Not built for guilt trips.

Photographer: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Are You Rich? No Need to Apologize

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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A ripple of controversy in the world of philanthrocapitalism recently caught my attention. Anand Giridharadas gave a talk at the Aspen Institute in which, in the friendliest possible way, he called on the capitalist plutocrats who pay for such gatherings to reflect on their sins and stop imagining that writing checks to support good causes is sufficient penance.

Giridharadas, a Henry Crown Fellow of the institute, went so far as to call out the "Aspen Consensus" -- a set of shared and largely unquestioned assumptions, akin to the "Washington Consensus" or the "Davos Consensus" and so forth. The term wasn't intended as a compliment.

The Aspen Consensus, I believe, tries to market the idea of generosity as a substitute for the idea of justice. It says: make money in all the usual ways, and then give some back through a foundation, or factor in social impact, or add a second or third bottom line to your analysis, or give a left sock to the poor for every right sock you sell.

The Aspen Consensus says, “Do more good” — not “Do less harm.” 

Before going any further, I'd better declare an interest. I've attended a lot of the institute's events and now and then have run a seminar under its auspices. Earlier this year I did one, it so happens, on "The Moral Limits of Markets." The venue was a stunningly beautiful old library in Ronda, which is a stunningly beautiful medieval town in southern Spain. That was a tough assignment, I can tell you (but I believe I'd be up for it again).

The Aspen Institute's intellectual endeavors, as you can see, have a bit of an optics problem. Flying in each summer for the Aspen Ideas Festival, looking down at the fabulous homes and counting the private jets at the airport, you have to wonder if it's altogether seemly to be chatting earnestly about your carbon footprint, or the struggles of the middle class, or race in America (Ta-Nehisi Coates is a regular), or whatever, in such a location.

Yet this aesthetic dissonance has little to do with the claim that the homes and the jets are ill-gotten gains. This idea that capitalism is a morally tainted enterprise was widely shared among the young people attending my event. I wasn't surprised: It's a very popular fallacy.

The human tragedy, according to this view, is that ethically superior alternatives such as socialism don't seem to be feasible. Capitalism therefore must be tolerated. It's a necessary evil -- but, one is asked to understand, an evil nonetheless. That some of the richest capitalists want to talk about these issues and give something back is all very well, but hardly enough. They have to confront their underlying criminality too. "Do less harm."

When I think about the most successful capitalists of the age -- Bill Gates, let's say, or Steve Jobs -- I'm not mainly struck by the great harm they've done. Gates, of course, has done enormous good twice over, first as a capitalist innovator and then as a philanthropist. But even when he was single-mindedly making money, he was still doing the rest of us an immense service. And the good he did in that role resided precisely in his desire to sell us things we were free to buy or not buy -- it resided, that is, in capitalism.

Bad people will do bad things regardless of the prevailing economic system. But capitalism starts with a big ethical advantage. Capitalist acts among consenting adults are voluntary. Socialism is systemically dependent on coercion. There's a lot more to be said about this, I don't deny, about the deeper meanings of freedom and much else. All I'm claiming is that the presumption of capitalist immorality -- that set of shared and largely unexamined assumptions we'll call the Brooklyn Consensus -- is lazy.

What about the view that capitalism, however decent it might look on paper, in practice brings out the worst in people? "Greed is good," and all that. Again this is widely taken for granted; again it's questionable at best. It isn't just a matter of arguing that capitalism is better in this respect than the alternatives, though that seems to be true. An open-minded reading of history suggests that capitalism actually brings out the best in people.

Adam Smith anticipated this finding, arguing that commerce civilizes: It's a main theme of "Wealth of Nations."  For a modern elucidation of the view that capitalism makes people better as well as richer, see Deirdre McCloskey's "The Bourgeois Virtues." Benjamin Friedman's "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth" shows that over long spans of time rising prosperity has fostered tolerance, the commitment to fairness and dedication to democracy. Steven Pinker's "Better Angels of Our Nature" shows that capitalism and trade helped to end humankind's saga of perpetual war.

"Intellectual elites," Pinker says, "have always felt superior to businesspeople, and it doesn't occur to them to credit mere merchants with something as noble as peace." Giridharadas says, as though it's self-evident: "We know that enlightened capital didn’t get rid of the slave trade." Actually, I think you could argue that it did -- but even if that's going too far, advances in social justice were enabled by rising prosperity, and rising prosperity was the product of capitalist development.

The mistake in the Brooklyn Consensus is to see capitalism as morally tainted, as opposed to just morally incomplete. Social justice requires far more than a system of production and exchange. Moral questions about opportunity, inequality and what we owe each other as citizens and inhabitants of the same planet arise. That's what politics is for. Capitalism as such has no good answers -- but, far from being part of the problem, it's the indispensable condition for finding them.

No apology required.

(Corrects headline.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net