The Sinful State

Hardly anyone talks of the table of virtues and vices anymore — which includes the Seven Deadly Sins — but in reviewing them, we find that they nicely sum up the foundation of bourgeois ethics, and provide a solid moral critique of the modern state.

Now, libertarians don’t often talk about virtues and vices, mainly because we agree with Lysander Spooner that vices are not crimes, and that the law ought only to address the latter. At the same time, we do need to observe that vices and virtues — and our conception of what constitutes proper behavior and culture generally — have a strong bearing on the rise and decline of freedom.

Let me illustrate. A speaker at a Mises Institute conference two years ago was explaining how problems of welfare, charity, and support for the poor could be handled through voluntary means — that is, through philanthropy. His explanation was brilliant, but a hand shot up.

A student from India had a question. What if, he said, one lives in a society in which the religion says that a person’s lot in life is dictated by God, and thus it would be sin to change it in any way. The poor, in this view, are supposed to be poor, and to help them would violate God’s will. In fact, a charitable person is committing a crime against God.

The speaker stood there in stunned silence. The students around the room looked at the questioner with their mouths open. We were all amazed to confront a reality too often ignored; namely, that the ethics undergirding our culture, which we so often take for granted, are essential to the functioning of what we call the good society, based on the dignity of the individual, and the possibility of progress, freedom, and prosperity.

In our country and in our times, a productive free-market economy, one supported by a strong sense of personal responsibility and a moral commitment to the security of property rights, has one great enemy: the interventionist state. It is the state that taxes, regulates, and inflates, distorting a system that would otherwise operate smoothly, productively, and to the great benefit of all, generating wealth, security, and peace, and creating the conditions necessary for the flourishing of everything we call civilization.

The name that Karl Marx gave to this system was capitalism, because he believed that the free market was the system that empowered the owners of capital — the bourgeoisie — at the expense of the workers and peasants of the proletarian class.

The name capitalism is somewhat misleading, because free enterprise is not, in fact, a system of economics organized for the sole benefit of the property-owning classes. And yet, the advocates of free markets have not been entirely unhappy with having to use the term capitalism, precisely because capital ownership and accumulation is indeed the engine that drives the operation of a productive free market.

While the system works not to the sole benefit of the capitalists, it is certainly true that private ownership of the means of production, and the creation of this class of citizens, are crucial for us to enjoy all the glories of a productive economy to bestow themselves on society.

Along with the creation of this class comes the formation of what are called bourgeois ethics — a term used derisively to describe the habitual ways of the business class. Hard-core Marxists still use the phrase as if it described the exploiter class. More commonly, it is used by intellectuals to identify a kind of white-bread sameness and predictability that lacks an appreciation for the avant-garde.

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