Leftists–for the most part–are not complete idiots, and they’re not insane. So there’s one conclusion left as to why they have kept pushing for policies that destroy economic prosperity: they’re not really after economic prosperity. What are they really after? Take Bernie Sanders’ speeches as a clue: a more moral governmental system.
And what about social conservatives who want to legislate against “sins” and what you can do with your body in private? Well of course, this is even more obviously guided by morality.
Libertarians’ Political Ideas Depend on Controversial Moral Ideas
So deep down, statists, both left and right, are focused on morality. But should we be, as advocates of liberty? Should we try to get statists to forget about morality and focus on economics? Well, it turns out that ideas about “good economics”–as well as every other governmental policy capitalists might advocate–ultimately presuppose and depend on moral ideas, whether people are aware of it or not. So moral issues cannot be escaped in political advocacy.
Case in point: What do capitalists mean when we advocate “good economic policies?” Do we mean policies that encourage suffering and famine like in Soviet Russia? No, we mean the policies that will enable people to achieve economic prosperity. And what do we mean by “economic prosperity?” We mean the material conditions that lead to the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world.
So advocating good economic policies is advocating that people should choose to pursue the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world. Is this a controversial moral idea? Yes, in fact, it is. It is a moral idea, because morality deals with the most fundamental goals people should choose, and life in this world is definitely one of the fundamental goals one can choose. It is controversial, because many moral thinkers have said that the function and meaning of morality is something other than to promote the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world. The fundamental goal humans should pursue is something else, they have said.
In Christian morality, the ultimate goal is not prosperity in this world, but salvation in “the next.” The Biblical Jesus advised, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matt. 19:21) The Apostle Paul said: “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.” (Phil. 3:8-9) And the Apostle John admonished: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” (1 John 2:15)
In ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism, the goal that people should pursue is not prosperity and flourishing life in this world, but “virtue” for its own sake. Wisdom, justice, courage and moderation are ends-in-themselves, according to stoic thinkers.
In Kantian morality, people should pursue, not flourishing life, but fulfillment of their moral “duty” as an end-in-itself, (i.e. the Categorical Imperative.)
Many people today are influenced by these and similar moral ideas that are incompatible with a worldly, prosperous life as a fundamental goal.
In addition to economic prosperity, libertarians and capitalists are also generally concerned with advocating for property rights. But what are property rights? Are they physical barriers that protect people’s goods? No, declaring your property rights will not physically stop a bear from stealing food from your cooler, or Communist armies from seizing your factory. Ultimately, property rights are moral ideas. They represent the idea that individuals should be left free to use and dispose of the products of their effort, if they are to achieve the moral goal of prosperous life in this world.
Apocalyptic death cults waiting to be martyred, or for the Messiah to return and end the world, don’t have much use for private property rights. For example, many early Christians lived communal lifestyles, with goods shared among them according to need. (In this, they followed the Biblical example of the Apostles of Jesus and their followers. (Acts 2:44-45)) This sort of lifestyle continued on into the Middle Ages in Christian monasteries.
Similarly, there have been a tremendous number of socialists and communists in the past 200 years who have disputed the idea that private property should be recognized. They have claimed that the government (or “the community”) should own all property used in wealth production.
The idea of “intellectual property,” recognized in most modern countries, is even controversial among libertarians. So private property is definitely a controversial moral idea. We can’t even rationally define what should and shouldn’t be property for a given person, without a more fundamental moral framework that gives rise to property rights.
The third major idea that libertarians often discuss is the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). This is also clearly a moral idea: the idea that people–whether civilians or government officials–should not initiate coercion against other people. It’s not the idea that coercion is just bad style, or bad etiquette, but that initiating coercion is morally wrong.
This moral principle is quite obviously controversial: the vast majority of the world’s population does not believe in this idea as a principle. Many people don’t want to be forced in many situations, but don’t mind in others. Many people hate having money forcibly taken from them when individuals do it, but they agree with it when the government does it. Etc.
The battle over the ideas of liberty is a battle about moral ideas. But what are the main sides in this battle? I will argue that the main sides are conventional morality versus Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism.