In an article in First Things last year, I argued that the legal institutions of capitalism exist not to advance any particular purpose but to facilitate the advancement by individuals of their various, often conflicting purposes. I made this argument in the course of disagreeing with Alasdair MacIntyre, who seems to think that capitalism exists to make people wealthy and indeed presupposes that the accumulation of wealth is the final end of human life. I mention this because I am always pleased when one of my arguments is reinforced by a striking example, and I have just such a one today.
As this article in the Wall Street Journal explains, Missy Franklin, a seventeen year-old from Colorado who won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke last week, has steadfastly refused lucrative endorsement contracts. Why? Because she wants to preserve her amateur status so that she can swim competitively in college. In other words, she prefers competing to money. Happily, the economic freedom of capitalism includes not only the freedom to make money but also the freedom not to make money, if one so chooses. That’s an important lesson. If most people in Ms. Franklin’s position choose the money, that just shows that they have desires and views about the human good different from hers.
I can imagine some scolds arguing that, although Ms. Franklin’s is the better course, many young people with her opportunities would go for the money because they are seduced into doing so, and thus there should be legal limits on offering phenomenal young athletes endorsement contracts. Now, some people in Ms. Franklin’s position are no doubt seduced: they honestly believe that they should forgo riches, but they choose them anyway because they cannot control their desires. That certainly happens. But these scolds miss a bigger point, which is that some people honestly believe that going for the money is the best option. There is a very wide range for legitimate disagreement about what’s good and what’s bad in individual cases, and for some people like Ms. Franklin, given their individual circumstances, which could well be different from hers, taking the money may well be the right choice. The person best positioned to make this decision—meaning the person with the best information and indeed the moral responsibility for the choice—is the individual himself. The freedom provided by capitalist economies thus leads both to better choices (because individual decisions are made by people with superior knowledge of individual circumstances—a Hayekian point) and places moral responsibility where it belongs, with individual human beings.
This is what I was getting at when I argued here on First Thoughts and in a post on Public Discourse that the legal structures of capitalism give people what they want, not necessarily what is good for them. One important reason we have such structures is that, in general, individuals will make morally better choices for themselves than will anyone else. The critics of capitalism who consistently fail to appreciate this point tend to think that they themselves would choose better than the individuals involved. In making this judgment, they should remember that pride is a worse and more dangerous sin than greed.