The Source of Moral Goodness in Society

(Public Discourse)

The legal institutions of a democratic and capitalist society are not designed to give people what is good and prevent them from getting what is bad; they are designed to give people what they want and not give them what they don’t want. For this reason, some people decry capitalism and democracy as amoral. Such views are misguided. In a democratic and capitalist society, there is a certain division of labor: it is up to the people themselves to become moral individuals with moral desires, while the political and economic institutions of the society implement the individuals’ aggregated desires. In any alternative system, there are institutions not accountable to the people and powerful enough to impose their will (really the will of the individuals who control the institutions) on everyone who disagrees with them. The historical record of such institutions has been terrifying, which is the best argument in favor of democratic capitalism. It is true that, in such a system, it may be harder to be moral when your understanding of morality is different from the majority view, but at least you will not often be forced into doing what you think is wrong. You may be seduced, but you will not be coerced. Democratic capitalism is a moral system, but in this system the guardians of morality are not institutions but the people themselves. Thus we read in the Book of Wisdom, A large number of wise men is the safety of the world.

 

Robert T. Miller is a Professor of Law at Villanova University, and as of August 2012 he will be a Professor of Law and Sandler Faculty Fellow of Corporate Law at the University of Iowa.

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