January 24, 2012

The bane of capital

Newt Gingrich’s primary victory reflects societal ambivalence about the morality of capitalism.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s upset victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary has led many political commentators to despair at the attitudes of Republican primary voters. The success of Gingrich’s campaign, which relied heavily on media-baiting and insults directed at President Obama, is widely seen as a sign that the GOP base merely wants to express its resentments rather than choose a competent presidential nominee. While there is obviously much truth in this criticism, at least one of the strategies Gingrich employed actually provides grounds for optimism. The former speaker’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record as an executive at the private equity firm Bain Capital were appealing to voters; this appeal highlights the fact that a widespread belief regarding the free market’s negative effects on moral character is overstated.This type of criticism centers around a style of thinking which will likely seem familiar to anyone who’s ever taken an economics class and can be seen especially clearly in debates over regulation. These arguments tend to pit conservatives, who admit that a certain industry’s practices contribute to some social problems, but hold that the inefficiencies generated by regulation would be even worse, against liberals who think that an effective regulatory approach is possible. However, no one raises the question of whether, say, the managers of manufacturing plants which pollute nearby rivers should be blamed for acting immorally. As long as the behavior in question is not illegal, both sides assume that economic agents will inevitably pursue their own interests—even if this means doing harm to others and focusing on adjusting rewards and penalties to ensure that citizens’ interests do not conflict. Many opponents of capitalism (plausibly) contend that this troubling attitude flows from the system’s emphasis on competition, which encourages people to focus solely on material gain in order to avoid losing out to more ruthless competitors. They hold that the prevalence of such arguments in public discourse both reflects and contributes to a widespread selfishness that is constrained only by laws which make vice pay less than virtue. Thoughts like this often lie behind the frequently expressed view that capitalism undermines community.Gingrich’s attacks on Romney for destroying jobs while at Bain were obviously not designed to produce some sort of moral revival, but the details of those attacks suggest that ordinary Americans are still quite willing to blame those who respond to the pressures of market competition by acting unethically. It is difficult to explain why the former Speaker would have expected his criticisms to stick unless one assumes that there are moral constraints on the pursuit of economic interests. After all, nothing Romney did was illegal, and Gingrich was obviously not calling for new regulations on private equity firms. The attacks were likely designed in part to show that the former Massachusetts governor was dishonest (he had previously cited his private-sector record of job creation as a qualification), but the emphasis that a campaign ad placed on the suffering of workers laid off at companies taken over by Bain indicates that this was not the only purpose of these invectives. Therefore, Gingrich must have made the criticisms because he thought that his audience would see the callousness he accused Romney of as a moral fault, even though it was a rational response to economic incentives. His unexpected success in South Carolina suggests that his expectation was at least somewhat justified.Even if Gingrich does owe some of his success to a desirable attitude, this fact does not imply that the candidate himself deserves praise; his attacks were almost certainly motivated by crass political opportunism, and it is far from clear whether his factual claims about Romney’s record were correct. However, his audience’s willingness to make moral judgments about economic behavior should alert us to such judgments that remain a part of ordinary moral life, even though they conflict with the general attitude embodied in most mainstream public discussion about economics and public policy. Of course, even if capitalism does not undermine our moral sensibility to the extent that is sometimes claimed, the obstacles to a society which enjoys the prosperity that only markets can provide, while still holding people ethically accountable for their economic choices, remain formidable. Still, those of us who find the idea of such a society attractive should take some comfort from episodes like this one, which show that at least some of our fellow citizens share our aspirations.Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.