At the risk of writing something that is old hat for most Ricochet readers, I wish to follow up this Labor Day more expansively on Peter Robinson’s excellent question about a favorite quotation on work. I think it worth examining a very special kind of labor: that of the inventor, the entrepreneur, the founder of institutions, or (to use an unsavory term in certain circles) the capitalist. Of course, as the Democrats and the bureaucratic classes in Washington would have it, what motivates the capitalist is greed or at the very least raw self-interest. He wants money above all things and will do almost anything to get it. In fact, his outsized desire for money must be regulated, lest he take even more from the common wealth of the society than he already does. This is not only the view from the Beltway; it pervades our Hollywood dominated culture as well. The liberal anthem of the Reagan years, Wall Street (“greed is good”) has countless modern equivalents. A show my wife and I actually like a lot, Damages, has the rich villains each season planning the destruction of the country on golf courses and in dark, wood-paneled rooms over bottles of expensive Scotch. You see, the poor work; the rich only plot.
Were our two-party system to feature one party actually praising the moral excellence of capitalists and entrepreneurs, were there any kind of alternative culture to that coming out of Hollywood and from New York publishing houses, the situation would not be so dire. The principal politicians of the Right do (particularly when they see a Democratic Party failing) tout the economic advantages of the free market. Yet rarely do they praise the moral value of the market; and least of all do they praise the moral qualities of “the rich” and successful. That is because the Right suffers from an inferiority complex when it comes to the Left’s alleged yet wholly false guise of selflessness and the desire to help others. For this reason, perhaps the best conservative classic to take down off the shelf in this election cycle is George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty.
Just as Reagan was being swept into office in 1981 and people were starting to wrap their minds around supply-side economics, Gilder provided the moral argument for the Laffer curve. In a nutshell, capitalists don’t take; they give. Far from having designs on taking a much bigger share than he deserves out of some preordained pot of finite money and resources (a view as inaccurate and as long-lasting as that of the old mercantilists whom Adam Smith had to expose), the capitalist wants to offer something to the world that the world does not have: a service, an invention, a convenience, something that will in some way enrich life that no one else currently dreams of. The capitalist’s motivation is giving that thing to the world. He knows the world wants it or needs it because he knows people. He sympathizes with them (one of Smith’s favorite terms). To be sure, the world rewards the capitalist generously. But it does so simply because ordinary people’s sense of justice holds—in Christ’s words—that the laborer is worthy of his wages. Moral people would not take a person’s sweat and genius and leave him destitute. They return the capitalist’s sympathy with their needs with their own gratitude, admiration, and money. Commerce is a moral exchange.
Here is the ever-eloquent Gilder on this theme:
"Under capitalism, the ventures of reason are launched into a world ruled by morality and Providence. The gifts will succeed only to the extent that they are altruistic and spring from an understanding of the needs of others. They depend on faith in an essentially fair and responsive humanity. In such a world, one can give without a contract of compensation. One can venture without the assurance of reward. One can seek the surprises of profit, rather than the more limited benefits of contractual pay. One can take initiative amid radical perils and uncertainties.
"When faith dies, so does enterprise. It is impossible to create a system of collective regulation and safety that does not finally deaden the moral sources of the willingness to face danger and fight, that does not dampen the spontaneous flow of gifts and experiments which extend the dimensions of the world and the circles of human sympathy."
Though brilliant, Gilder was not the first to smoke out these insights into the moral dimensions of free enterprise, and he was not the only one in 1981 speaking this way. Ronald Reagan had been making the same case at least since 1964. Reagan was a political leader who did not merely contend that the market is efficient or necessary. He knew that it is good and that the leaders of the market are good people. The creators of wealth are not just looking for lots of money. They—at least the vast majority of them—are looking to make the world a better place. They are the people most sensitive to the weal (the prosperity, happiness, welfare, and general good) of others. Whoever gets the Republican nomination ought to be a person who can make this case and throw the leftist attack on the rich right back at Mr. Obama. Someone, please send the candidates copies of Wealth and Poverty and a Reagan speech or two.