Charles Murray

Charles Murray writes in the Review section of the weekend Wall Street Journal, July 28-29/12, Why Capitalism Has an Image Problem.

In this excellent piece Charles Murray gives his ‘best effort’ to write an elegant case for capitalism:

The U.S. was created to foster human flourishing. The means to that end was the exercise of liberty in the pursuit of happiness. Capitalism is the economic expression of liberty. The pursuit of happiness, with happiness defined in the classic sense of justified and lasting satisfaction with life as a whole, depends on economic liberty every bit as much as it depends on other kinds of freedom.

“Lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole” is produced by a relatively small set of important achievements that we can rightly attribute to our own actions. Arthur Brooks, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, has usefully labeled such achievements “earned success.” Earned success can arise from a successful marriage, children raised well, a valued place as a member of a community, or devotion to a faith. Earned success also arises from achievement in the economic realm, which is where capitalism comes in.

Earning a living for yourself and your family through your own efforts is the most elemental form of earned success. Successfully starting a business, no matter how small, is an act of creating something out of nothing that carries satisfactions far beyond those of the money it brings in. Finding work that not only pays the bills but that you enjoy is a crucially important resource for earned success.

Making a living, starting a business and finding work that you enjoy all depend on freedom to act in the economic realm. What government can do to help is establish the rule of law so that informed and voluntary trades can take place. More formally, government can vigorously enforce laws against the use of force, fraud and criminal collusion, and use tort law to hold people liable for harm they cause others.

Everything else the government does inherently restricts economic freedom to act in pursuit of earned success. I am a libertarian and think that almost none of those restrictions are justified. But accepting the case for capitalism doesn’t require you to be a libertarian. You are free to argue that certain government interventions are justified. You just need to acknowledge this truth: Every intervention that erects barriers to starting a business, makes it expensive to hire or fire employees, restricts entry into vocations, prescribes work conditions and facilities, or confiscates profits interferes with economic liberty and usually makes it more difficult for both employers and employees to earn success. You also don’t need to be a libertarian to demand that any new intervention meet this burden of proof: It will accomplish something that tort law and enforcement of basic laws against force, fraud and collusion do not accomplish.

People with a wide range of political views can also acknowledge that these interventions do the most harm to individuals and small enterprises. Huge banks can, albeit at great expense, cope with the Dodd-Frank law’s absurd regulatory burdens; many small banks cannot. Huge corporations can cope with the myriad rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and their state-level counterparts. The same rules can crush small businesses and individuals trying to start small businesses.

Finally, people with a wide range of political views can acknowledge that what has happened incrementally over the past half-century has led to a labyrinthine regulatory system, irrational liability law and a corrupt tax code. Sweeping simplifications and rationalizations of all these systems are possible in ways that even moderate Democrats could accept in a less polarized political environment.

To put it another way, it should be possible to revive a national consensus affirming that capitalism embraces the best and most essential things about American life; that freeing capitalism to do what it does best won’t just create national wealth and reduce poverty, but expand the ability of Americans to achieve earned success—to pursue happines.