[Editor Note: Just in time for Global Divestment Day, Professor Richard Ebeling offers a worldview of the philosophical basis of private property and voluntary exchange–human freedom–for the public policy debate.]
In American culture there is one persistent villain portrayed as the enemy of humanity, the perpetrator of deception, and the agent for social corruption and human harm: the businessman.
Whether in news commentaries or on the movie screen, the businessman is presented as a heartless, greedy manipulator so concerned with squeezing the last possible dollar out of anything he does, that he is willing to destroy the planet, kill his competitors, poison little children, and sell his own mother “down the river” if it will serve his material and financial purposes.
The only thing that saves us from the end of the world at the hands of these criminal private enterprisers is either some righteous individual who refuses to “take it any more” or the virtuous hand of a government agent dedicated to protecting mankind from those who, clearly, care nothing for the common good of humanity.
Critics: Abolish or Regulate Capitalism
This imagery of the businessman’s way of gaining profits has been extended by many intellectuals, academics, and public policy pundits into a general criticism and, indeed, condemnation of capitalism.
What can be praiseworthy, ethical or just in a social and economic system that fosters people to focus only on their self-centered personal interest in the pursuit of material gain with little or no thought to the betterment and improvement of mankind?
The conclusion that many of these critics have reached over the years and decades is that the entire capitalist system must be done away with and replaced with an alternative social and economic system such as socialism; or, at a minimum, business enterprise has to be placed under the detailed supervision and regulatory hand of government bureaucrats presumed to be concerned with and devoted to the general welfare of the country as a whole instead of individual private interest.
I beg to differ from this interpretation of businessmen and the free enterprise system in general. Instead, I would argue that a truly free enterprise, competitive capitalism is the most moral and humanely beneficial way for people to live together that has ever been stumbled upon by mankind.
Capitalism’s Premise: Individual Rights and Liberty
There are basically two way human beings can interact and associate with each other: through the threat or use of force or by mutual agreement and voluntary consent.
When have you ever walked into a shoe store looked around and, maybe, tried on a pair of shoes, but when you decided to leave without buying anything a gruff and intimidating character with a club or a gun said, “The boss says you ain’t leaving without buying something”? I doubt it any of us have had any such experience.
Why? Because the philosophical and moral premise underlying transactions in the marketplace is that each participant has the right to say, “Yes” or “No” to an offer and an exchange.
Why does every person have this implied right to “Yes” or “No” without attempted physical intimidation or use of force to make him act against his will? This is due to the fact that the foundational American principle is that every one of us has an inviolable individual right to their life, liberty, and honestly acquired property.
Virtually every other philosophical and political system throughout human history has been based on some version of the opposite. That is, that you do not own yourself; your life and property are at the disposal of the primitive tribe or the medieval king, or the social, national, or racial group or “democratic” community to which you’ve been designated as belonging.
That is the premise of all forms of political and economic collectivism. You work for the group, you obey the group, and you live and die for the group. The political authority claiming to speak and act for the group presumes to have the right to compel your acquiescence and obedience to the asserted needs and desires of that collective group.
Only liberal, free market capitalism as it developed in parts of the Western world, and especially in the United States, broke free of this age-old collectivist conception of the relationship between the individual and others in society.
The modern ideas of individual liberty and free enterprise that began to develop and be argued for about 350 years ago transformed the way men lived and earned a living and a debate about the ethical premises underlying human association in society.
A new morality emerged under which human relationships became based on mutual consent and voluntary agreement. Men could attempt to persuade each other to associate and trade, but they could not be compelled and plundered so one person could get what he wanted from another without their consent.
For Americans, it is heralded as the fundamental principle under which our country was based: It is held to be a self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights among which are their individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.