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.
Usually it is used to describe people who have an affection for hometown, faith, and family, and a suspicion of lifestyle experiments and behaviors that skirt commonly accepted cultural norms. But those who use the term derisively are not generally appreciative of the extent to which bourgeois ethics make possible the lifestyle of all classes, including the intellectual class.
The bourgeoisie is a class of savers and contract keepers, people who are concerned for the future more than the present, people with an attachment to family. This class of people cares more for their children’s welfare, and for work and productivity, than for leisure and personal indulgence.
The virtues of the bourgeoisie are the traditional virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Each has an economic component — many economic components in fact.
Prudence supports the institution of saving, the desire to get a good education to prepare for the future, and the hope to pass on an inheritance to our children.
With justice comes the desire to keep contracts, to tell the truth in business dealings, and to provide compensation to those who have been wronged.
With temperance comes the desire to restrain oneself, to work before play, which shows that prosperity and freedom are ultimately supported by an internal discipline.
With fortitude comes the entrepreneurial impulse to set aside inordinate fear and to forge ahead when faced with life’s uncertainties. These virtues are the foundation of the bourgeoisie, and the basis of great civilizations.
But the mirror image of these virtues shows how the virtuous mode of human behavior finds its opposite in public policies employed by the modern state. The state sets itself against bourgeois ethics and undermines them, and the decline of bourgeois ethics allows the state to expand at the expense of both freedom and virtue.
In the Western religious tradition, the Seven Deadly Sins are not the only ones. They are called the deadly ones because in traditional teaching, they result in spiritual death. Let’s take each one in turn.
This is also called pride, or, more precisely, excessive or disproportionate pride. We know what it means for a person to be excessively vainglorious or prideful. It means that he puts his interests before that of anyone else, even if doing so may cause harm to another. It is the overestimation of the worth of oneself and one’s interests and entitlements at the expense of others.
In public policy, we can think of many pressure groups who believe their interests are more important than anyone else’s. In fact, this trait of vainglory describes the appalling clamor for all sorts of new rights. We have disability lobbyists who believe they are entitled to violate everyone else’s property rights and freedom for their own sake.
The same is true of many groups identified by various racial and sexual categories. They are convinced by their own pride to believe that they are owed special privileges. The rule of law and its equal application becomes distorted by the demands of the few against the many.
This is hardly the route to long-term social peace. Consider the issue of discrimination in hiring. Why anyone would want to work for an employer who does not really want to hire him is beyond me. In a competitive market, employers are permitted to discriminate, but the costs of discriminatory hiring are wholly born by the employer, whose success or failure is determined by the consumer.
Because employers are in competition with each other, everyone can find a place for himself within the vast network of the division of labor. The pride that leads to short-circuiting this process is not in the long-term interests of society.
The same is true of nations. There is nothing wrong with having a natural and normal pride in one’s nation. But to be vainglorious and to overestimate the merit of one’s nation can have bad economic effects. Among these bad effects may be chauvinism and belligerence in foreign affairs, as well as mercantilism in international trade policy.
If, for example, we are so convinced that American steel is so much better than foreign steel that we must punish any foreigner who would attempt to sell us steel, we are guilty of vainglory. We are also doing ourselves economic harm by forcing consumers of steel — at all stages of production — to pay higher prices for lesser quality steel than would prevail in a free market.
This is an unsustainable state of affairs. Any industry that is protected from competition becomes ever less efficient. The nation that comes to practice this form of mercantilism can end up producing all sorts of things inefficiently, and displacing new lines of production that would be efficient but are not being undertaken.
Pride in public policy can result in a failure to use critical intelligence in assessing our system of government. We might say, for example, that the United states is the greatest nation on earth. But does that mean that our tax and regulatory polices are what they should be, and that to criticize them is somehow anti-American? Not by any means. To say so is to be guilty of vainglory.
The truth is that the US system of government is gravely flawed and woefully contrary to most of what the founders hoped to bring about when they set up a new government.
The framers never imagined such a thing as the monstrous Department of Homeland Security, or an income tax, or a Federal Reserve, or a far-flung military empire that spends more than most of the world’s other nations combined.
These institutions and the change of public-policy culture generally have created the most vainglorious state in the history of the world, especially under the leadership of the current president, whose speeches and statements give new meaning to the word messianic.
Western civilization over the last 2,000 years has regarded anger as a grave vice because it leads to destruction rather than peace and productivity. Thus the institution of courts in domestic affairs and diplomacy in foreign affairs.
But in our own country, the taboo against anger in public affairs came to be violated, in particular by the war crimes of federal armies during the civil war. Civilians were deliberately targeted. Homes were looted, crops were burned, livestock killed. This was an expression of anger.
The institutionalization of anger has persisted ever since, in massacres of civilians in the Philippines, in the hunger blockade of World War I, in the bombing of cities in World War II, in the destruction of churches in the war on Serbia, and in the war on Iraq, 11 years running.
When officials say they are angry and plan to unleash Hell on some foreign country, they are partaking in this deadly vice, which also has cultural effects.
The man who was behind the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building developed his taste for violent anger during the first Gulf War. Many of the killers who have shot up public schools were later revealed to be obsessed with military means and wars.
What lesson is the current generation learning from the speeches and attitudes of the current ruling class and its taste for blood? I shudder to think.
The modern military arsenal, combined with a shredding of all restraints on what is permissible and impermissible in warfare, has unleashed the angry state on the world. Its relentless mode in foreign policy is vengeance, and its main product is human suffering and death.
Again, this is a word hardly heard anymore. Envy is not the same as jealousy. Jealousy is merely wishing that you enjoyed the same property and status as another. Envy means the desire to harm someone else solely because he enjoys some quality, virtue, or possession, and you do not. It is the desire to destroy the success or good fortune of another.
In the current round of corporation bashing, I fear the unleashing of envy against people because of their personal accomplishments. And we see the work of envy in the redistributionist welfare state.
Some people say that what matters most is not that the welfare state helps the poor but rather that it hurts the rich. So too with the inheritance tax, which collects relatively little revenue, but does grave damage to would-be family dynasties.
How many Congressional speeches against the business class and the rich are driven by this deadly sin? All too many. Antitrust policy that seeks to smash a business solely because it is big and successful is a working out of envy. I recall an article by Michael Kinsley several years ago in Slate magazine that honestly asked the question: what is wrong with envy?
Nothing, he concluded. In fact, he rightly observed, it is the foundation of much modern public policy. Even so, it is a deadly sin. It is one that will destroy society if it is fully unleashed. And nowhere is it more relentlessly unleashed than within the culture of the state itself, which attacks success in business and private life in every way.
A century ago, many private dynasties had more wealth at their disposal than the federal government. Would the modern Envy State tolerate such a thing? Not likely. All wealth apart from the state’s own is up for grabs, but particularly dynastic wealth.
The related sin of desiring to grasp what belongs to another, through whatever means one can assemble, is also socially harmful. Through taxation and welfare programs, the state is effectively blessing the sin of covetousness.
Now, let us be clear. To covet something is not the same as an innocent desire to improve one’s lot in life. This is a good impulse, one that drives people to succeed. Covetousness is different because it cares nothing for the means used to achieve one’s goals.
Instead of productive exchange, covetousness resorts to theft, whether private theft or public theft that uses the government. We saw covetousness turn to a public clamor after the collapse in stock prices in 2000 and following, when the public demanded that the Fed do something to stop their investments from going belly-up.
Here again, we see the desire for money outstrip the moral consideration of how precisely this money is to be acquired. And the more the state feeds the sin of covetousness, the more of it we are likely to see, and the more bourgeois ethics fall into disuse.
The modern state is nothing if not covetous. It has its gaze constantly fixed on our liberty, privacy, wealth, and independence, and desires to take through any means possible. In the covetous state, liberty is always declining, the percentage of wealth subject to taxation always growing, and the ability for institutions and individuals to thrive apart from government blessing always in doubt.
We think of gluttony as solely related to eating. But it can also mean the excessive desire for comfort, luxury, and leisure at the expense of work and productivity. Senior citizens’ lobbies, when they demand that the public provide comfy living for all septuagenarians at the expense of young workers, are playing into the deadly sin of gluttony.
The problem doesn’t only afflict seniors. It is a problem among the poor, who have been conditioned by the welfare state to believe they are entitled to live well without earning their money. Interestingly, rates of obesity among the poor far outstrip those among the bourgeoisie.
The pervasiveness of gluttony also shows up in the appalling consumer debt load. This implies a desire to consume now regardless of the later consequences. The gluttonous consumer cares nothing about the long term, only that his appetite is satisfied today.
The Federal Reserve encourages this deadly sin through loose credit policies and bailouts, which create the illusion that there is no downside to living for the present at the expense of the future. So too with the policy of inflation, which encourages us to spend money today because it will have less buying power tomorrow. Inflation institutionalizes the sin of gluttony and makes it appear rational.
It only takes a quick look at a detailed map of Washington, DC, to see the ultimate display of gluttony, for land, money, and power. From the point of view of the state, it never has enough land, money, and power. It eats and eats, grows ever fatter, and you take a risk in merely pointing this out.
The story of how the welfare state has created a slothful class is an old one, hardly disputed anymore, but no less true. The promise of something for nothing at others’ expense has corrupted the poor, but also the aged and another group as well: students between the ages of 18 and 25.
On the aged, it is pathetic to see how a class of people that should be leading society with wisdom and through experience, to the highest ideals, has become a grasping group of vacationers with ever more time on their hands. Let us be clear: in a free society, there is no right to retirement, and certainly no right to a comfortable retirement. The concept itself was invented by the late New Deal. Before then, sloth was something to be purchased with one’s own money. Now, one can enjoy it via the tax state.
As for students, our school system has socialized them into believing that the more official credentials one earns, the more one has the right to extract from society, a payment in return for blessing the world with one’s mere presence. Talk to anyone who is in the hiring business these days. He will tell you that it is extremely rare to find a young person who understands that employment is not a tribute paid but an exchange of work for wages. All these trends are worse in Europe, where school welfare is more generous — but we are catching up.
The subsidization of sloth creates a vicious circle. The more the state rewards not working, the less people have by way of personal and financial resources to live independently from the state. The slothful are naturally inclined to develop dependencies, which is exactly the way the state likes it.
Meanwhile, consider the slothfulness of the state itself. There is no more risk-averse class than the bureaucratic one. Whether it is in the FDA process of approving drugs or the loan-application department at HUD, getting bureaucrats to work is like getting hogs to run a race.
Some years ago, a federal bureaucrat sent us the following article, to which he refused to attach his name. It noted,
What draws people to government work? What keeps them there for a lifetime? It’s simple: overcompensation, huge benefits, and great working conditions. It’s attractive to sign up and nearly impossible to leave…. What would I lose if I left the government? The short work week would be out the window…. Right now, I can spend 8.7 percent of my work time on vacation. That’s six weeks per year in perpetuity…. I could also forget about the unofficial “bennies”: for example, I take an hour-long jog every day, followed by a shower and a leisurely lunch. It keeps me in tip-top condition for my vacations. And shopping excursions during work are always possible. What about stress? If relaxation lengthened life, bureaucrats would live to be 150 years old.
And yet, in this one area, perhaps we should be grateful. The only thing worse than the slothful state is an energized one that awakes early to take away our liberty.
This is thought of as a personal problem only. But we see its destructiveness at work in any government policy that fails to appreciate the family as the foundation of bourgeois society. In public life today, we pretend as if the family is dispensable, when it is the essential bulwark between the individual and the state.
Thoughtful economists like Ludwig von Mises and Joseph Schumpeter saw that the family is the training ground for the ethics of capitalism. It is here where we learn about the evil of theft and to respect others’ property, to save and to plan for the future, to keep our word.
It is no accident that Marxists have long sought to smash the family as an institution, and reduce all of society to atomistic individuals who lack the resources to provide security for themselves and who inevitably turn to the state, instead of parents and kin, for help.
These are the Seven Deadly Sins, and in each case, and in a hundred ways I have not mentioned, current government policy encourages them at the expense of bourgeois ethics, which are the ethics of a free market, of a society that is productive, peaceful, and secure from arbitrary power.
Why do we hear so little of the Seven Deadly Sins? Perhaps because no institution is more gluttonous, covetous, prideful, or angry than the state itself. In the private sector, market institutions correct these abuses over time. In the state, with no market test and no check on unethical behavior, these deadly sins thrive with a vengeance.
I am by no means despairing of the future of the bourgeoisie. If there were a danger that this class could be destroyed, 60 or so years of government policy designed to kill it would have accomplished its goal by now.
And yet, we should not become complacent. To the same degree that so many current political struggles are reduced to a conflict of cultures, our best means of fighting back is to live and practice bourgeois ethics in our homes, communities, and businesses.
Let us instead recall the four great bourgeois virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, and, in doing so, do our part to build freedom and prosperity, even in our times. May we never take these cultural foundations of our civilization for granted.