a morally neutral system, you see a clear relationship between morality and the free market. To your way of thinking, what is the connection between capitalism and morality?

Wilson: To me, capitalism is neither immoral nor amoral but, on balance, a moralizing force. True competition gives to businesspeople an incentive to acquire a good reputation, and to clerks an incentive to treat customers fairly. These incentives, I think, produce more than mere pretense; they actually change behavior. Imagine working at McDonald’s where you must say “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir” to every customer. People working for minimum wage will do this countless times a day and, in time, I suspect, will do it even when off the job. Or imagine competing for customers with Burger King, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. Each firm must work hard to please customers by serving fresh food with no harmful consequences. Successful retail competitors act as if they are–and, I imagine, in fact, really are–more attractive people than unsuccessful ones, but some of the latter learn to be the former.

R&L: What other examples can you offer of ways that capitalist structures act as a moralizing influence in a free society?

Wilson: Capitalism seeks ways to minimize costs, so it will find racial discrimination burdensome, thus helping put an end to it. Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate, showed how costly bigotry is. It shuts a firm off from many potential customers and from many potential workers, thus lowering sales and raising labor costs. The costs of segregation can be withstood when law and custom mandate it, but when segregation ended in the South, business firms desegregated much more quickly than government entities, such as schools.

R&L: You have noted that the free market cannot function well without certain kinds of moral and social capital–trust, diligence, and frugality, for example. Where does this capital come from and how is it preserved?

Wilson: Free-market systems require, obviously, certain personal qualities, including trust in those who borrow from you, a willingness to invest (that is, to defer present enjoyments for future benefits), and a readiness to take the demands of customers seriously. This social capital arises from long-sustained competition, from a culture that assigns a high value to making human character decent, and from a political system that refrains from rewarding people for their power rather than for their performance.

Capitalism alone cannot produce sufficient social capital. Culture and government must add their share by giving people incentives to be civil, by rewarding savings, and by encouraging trust. Because culture and government are so important, successfully capitalistic nations tend to be democratic states with a strong culture. This is why democracy and capitalism together make some nations so much richer than others.

R&L: What role does religion have in the formation of social capital?

Wilson: All important religions require you to do to others as you would have them do to you. In this way religion expands the range of human obligation from self and family to neighbors, visitors, and strangers. Without this wider sense of obligation, society can never expand beyond the boundaries of a family, a village, or an ethnic group. Since ethnic rivalries are the chief cause of human discord today, it is obvious how difficult it is for the Golden Rule to make headway.

In addition, religion must coexist with human freedom, and this relationship, of necessity, requires religious freedom. With such freedom, many sects will prosper, and none will be the sole state church. But religious freedom does not mean religious weakness, since virtually every church–Christian, Jewish, or Islamic–teaches the same fundamental moral lessons.

R&L: Some have argued–Joseph Schumpeter, most notably–that capitalism contains the seeds of its destruction within its successes; in other words, that it tends to destroy the very social capital it needs to survive. How do you respond to this claim?

Wilson: Joseph Schumpeter’s claim that capitalism would be destroyed by its successes rests in part on his unusual definition of capitalism. To him, capitalism was not simply a system of people who own private property and who engage in voluntary transactions; it was that, plus a reliance on credit to finance innovations.

I think he was wrong. Credit creation has not had the effects he suspected of killing technological innovation and rewarding only the largest and most powerful firms. Because he was wrong about this, he was wrong to predict that socialism would, in time, replace capitalism.

R&L: Do the changes that capitalism precipitates in the social and cultural orders, though, create certain challenges for capitalism?

Wilson: Capitalism, narrowly defined, has, in fact, created its own opponents. It requires the maintenance of universities and the free exchange of expertise, and these, in turn, give rise to an intellectual class that to a great degree is hostile to capitalism. This is the New Class that lives off of ideas more than practical affairs and that sees bourgeois society–the great social creation of capitalism–as hopelessly flawed. There are, of course, intellectuals who favor capitalism and bourgeois society, but they are usually a minority.

R&L: You have written, “If we wish prosperity, we must embrace freedom, and freedom means religious heterodoxy, not religious orthodoxy, a secular rather than a religious state, and a somewhat self-indulgent popular culture.” This statement seems to indicate that you hold a rather pessimistic perspective of the role of religion in the free society. Is this so?

Wilson: I do not at all hold a pessimistic view of religion in society, only a pessimistic view of a society that embraces one church–I should say, one sect–as its preferred one. By “religious orthodoxy” I mean a single, state-sponsored church. This inevitably erodes human freedom, and reduced freedom will, in time, harm religion.

R&L: What would you offer as an example of a more optimistic view of religion’s role in the free society?

Wilson: I am struck by the extent to which profound cultural problems in the United States have summoned forth a religious response. In 1999 we already hear the two most likely contenders for the presidency talking about faith-based approaches to crime, drug abuse, and illegitimacy.

That pattern is much less evident in European democracies. Abroad, faith in government solutions to cultural problems remains strong. But that faith is greatly exaggerated. Not only do nations such as England have higher property crime rates than does the United States, the rate of out-of-wedlock births is about as high in Europe as in America, even though their populations lack the problem of the experience of slavery, which left African Americans with weakened family systems. Moreover, the welfare state abroad has harmed the ability of those nations to compete in a world market, thus leaving their citizens worse off financially than Americans.

R&L: How, then, do you envision the role of religious faith in a free society?

Wilson: Most societies find that without a universalizing religion, human attachments remain focused on clan and village concerns. It was organized religion, combined with enlightened capitalism, that led Quaker merchants in England in the early part of the nineteenth century to become such staunch–and ultimately successful–foes of slavery. Much the same religious basis for the attack on slavery could be found in the United States.

It is difficult to imagine that voluntary as opposed to clan-arranged marriages could have been created without the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on voluntarism. The control of clans over marriages was a powerful force that not only inhibited free choice but also impeded the growth of capitalism by making all agricultural workers subordinate to a controlling clan or family. I should say, however, that religious faith is not always essential for the creation of a decent society.

R&L: How so?

Wilson: Japan, for example, is conspicuous for having a decent culture but little in the way of a real religion. Japan is an interesting exception to all of these generalizations, apparently because it has a culture, unlike any found in the West, that uses shame and group pressure to achieve what freedom and religion have produced here. But this is one product the Japanese cannot export.

R&L: How does a free society prevent liberty from degenerating into mere license? And can it be prevented without a strong religious culture?

Wilson: Every mass culture faces a powerful temptation to degenerate into self-indulgence, but there are two barriers to this descent: First, human moral intuitions naturally resist social license, the destruction of the family, and an unabashed creed of “doing your own thing.” Second, religion offers a transforming experience to people who have resisted these moral intuitions and so have descended into pathology.

R&L: Let’s look at these two barriers each in turn. First, what do you mean when you say that human moral intuitions resist license?

Wilson: Americans are optimistic about their nation but pessimistic about its culture. That pessimism reflects the belief that the United States is less moral than it ought to be. That this view persists in the face of an entertainment media that so widely and persistently endorses self-indulgence is remarkable–apt testimony, I think, to the value that the great majority of people attach to caring for their children, protecting their property, honoring their promises, and living a good life.

R&L: As for the second barrier, can you unpack for us what you mean by the transformative experience of religion?

Wilson: The greatest success story in American society is the power of Alcoholics Anonymous to reclaim the lives of addicts by suggesting to them the power of God and placing them in a human environment in which members reinforce one another’s abstinence. On a less grand scale, countless people report on having overcome adversity by faith.

R&L: You have written extensively on the nature of the human moral sense. Is there any connection between your vision of the moral sense and the classical or medieval understanding of the natural law?

Wilson: I certainly hope that my view reflects the natural law. My argument is that what serious people have defined as the natural law reflects in large measure the results of human evolution and human sociability.

We must live with other people, and so we must understand what the rules of that engagement will be. Over time, human evolution has rewarded–with survival–people who are naturally sociable and so are well-equipped to value and understand human sociability. Aristotle first made this argument; Saint Thomas Aquinas fleshed it out.

R&L: Finally, in your mind, what is the connection between the moral sense and the free society?

Wilson: A free society requires a moral sense, something that it occasionally pretends it does not need. It needs it because freedom implies that important human relationships will be created out of spontaneous human contact and not decreed by some state authority. But since, for some people, freedom implies license, the state must set some limits on how much self-indulgence is acceptable. We have laws against drug abuse; we worry when people wish to sleep on the streets; we think that pornography should be restrained.

People who love freedom alone object to many or all of these restrictions; people who wish to remake human nature object to much or all of this freedom. The contrast between the intellectual culture of some parts of the New Class and the ordinary culture of everyday people can be found in how they react to drug abuse, the homeless, and pornography.

The delicate and never-ending task of any society is to strike the right balance between enforcing morality and expanding freedom.