Issues & Insights

Unselfish Materialism

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Murray Rothbard once noted that “One of the most common charges leveled against the free market is that it reflects and encourages unbridled ‘selfish materialism’ … it distracts man from higher ideals. It leads man away from spiritual or intellectual values.” And predictably, one of the times such claims peak is Christmas season, making it a good time to think about such claims.

The grain of truth in such claims is that freedom in making economic arrangements does not directly address people’s ultimate, higher ends. That is because such ends are internal to each individual. However, the same thing is true of all external expedients. None directly advance higher ends. But, freedom does advance individuals’ potential for greater achievement of those ends, by offering the most effective means of reducing scarcity’s impediments.

One way to see this is to consider time spent toward ultimate goals as the total time available, minus time spent on other concerns. The less time necessary to support oneself and one’s family, the more “ultimate time” is available. This is advanced by gains in productivity, for which freedom has no peer.

When freedom is externally restricted, however, ultimate time must also be reduced by time “governors” spend trying to control, dictate, or enforce compliance on others, plus time the “governed” spend in complying with or evading those impositions. Such diversions, which increase with every alternative to, or decrease in, freedom, further detract from individuals’ ability to pursue their ultimate ends.

In other words, contrary to critics’ assertions, the worldly arrangements that freedom makes so much more productive do not keep individuals from advancing ultimate ends. They reduce the necessary burdens and distractions of earning a living. By reducing that inescapable toll on our efforts, freedom is not a substitute for those ends, but a complement to them, enabling them to be more effectively attained.

Economic freedom also requires that our efforts to advance our ultimate ends simultaneously enhance others’ efforts to advance their ultimate ends. Coercion, in contrast, advances one’s ends at the expense of others’ ends. Further, ends many choose to pursue, such as standing for the truth, having good character, being moral, honoring others’ rights, etc., also constrain the means people will use, particularly what Franz Oppenheimer termed the “political means” of coercion and taxation, and the harms they would cause others.

These effects make enhancing moral values another area in which market systems advance ultimate ends. For instance, only in a system of self-ownership and liberty is the almost universal ethical command not to steal followed rather than finessed. Hard work, prudence, thrift, and responsibility are also encouraged by freedom.

In addition, unlike any version of dictation to all, the variety of ultimate ends pursued and the various choices made as a result allow individuals to observe and compare differing results to better judge what will “work” for them in their lives.

There is also a positive relationship between the wealth created by economic freedom and the ensuing expansion of human possibilities in arts, sciences, and humanitarian actions it makes possible.

It must also be remembered that the desire for more material goods is exhibited in every economic system, not just capitalism. And while some critics assert that capitalism’s potential to produce more material goods leads people addictively down the road to monomaniacal materialism, a stronger case can be made in the other direction. It is those who lack the most basic goods who are most materialistically focused on getting them, sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything else.

There is also irony in accusations that freedom causes materialism, since obtaining increased abundance was the original argument for socialism. But socialistic organization generates more poverty, while voluntary market organization produces inconceivably greater wealth, so what was once the primary promised result of socialism has now been repurposed to accuse freedom of creating materialism.

In sum, “selfish materialism” assertions against freedom, including the market freedom called capitalism, are far from proven.

Freedom does not directly advance ultimate ends, but only because they cannot be provided through external expedients offered by any form of social organization. However, freedom does more to enable those ends than any alternative.

Freedom’s massive expansion of productivity allows people far more time and energy for pursuing ultimate goods, making freedom a complement to, rather than a substitute for, attaining ultimate ends. Freedom further requires that the pursuit of one’s ends must also expand others’ freedom to pursue their ends, while coercive alternatives contract it.

Freedom allows people to learn from others’ what is likely to better advance their ultimate ends and offers individuals the maximum potential for moral growth. It rewards responsibility and is the only system consistent with the moral prohibition of theft.

Freedom-enabled bursts of productivity and wealth generation have led to consequent outbursts of creativity and learning, improved health and humanitarian advances. It is also more likely that it is the persistent denial of the fruits of one’s labor to individuals in unfree systems, and not the greater output potential that freedom provides, that makes people, of necessity, far more materialistic.

“Selfish materialism” is intended by its users as a serious epithet against self-ownership and voluntary relations, which stand at the heart of free markets. But careful thinking reveals it as a false charge. In fact, “unselfish materialism,” enabling a better pursuit of ultimate ends, is a better characterization of economic freedom.

That is especially true when one of our most common ultimate ends is to improve the lives of our families, both now and in the future, and much that is interpreted as selfish market materialism is really an unselfish attempt to benefit others.

Free markets don’t guarantee that appropriate ends are chosen. It is always possible to shift our focus from ultimate ends to the means used to attain them. But that is true of every economic system. And freedom is the only system that does not violate others’ pursuit of the ends they have chosen. 

Gary M. Galles is professor of economics at Pepperdine University. This article is adapted from a chapter in his latest book, “Pathways to Policy Failures,” set for release this month by the American Institute for Economic Research.

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