Of all economic systems, capitalism has the most capacity for human prosperity. However, implicit to it’s promise is operating within a cultural framework that abounds in certain virtues, namely trust, honesty, commitment and accountability. As with any system that relies on human execution, it’s not perfect, however it’s better than any other economic system to date.
Capitalism rests on the premise of pursing self-interest, which Adam Smith said entitles us to the fruit of our own labor free from coercion in either its production or exchange. The dictionary defines self-interest as “one’s personal interest or advantage, especially when pursued without regard for others,” which is synonymous with pursuing personal gain with selfish intent. That misses the mark of Smith’s definition of “self-interest.”
Even though Smith strayed from mentioning God in his economic model described in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (written before Wealth of Nations):
How selfish so ever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. (page 13)
This universal benevolence, how noble and generous soever, can be the source of no solid happiness to any man who is not thoroughly convinced that all the inhabitants of the universe, the meanest as well as the greatest, are under the immediate care and protection of that great, benevolent, and all-wise Being, who directs all the movements of nature; and who is determined, by his own unalterable perfections, to maintain in it at all times the greatest possible quantity of happiness. (page 277)– Adam Smith
Smith believed in a God committed to the happiness of his creatures. In as much, it could be argued he had a genuine appreciation for the biblical concept of unselfish self-love. When one practices unselfish self-love, one is honoring the top two commandments: (1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and (2) Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
To Smith, pursuing self-interest meant pursing unselfish self-love. In other words, the voluntary exchange at the heart of the free market is dependent on the mutual exchange that anticipates the needs of the other. No one is on an island. Humans motivated by unselfish self-love can not thrive unless they find a willing partner in unselfish self-love.
Proper motive means they pursue the mutually beneficial exchange with both a hunger and thirst to operate with the virtues of trust, honesty, commitment and accountability. Hunger drives them to earn more, save more, spend more and invest more. Thirst drives them for meaning, connection and the satisfaction of creating something better together.
Of the two qualities, thirst is more interesting to me. Upon reflection, I couldn’t help but to think about the role that salt plays. What does salt do, and what is it used for?
- Salt us used for seasoning. Through our lives, we are to add taste and flavor to an otherwise bland world.
- Salt is a preservative that prevents decay. In how we live, we can slow down, and possibly reverse, society’s cultural decay.
- Salt makes us thirsty. When people come into contact with us, we have an opportunity to provide meaning, connection and beauty.
I am grateful to be born into a country that operates within a capitalist system. While not perfect, it enables me to pursue and practice unselfish self-love with my “neighbor.” It enables and empowers us to “hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.“