An Abridged Version of the 95 Theses
May 3, 2011 ethical foundations

Consider this the beginning of my list of complaints against the established “church” of the free-market. In the coming months, I want to raise a series of concerns that I have developed deriving from work with and reading of SOME other supposed supporters of liberty, markets and peaceful exchange. What does the saying go like, “with friends like these …” For those of you who are not the target of these posts, I still believe these will serve as useful guideposts for how I think a successful and important conversation about the value of markets and liberty should go, especially with folks who do not agree with you. We’ll start with a few, but there are lots more where these come from. I will hopefully be working up an analogous set of complaints against the typical anti-market views as well, but not until we spend some more time with these.

  1. Don’t call anything you don’t approve of socialism. When we discuss socialism, we have a very particular idea of what it means. Are there programs and thought patterns that are “more socialist” than others, of course, but that does not make them socialist. To base your entire argument against an idea or program on it satisfying the definition of socialism lets others simply dismiss you without having to address the serious and material aspects of your arguments by merely saying, “aha, you see, this is not socialism, so I do not need to consider what you are saying.” For example, many opponents of ObamaCare incorrectly call that piece of legislation “Socialism in the Health Care” market. While it certainly is government intervention, it is not the government taking over the means of production. Will the government be nationalizing insurance companies? No. (Of course, they CAN and HAVE regulated to such an extent as to perhaps make it less clear, but that is a different point). Will the government be running medical offices? No. The Affordable Care Act may be reprehensible, but it sure ain’t socialism. You are neither doing yourself nor sensible supporters of market based health care reforms any favors by calling it such.
  2. When people raise thoughtful objections to distributional outcomes of a truly free-market, your best response ought not to be, “well, under REAL capitalism, we’d have lots of charity, so that’s cool. It is only because of government that the poor aren’t even better taken care of by private individuals.” Now, look, I may even agree that private charity would be far greater without the state being involved. And I am certainly influenced by the work of David Beito and others, but you are not going to persuade a single soul that voluntary transactions are the way to organize our commercial lives if you let others start the discussion by assuming that massive amounts of inequality and poverty are characteristic of market systems, and that they are only made tolerable through the benevolence of the wealthy people under that really super-cool system. Sorry, you have to do better than that, even if it is true. Here’s a start. Capitalism eradicates poverty far greater than any other “-ism” man has stumbled upon. All goods and services become much more widely available and affordable under capitalism than any other “-ism.” And, I wouldn’t be running around claiming capitalism is nirvana. There WILL be poor people. There WILL be some inequality. How we address it, or even IF we address it, is an interesting question no doubt, but it is not OK to just sweep the issue under the rug like is commonly done.
  3. Take the moral high ground. Commandeer the moral high ground. Do not run away from moral and ethical issues. And do not run around worrying that capitalism is at base an unethical and unjust system. Let us learn why it is the most moral and ethical “system” on earth. Let us learn that not only does capitalism not corrupt, but that it also nourishes and provides feedback to inculcate the very virtues that good people care most about. No, this is not saying that capitalism is nirvana. Not at all. But it IS saying that we should teach and learn what these ethical foundations are, and recognize that no matter how good your data is, no matter how good your logic is, no matter how much factual evidence you put in front of people, that opponents will never be sympathetic to a single thing you are saying if at base they believe it is a fundamentally corrupt, unjust and unethical way of living. Now, if folks are not willing to hear you make the case that the extended order of human cooperation is in fact ethical, that is a different story, and something we will turn our attention to. But you are obligated, if you care about the things you claim you do, to learn these ideas and to promulgate them. And to promulgate them in any discussion you have on this matter. A good place to start learning about them is to read the work of Deirdre McCloskey or Jonathan Wight or Paul Heyne or Russ Roberts. Aha … but then I just committed an error that I will warn about next.
  4. Keep things in digestible chunks. And never say something like this, “I don’t have time to explain my idea to you.” Or don’t say things like, “Well, so and so said it great, just go read such and such a book and you will understand my argument.” My sense is that if you cannot articulate such and such or so and so’s argument, then you do not understand it well enough to make it. You might certainly explain the idea and then tell folks something like, “So and so spends a lot of time discussing this important idea in such and such a work.” But to just blindly tell folks to read the entire cannon of economics and classical liberal scholarship is not exactly helping anyone.

I’ll stop at 4 for now. I’ve got at least 20 more tucked in my head and I will unveil them in the coming weeks and months. Of course, your input is highly encouraged. What is all of this leading to? Well, I’d like to get to a point where I engage with folks who are serious about teaching me a few things and who are serious about learning a few things. I’d like to get to a point where we can be honest about what we hold as religious beliefs and what we are truly being “scientific” about. I am increasingly skeptical that there are many people who understand what it is that they believe in, what the logical conclusions of those beliefs are, and if they can articulate the sensible positions of folks who might disagree with them. Now look, I do not mean this to say that I do not value liberty as my most cherished value (I do, or at least I think I do) but it does mean that I am very aware of where the tensions in my view might be, and what thoughtful people who are seriously respectful of my view but who disagree, might point to in order to persuade me of something else. More to come, per usual.

"7" Comments
  1. It’s a common rhetorical tactic to divert an argument into what Irving Copi calls a “verbal dispute” over terminology just when someone thinks he is losing the argument.

    I’m not too worried about a communist/socialist/collectivist revolution happening any time soon. What I do fear is the collapse of our currency and the economic doom that would follow that. The peasants have not stormed the ramparts; instead, government at all levels has been on a spending spree, and all those spent dollars have benefited us very little, especially if one considers how that capital might have been put to use in the private economy. So now, when it’s urgent that we put this spending in reverse, few people with political power seem to appreciate the magnitude of our economic problems.

  2. Whew! I was a bit worried at the start since I’m Lutheran and I seem to recall you were Catholic. Part of the issue is that many of our words, such as socialism, are cliche (including, cliche itself). Need to read more, but my wife wants the computer.

  3. We are paying attention, Wintercow!

    It is good to call progressives progressives, and not derogitorially socialists, even though they believe in their hearts that they think socialism occupies the moral high ground. Just ask anyone from the University of Wisconsin or Trinity College.

    It is right that we subject our principles to strict scrutiny.

    Your remarks before AHI on behalf of AHIW, were a challenge to us all, to do our homework and spread the message of freedom.

    Got a project in mind?

  4. Michael,

    Best wishes.

    I am a Lutheran too, and so is Rod, and Mike is a Catholic since his name is Rizzo. Poor Mike spends his full day with Gaia worshippers.

    I think Rizzo should get a raise over all the pilikea he suffers. Pilikea is a Hawaiian word for needless aggravation, and I am sorry for bringing in the animists, who also may be another reason for giving Rizzo a BIG raise for all the pilikea. Not to mention the Keyneseans from Kenya.

  5. Mike, I agree that calling something socialistic is not persuasive unless it really is socialistic. But socialiism is an elusive noun. Fifty years ago you could find many students from nearly any university who used the S word proudly, but one would get a different definition from each, depending in how their professor defined it. Now nobody defines their beliefs as socialist, although “progressive” has come back into fashion.

    Your comparison between Wintercowistan and Bastiatistan approaches the subject more powerfully, provided that your audience has the attention span to follow you each step of the way, which required for me to go back several times and not cheat by jumping to the end where the matador delivers the decisive stab, after watching the warm-up with the picadors.

    I am not saying it is not worthwhile. It is a feat to get a handful of students converted to disciplined thinking.

  6. Gosh, now I feel sorry for wintercow, Harry…he’s surrounded by Lutherans!

  7. Pingback: The Unbroken Window » Blog Archive » Adding to the 95 Theses

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