Sentiment, Logic, and the Future of Capitalism

Last night I was dining with some friends, and, given the fact that we are all interested in politics in one way or another, the conversation tended to revolve around such issues.  I had occasion to recall last night something which took place a while ago in a Starbucks close by (known to some as my office).  I struck up a conversation with an intelligent, thoughtful gentleman—after all, we can’t let the rare opportunity to speak with an intelligent person pass us by—who wondered aloud if capitalism had run its course, if it was simply inevitable that it was passing away just like other things pass away.

The idea is, on its face, horrifying, and seemingly easy enough to refute.  We are, certainly, dealing not with a collapsing capitalist economy, but rather a collapsing mercantilist or even Fascist economy.  I am not being polemical:  It is a fact that our system has absorbed aspects of Fascism.  On this point many modern Liberals and libertarians are in agreement.  Conservatives are not, but the reasons for this are by now rather obvious.  The conventional wisdom, however, is that it is capitalism that has failed us.  Capitalists can, and should, refute this until we run out of breath, but there is an important point in all this that must not be lost and that, however regrettable, is more essential to the issue, and that is the idea that could be called “societal myth.”

Richard Weaver, in his book Ideas Have Consequences, devoted  the first chapter to The Unsentimental Sentiment.  Here Weaver argues that sentiment precedes logic, that reason alone is not sufficient in dealing with the problems of human existence.  Because logic has a wax nose, as Aquinas said, there must be something that holds it up, a set of assumptions that direct the entirety of our thinking.  This is often called grand discourse.  Religion, for instance, is a grand discourse.  Besides the all-encompassing assumptions, however, there are also little myths about particular issues.  These myths are very much related to sentiment.  From the standpoint of studying human nature, the facts are not so nearly relevant as the prevailing thoughts and feelings about a given issue.  

Because of this, I must offer the assessment that the future of capitalism is very bleak.  All of the modern sentiment runs against the central ideas that must be embraced in order for a free market to work.  In today’s climate—indeed, for most of the past century—mankind simply has not embraced the values which serve as the foundation of capitalism.  The situation in which we today find ourselves is quite simply inevitable, and it should be no surprise to us that, after the disaster struck, modern thinking turned to a “worn out” idea such as capitalism as the scapegoat.  

And so, we are faced with the question, “What do we do now?”  Pragmatists usually embrace the prevailing contemporary sentiment in order to enact individual policies which they believe are good for the order of society. This is, of course, a mistake, since there is no consistent ethic present in this approach.  Modern Liberals are quite at home in all this mess and probably suffer from very few crises of conscience right now, but classical liberal thinkers are faced with a conundrum.  Do we throw up our hands and give up?  Do we keep explaining the logical reasons why capitalism is always the better choice?  The first choice invites a kind of despondency that usually leads to conservatism, and the second, as has already been said, will never work on its own.

It would seem that the best hope for capitalism will come from an appeal to the very thing that runs counter to it presently—sentiment.  We must sort out the values that people embrace and illustrate how capitalism serves the interests of those values far better than any Leviathan ever could.  I am not talking about political values; I am talking about human values.  Too many conflate these, and we must separate them.  It is irrelevant right now that capitalism works.  We must show that capitalism is good, very good.  This will require an appeal to sentiment and the right use of rhetoric.  

It sounds like it’s time to dust off the Weaver volumes.


9 Responses

  1. Thought-provoking post, Michael — one that I’ll have to digest a bit in order to give a response worthy of the thoughts contained above. It’ll be a bit of a challenge, though, as my brain tries to find connections in everything.

    I’ll start by throwing this out there: concrete action — a defense of capitalism by personal example — will need to be an essential part of this appeal. Authentic capitalism as desirable, attractive, and with a human face.

  2. The problem with capitalism — and with libertarianism, for that matter — is the same as the problem with Communism: love and freedom require each other, and any approach that slights either quality is doomed to fail. Classical liberalism was far closer to the mark, if a bit vague (not surprising given the science of the time).

    I’ve written quite a few columns on the topic (here’s my STR archive:

    and here’s a column distilled from a talk I gave at the FreeAmerica conference in Provo Utah, 2007

    “The road to compassion and freedom: Thoughts on a Classical Liberalism for the 21st Century”

  3. Good post, I’ve thought similar things. Politics is not exactly a haven for rationality, so if libertarians want any success we have to change our rhetorical strategy (among other things).

  4. Glen Allport,

    Thank you for your comment. I haven’t had a chance yet to read your archive on STR, so I can only respond directly to your comment at this time.

    If I understand what you mean to say correctly, it seems to me that what you’re bringing up has a lot more to do with human nature in general rather than any particular political or economic system. All the same, I will add two cents here in praise of Murray Rothbard’s book The Ethics of Liberty, which, unlike many libertarian works, rather than assuming a magical revolution of love and goodwill, actually takes it for granted that people will continue to be horrible to each other. Rothbard takes this into account in the development of his ethic of private property rights and a stateless society. Like Rothbard, I believe in libertarianism (anarcho-capitalism to be more precise) exactly because human nature is seriously flawed and we need a system which protects us against this evil. Those who advocate a State, especially a large State, are forgetting that governments are comprised of men, that they are not magical institutions of infallibility.

    At any rate, I hope I have understood your comment correctly and I look forward to reading your work.

  5. Michael Lawrence and Marcel Votlucka — thanks for the comments. I’d add that love and freedom must be handled differently. (And Michael: thanks for opening up this discussion; I’d not seen anything about Weaver before, or the Grand Discourse idea)

    From “Psychology of the Quantum Wrongness Field” (March 30 2009):

    There is a critical difference between love and freedom, however: love for others cannot be implemented by force. That is, love cannot be required, while freedom for all absolutely CAN and MUST be required. Indeed, the non-aggression principle (“do not aggress against others”) is a command by its very nature. The non-aggression principle is also the most basic of human laws and one that can be enforced in a variety of ways, including via defensive coercion where necessary.

    But how do you command someone to love? By violating the non-aggression principle, coercion harms and eventually destroys love. How can you use coercion, defensively or otherwise, to make someone love you or to show compassion to others?

    The answer to that question is: you can’t. While love and compassion must be widely supported and explicitly acknowledged as human needs, in order to effectively foster that love (or compassion or universal brotherhood or whatever you prefer to call it) the support must be voluntary. Otherwise, you end up destroying love and the foundations for love in the long term.

    I repeat that support for compassionate behavior and for a compassionate viewpoint must be EXPLICIT (i.e., spoken of in direct, unambiguous language), FREQUENTLY VOICED, WIDESPREAD in the culture, and EFFECTIVE enough to create and sustain reasonable levels of individual and societal health, but none of that requires government edicts or laws, and indeed none of it can long survive the levels of coercion involved in large, intrusive governments.

    As a practical matter, the young in particular must be treated with respect and compassion because early experience creates later character and guides later behavior. The foundation for a compassionate sense of connection with others is developed early in life or not at all.

    Voluntaryism (aka “civil society”) is the necessary framework for all this – for both compassion and freedom. Coercion is the polar opposite of freedom and the enemy and corruptor of love.

  6. A simple simile comparing the virtues of sustainable capitalism to the virtues of sustainable organic farming and their corollary components would likely appeal to a prevalent sentiment among the target audience.

    Artificial fertilizers = Stimulus/interventionism
    Pesticides = Regulation
    Monocrop/factory farms = Too big to fail/lack of market diversity/mercantilism
    Compost = Savings (money not wasted on needless consumption)
    There are obviously more…

    Capitalism must be seen as akin to enriching, tending, and cultivating a fertile “living soil” — a fertile responsive market that demands investment, dedication and care but is entirely sustainable, regulating and enriching.

    Market purists and Organic purists, at least in sentiment, share a distrust of centrally planned gigantism, embrace natural diversity, interdependence, and cooperation, and understand the distortions corporatism and special interests create in the real world application of their respective ethos’.

    Suggested reading for both capitalists and anti-capitalists:

    Natural Capitalism
    by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins

    I am convinced that the political way forward must be a synthesis of smart ecological hyper-efficient capitalism with libertarianism — that the so called “left” must be made to understand that the natural rules and incentives of capitalism – unmolested by government – can be used to fight many of the injustices for which they believe government coercion is needed. The so called “right” needn’t think that ecofriendly is inherently unprofitable, and neither side should blindly accept the inevitability of negative environmental externalities in a free and vibrant high tech capitalist system.

  7. a place totals up the data the knowledge is a lot of techinque main point data techinque the knowledge is all-round goods is modern

  8. The trouble with capitalism is that it is vapor. There has never, ever been a society with a free market at any time in any place. There are always rules, laws, taxes, the strong ruler or leader that impose upon the market.
    Therefore any observations about capitalism are theory only and not based upon real world functions. In the end we get into degrees of a free market or degrees of capitalism. The assumption being that capitalism is not like being pregnant where one absolutely is or is nor pregnant.
    Can it be any wonder that no nation or even tribe of people will try pure capitalism when every culture since the dawn of humanity has found it a bad idea.

  9. The people who’ve found capitalism a bad idea are generally the large companies that don’t want to face the competition that the free market entails. Therefore, they get in bed with government to help enforce monopolies, etc. I would argue that the people who get to make the decisions don’t find capitalism to be a bad idea as such, but rather a disadvantageous one as far as they are concerned. If I am not mistaken, a number of societies actually in the late Middle Ages tried capitalism, and it worked very well. Nevertheless, even if pure capitalism is only a theory, I will not allow the pragmatists to thrust me into a position of servitude, into an attitude that we need overlords to supervise our exchanges on the market. I would rather starve to death.

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