D. Promoting societal virtues

Promoting a peaceful and harmonious society

The social harmony that results from a market order should be of great interest to those concerned with moral issues. Dinesh D’Souza offers New York City as an example:

We see the evidence in New York, which presents an amazing sight to the world. Tribal and religious battles, such as we see in Lebanon, Mogadishu, Kashmir, and Belfast, don’t happen here. In New York restaurants, white and African-American secretaries have lunch together.

In Silicon Alley, Americans of Jewish and Palestinian descent collaborate on e-commerce solutions and play racquetball after work. Hindus and Muslims, Serbs and Croats, Turks and Armenians, Irish Catholics and British Protestants, all seem to have forgotten their ancestral differences and joined the vast and varied parade of New Yorkers.[1]

Adam Smith was among the first to see how the impersonal, nondiscriminatory free market seemed to protect everyone. Edward Cole- son writes:

Smith had discovered to his amazement that the true long-range selfinterest of each individual was compatible with everyone else’s welfare, that what was good for one was best for all. . . . As Smith said, the businessman in seeking his own interest is “led by an invisible hand” to promote the general welfare, “an end which was no part of his intention.” . . . What is good for the farmer is good for the consumer, what is good for labor is good for management, what is good for Russia, Red China, Cuba and other friendlier neighbors is good for the United States and vice versa.[2]

But isn’t the free market competitive and overly ambitious? Yes, the free market does encourage strong competition. But, remarkably, it also encourages strong cooperation and social harmony.

It is enlightening to contrast the differences between market solutions and political solutions concerning two potentially contentious issues. P. J. Hill, professor emeritus of economics at Wheaton College and senior fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana, explains why arguments over creationism versus evolution are so heated, but not arguments over meat-eating versus vegetarianism:

There have always been conflicts over teaching the origins of mankind. School boards, which must make collective decisions, generally have to decide to teach either that human beings were created or that they evolved. Such decisions are fraught with conflict. People who disagree with a board’s decision march, write letters to the newspaper, lobby, hire lawyers, and in general become quite exercised. This is almost inevitable when highly emotional issues are involved since any collective decision (political), including one made by a majority vote, is likely to be contrary to the wishes of the minority. Thus the decision makers are in a no-win situation. If the board allows creationism to be taught, evolutionists will be irate. If they decide to teach evolution, creationists will be outraged.

In contrast, consider the decision to be vegetarian or carnivorous. There are individuals who feel every bit as strongly about these issues as those involved in the origins of mankind debate. Nevertheless there is little chance that a decision about diet will generate public controversy. Diet is not determined by a collective decision making process.

The point is, leave it in the private sector market and people will interact peacefully about it. The person who believes that avoiding meat is healthier or morally correct can pursue such a diet without arguing with the meat eater. Advocates of a meat diet can find producers and grocers eager to satisfy their desires. In fact, vegetarians and meat eaters can shop at the same stores, pushing their carts past each other with no conflict. It is the absence of collective decision making that permits this peaceful proximity.

The social harmony that results from a market order should be of great interest to those concerned with moral issues. People of very different cultures, values, and world views can live together without rancor under a system of private rights and markets. A market order requires only minimal agreement on personal goals or social end states.[3]

Peaceful, fair, accountable, and harmonious societies all flowing from property rights and a system of free markets under law? Remarkable.

Here is one more story on the efficacy of property rights—in this case, among children. Have you ever seen two children quarreling over a toy? Such squabbles were commonplace in Katherine Hussman Klemp’s household. But in The Sesame Street Parents’ Guide, she tells how she created peace among her eight children by assigning property rights to toys.

As a young mother, Klemp often brought home games and toys from garage sales. “I rarely matched a particular item with a particular child,” she says. “Upon reflection, I could see how the fuzziness of ownership easily led to arguments. If everything belonged to everyone, then each child felt he had a right to use anything.”

To solve the problem, Klemp introduced two simple rules. First, she would never bring anything into the house without assigning clear ownership to one child. The owner would have ultimate authority over the use of the property. Second, the owner would not be required to share. Before the rules were in place, Klemp recalls, “I suspected that much of the drama often centered less on who got the item in dispute and more on who Mom would side with.” Now, property rights, not parents, would settle the arguments.

Instead of teaching selfishness, the introduction of property rights actually promoted sharing. The children were secure in their ownership and knew they could always get their toys back. Adds Klemp, “‘Sharing’ raises their self-esteem to see themselves as generous persons.”

Not only do her children value their own property rights, but they also respect the property of others. “Rarely do our children use each other’s things without asking first, and they respect a ‘No’ when they get one. Best of all, when someone who has every right to say ‘No’ to a request says ‘Yes,’ the borrower sees the gift for what it is and says ‘Thanks’ more often than not,” says Klemp.26

Since private property rights are human rights, every person has the right to use his property or exchange it. Any restriction on private property increases the probability of disagreement. Private property rights not only protect individual liberty, but as Dr. Hill’s and Mrs. Klemp’s examples point out, all humans, young or old, benefit when everyone knows who owns what, and public ownership and collective decisions are minimized. Economic history also shows that without property rights, human rights deteriorate and are often lost. The loss of economic freedom seriously affects all the other rights individuals desire.

  • [1] Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About America (New York: Penguin, 2002), 93.
  • [2] Edward Coleson, “Capitalism and Morality,” in The Morality of Capitalism, ed. Mark W. Hendrickson(Irving-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996), 20.
  • [3] P. J. Hill, “Markets and Morality,” in Hendrickson, The Morality of Capitalism, 97.
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