What’s Called “Common Good Capitalism” Would Work Against the Common Good


The foundation upon which the case for so-called “common good capitalism” rests is rickety at best. As I explained in my previous column, the empirical claims used to justify this ill-defined version of capitalism range from questionable to downright false, while much of the economic reasoning deployed by “common good capitalists” is a nest of confusion. These flaws alone are enough to fully discredit the case for “common good capitalism.”

Yet “common good capitalism” is marred by an even deeper problem: it rejects the liberalism from which true capitalism springs, the absence of which makes impossible the operation of a dynamic market order that maximizes the prospects of individuals to achieve as many as possible of their goals.

The defining feature of liberalism — by which, of course, I mean the liberalism of scholars such as Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman — is the freedom that it accords to all individual adults to choose and to pursue their own goals, constrained only by the requirement that each person respect the same right of everyone else to pursue their individually chosen goals. The common good, as understood by liberals, is nothing more — or less — than a stable institutional and cultural environment in which this diversity of goals can be chosen and pursued with maximum possible prospects for success.

In his important new book, Living Together, the liberal philosopher David Schmidtz describes (although he doesn’t use the term) the common good for liberals as being an effective system of managing the “traffic” of countless individuals interacting with each other in pursuit of their own diverse goals:

Justice [as understood by liberals] is our way of adapting to a miraculous feature of our ecosystem; namely, our ecosystem is populated by beings with ends of their own – highly plastic animals who choose (and sometimes second-guess) not only means but ends themselves…. Liberalism’s defining insight is that effective traffic management is not about agreeing how to rank destinations. Liberal justice does not task travelers with even knowing other people’s destinations, much less with ranking them….

When travelers respect each other in that easily understood and profoundly egalitarian way, implicitly treating the values of their respective journeys as presumptively (even if not necessarily) on a par, they do what it takes to constitute their society as a place that promotes value. Society depends less on people knowing how to promote value than it depends on people who share the road reading signs, seeing whose turn it is, and in that way knowing how to respect value.

If the economic system implied by this kind of common good — a common good that is real and remarkable — is all that is meant by Marco Rubio, Oren Cass, and other “common good capitalists,” then nothing distinguishes “common good capitalism” from capitalism unprefixed. But of course Messrs. Rubio, Cass, and other “common good capitalists” do have in mind an economic system profoundly different from that which is championed today by liberal scholars such as Vernon Smith, Thomas Sowell, Bruce Yandle, Deirdre McCloskey, Robert Higgs, and my colleague Pete Boettke. What each “common good capitalist” wants is an economic system engineered to serve his or her preferred set of concrete ends. Gone would be the liberal freedom of individuals to choose and pursue their own ends. Under “common good capitalism,” everyone would be conscripted to produce and consume in ways meant to promote only the ends favored by “common good capitalists.”

Note the irony. The economic system that, say, Oren Cass claims to advocate as a means of promoting the common good is, in reality, a means of promoting only the good as conceived by Oren Cass (which, for him, consists largely of an economy with more manufacturing jobs and a smaller financial sector). The hubris here is undeniable. “Common good capitalists” not only presume to have divined which concrete ends are best to guide the actions of hundreds of millions of individuals, nearly all of whom are strangers to them, but also are so confident in their divinations that they advocate pursuing these with the use of force.

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The liberal doesn’t object to attempts to persuade others to adopt different and, hopefully, better ends. By all peaceful means, do your best to persuade me to embrace, as the lodestar for my choice of concrete ends, Catholic Social Teaching, economic nationalism, Marxism, veganism, or whatever other teaching or -ism you believe best defines the common good. But do not presume that your sincere embrace of a specific system of concrete values provides sufficient warrant for you to compel me and others to behave as if we share your particular values.

To the extent that the state intrudes into market processes in order to redirect these toward the achievement of particular ends, it replaces market competition and cooperation with command-economy dirigisme. Income earners are not allowed to use the fruits of their creativity and efforts as they choose. Instead, consumption ‘decisions’ will be directed by government officials. The result will be a reallocation of resources achieved through the use, mostly, of tariffs and subsidies. And by so redirecting consumption expenditures, the pattern of production will obviously also be changed from what would prevail in a free market. (In fact, the specific goal of most “common good capitalists” seems to be the achievement of a particular manner of production — for example, more factory jobs — than would arise with markets left free.)

While its insistence on obstructing consumers’ freedom to choose is, alone, enough to disqualify “common good capitalism” as genuine capitalism, a more serious disconnect becomes evident when we ponder what this faux “capitalism” implies about production decisions.

The most profound observers of capitalism have noted its inseparableness from innovation. As Joseph Schumpeter described in a famous chapter of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy titled “The Process of Creative Destruction,”

Capitalism, then, is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary…. The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.

Later, Julian Simon explained that economic challenges, which will always be with us, spark creative human minds in market economies to innovate in ways that literally increase not only supplies of consumer goods and capital goods, but also supplies of resources (including resources labeled “nonrenewable”). In the same spirit, Deirdre McCloskey identifies innovation as the very essence of capitalism, which she proposes be renamed “innovism.”

Innovation, however, is utterly incompatible with an economy that is centrally directed or constrained to pursue particular ends. By offering new and unexpected opportunities for consumption and production, innovation threatens to upset any collective agreement on — or acquiescence in — a particular set of ends imposed in the name of “common good capitalism.” All those jobs in factories that produce washing machines — jobs that today appear oh-so-lovely — will tomorrow appear much less lovely if someone invents affordable self-cleaning clothing. Ditto for all those jobs in paper mills, as innovators devise even more ways to convey information and documents electronically.

Whatever is the particular set of ends chosen today by the specific “common good capitalists” who manage to seize political power, those ends can be served only by a relatively small number of different patterns of resource allocation. Because innovation is destined not only to reveal new ends that must be fitted into — and, hence, disrupt — the “common good capitalist” plan, but also to create new and unanticipated means of pursuing ends, innovation must be suppressed if any “common good capitalist” plan is to be seriously imposed.

The capitalist economy, by its very nature, is not and cannot be a tool for achieving particular concrete outcomes. The capitalist economy, instead, is the name that we give to that ongoing, ever-evolving, organic order of production and exchange that arises spontaneously whenever individuals are free to pursue diverse peaceful ends of their own choosing and to do so in whatever peaceful ways they think best. That the results serve the common good is clear, if by “common good” we mean the highest possible chance of as many individuals as possible to achieve as many as possible of their own individually chosen goals. But let the state attempt to constrain and contort economic activity in the pursuit of a particular set of “common” concrete ends that everyone is compelled to serve, and capitalism disappears. It is replaced by what is more accurately called “[fill in the blank]’s-particular-notion-of-the-good statism,” with the blank filled by the name of whichever “common good capitalist” happens currently to be in power.

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Article cross-posted from AIER.

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