Count me in as one who feels that Peter Schiff and Richard Epstein have actually done our side a disservice. They are brilliant men and they have made a compelling utilitarian argument against the welfare state and against government regulation that strangles the economy.
But in their presentation style they seem to reinforce the core of the Marxist claim that we who believe in free markets and individual rights are greedy, selfish, and without virtue.
It is not true. Although true saints are seldom attracted to business as a divine calling, capitalism could not survive unless most of the people engaged in the private economy valued and practiced what Dierdre McCloskey and Gerry Miller call the bourgeois virtues.
We bourgeois do things, we build things that other people actually want, we value self respect, and we value the respect of others. We make the world a better place. We not only claim to be able to do these things, we do them. Marxists may love MANKIND, but we are far more likely to care about the people around us. We respect other people’s right to make their own choices.
Milton Friedman claimed that the duty of business is to make a profit for its shareholders. Does that mean that we followers of Friedman approve a CEO taking a $4 million bonus as the company and its shareholders are plunging into bankruptcy? Don’t we have an agency problem here?
And Friedman did not believe that people create and operate businesses merely to make money. Money is not a good; it is a means of exchange for other goods. Think of the analogy to Grotius’ Just War Theory. Once you are in a war, your goal is victory, and once you are in business your goal is to make a profit. But Grotius goes on to consider Jus ad bellum, and Jus in bello. Before you consider going into war, you must ask whether the cause is just, what are your chances of prevailing, at what cost, and what is the downside risk of defeat? We know that we seldom have enough information prior to the onset of a war to answer these questions definitively, but we must ask them. In business we need to do a feasibility study – if only on a single side of paper. Once we are in war, an ethical person considers what methods for pursuing victory are morally permissible. In conducting business we recognize similar restrictions on our actions as moral agents. Business is much better than war at least in part because there are no killing fields and so the downside risks are more ethically palatable. We conservatives know that the flowered fields of Flanders can be profitably used to grow flowers for export – but hopefully not poppies.
One of the reasons why bourgeois societies seldom go to war with each other is because they can trade to their mutual benefit. That is not possible without ethical players.
We are the defenders of individual liberty and free markets. Whatever the shock value of a Schiff and Epstein interview, it is probably better not to seem to abandon the moral high ground which is rightly ours. Schiff and Epstein may win the argument but lose the war for the hearts, as well as the minds, of people.