By Anna Zimmerman
Mixing sharp wit with lighthearted humor, Professor Emeritus James Q. Wilson of UCLA spoke about the relationship between capitalism and morality at a lecture Monday, March 15, 2004 in the Varsity Theatre.
Quoting sources from Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx and many others, Wilson eloquently articulated both sides of the debate about the morality of capitalism.
“Some argue capitalism greatly increases inequality around the world, and that”s too high a moral price to pay,” Wilson said. “But the key to inequality is not what happens in respect to the highest and lowest paid, but what happens to the lowest paid.”
Wilson said countries must succeed in raising the level and quality of life of the poorest people.
“Capitalism in America has succeeded in raising the level of our poorest well above the poor in other countries,” he said.
Another major argument against capitalism is that it is, in and of itself, amoral. Wilson cited many aspects of human nature he does not celebrate, and noted many shabby aspects of American culture produced and paid for by capitalists.
“However, capitalism lets people alone, and when you let people alone you see what is good about them and what is bad about them,” he said. “You cannot expect to fundamentally change human nature, but capitalism depends crucially on moral judgments.”
The only way capitalism truly works is when people trust one another to play the game by the rules, he said.
Wilson used Russia”s current struggle in achieving capitalistic success as evidence of what happens when the trust in the moral order of society is lacking. The “uncollaterized loans” unique to capitalism — the receipt of a plane ticket, hotel room or suit in exchange for a promise of future payment — depend on the integrity and trust of the people involved.
Self-control is a major impetus for capitalism, Wilson said. People must learn to hold back their consumption to acquire wealth, so they may in turn invest and further the economy.
Wilson argued the religious commitment and moral order of people and societies cultivates an environment where investors can come forth. He supported Smith”s argument presented in “The Wealth of Nations,” that one day investors will exceed spenders.
Wilson offered accolades to George W. Romney, an investor in his own right, for his efforts to continue to strengthen the political and moral good of American society.
“A former automotive executive, he [Romney] accumulated enough wealth to set up a political and moral good to continue to benefit society. He understood the moral order under which society operates must be strengthened and it is the responsibility of the prudent to do so,” he said.
Wilson said a democratic society can be nothing but capitalist. Democracy lends itself to the success of capitalism while other forms of government stifle it. For example, he said, a socialist society is not likely to be a successfully capitalist society.
“You cannot be democratic and socialist. Democracy and capitalism are too closely intertwined,” he said.
Alexis de Tocqueville”s argument that people prefer equality to liberty is still the greatest threat to capitalism, he said.
“Liberty protects few, equality benefits all at once and immediately,” he said.
Wilson said de Tocqueville was “too gloomy in his assumption” and noted strong American adherence to the ideal of freedom.
“The choice is difficult,” said Josh Daniels, an economics major from Topeka, Kan. “Whenever the government tries to make people more equal, they take away freedoms.”
Wilson said the balance is difficult to strike. Equality can be promised in four years, when candidates run for president they strive to provide equality for citizens. Freedom, on the other hand, cannot be given.
“It”s a good question we”ll be asking in the next few years as we watch our own political evolution,” Daniels said.
Brady Burr, 23, from Springville, said the lecture helped dispel many misconceptions.
“Each criticism was categorically laid out and refuted from a logical standpoint rather than ideological,” he said.
Wilson received the nation”s highest civil honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President George W. Bush in 2003. His accomplishments include serving on a number of presidential and White House commissions, boards and advisory committees, serving as president of the American Political Scientists Association and receiving two prestigious awards for his exemplary work and scholarship in the field.
The Long Beach, Calif. native is this year”s Romney Lecturer for the George W. Romney Institute of Public Management. The trust fund of the Romeny Institute offers scholarships and funding for faculty research and class development.
Wilson spoke to the Utah Chapter of the American Society of Public Administration on Monday and will speak to MPA students about “Our Churches and Constitution” today, March 16, 2004 as part of his lecture series.