Is Capitalism Moral?: A Debated Question



Morality of Capitalism lecture draws large crowd

A packed forum and use of an overflow room are evidence for a successful event, titled “Is Capitalism Moral?” Sponsored by the Constitutional Studies Department and Tocqueville Program, the event on November 17 featured a debate between Dr. James Otteson ‘91, Chair in Business Ethics and Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University, and Dr. Patrick Deneen, Associate Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame.  

Otteson began his remarks by citing that he does not wish to use the term capitalism because it is often ambiguous and “fraught with connotations.” Moreover, defending “isms” distracts from real arguments and “produces more heat than light.”

He then stated this topic needs to avoid “nice if” arguments, like “It would be nice if we had all of things we want or need.” Rather, the debate should revolve around what takes precedence when ideas and resources conflict resulting from the inherent scarcity of resources.  

Specifically, he posed poverty and inequality as examples of conflict.  

He then elucidated on the rapid decline in poverty with the “hockey stick phenomenon,” the graph shape of economic growth for human history. Despite the recent growth embodied in statistics, the phenomenon does not capture “hidden wealth,” innovations such as the Internet and antibiotics that increase quality of life.

Despite this increase in poverty, these economic trends do allow inequality to rise and reinforces the conflict between the two interests: “Everyone gains, but they don’t gain at the same rate.”

Otteson then discussed the origins of this prosperity and past impoverished equality. First, he posited four ways, called the “Four Horsemen,” to create equality according to Stanford historian Walter Scheidel: mass warfare, revolution, state collapse, and plague.    

Referring to the aforesaid conflict, reducing poverty triumphs reaching equality for Otteson.

Three means exist for increasing prosperity, which he called the three P’s: protecting persons, protecting property and possessions, protecting the freedom to trade and exchange. While Otteson outlines this in theory, he does contend that it is hard to instantiate in practice.

After outlining the contours of this economic system and its resultant prosperity, Otteson discussed its moral nature. In his opinion, it is moral because it requires cooperation, which necessitates mutual respect for moral dignity. Despite the material inequality that arises with the three P’s, “equality of moral agency” ensues. Voluntary association allows people to say “no” or “yes” and reduces everyone to the same moral level.

Otteson concludes by establishing his opposition to “cronyism,” a perversion of the system he proposes that is mere extraction.

Regardless of the name of this proffered economic system, it is “the obvious and simple system of moral, natural liberty” in the words of Adam Smith.

Dr. Deneen began his response by affirming that capitalism is a loaded term and positing that Otteson’s argument is true in theory but not in fact. He satirized Otteson’s “hockey stick” remarks by remarking how poor we are now compared to the future, “We are basically as poor as those people 12,000 years ago.” He further proposed a dichotomy to question the “hockey stick: “either we are poor compared to future or the hockey stick coincides with extraction of fossil fuels which won’t last forever.”

According to Deneen, this discussion embodied in the “hockey stick” shrouds the question of human happiness. He posed, “Is there a point on the hockey stick” where one can say there is enough?” Or, does the system make us desire more?  

“It points us to the condition that both Augustine and Tocqueville suggest is the condition of restlessness.”

Deneen also invoked the Catholic Catechism for much of his inspiration. According to him, the Catholic Church does not approve unfettered markets or excessive state control to promote equality. Rather, the Church “commends free markets, not capitalism.” Instead of markets deciding moral orders, economic systems should reside within the moral order.

“A moral order has to exist to environ our economic activity.”

He also contended that markets have to be “understood literally within polities,” and “have to be embedded in moral order and oriented to common good.”

Despite the recent prosperity, the results are “immorally unequal” because one percent of the global population holds 50 percent of wealth.

Deneen further argued that cronyism is not a perversion of capitalism; rather, “it is a predicted outcome.” He remarked, “The weakening of the political order in the face of this market ideology” is the origin of events like Brexit and figures like Donald Trump.

Moreover, the consent and consumer ideology has permeated to other areas, like education, religion, family, and sex. Man is in a “paradise of a free market in relational activity,” and this is illicit.  

“We lack a really good free market where we need one, and we have very bad free markets where they shouldn’t exist.”

Sophomore Anthony Ramirez told the Rover, “Professor Otteson’s arguments regarding the morality of free markets were interesting but not completely unique, while I thought Professor Deneen’s non-economic free market criticism was very insightful.”  

John Henry Hobgood is a sophomore student majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Constitutional Studies. He enjoys, sports, politics, the arts, and coffee. You can contact him at jhobgoo1@nd.edu.

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