The Ethics of Capitalism: A Secular and a Theological Justification

The current debate about bankers’ bonuses is often seen as one of fairness pitted against the greed of those nasty capitalists,.

To me, bankers are lawfully working within the system – one  that is rotten to the core. The banking system is the greatest of all examples of State corporate capitalism. We have a central bank that is State owned, we have a legal tender law that prevents competition in the provision of the production of money, and we have private sectors banks which are licensed by the State to be its agent when it wants to monetise its very own debts and create inflation at the expense of its citizens: people who have been prudent and thrifty as well as those on fixed income.

The State has one important central intention: to hide its prolific over spending.  We have private sector banks that have legal privilege granted to them so they can use their depositors’ money to lend out many times over to entrepreneurs. They are the only type of business in the whole country  permitted do this. All other commercial enterprises at all points in time need to keep their current creditors whole, otherwise they are insolvent. There is no requirement at all in this country for any bank to keep even one penny in reserves against their depositors’ funds. In fact, it has been a stated fact of law since 1811 in Carr V Carr that “his” deposited funds are not his, but are in fact the banks’.

This fractional reserve banking system we have can only work with a lender of last resort i.e. the State owned central bank with legal tender laws. This means that in partnership with the State, the State can monetise its debts (at the expense of you and me) and the banks can keep as little reserves as they can get away with to make a return on capital that you and I in the real capitalist private sector could never do.  This encourages risk. Indeed with the banks now able to borrow at the taxpayers’ expense via the discount window (heavily subsidised short term central bank funding) and know there is a guarantee of a bail out should their gambles go wrong makes the state and the bankers two equal partners in a very unjust process.

The resulting situation is what I call ‘corporate capitalism’  (thoroughly amoral) as opposed to ‘capitalism’, which is totally moral.  This needs some explaining, as I suspect worthy people are shooting arrows at the wrong target.

We know that the free market capitalist system is without doubt the most efficient creator and allocator of resources. Adam Smith taught us that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” in his Wealth of Nations. Self interest or the profit motive drives man to create and to provide all the multiplicity of goods and services we have enjoyed and will enjoy.

Mises in his famous book Socialism, showed us that if Society was run by planners, the price system which allows resources to flow to their most desired uses would not function. Indeed it would impoverish anyone nation that tried it. If, say. the planner could not correctly witness all the competing bids and resource allocations for metals that were capable of being used in the construction of railroad tracks (that involves many companies competing for scarce resources) he would never know which metal would be the most cost effective to build his railroad.  No one planner would be able to economically calculate, or indeed, no army of planners would be able to calculate and allocate all the resources of Society in the socialist economy better than the many millions of participants in the economy allocating resources via the price mechanism. The experiment in the Soviet bloc with socialism impoverished at least three generations and lead to wide scale death and a general shortage of life, and misery.

Hayek, in his very famous essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” added to the critique of Mises by pointing out that absenting the price system would mean that the central planning officials would need to absorb the entire knowledge of all the people in society to effectively plan their needs. This was absurd and impossible.

All State planned schemes, from the provision of money to the provision of health and education – even in our cosy mixed economy – could be done better by an unhampered market.  We are thus weary of all bloated government departments and officials who say they can do something better for us – they can’t.

The efficiency case for an unhampered market, or free market capitalism is clear and unchallengeable. The subjective actions of freely consenting adults in a capitalist system produce the most amount of goods in the most efficient way.  But is there an objectively moral case for the capitalist system? I attempt to answer it in the remaining part of this Insight article.

First Principles: Secular Argument

I Argue

One thing that distinguishes human beings from all other life forms is our ability to communicate with each other via talking. Only human beings can make a proposition. The question of what is just or unjust only arises because I can debate or argue this point with another person.  To be able to argue my position I must be in control of my physical and mental self. I must own myself in order to be to be a human being.  I have the total right to use all my physical and mental faculties to participate in life, otherwise I cannot even exist as a human being expressing an opinion. I do not know many people who would argue with this. If I did not own my own faculties I could not participate in life except under the command of who owned me.  This also implies that just so much as I own myself, I do not own anyone else. It also follows that if I do something that violates another human being without their consent I violate their right to express their very humanness.

Thus, I deduce that by my very being , I own myself , I own my own property as me, I have a right not to be interfered with so long as I do not interfere with anyone else.  It clearly follows that if I were to interfere with someone else’s property, they would not own it.  This would deprive them of their own humanity, I suggest. This is a deduction from the axiom that to exist I need to argue. I come to this conclusion via the Haberrmasian axiom of interpersonal argument that has been so cleverly adapted by Hans Herman Hoppe in his book The Economics and Ethics of Private Property.

To argue against this you explicitly acknowledge control of your faculties, at the very least. Following Kant’s Golden Rule that a norm should be universal in its applicability should it be objectively valid, this proposition surely fulfils this requirement to be a totally objective axiomatic principle.

All ethical propositions, such as socialism, that say that you owe a duty to the State to provide for others,  are violations of the very distinguishing thing that makes you a human being and not a rock or a colony of ants.  To advocate any form or socialism, be it of the democratic variety, the communist variety, or indeed the mixed economy is to violate your very essence of being a human.

John Locke in his “Two Treatises of Government” spells out that property or,  if you like all resources exist prior to any government. Man mixes his labour with what he finds and it is by right his. Government cannot ‘dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily’. Locke left us with a conundrum called “Locke’s proviso.” This is where if a man mixes his labour to own something that was not owned before; he must always leave a “sufficient” amount for other human beings.

Jesus Huerta de Soto, one of the greatest living polymath Austrian School teachers in his essay “The Ethics of Capitalism” , shows us how possibly the other living giant of the Austrian School, Israel Kirzner in “Discovery, Capitalism, and Distributive Justice”  has solved this proviso of Locke. And allows us to build the objective moral ethic of capitalism.

Socialist, social democrats and a large body of modern day liberals and conservatives have a distributive conception of justice that is about a top down approach of redistribution of scarce resources from those who do have to those who that have less, or nothing, or whose lobby groups has succeeded in extracting something from those that have. Kirzner shows us how as all human being are creative actor: they are always engaging in entrepreneurial activity to generate new goods and services.  All human beings are alert to opportunity, some to a greater degree than others. The fruits of this alertness arises via their actions. This is universally so. To not act would not create these things. So he proposes an axiom that all human beings have a natural right to the fruits of their own entrepreneurial creativity.  As these things are created out of nothing, it implies that the acting person has an undoubted right to the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the fruits of his or her labour. If it did not exist before, it cannot be a negative to anyone else.  So Locke’s proviso is overcome by the understanding of society as dynamic and spontaneous constantly evolving process with alert actors constantly creating new goods and services that they must have an unquestionable right to own.

De Soto coins the term ‘Dynamic Efficiency’ to describe this process. He also points out that the free market capitalist system – that we know is the most efficient system – is also the most just and in fact, these two concepts are indeed two sides of the same one coin. Any form of intervention is immoral as it impedes the creative capacity of individuals to express their creativity and create all the wide range of goods and services we have. It should be pointed out that top down provision of health, education, transport, industry etc is inefficient and hence unjust as it suppresses the creative activity of human beings.  Absent the profit motive and you will get sub optimal results.

Do Soto points out that the last Pope, Pope John Paul II in his Centesimus Annus, which built on the earlier work of the Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, established the universal moral capitalist ethic by acknowledging the natural right (God given) to express your very creativity unhindered so long and you hinder no one else.

First Principle: Theological – God Endowed Rights

I Exist

Writing about the morality of capitalism in glowing positive terms as I have done above and setting it in the backdrop of universally applicable objective axioms is not as unfashionable as talking to any thinking person about God, but only just! Such is the secular society we live in; you are considered to be an ill informed mystic should you engage in “god bothering.”  The See of Peter would naturally see this differently and I am very grateful for De Soto to direct me to the pro capitalist teachings of the Catholic Church.

Are the above self evident axioms that are universally applicable in all times and in all places to everybody there because we are human or are they there because they are God endowed?

I can ague both, but I favour self evident God endowed over self evident secular, although the latter can stand on its own legs. Why?

I wrote an article about the proof God three years ago for In short, I take the Aristotelian inspired position that as I exist I know that other physical things exist. I know that each and every one of these physical things must have been caused by another physical thing. I know that nothing is infinite. If it was, I would not exist as for it to be infinite, it would occupy all time and space and I would not exist. As I exist, I know this cannot be the case. I know there is a beginning to the universe and that there are physical boundaries  to the universe, therefore I know there cannot be an infinite series of physical causes and effects as there would be no boundary and no beginning. Therefore what caused the first physical thing must indeed be immaterial if it cannot be a physical cause. This immaterial thing is what I label as ‘God’.  So I conclude God does exist and the only act I can attribute to God by a priori reasoning is that God created everything. As I like to exist I am very grateful for this and can only conclude that God has good intentions.  If I do not like to exist, I can choose not to and commit suicide. God is therefore good for me and objectively good for all human beings.  As God has created everything, he has endowed us with the ability to reason and engage in the formation of reasoned propositions, the latter which is undoubtedly a unique attribute to mankind the former quite possible unique to mankind, sets the foundation for the derivation of the rights of man and the very ethics of capitalism.

Further reading

9 comments to The Ethics of Capitalism: A Secular and a Theological Justification

  • As indicated by a mischievous James Tyler, via Fail Blog:

  • John

    Good article. A great book on the free market and the Church is “The Church and The Market”, by Thomas Woods. Those who follow Ron Paul and the Campaign for Liberty, in America, may have heard of him.

  • Ooh, I’m tempted to pen a response to this one (and your LewRockwell article). Toby are you aware that a rather sharper mind, one Baruch Spinoza later utterly destroyed the Aristotelian argument for a transcendent God using the very same method?

    • To Voluntarist

      No not aware of the Spinoza argument . We have an open ended comments section here, only outright nutters and rude people get turned off, so feel free to post away.

      • @TB When I say ‘pen a response’, it would take a rather long time and not fit well into a comments thread to do this properly, it is the subject of his Ethics… He explains that a finite thing is – as you say – subject to certain physical boundaries, those being other physical things (there is no such thing as nothing, so that won’t do as a boundary). One infinite thing exists and that is what he calls God, since it is infinite in every way it is impossible to ascribe any character or purpose to it, it simply exists infinitely, it exists by logical necessity: non-existence is just a false concept. Since it is infinite it is everything, hence it is the physical universe itself; in his words, you and I are ‘modifications’ of this infinite substance or being. Personal Gods, spiritual consciousness (a la David Icke etc) do not survive his analysis. There’s no mind/matter duality/primacy either, for him these are just categories which describe our experience (he calls attributes of substance), so nothing immaterial that can’t be directly identified with something material. So it’s a self-caused infinite being… time/causality itself isn’t ultimate reality, just four-dimensional juxtaposition of modified substance (Einstein agrees here, time is a dimension of space). He goes on to argue for the subjectivity of moral values… was an influence on Mises (mentioned and quoted).

        • To Voluntarist

          Fair enough, it is probably the greatest question facing all of mankind.

          Nothing, or immateriality?

          You agree that there must be a physical boundary, it must have a cause, and it can’t be physical therefore it must be immaterial right? I don’t think your logic stacks up. Your universe could not just exist as we know all physical things must have a prior cause.

          Spinoza is therefore of the view that the whole of the Universe is God and Aristotle holds what is outside must have created the physical universe, he calls this the Prime Mover. Both arrive at their conclusions through a process of logical deduction. I think Spinoza’s premise i.e. that there is only physical must be wrong, so the deductions that follow, although correct as far as you have stated start from a false premise.

          Immateriality is not non existence, just not physical existence as we know it.

          I would need to think much more on this to give you any better feedback as I am content with my material world immaterial other that in logic must have caused it for the reasons I explain!

          I enjoy having my thoughts challenged and will delve deeper. Thank you for some stimulation on these matters.

          • For clarity: Spinoza isn’t a materialist as such, he’s a monist; mind/matter are two sides of the same coin. He would probably be happy with describing all objects as ideas in the mind of God (though he never used that exact phrase). Aristotle has let his imagination run away with him: we have no experience of ‘immaterial’ things, Spinoza on the other hand doesn’t create anything that doesn’t fit with both a priori reasoning and empirical observation. He also disproves that any object is truly finite (breath in, breath out – look no boundary!), leaving only infinity. Causality remains a paradox, but Aristotle has just cheated by conjuring up an imaginary (and redundant) friend to which he can conveniently apply whichever properties he likes/needs. If you are interested in Spinoza the reasoning is all in his Ethics…

            • Many thanks Voluntarist, will do more reading. Always a pleasure to have some quality comments that contribute to the debate. I still think Aristotle has to conclude an immaterial cause and Spinoza is running his deductions off a wonky premise, but always happy to learn.
              Also, I accept you can argue all physical things are infinite in terms are we are all justs bits of endless physical “stuff,” this as you say does not answer the causality point i.e. the biggest point we need to ever answer.

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