The Sinful State
Hardly anyone talks of the table of virtues and vices anymore — which includes the Seven Deadly Sins — but in reviewing them, we find that they nicely sum up the foundation of bourgeois ethics, and provide a solid moral critique of the modern state.
Now, libertarians don’t often talk about virtues and vices, mainly because we agree with Lysander Spooner that vices are not crimes, and that the law ought only to address the latter. At the same time, we do need to observe that vices and virtues — and our conception of what constitutes proper behavior and culture generally — have a strong bearing on the rise and decline of freedom.
Let me illustrate. A speaker at a Mises Institute conference two years ago was explaining how problems of welfare, charity, and support for the poor could be handled through voluntary means — that is, through philanthropy. His explanation was brilliant, but a hand shot up.
A student from India had a question. What if, he said, one lives in a society in which the religion says that a person’s lot in life is dictated by God, and thus it would be sin to change it in any way. The poor, in this view, are supposed to be poor, and to help them would violate God’s will. In fact, a charitable person is committing a crime against God.
The speaker stood there in stunned silence. The students around the room looked at the questioner with their mouths open. We were all amazed to confront a reality too often ignored; namely, that the ethics undergirding our culture, which we so often take for granted, are essential to the functioning of what we call the good society, based on the dignity of the individual, and the possibility of progress, freedom, and prosperity.
In our country and in our times, a productive free-market economy, one supported by a strong sense of personal responsibility and a moral commitment to the security of property rights, has one great enemy: the interventionist state. It is the state that taxes, regulates, and inflates, distorting a system that would otherwise operate smoothly, productively, and to the great benefit of all, generating wealth, security, and peace, and creating the conditions necessary for the flourishing of everything we call civilization.
The name that Karl Marx gave to this system was capitalism, because he believed that the free market was the system that empowered the owners of capital — the bourgeoisie — at the expense of the workers and peasants of the proletarian class.
The name capitalism is somewhat misleading, because free enterprise is not, in fact, a system of economics organized for the sole benefit of the property-owning classes. And yet, the advocates of free markets have not been entirely unhappy with having to use the term capitalism, precisely because capital ownership and accumulation is indeed the engine that drives the operation of a productive free market.
While the system works not to the sole benefit of the capitalists, it is certainly true that private ownership of the means of production, and the creation of this class of citizens, are crucial for us to enjoy all the glories of a productive economy to bestow themselves on society.
Along with the creation of this class comes the formation of what are called bourgeois ethics — a term used derisively to describe the habitual ways of the business class. Hard-core Marxists still use the phrase as if it described the exploiter class. More commonly, it is used by intellectuals to identify a kind of white-bread sameness and predictability that lacks an appreciation for the avant-garde.
Usually it is used to describe people who have an affection for hometown, faith, and family, and a suspicion of lifestyle experiments and behaviors that skirt commonly accepted cultural norms. But those who use the term derisively are not generally appreciative of the extent to which bourgeois ethics make possible the lifestyle of all classes, including the intellectual class.
The bourgeoisie is a class of savers and contract keepers, people who are concerned for the future more than the present, people with an attachment to family. This class of people cares more for their children’s welfare, and for work and productivity, than for leisure and personal indulgence.
The virtues of the bourgeoisie are the traditional virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Each has an economic component — many economic components in fact.
Prudence supports the institution of saving, the desire to get a good education to prepare for the future, and the hope to pass on an inheritance to our children.
With justice comes the desire to keep contracts, to tell the truth in business dealings, and to provide compensation to those who have been wronged.
With temperance comes the desire to restrain oneself, to work before play, which shows that prosperity and freedom are ultimately supported by an internal discipline.
With fortitude comes the entrepreneurial impulse to set aside inordinate fear and to forge ahead when faced with life’s uncertainties. These virtues are the foundation of the bourgeoisie, and the basis of great civilizations.
But the mirror image of these virtues shows how the virtuous mode of human behavior finds its opposite in public policies employed by the modern state. The state sets itself against bourgeois ethics and undermines them, and the decline of bourgeois ethics allows the state to expand at the expense of both freedom and virtue.
In the Western religious t
Article from Mises Wire