The ethics of capitalism can also be examined in relation to how it rewards individual luck, merit and hard work. Like in many other human activities, success in business results from a mix of luck, merit and work. There are always many that work hard and skillfully but who are unlucky in their ventures while many lazy and inept succeed through sheer luck.
Obviously capitalism does not determine luck. One either has it or not. However, capitalism raises the number of lucky opportunities available as well as our ability to profit from them when they come our way. Because capitalism is based on the principle of free entry (free markets), when one “strikes gold” nobody has the right to take it a away (private property rights) or to prevent its exploitation (rule of law). Moreover, if some do not have the necessary resources to dig it up they may use those of other passive capitalist.
One aspect about luck that cannot be corrected by capitalism is its reproduction and access. For instance, knowing the right people is often the best way to find the best opportunities. So, if one is born in a family of business people he or she is more likely to become aware of such opportunities. However, being rich also brings in many distractions and that partly explains why many business dynasties rarely go beyond the third generation. Overall, the small hereditary bias in luck it is not enough to deny the neutrality of capitalism in relation to luck.
Despite its few limitations capitalism is broadly a meritocratic system. Even if you do not have the required skills you may always bid for other people’s talent. And, should one fail to do so someone else will step in and force you out of the game.
However, capitalism is not a jungle where the strongest prevails in the fight for talent or hard work. By upholding the principle of free contracting, labor and capital usually negotiate long term work contracts rather than opting for piece rate pay. Indeed, this choice is based on calculated self-interest and is not necessarily the result of government imposition.
However, in the case of handicapped workers and less qualified workers there are circumstances when it would not be profitable to employ them even if they were willing to work as slaves. Such cases represent a market failure that needs to be corrected through subsidization or government employment.
With technical progress the number of tasks requiring high qualifications increases while those less demanding in skills are declining in relative terms. Thus access to education is of paramount importance in a capitalist system. The system can be trusted to produce efficiently the necessary qualifications but it cannot ensure equal opportunities in access to education, especially for advanced levels.
Given the importance that education has as a screening device for the top jobs it is normal that those with more resources use all kinds of aid to secure a top school for their children. This ranges from private tuition to crammer schools which are not available to the less favored. Nevertheless, provided that there is a market for student financing and that schools compete for bright students (whether they are poor or rich), those from disfavored families may still secure a place in top institutions.
In what concerns fair promotions and rewards for merit and hard work these are secured under capitalism by giving workers the freedom to change employers. Although there are many instances of nepotism in relation to family and favorites this cannot be extensive, otherwise firms will not be able to maximize profits and stay competitive.
There are however cases where in the short run it would be profit maximizing to lead workers to work to death. This was initially feared given the poor working conditions in the early days of the industrial revolution and because capitalists did not own the workers. However, history has shown that it would be counterproductive since in-the-job training and the costs of hiring would make such behavior untenable.
Indeed, a dramatic example of working slave labor to death was carried out in German and Japanese concentration camps during World War II and proved them to be both inefficient and resisted by some company managers. Obviously in a free labor market, as required by capitalism, workers themselves would not accept that.
Yet, there are industries (e.g. law, auditing and finance) where greed may lead professionals to accept overworking in return for a high compensation and the opportunity of retiring rich at an early age. It is interesting to note that such practices are more common on partnerships than on corporations. That is, the pursuit of profit under overworking conditions is not profitable in the typical capitalist firms - joint stock companies.
In conclusion, despite some early abuses, capitalism turned out to be the closest we got to a meritocracy, rewarding hard work and creating a level playing field to take advantage of one’s luck.