Greed vs. Freedom

Capitalism rewards greed. As long as you have economic mobility, some people are going to take advantage of it. If you find all this money grubbing unsightly or immoral, then set up a caste system, and we can all get back to the important business of navel gazing instead of running the rat race to keep up with the Joneses. Just make sure I get to be part of the upper caste.

Then again, I prefer a free society even to membership in the upper caste. I’m that nice a guy;-) I’d rather run the rat race, suffer through thousands of ads and put up with pushy salesmen than bow to bureaucrats or worship a god-emperor. And so, like many freedom lovers I ended up reading Ayn Rand, learning not only that greed is good, but that altruism is evil and rational self-interest should be the sole basis for morality.

From the beginning I found parts of Rand’s writings to be quite unsettling. Some passages in Atlas Shrugged actually made me queasy. But other passages were brilliant, so like many freedom lovers I spent many years attempting to integrate Ayn Rand’s ideas into my value system and trying to teach her philosophy to others. I became a less good person for a time.

Alas, Objectivism is a trap, rendering many freedom lovers less good, less happy, and less effective politically -- assuming they don’t give up on politics entirely, in favor of shoving Rand books at all and sundry. I escaped, and like a recovering alcoholic or former smoker, I am on a crusade to rescue my libertarian friends. My clarion cry: ditch the Objectivism! It will never become popular. To parents, Christians, and outgoing people it is an unpleasant philosophy, a harder sell than pure capitalism on its own. Not only that, even when you do succeed, you still fail, for Objectivist ethics is incompatible with a free society!

The Vulcans in the audience may object to my pragmatic call. “So what if Objectivism is a hard sell? So what that it’s hard to rationalize rational self-interest with generous campaign donations? The Truth is what counts!” Indeed. Truth is important. Objectivist ethics are not true, however. Any skeptic with a few orts of philosophical reasoning power can punch holes in Rand’s derivation. I’ll demonstrate a couple chapters hence. So not only do you fail to convince most Christians and extroverts, you also fail to convince most serious philosophers.

Rand is convincing to freedom lovers because they want that magical moral argument that will get others to embrace freedom. Not only that, Rand did brilliantly pick apart quite a few collectivist clichés, exposing their evil consequences for all but the most closed-minded communists to see. And some of her ideas on epistemology might be useful for education. They may be simplistic and approximate, but they are still improvements over Rousseau or Dewey.

But Rand’s ideas on ethics are seriously flawed, and are more likely to repel people from capitalism as to convince. We do need some type of moral basis for capitalism (or something close to it), else people will look for alternatives, even if it means the occasional witch hunt or death camp.

So after a quick debunk of Objectivist ethics, I present an alternative moral defense of freedom, including economic freedom. It isn’t a top-down derivation of ethics from a few sparse axioms, however. I make no claim to have crossed the is-ought barrier. Instead, I present chunks of wisdom: short chains of logic, mind-opening mental models, and debunkings of dangerous cliches. From these building blocks you can construct your own ethical edifice based on your own core values.

I will endeavor to avoid dogma. Yes, I will deprecate ethics based purely upon altruism or Kant’s categorical imperative. But I will not vilify all altruism. Far from it! I even intend to point out where Kant’s line of reasoning can be useful, once I get time to re-read him a bit. If you are impatient, read some C.S. Lewis. He covered much the same area, and he wrote better than I do.

In the process I want to promote a more benevolent picture of capitalism, much more in tune with liberal and Christian values. This is more than metaphor change and philosophical fluff, though I’ll present plenty of each; this entails a perspective change with operational significance. I want liberals and devout Christians to be able to better integrate their core values with their economic life, to the betterment of all as well as the restoration of some lost liberties.

That said, I will not claim that capitalism solves all problems. It doesn’t. We will always need altruists, people willing to help the needy, pay for public goods, and preserve the environment at personal cost. While liberty allows greed, we cannot have pure greed and freedom.