Acton Institute Powerblog

Capitalist Anthropology

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On RealClearMarkets, Mark Hunter dismantles “The End of Capitalism and the Wellsprings of Radical Hope,” by Eugene McCarraher in the Nation magazine. McCarraher’s article appears to be destined for the ash heap of Marxist utopian literature. But Hunter’s critique is valuable for his reminder that capitalism, free enterprise, the market economy — all the systems of mutually beneficial free exchange by whatever name — have actually been ingrained in human culture as far back as the ancient spice trade and probably earlier.

McCarraher’s denunciation of capitalism is in fact an attack on human nature disguised as political discourse. The “pernicious” traits he attributes to capitalism are, in fact, traits globally present in every political/social order — in many cases far worse in non-capitalistic societies — because they are traits of humanity itself.

His entire argument against capitalism consists of nothing more than an elaborate correlation-proves-causation fallacy (cum hoc ergo propter hoc – “with this, therefore because of this”). He wants us to believe that since capitalism contains greed it causes greed. Furthermore, McCarraher seems content to overlook the fact that capitalism is an organic economic system not created as much as evolving naturally as a consequence of free individuals interacting with other free individuals. Private property and the production of goods may be a part of capitalism, but its most essential virtue is as a guardian of man’s freedom.

Criticizing capitalism for its avarice is not unlike condemning representative democracy for its failure to elect the wisest of men — each may occur, but it is not relevant to their fundamental purpose. Both capitalism and representative democracy maximize freedom by diffusing power and responsibility across the broadest spectrum of society. Rigid control is antithetical to freedom and it is this that most vexes the liberal intellectual.

Hunter, a professor of humanities at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla., exposes the empty spiritual promise of collectivist schemes. McCarraher’s “radical hope” is:

… in the end enslavement. The only way to deliver mankind from the demon Mammon will be by removing the greatest gift of the gods – freedom. In this Faustian exchange we are guaranteed the Marxist security of bread, authoritarian certainty of order and utopian unity of world government.

It’s not clear if Hunter’s definition of freedom as the “gift of the gods” is meant literally, in a pantheistic sense, or is merely employed as a rhetorical flourish. But he doesn’t make McCarraher’s mistake and propose capitalism as a path to salvation (For a deep going exposition of Christian anthropology, see Metropolitan Jonah’s AU talk we posted on the PowerBlog yesterday).

Hunter defines capitalism as “an organic economic system not created as much as evolving naturally as a consequence of free individuals interacting with other free individuals. Private property and the production of goods may be a part of capitalism, but its most essential virtue is as a guardian of man’s freedom.”

Read “To Attack Capitalism Is To Attack Human Nature” on RealClearMarkets.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Roger McKinney

    Actually, a correct history of capitalism shows how unnatural it is. It is
    as unnatural as Christianity. Human nature is covetous, envious and thieving.
    Capitalism is based on the commandment that opposes human nature: though shalt
    not steal. Capitalism is God’s method of restraining the evil side of human

  • Great post by Hunter. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, describing the socialist dream as one set on a robot-centric anthropology rather than a human one (

    In response to Roger’s point, I think capitalism does indeed *protect* us from certain “natural” components of human nature — particularly the negative ones (e.g. stealing). However, unlike socialism, it does not go about this project by way of stifling human nature altogether. It recognizes that there is also something good in human nature — something that we need to leverage appropriately and enjoy the subsequent flourishing.

    From my article linked above:
    “There is a certain feature of man that is evil and corrupt, as the bloodbaths of the 20th century will be quick to illustrate, yet there is another feature of man that is good and just. It is this that needs to be leveraged, channeled, and unleashed, and it is this that socialism seeks to deny, suppress, and forbid. Authentic ‘social harmony’ is impossible without it, so in our attempts to stifle, smother, or ignore it, we should not be surprised that the world correspondingly turns into a cold cultural vacuum at best and a death-ridden Soviet gulag at worst.”I wholeheartedly agree that humans are *fallen* at a fundamental level, but whatever folks think on this (you don’t have to be Christian or believe in original sin), I think we can agree that freedom properly grasped brings out the best in us (and naturally so).Again from the article:
    “For whatever our original disposition—perfect, imperfect, or otherwise—we humans tend to thrive on freedom when we find it. If ever there was an example of this, capitalism is it. When we lose such freedom (e.g., prison), or live without it (e.g., slavery), we long for it, even if our longing is sometimes unfocused, misaligned, or just plain old difficult (e.g., the Middle East).
    To escape this fundamental craving, one assumes that a different sort of rebellion needs to take place—one aimed at the control of others rather than the control of one’s self. This is why any fantasies about “realistically sustainable” socialism are problematic: They rely on a view of humanity that is unrealistic, and in turn, they promote unreal humans. Based on such premises, true utopia—the kind we might actually enjoy—is something that cannot exist, even in theory. We can call this “idealism,” but I’m not sure it leads to ideal outcomes. We are who we are, and that is not a bad thing.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Remnant, good post! A Mises used to say, capitalism civilizes.