Greed is good! Singing Along with the
Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism
I first became aware of the Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism in April, when I was on the road from Washington, DC, to Savannah, Georgia. I had stopped for the night in a motel outside Charleston, and, not knowing anyone or having anything to do, I made the mistake of watching C-SPAN. I didn't do this intentionally--I'm not a masochist, after all--but I was channel surfing, watching in bored fascination as images snapped in and out on the screen, when the monotony was interrupted by the familiar C-SPAN logo and a caption that said "Anti-Earth Day Press Conference".
As I said, this was April, and Earth Day happened to be the next day. So I put the remote down and watched the press conference, which was suffering, it seemed, from a noticeable lack of press. A man identified as Nicholas Tracinski, Chairman of the Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism, was standing behind a podium and addressing a room that was largely empty, save for a smattering of bored-looking journalists. Undeterred, Tracinski spoke for some time, criticizing hard-core environmentalists for waging a "wholesale attack on industry and technology," and for the irrational "worship of untouched nature." Both the medium and the material worked against him: he wasn't very telegenic, the speech wasn't very creative, and he employed an irritating "duh" tone more commonly found in contrary high school honors students.
"I propose," Tracinski said, "that we devote a day to celebrating the achievements of industrial civilization. Isn't it strange, after all, that we live in a society of heavy industry and advanced technology...yet we never take a day to honor the inventors and industrialists who made these things possible?" He went on:
The Industrial Revolution was an enormous advance for mankind...Take the time one day to count the ways in which machines and make your life better and easier every minute of the day. Consider how much more abundant, and less expensive, mechanized mass production has made even the most mundane everyday products...All I am asking, for now, is equal time. Let the greens have their day to honor John Muir and Rachel Carson--so long as we also have a day to honor Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Let us have a day when all of us take a moment to acknowledge the enormous contribution made to human life by the inventors and businessmen of the Industrial Revolution... But I doubt the environmentalists would ever agree to have such a day--because if they did, people might begin to realize that the Fords and Edisons, the giants who created new industries, have done far more to advance human life than the armies of environmental activists who seek to shut those industries down...And then we might end up celebrating Industrial Revolution Day instead of Earth Day.
Tracinski closed by adding that the Center was planning a counter-demonstration on the Washington Mall the next day, where supporters of technology would parade their views and stick it to the hordes of Greens expected to be in attendance. All, he said, were invited.
My immediate reaction, beyond annoyance, was to wonder why the Center existed. Capitalism has been assailed for centuries, but it is by no means in danger of extinction; for me, a recent experience has borne this out. I had spent the prior weekend watching thousands of garishly clad protesters descend on the World Bank with the stated intent of smashing capitalism to pieces. They were noble but defined anticlimax: after watching them perform the public relations equivalent of immolation, I left convinced that capitalism, for better or worse, was on stable ground indeed. And either way, proponents of capitalism as a moral virtue already have an able advocate in the Rand Institute, so the necessity of the Center, which seemed like a half-assed Rand clone, was questionable.
Almost as soon as the question and answer part of the press conference began, however, things got a little clearer. A reporter in the front row raised his hand and, completely ignoring the environmental theme of the speech he'd just heard, began to drill Tracinski about the Center's connections to Microsoft. Tracinski said the Center was working actively on Microsoft's behalf, as it was opposed to antitrust litigation in principle, and believed Microsoft was being wrongfully persecuted. The reporter asked if Microsoft contributed money to the Center. Tracinski said it did. The reporter asked how much. Tracinski was not at liberty to say. The two then engaged in a verbal joust not uncommon at press conferences, where the reporter needled and the speaker dodged, both knowing all along that nothing new would come of it. They did this for a few minutes until each had gotten the other sufficiently annoyed, and then it was over. A few more questions were fielded , but I changed the channel and soon went to bed. The next morning I drove the two hours to Savannah. My understanding, from news reports, is that the anti-Earth Day rally attracted about thirty people.
The Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism is located in Virginia, and has a web site (www.moraldefense.com) that more than explains its beliefs and purpose. It is, on the one hand, dedicated to the end of government intervention in the economy, a condition refered to as either "statism," or "the Regulatory-welfare State." For this reason, it is vociferously opposed to the Justice Department's antitrust action against Microsoft. The Center's higher purpose, however, wants to elevate public opinion of capitalism itself--to have capitalism be viewed not simply as efficient method of building wealth, but also as an inherently virtuous social philosophy.
"Many people have argued for the practical value of capitalism," the Center's homepage reads, "...but we argue that capitalism is also moral. Capitalism is the only system that recognizes the individual's right to act on his own independent thinking...and it is the only system that that recognizes the individual's right to pursue his own life happiness, without being forced to sacrifice his life, liberty and property to the needs of others."
In the paragraphs that follow the Center traces the downfall of business freedom (and therefore the economy) to the dark day in 1911 when the Justice Department, wielding the Sherman Antitrust Act, took John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil and broke it apart. This single act, the Center contends, "ushered in an era of massive government restrictions on businessmen.
"What would have happened," the Center asks, "if businessmen, intellectuals, and concerned citizens had joined together then to offer a moral defense of Rockefeller and Standard Oil? What would have happened if...they had proclaimed loudly that that the businessman had earned his wealth, that he is an exponent of the highest moral virtues, and that he has a moral right to be left free?...This is the purpose of the Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism."
Heady stuff indeed. To back it up, the rest of the Center's web site is full of essays and policy statements, Capitalism FAQs ("Q: Doesn't capitalism make the rich richer and the poor poorer? A: Quite the opposite..."), and a small arsenal of material devoted the Microsoft case, including an online petition signed by over 20,000 people. If you want to learn more about Rockefeller, you can buy The Great Wealth Creators by Senior Policy Analyst Edwin Locke--a whole chapter is devoted to his vision. The essays have a scholarly air to them ("The Moral and the Practical," "Production vs. Force") but dip occasionally into the sardonic (a piece on the Microsoft ruling is entitled "Judge Jackson's Findings of Fiction.") All in all, it is a candy-apple world of hard-earned money and rolling green fields, where everyone is pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, clean-shaven and well-fed, while the environmentalists pout in trees, the government incessantly meddles, and the real Americans sing praises from their cubicles in honor of Industrial Revolution Day.
I'm willing, from the outset, to concede the Center a few points. There are elements of the environmental movement that do environmentalism itself no favors. Too often--and particularly on a local level--the mantle of environmentalism gets hijacked by those who would use it to wage class warfare. Homeowners appalled at the prospect of new developments trot out dubious interpretations of wetlands laws to protect their property values, or pour money into the acquisition of open space so they won't have their lives blighted by neighbors.. In these cases environmentalism becomes what its opponents condemn it as: an unreasonable obstruction to progress. In the name of environmentalism, self-interested activists have derailed public transit projects, stopped housing developments, and, in a perverse irony, contributed to suburban sprawl, perhaps the greatest environmental evil of twentieth century America.
Likewise, eco-terrorism and environmental militarism have provided ample fodder for critics like Alston Chase, who have built careers tracking concern for the environment down the slippery slope into obsessive and even dangerous rejection of society (Chase's forthcoming book is a study of the Unabomber, environmentalism's most grotesque mutation). Without question, there is a wide margin of error in the ranks of being green.
Still, it's hard to read the Center's essays and FAQs without feeling like you've been assaulted by the intellectual equivalent of a used-car salesman. The words are big and strung together pretty well, and the logical points all connect, but the feeling persists that you're being rushed through something, that even though everything under the hood checks out it's a bit strange no one wants you to look in the trunk.
The Industrial Revolution was indeed "an enormous advance for mankind." But every revolution has its casualties, and Tracinski, in his anti-environmental writings, glosses too quickly over the fact that America's industrial renaissance was anything but bloodless. Women toiled in textile mills for countless hours and little pay. Misbegotten urbanization spawned slums and ghettoes, and the era's massive profits were offset by the rising social costs of crime and disease. Child labor reached its peak. The absence of government regulations freed owners from such details as safe workplaces or living wages, and since more than half of the workforce (women and children) couldn't vote, the problem couldn't be remedied. Government, far from interfering in profit, often abetted large companies, and assisted them in the smashing of labor unions. In 1914, when workers in Ludlow, Colorado, went on strike against Standard Oil's Colorado Fuel & Iron Corp., the virtuous Rockefeller hired goons that murdered union organizers and attacked their tent city with Gatling guns. When the workers still refused to yield, he paid the wages of the Colorado National Guard, and the state's governor obligingly ordered an all-out attack. The ensuing raid killed six men, and 13 women and children were burned to death when the militia torched the camp.
From a scientific perspective, this does not diminish the accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution. Technology is technology. From an economic and--dare I say it--moral perspective, however, it does require a bit of a reckoning. The virtues of the great industrialists cannot be accurately measured without factoring in the backs upon which their fortunes were built. To do so is bad economics and worse history. "
What no one has grasped yet," Tracinski writes in The Moral Basis of Capitalism, "is that capitalism is not just practical but also moral...It is the only system that safeguards the independent mind and recognizes the sanctity of the individual." By contrast, "government regulation...operates by thwarting the businessman's thinking, and subordinating his judgment to the decrees of government officials. These officials do not have to consider long-term results--only what is politically expedient...Such a system is based on premise that no one owns his own life, that the individual is merely a tool to be exploited for the ends of 'society.' And since 'society' consists of nothing more than a group of individuals, this means that some men are to be sacrificed for the sake of others...For examples, see the history of the Soviet Union."
Or, see the history of the Industrial Revolution, as we've just discussed. The Soviet Union needlessly sacrificed men in the name of an untenable political ideology. The robber barons sacrificed them for profit. A world of difference to Tracinski, no doubt, but to those being sacrificed it probably mattered not at all. Capitalism draws its strength from competition, because it is competition that gives individuals the opportunity to build wealth. Without regulation, however, competition can end; to extend the metaphor, someone wins, and at that point capitalism goes into failure. The victors can deprive others of opportunity. Capitalism destroys itself, and what rises in its place is generally a sustained condition of inequality. It is this condition that "anti-capitalists" frequently decry.
Microsoft is a decent example of this, made better by the Center's insistence that the company is an unfairly persecuted victim. Microsoft has not "earned" its position in the Internet browser market. To the contrary, the company came late to the game and its product is generally regarded as substandard. What Microsoft has done is leverage its domination of a separate but related market to saturate the market for browsers, and deny demand, and thus opportunity, to browser entrepreneurs. Rockefeller is a better example: his empire in oil was maintained not by his business acumen, but by his ability to prevent others from doing business at all (a famous Standard Oil memo reads "Wilkerson and Co. received a car of oil Monday 13th...Please turn another screw.")
At bottom, these companies were not capitalist. They were engaged in the closing of markets, which is the antithesis of capitalism. It is only the peculiarities of our language that prevent us from seeing this. To wit: the consolidation of wealth and its machinery, when done by governments, is called economic totalitarianism. When done by corporations, it is called a free market.
If you like jargon, men like Rockefeller could be better called postcapitalists, because they eliminate competition and thrive on its absence. If you don't like jargon, and if you consider that Rockefeller once paid to have a competitor's oil refinery blown up, you might just call him a jerk. Which brings us to the final flaw in Center's argument for the morality of capitalism. The CMDC has argued that capitalism is a moral virtue because it values the individual. Yet this is true only if the individual himself is moral. The wisdom of valuing an individual is dependent on what that individual values in turn.
And that's the larger point. One could go on ad nauseum about the Center's logical flaws and willful disregard of history (Rockefeller's abundant use of government subsidies springs to mind), but there is little use in throwing gas on the flames. What needs to be addressed is the more subtle idea that moral values can be quantified economically.
The Center for the Moral Defense of Capitalism, for all its foolishness, is not unique in what it believes, only in the brazen manner with which it propounds those beliefs. To an increasing degree, Americans are coming to believe in a moral capitalism, which might be better be described as a belief in the subordination of the public to the private.
Our Constitution, in its preamble, guarantees every citizen the right to life, liberty and property. (It's worth noting that the Declaration of Independence guaranteed "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"; somewhere between 1776 and 1789, apparently, it was decided that "the pursuit of happiness" was equivalent to the ownership of material things). Of these, the first two are public rights, because they reflect an individual's relationship with others; any concept of freedom is an oxymoron if only person enjoys it. Property, on the other hand, is by definition private--it implies ownership and control. The question of whether these rights can exist as equals is, essentially, the nature of the American experiment. Where capitalism is a system whose tension is derived from competing private interests, American democracy relies on a continuing tension between the public and private.
Any insistence that capitalism is a moral system upsets that balance, because it defines life and liberty through property. Making the market the basis for morality is saying that altruism, public service, academic research--indeed, anything that exists outside the market--is conditional to profit. The pursuit of anything other than property becomes not just irrational but wrong.
Much as some critics decry the end of privacy, it is in truth in the ascendant, driven by a consumerism that tells us nothing is so important as ourselves. Technology critic Ellen Ullman has noted Bill Gates's central role in this, as he has laced the world of computing with soothing but mildly terrifying soundbites of personal control ("My Computer," "My Documents," "My Microsoft"). But Gates is playing off a devaluation of the public sphere that has long been growing. The phrase "My Weather," which blinks at me every time I log onto the Internet, is on its surface absurd--does the sun shine for me alone? But in the world of marketing it is perfectly sensible, because shared interaction has no sales appeal. This accounts, too, for the selfish trends in environmentalism that I mentioned earlier, which twist public thinking into private gain. But the trend is most evident in politics.
If you listen carefully, you'll notice that the two men running for president in the year 2000 have not pledged to do anything for the country. They have promised infinitely, however, to do things for us. They speak to us as individuals rather than citizens. One will fight for us, the other will trust us. The former has offered to go to war for the middle class. The latter will get the government, the public sector, off our backs. Both of these slogans--the closest either candidate comes to having a vision--are telling.
The middle class is the spending class. Economically, it is defined by consumption: of goods, of movies, of wine and politics. It is the subject of focus groups, the receiving end of sound bites and Nike commercials. Every advertising campaign is geared to them, and now every political campaign is too. The Democrats, once upon a time, spoke for the lower classes. But the lower classes do not consume; they exist outside the market. They are, in every sense, a public concern, so no one is concerned about them at all.
On the Republican side, it speaks volumes that a man who has repeatedly stated his dislike of government is neck and neck in a contest for the right to control it. And yet it isn't hard to see why. At the Town Hall-style debate that took place two weeks ago, a woman rose up from her seat--and the depths of self-absorption--to give her name and income, and demand from each candidate a description of the tax cut she personally could expect from their presidency. Ask not what your country can do for you....
"Society," Tracinski writes, "consists of nothing more than a group of individuals." That is a tragic view, and its tragedy is compounded by the growing number of people who believe it. A market consists of nothing more than a group of individuals. But the market is a part of society, not the other way around. A world does exist beyond the market's confines, and it is full of beauty, hate, love utter goodness, boundless evil, and countless other spasms of humanity that arise from the swirling sum of individual interaction. Yet they have no economic value, and our mistake is in believing that makes them worthless.
Is it so surprising that we have an anti-Earth day? Life is an advertisement. We pass it by, vapid and self-enthralled, and wonder what the world has done for us lately.