[This review appeared in the Conservative Review, March/April 1997, pp. 34-35.]

Book Review

The Morality of Capitalism

Mark W. Hendrickson, editor

Foundation for Economic Education

Irvington-on-Hudson, NY, 1996


Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey

            In his Introduction, Hans F. Sennholz speaks of this volume as a "collection of Freeman Classics." This is apt, since the book gathers in one place essays from The Freeman going back over four decades pertaining to the varied aspects of the moral case for an unhampered market economy.

            Two of the essays are from the writings of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, giants of the Austrian School of Economics. Others are by long-time figures with the Foundation for Economic Education: Leonard Read, Hans Sennholz, Edmund A. Opitz and Paul Poirot. Still others among the articles that deserve a close reading are by Garet Garrett and Israel Kirzner. In all, twenty-two contributors have joined to discuss one of the key issues separating those who support a market economy from those who do not.

            The issue of the moral foundations of capitalism is timeless, but for at least two reasons the book is especially welcome at this time. First, the shallowness of our national discourse, colored as it is by the Left, gives the American people to believe that market activity has no spiritual underpinnings separate from those that a demonized "radical right-wing fundamentalism" may seek to give it. It is hard to imagine that, if asked, most people would think of any other moral premises for it. Second, "individualism" and "personal freedom" have since the 1960s tended to be coopted, in the minds of many, by the "do your own thing" moral anarchism, indeed nihilism, of the counter-culture. It is well to be reminded that a philosophy of freedom involves much more than that, and is founded on familial obligation and multidimensional personal responsibility. The counter-culture does not have a coherent philosophy of personal liberty, and has little in common with classical liberalism, which does.

            Although it is possible to read the essays without sensing disagreement among the authors, a perceptive reader will want to bring his own critical intelligence to bear to feret out the differing nuances. The religious premises of the authors are not identical, even through they arrive at the same conclusion supporting a market system. Mises and Hayek are secular thinkers making the case for a socially-enforced ethic as an essential means to accomplishing important human objectives. Leonard Read speaks of God, but in a way that would be throughly acceptable in a gathering of Unitarian-Universalists: "Nature, Creation, God--use your own term...some wonderful cosmic force at work."

            For his part, the Rev. Edmund Opitz speaks of "the Judeo-Christian tradition" and of "Christendom." These broad references, which would necessarily pick up the thousand-year tradition of Augustinian other-worldliness, become limited to a distinctly Protestant view of Christianity, though, when Opitz praises "the idea that the individual worshiper could come into the presence of God without the mediation of any special class of men." This is narrowed further by Garet Garrett when he explains how much of Christianity stood in opposition to capitalism until the Puritans affirmed that for an individual "to succeed in the world could be only a sign that God witnessed his work and was pleased with it." Garrett is saying, in effect, that Christianity became a foundation of capitalism only when it made its peace with secular pursuits. The difficulty, of course, is that we are in a religiously pluralistic age, with multiple points of view. To anyone compiling a book such as this one, this is replete with dangers. To base the moral foundations of a free society on any one religious doctrine seems, in effect, to be telling the hundreds of millions of believers in other doctrines that "this is something you don't share in." This seems to be sensed by Rev. Opitz when he moves effortlessly from a Protestant perception of Christianity to Christianity as a whole and from there to religion as a generic category. By doing so, he is much more inclusive, even if only by obscuring major distinctions.

            It is commonplace in conservative writing to say that "there can be no morality without religion." Similarly, in the present volume, Paul A. Cleveland, discussing Hume, gives voice to the idea that without God there are no rights. Surely no view seems more natural to a believer than this. But it, too, undercuts the philosophy of freedom in an age of science and empiricism by limiting its foundation. This would give us reason to rely more on Mises and Hayek, who see that there are important moral reasons for all people, whatever their religious persuasion, to value a free society.

            None of this appears as a difference of opinion in the collection of essays. I have, in effect, shifted ground on the book by suggesting that the reader bring his own critical intelligence to bear. This is so because it has precisely been the particular strength and virtue of the Foundation for Economic Education and of its journal The Freeman, the source of these essays, that they have presented the case for a market economy in simple layman's terms. They have brought the fundamental tenets of freedom to tens of thousands most successfully by not intellectualizing deeply. Forty years ago, as a hot-tempered and very intense young man, I wrote an irascible letter to Dr. Poirot complaining of that. My complaint was misplaced, and I owe Dr. Poirot a belated apology, most especially for my incivility. There is, and has long been, a great need for popularization. Those with a craving for more subtlety should seek it in writings designed for that purpose. Both are important. My only complaint is that often the supporters of a free society don't seem to be aware of the need for that deeper inquiry.