Monday, December 03, 2012

Morality and capitalism

One of the things that's often forgotten is that in Adam Smith's original conception of unregulated capitalism is that the goal was the collective prosperity of society. What was expected was that individual self interest would be channeled into activities that were socially useful--and that would therefore make society a better place through being enacted. People would then profit, individually, from the contributions they made to society. But implicit in this premise is that the people acting from individual self interest would also act in a virtuous and moral manner.

How individual self interest would translate into social benefit is fairly straightforward. I have needs, I need money to satisfy those needs, so I need to do something to get money. What types of things do other people want ? Maybe fix something that's broken, maybe they would like others to build something they need, or buy something for personal use to satisfy one of their own needs. Growing food, selling food, buying food is a classical example. So is making clothes, or making the fabric necessary for clothes. Since these are all needs, fulfilling them improves society as a whole, by making it better fed and better clothed.  But, of course, there are plenty of ways to make money that are dishonest and contrary to basic morals---not considered in the sense that folks objecting to things like gay rights use the term, but in a more fundamental sense of right conduct.

It's assumed that virtue co-exists with self interest, that on top of acting for your self you also act in ways that don't break the basic moral compact of society. But this has been ignored. 

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