Gregg is certainly right to point out that we need a moral argument for capitalism, not just a utilitarian one. The fact that it produces wealth is a good thing. But economic freedom also opens up space for human creativity, agency, and productive cooperation. Quite right, and important.
I would go a step further and simply say that productive work brings with it as sense of dignity. Workers can sense a make-work situation, and they take less satisfaction in that kind of work. A poorly organized workplace, one that impedes productive cooperation, also demoralizes. One of the good consequences of creative destruction is that it puts a great deal of pressure on unproductive enterprises. We want our labor to “make a difference,” and capitalism, however frivolous some of its aspects, increases the changes that what I do from 9 to 5 adds up to something.
However, I do want to take issue with Gregg’s claim that a negative view of capitalism is the “prevailing wisdom.”
That was true when I was a college student, but I don’t think it’s true any longer. I’m struck by how easily the Zuckerberg generation fuses idealism (change the world!) with capitalism.
I would say that today’s “prevailing wisdom” is that capitalism is—inevitable. Most people take it for granted. That’s why our economic arguments take place in such a narrow range. I don’t think anyone in 1970 could have imagined that right would be defined as a 35% top marginal tax rate and left as 39%!
Meanwhile, the left has adopted all sorts of free market principles. The Obama administration recently announced an initiative to expand experimental programs in public housing that limit long-term dependency. Since the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, most liberals have come to see precisely what Gregg thinks important: It’s morally good for people to work and play a productive role in a free economy. They’re more fulfilled when they can contribute and take responsibility for themselves.
This scrambling of old ideological distinctions is part of the challenge we face. What’s conservatism going to look like for the Zuckerberg generation? I’m not sure.