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Re: Yuval Levin’s Capitalism


Jonah, thanks very much for your post about my lecture last night, and for your questions. I certainly disagree, though, with what you describe as my view of property rights. I assume I just misunderstood the question you were asking — which I did not take to be about fundamental rights of property, or the right to enjoy the fruit of your labor, but about libertarian moral theory. I certainly think that property rights are an essential principle of any free society, and that the defense of property rights is properly a part of any case for capitalism and any form of genuine capitalism.

Capitalism is a way of protecting property rights and producing great wealth while also supporting a moral order that allows for civilized life. No economic system that failed to protect property rights would be legitimate, but no economic system that failed to support such moral order would be worthwhile. I think capitalism cannot be seen as the sum total of liberty, but as one important way of enabling people to live freely. For Adam Smith it was self-command and discipline, not freedom, which lay at the heart of the case for capitalism. Yes, the market involves free competition, but that means free of the undue influence of some competitors or their political patrons, not free as an existential matter — not free of all restraints. In fact, the competitors are forced into the pen of the market by government power, and kept in it by regulation and law. As the political scientist Joseph Cropsey put it, “Smith advocated capitalism because it makes freedom possible, not because it is freedom.” And it makes freedom possible by guiding people to choose to obey the rules.

Part of the problem I have with some versions of the libertarian case is that they take capitalism (if not classical liberalism more generally) to be an argument against the need for restraints on our appetites and passions, rather than an argument for the possibility of such restraints — to be an argument for libertinism rather than liberty. I’m with Edmund Burke, who said that “men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.” And I think (as Burke, himself an ardent Smithian, did too) that free markets can be one way to help guide men toward putting such chains on their own appetites, and so avoid creating the circumstances that enable government to put chains on them instead. Of course capitalism doesn’t always do that — and there are ways in which it spurs on our appetites and reinforces our bad habits — but properly balanced and supported by the larger moral order of society, it is an important means of championing both prosperity and decency. And it does this in a (classically) liberal way — that is, by creating the circumstances in which individual choices and judgments set the course of society. This way, which is essential to both liberal democracy and capitalism, is among other things a function of the commitment to property rights and to the idea that people should be given very wide latitude to enjoy the fruits of their labor and to pursue ways to better their condition.

Some of the assault on capitalism today is actually driven by hostility to precisely that idea — to the very democratic notion that that lawful chaos rather than managed order is the way to balance liberty and prosperity. It is in that respect also motivated implicitly by some hostility to property rights, and so our response to it would properly include a defense of property rights. But property rights and other rights are not the sum total of what we are defending, and so rights talk can’t be the be-all-and-end-all of the case. It certainly is part of the case, and is both useful and appropriate as part of it, just not all of it.

I hope that’s more rather than less clear than the answer I gave you at the lecture last night, but I certainly wouldn’t want to leave the impression than I am anything but an ardent defender of property rights, or that I think we can have a free society, or a winning argument, without them. We can’t.

I am nothing if not a fusionist. I would say the essence of my case about capitalism is that fiscal and social conservatives should understand themselves as allies, both tactically and substantively, both because they need each other and because they are finally making different forms of the same basic case — the conservative case for the liberal society: never an easy or a simple case, but one worth understanding and making, since it’s a case for our way of life.


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