The legal institutions of capitalism exist not to advance any particular purpose, says Robert T. Miller, but to facilitate the advancement by individuals of their various, often conflicting purposes:
As this article in the Wall Street Journal explains, Missy Franklin, a seventeen year-old from Colorado who won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke last week, has steadfastly refused lucrative endorsement contracts. Why? Because she wants to preserve her amateur status so that she can swim competitively in college. In other words, she prefers competing to money. Happily, the economic freedom of capitalism includes not only the freedom to make money but also the freedom not to make money, if one so chooses. That’s an important lesson. If most people in Ms. Franklin’s position choose the money, that just shows that they have desires and views about the human good different from hers.
I can imagine some scolds arguing that, although Ms. Franklin’s is the better course, many young people with her opportunities would go for the money because they are seduced into doing so, and thus there should be legal limits on offering phenomenal young athletes endorsement contracts. Now, some people in Ms. Franklin’s position are no doubt seduced: they honestly believe that they should forgo riches, but they choose them anyway because they cannot control their desires. That certainly happens. But these scolds miss a bigger point, which is that some people honestly believe that going for the money is the best option. There is a very wide range for legitimate disagreement about what’s good and what’s bad in individual cases, and for some people like Ms. Franklin, given their individual circumstances, which could well be different from hers, taking the money may well be the right choice. The person best positioned to make this decision—meaning the person with the best information and indeed the moral responsibility for the choice—is the individual himself. The freedom provided by capitalist economies thus leads both to better choices (because individual decisions are made by people with superior knowledge of individual circumstances—a Hayekian point) and places moral responsibility where it belongs, with individual human beings.