“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.” – John Kenneth Galbraith
“[On Wall Street, the] language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.”
Brooks and others argue for a shift in social ideals back to the glory days when “the best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations”. This sense of responsibility seems to have faded over the years, replaced by a sense of entitlement. As seen throughout the troubling economic times of the past few years, capitalism simply cannot function when the moral code is crossed out with golden ink. As early as 1919, John Maynard Keynes recognized the ethical prerequisites for a flourishing free market:
“Herein lay, in fact, the main justification of the capitalist system. If the rich had spent their new wealth on their own enjoyments, the world would long ago have found such a régime intolerable. But like bees they saved and accumulated, not less to the advantage of the whole community because they themselves held narrower ends in prospect . . . The capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice. The duty of ‘saving’ became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion.” – The Economic Consequences of Peace (Section III, Chapter 2)
Keynes expected the privileged to reinvest their wealth in the economy, out of respect and consideration for the working class. This necessary conscientiousness is fundamental not only to the free market, but also to the communist philosophy. Leaders especially, who task themselves with the ambitious goal of maintaining socioeconomic equality, must be steadily selfless and focused on the good of their nation as a whole. This is easier said than done, and as history has shown time and again, any trace of immorality in a communist administration is a sure sign that their regime is damned.
Rather than being greedy in the traditional, monetary sense, socialist leaders are often tempted by the allure of absolute power. In 1873, long before the failures of communism in the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere, the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakunin recognized that communism would lead to some form of tyranny:
“This fiction of a pseudo-representative government serves to conceal the domination of the masses by a handful of privileged elite; an elite elected by hordes of people who are rounded up and do not know for whom or for what they vote… Let us ask, if the proletariat is to be the ruling class, over whom is it to rule? In short, there will remain another proletariat which will be subdued to this new rule, to this new state.” – Critique of the Marxist Theory of State
Bakunin and others respond to the inevitability of dictatorship by advocating for libertarianism. However, in terms of morality, libertarian socialism and similar systems are even more ambitious, expecting not just the leaders, but every citizen to shed all personal aspirations and be wholly dedicated to the greater good. Those on the far left who advocate for such a government remind us that human nature is not fixed; while today’s society might not be ready for libertarian socialism, a moral revolution could prepare future generations for a transition away from the greed and parsimony of our capitalistic civilization.
This assumption — that leaders can effect a change in the moral sentiments of the masses — is fundamental to the arguments of the left and right. Conservatives argue that if the wealthy elite were made to be less greedy, the free market would function in a fair and humane way. Meanwhile, leftists argue that if the political elite of a communist nation were made to be less power-hungry, a planned economy would be just and prosperous. Both sides demand a higher standard of ethics and insist that the primary obstacle to their ideal economies is a lack of humanitarianism.
*For more on the financial crisis, I recommend watching Inside Job and reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis.