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6. Antimarket Ethics: A Praxeological Critique

9. The Charge of “Selfish Materialism”

One of the most common charges levelled against the free market (even by many of its friends) is that it reflects and encourages unbridled “selfish materialism.” Even if the free market—unhampered capitalism—best furthers man's “material” ends, critics argue, it distracts man from higher ideals. It leads man away from spiritual or intellectual values and atrophies any spirit of altruism.

In the first place, there is no such thing as an “economic end.” Economy is simply a process of applying means to whatever ends a person may adopt. An individual can aim at any ends he pleases, “selfish” or “altruistic.” Other psychic factors being equal, it is to everyone's self-interest to maximize his monetary income on the market. But this maximum income can then be used for “selfish” or for “altruistic” ends. Which ends people pursue is of no concern to the praxeologist. A successful businessman can use his money to buy a yacht or to build a home for destitute orphans. The choice rests with him. But the point is that whichever goal he pursues, he must first earn the money before he can attain the goal.

Secondly, whichever moral philosophy we adopt—whether altruism or egoism—we cannot criticize the pursuit of monetary income on the market. If we hold an egoistic social ethic, then obviously we can only applaud the maximization of monetary income, or of a mixture of monetary and other psychic income, on the market. There is no problem here. However, even if we adopt an altruistic ethic, we must applaud maximization of monetary income just as fervently. For market earnings are a social index of one's services to others, at least in the sense that any services are exchangeable. The greater a man's income, the greater has been his service to others. Indeed, it should be far easier for the altruist to applaud the maximization of a man's monetary income than that of his psychic income when this is in conflict with the former goal. Thus, the consistent altruist must condemn the refusal of a man to work at a job paying high wages and his preference for a lower-paying job somewhere else. This man, whatever his reason, is defying the signalled wishes of the consumers, his fellows in society.

If, then, a coal miner shifts to a more pleasant, but lower-paying, job as a grocery clerk, the consistent altruist must castigate him for depriving his fellowman of needed benefits. For the consistent altruist must face the fact that monetary income on the market reflects services to others, whereas psychic income is a purely personal, or “selfish,” gain.18

This analysis applies directly to the pursuit of leisure. Leisure, as we have seen, is a basic consumers’ good for mankind. Yet the consistent altruist would have to deny each worker any leisure at all—or, at least, deny every hour of leisure beyond what is strictly necessary to maintain his output. For every hour spent in leisure reduces the time a man can spend serving his fellows.

The consistent advocates of “consumers’ sovereignty” would have to favor enslaving the idler or the man who prefers following his own pursuits to serving the consumer. Rather than scorn pursuit of monetary gain, the consistent altruist should praise the pursuit of money on the market and condemn any conflicting nonmonetary goals a producer may have—whether it be dislike for certain work, enthusiasm for work that pays less, or a desire for leisure.19 Altruists who criticize monetary aims on the market, therefore, are wrong on their own terms.

The charge of “materialism” is also fallacious. The market deals, not necessarily in “material” goods, but in exchangeable goods. It is true that all “material” goods are exchangeable (except for human beings themselves), but there are also many nonmaterial goods exchanged on the market. A man may spend his money on attending a concert or hiring a lawyer, for example, as well as on food or automobiles. There is absolutely no ground for saying that the market economy fosters either material or immaterial goods; it simply leaves every man free to choose his own pattern of spending.

Finally, an advancing market economy satisfies more and more of people's desires for exchangeable goods. As a result, the marginal utility of exchangeable goods tends to decline over time, while the marginal utility of nonexchangeable goods increases. In short, the greater satisfaction of “exchangeable” values confers a much greater marginal significance on the “nonexchangeable” values. Rather than foster “material” values, then, advancing capitalism does just the opposite.

  • 18. W.H. Hutt actually goes this far in his article, “The Concept of Consumers’ Sovereignty,” Economic Journal, March, 1940, pp. 66–77.
  • 19. It is also peculiar that critics generally concentrate their fire on profits (“the profit motive”), and not on other market incomes such as wages. It is difficult to see any sense whatever in moral distinctions between these incomes.
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