Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The ethics of capitalism

There is a never ending history of blaming capitalism for all evils in society. Vigilantes are always out there looking for market failures and externalities to "prove" the limitations or evils of capitalism.

The most recent accusation is that capitalism is responsible for obesity because the food industry is driven to profit from what Ken Rogoff called coronary capitalism.

The idea that capitalism promotes vice at the expense of virtue is historical nonsense. Otherwise, after 200 years of capitalism, western economies would now be dominated by casinos and brothels. Yet, these vice industries are still niche industries.

The ethic foundations of capitalism are not necessarily the same as the (protestant or other) ethics of the capitalist or the ethics in business. Business ethics is the study or practice of the good or right in a business setting. For instance, the responsibilities of a CEO in relation to the company’s stakeholders. Or whether in some industries managers need to preserve primitive hunting or predatory instincts.

The origins of freedom and individualism go back to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who argued that a human being uses his rational mind and free will to pursue his well-being and personal happiness. John Locke (1632-1704) extended these concepts to include the state of nature, natural law, natural rights, social contract, consent of the governed, and the right of property ownership. So, the ethics of capitalism must be discussed around the foundations of capitalism – namely, the ethics of private property, the profit motive and free competition - and not in terms of the social responsibilities of businessmen.

For Adam Smith and Hume the morality of capitalism resided mostly in the virtues of prudence and reciprocity, respectively. For Smith, the first to study capitalism, economics was still a moral science. Only after Marshall, did the prevailing view of economics as a positive science takes its roots based on the assumption that preferences are “given”. The assumption of utility maximization was replaced by wealth maximization and “greed” was adopted as an undisputable microeconomic assumption.

Despite Adam Smith’s demonstration that 'self-love', could be the greatest driver of wealth creation as long as it was restrained by market competition, law, and customary morals, today many sceptics still question either the morality of money-making or wish it to be unrestrained. Some qualify money-making as bad and enterprise as good, but these are truly the two sides of the same coin because the first measures the success of the second.

For Keynes, the distasteful aspects of capitalism would have to be endured until the accumulation of wealth loses its social importance. In his words: “Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight. (JMK, CW, IX, pp.329, 331)”.

Of course capitalism is not flawless. It is true that capitalism is affected by moral dilemmas, market failures and externalities, but these are the exception not the rule. It is also true that it may cause some unhealthy patterns in terms of consumption. But in market capitalism these imbalances are necessarily temporary; while they are bound to be perpetuated under other economic systems and government rule.

In fact the food industry provides a unique proof of this principle. As soon as the junk food became dominant and inefficient, a growing number of enterprising capitalists stepped in to offer all sorts of alternatives without any government intervention; ranging from the organic food industry to keep fit and health clubs.

Indeed if the fast-food industry still caters for so many people it is because of governmental failures rather than market failures. It is because of government failures that we have an ever growing number of families living on social security and low-cost dinners. It is because governments provide lousy school meals that children acquire unhealthy eating habits. And, it is also because of government´s inadequate funding for scientific research in food and health that we have so much voodoo science in what relates to healthy eating habits.

On the contrary, capitalism is part of the solution for these government failures. By competing to provide low income families with affordable and varied meals it facilitates the acquisition of good eating lifestyles.

That is really the beauty of market capitalism. Instead of raising regulatory barriers to protect the incumbents in the food industry competition ensures that they will be under permanent challenge. So, it corrects not only its own imbalances but also those created by devious as well as well-meaning paternalistic governments.

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