(An excerpt from the new book Morality and Capitalism by Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks)
The Relationship between Human Nature and Government
Why does all of this matter? Because our “picture of human nature” determines in large measure the institutions we design. For example, the architects of our government carefully studied history and every conceivable political arrangement that had been devised up to their time. In the course of their analysis, they made fundamental judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government with it in mind.
What is true for the creation of political institutions is also true for economic ones. They, too, proceed from an understanding of human behavior.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this matter. The model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one embraces (free-market capitalism versus socialism) to the political system one supports (democracy versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Like a ship about to begin a long voyage, a navigational mistake at the outset can lead a crew badly astray, shipwrecked and aground. To use another metaphor, this time from the world of medicine: A physician cannot treat an illness before he diagnoses it correctly; making the wrong diagnosis can make things far worse than they might otherwise be.
Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behavior, you will see more of that behavior. The book of Thessalonians boils things down to fairly simple terms: “If any would not work, neither should he eat.”
A free market can also better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.
In addition, capitalism can act as a civilizing agent. The social critic Irving Kristol argued, correctly, in our view, that the early architects of democratic capitalism believed commercial transactions “would themselves constantly refine and enlarge the individual’s sense of his own self-interest, so that in the end the kind of commercial society that was envisaged would be a relatively decent community.”
But capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself. It has a troubling history as well as a glorious one. And like America, it is an ongoing, never-ending experiment, neither self-sustaining nor self-executing. Capitalism requires strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement it. Such institutions are necessary to allow capitalism to advance human progress.
A capitalist society needs to produce an educated citizenry. It needs to be buttressed by people who possess and who teach others virtues such as sympathy, altruism, compassion, self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty. And it needs a polity that will abide by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome). Without these virtues, capitalism can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.
We need to understand that capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web. Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it. Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complementary. They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain.
Want to know more? Read Pete Wehner’s interview about Wealth and Justice in the Washington Post