The Public Interest

Capitalism and morality

James Q. Wilson

Fall 1995

TENTY-FIVE years ago, the two founding editors of this magazine published important essays on the cultural and moral status of capitalism.* Irving Kristol worried that the most intelligent contemporary defenders of capitalism were now mostly libertarians who praised the market because it produced material benefits and enhanced human freedom but who denied that markets had anything to do with morality. Friedrich Hayek, for example, had written that “in a free society it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit.” It is not practicable because no one can supply a non-arbitrary definition of merit (or justice); it is not desirable because any attempt to impose such a definition would create a despotism. Kristol worried that people would not support any economic order in which “the will to success and privilege was severed from its moral moorings.” Capitalism could not survive if, quoting George Fitzhugh, “none but the selfish virtues are in repute” because in such a society “virtue loses all her loveliness” and social order becomes impossible. 

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