Hopkins Center Milton Party (and Thoughts on the Fuel of Capitalism)


The Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights’ panel discussion on the event of Milton Friedman’s hundredth birthday offset “liberaltarian” Brown professor John Tomasi with June Speakman, a Roger Williams professor more inclined to agree with the prefix of the coinage.  The panel would have benefited from the inclusion of an unabridged conservative who agreed with its root.

The most interesting idea placed on the Nick-a-Nees table was Tomasi’s hypothesis that free markets can correspond with social justice if we think of the latter concept “in new ways.”  The people who developed social justice, he says, just “happened to be all from the left.”

A conservative panelist might have suggested that there’s no “happened to be” about it — that the very concept was designed to supplant the competing idea of charity and free association.  Justice is the province of the police and the justice system, and “social justice” inherently suggests that those who hold the political levers can judge and impose their view of a just society on others against their will.

A famous clip comes to mind, in which Milton Friedman challenges Phil Donahue’s assumption that capitalism is unique in being founded on greed.  “You think [Soviet] Russia doesn’t run on greed?” asked Milton.  “Just tell me where in the world you’ll find these angels who are going to organize society for us.”

If I may presume to offer the master the compliment of mild disagreement, I think he erred in ceding the characterization.  Self interest and greed are not synonymous.  I’d venture to say that the great majority of people operating within a capitalist system (and therefore the great majority of transactions) do not run on greed, but on love — the kind of love expressed in devoting one’s life to supporting a family and advancing a community in some profitable way.

The social justice crowd raises high the image of those few who take the system to excess and do operate from greed so that they, themselves, may be empowered to express a broader but shallower love.  Taken to its current excess, that impulse has become a form of greed (even if we leave out the professionals who make very healthy livings advocating and administering).

The accomplishments and familial support of individuals becomes not an offering of their own love, but a passive acceptance of paths enabled by the state.  In the video, above, June Speakman speaks of figuring out “who doesn’t do well, why they don’t do well” and asks, “What do we do to take care of them?”  It would be more humane first to ask, “What do we do to allow them to take care of themselves?”

Speakman might object that, of course, we all want people to be as self-reliant as possible, but the system that those of her worldview would build places “we take care of them” at its philosophical center.  So, we wind up operating our entire society and sacrificing our freedoms in the service of a simplistic model that exaggerates the few who are greedy and the few who are irreparably dependent.  That’s like walking a tightrope with nothing but peripheral vision.

More important, though, is that an economic system is just a system.  What fuels it is not a structural determination, but a cultural determination.  Phil Donahue talks of “virtue,” but virtue is beyond the power of government to instill.  To the contrary, attempts to define virtue within the public law is an exercise of power, and the imposition of social justice is a miserly way of depriving the masses of the opportunity to be virtuous.

Lacking trust that people will act economically in a moral way is really just an expression of skepticism that they can recognize virtue at all.  That doesn’t strike me as particularly charitable.

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