Make the MORAL case for capitalism: Happiness

| September 29 2010
Christopher Cook

Two weeks ago, my wife and I had the honor of attending the Thomas J. Stewart Liberty and Free Enterprise Lecture, with keynote speaker Arthur C. Brooks. With the fast pace of this election season, I have been remiss in writing about it, but it was a terrific event and Brooks had a valuable message, so now is the time to do so.

This event was held to honor the life, legacy, and great contributions of Thomas Stewart, and it was the first of what will be an annual series to celebrate the values that Stewart held—and all lovers of liberty hold—so dear. Stewart has been described as "a visionary, leader, businessman, entrepreneur, life-long adventurer, patriot, and tireless champion of the free market and individual liberty." And from every account, he was all of those things.

So what motivates a man to be a "tireless champion of the free market and individual liberty"? Those who deride and seek to tear down the free market system would most likely make an argument that boils down to one word: "money."

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that the only alternative system these detractors have been able to offer thus far produces failure (at best) and oppression, misery, and murder (at worst), their argument is simply incorrect, for it misapprehends the human heart and what motivates people.

We lovers of liberty and the free-market system love to cite an incisive quote from the great Winston Churchill:

"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent vice of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."

In addition to the truth of this quote from a political science standpoint—that is, it is an effective description of a fundamental difference between the systems—it also contains verbiage that is suggestive of something greater. Churchill chose the words "blessings" and "miseries." As one of modern history's most accomplished orators, Churchill's words were, arguably, rarely accidental. He chose these words. Why? He could easily have said:

"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of benefits; the inherent vice of socialism is the equal sharing of privations."

or

"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of abundance; the inherent vice of socialism is the equal sharing of poverty."

or even

"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of money; the inherent vice of socialism is the equal sharing of the lack thereof."

He didn't.

He chose "blessings" and "miseries," words that are suggestive of much more. He knew that the benefits of capitalism transcend mere material wealth, and that the failures of socialism descend well below mere material privation. Churchill's understanding of the historical facts in evidence was matched by his understanding of the human heart. And, as is evidenced by its inveterate and inevitable failures, socialism lacks both of these understandings.

Bottom line: It ain't about the money. And this was keynote speaker Arthur Brooks' central theme.

No one will deny that abundance is preferable to privation. Having more material wealth is certainly a pleasant thing and, generally speaking, a preferable circumstance. And the desire to achieve that which material wealth can bring, especially security and comfort, can be a motivator for achievement. However, as Brooks eloquently noted, the material wealth itself is not the source of happiness.

Citing numerous surveys, Brooks identified an interesting set of statistics. To illustrate his point, I will create an example.

Person A was earning $35,000, but then, through his own wit, mettle, and labor, changes his circumstances so that he is now earning $70,000.

Person B was earning $350,000 but then, through his own wit, mettle, and labor, changes his circumstances so that he is now earning $1 million.

Person C wins $100 million in the lottery.

As it turns out, two revealing facts have been made clear by the surveys in question.

1) Persons A and B experience increased levels of happiness as the result of their change in circumstances — increased, but EQUALLY so.

2) Person C is not necessarily made happier, in any durable way, by the winning of the lottery.

Coupled with other information derived from surveys, the reason for these phenomena is this: it is not the money that matters, it is the earned success.

Through his own efforts, Person A earned success, and that made him happy. Person B also earned success, and though he reached a higher level of income, his happiness was not greater than person A's; he experiences an equivalent increase to Person A. Person C got more money than both of them put together, and was not necessarily made more happy at all. (Brooks cited some interesting information about the negative effects for people who win the lottery—an interesting subject in its own right.)

There simply is not a direct correlation between money and happiness. Yes, having more material security enhances happiness, but the relationship is not a directly correlative one. There is, however, a direct correlation between capitalism and happiness, because capitalism allows you to EARN success. No such possibility exists in socialism.

As an aside, I traveled as a young man to the Soviet Union, and I got to see, firsthand, the effects of this phenomenon on my young Russian peers. They KNEW that they had no room to grow, to explore, to become more . . . to earn success. In their own way, they told me so. Another person from my university Russian class made a separate trip to Russia and was informed of this same fact in an even more stark statement, one that has stuck with me to this day. One of the friends she made told her, referring to their lack of opportunity,

"We have nothing to do here but smoke, drink, and have sex."

Perhaps that life may hold a measure of intrigue for a person of college age, but it is bound to get old. And now imagine that it never ends—that there is no hope of anything more.

Brooks' point concentrated on the happier end of that spectrum: Specifically, that capitalism provides opportunities for happiness derived from the freedom of opportunity to enhance the circumstances of your life, to earn your success . . . and that that makes not a material argument for capitalism, but a moral one.

This was Brooks' central and essential message. Stop making the economic case for capitalism, and start making the moral one. Don't just contend with the left's bad ideas on an economic and intellectual ground, demolish those ideas by adding a new front: the visceral, emotional, and ethical. Free markets, free enterprise, capitalism—call it what you will, it is the most fair, allowing for the greatest equality of opportunity. It improves the lives even of the people nearest to the bottom of the economic ladder far more than any other system. It has . . .

  • set more people free
  • unlocked more discovery
  • created more prosperity
  • rewarded more virtue
  • and allowed for far more happiness

 . . than any system yet devised by man. That doesn't just enable to capitalism to claim the intellectual high ground, it allows it to claim the moral high ground.


I am compelled to remember another time I heard a different aspect of this argument made, and it was pithy and effective enough that it bears mention here. Michael Medved once pointed out, on his radio show, a vital point that I had never before heard put so well:

Capitalism's detractors so often use words like "selfishness" and "greed" to describe the activities of the person making money in the capitalist system. But that person needs to think first and foremost about us . .  about the people his business serves—about what makes us happy. He has to walk into work every day thinking not of himself, but of his fellow man, about what his fellow man wants. If he gets that question wrong, his business suffers or goes away entirely.

In Los Angeles, there is a restaurant my wife and I love. It is, truth be told, a bit too expensive for us, but the restaurateur is so customer-focused, so keen on making sure that everyone who walks through that door is happy, that we keep going back. The place is always packed. This restaurateur is no doubt wealthy, but none of his customers begrudge that. They leave smiling, stuffed with French food and even the occasional complimentary dessert. He's wealthy because they're happy. This takes Brooks' argument to an even higher level:

Earned success doesn't just make the earner happy; chances are, he made a lot of other people happy along the way.


In his talk, Brooks also pointed out surveys by entities such as Gallup and Ayres McHenry with data that were encouraging. Simplified, they were these: even in the midst of the economic crisis (in March 2009), seven of ten people prefer and have confidence in the free enterprise system.

He went on to point out that in Greece, which has suffered an economic collapse, there are protesters in the streets demanding more of the socialist policies that brought about the collapse. By contrast, in America, the protesters in the streets—conservative activists and tea partiers—are protesting against such policies.

This is a powerful message: At least 70% of Americans still get it. The problem is that the 30% are in charge right now. Contending with this smaller but extremely powerful 30% means taking the argument to a new level: claiming the moral high ground.

So claim it!  In your discussions with your fellow Americans, claim that ground. Now is the time, before that 70% number falls, and the ground becomes steeper. Tell the story, not only of the inherent effectiveness of the free market, but of its inherent goodness.

The attendees of the Thomas J. Stewart Liberty and Free Enterprise Lecture certainly left with an invigorated desire to make that case, and my wife and I were proud to be in that number.

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