Capitalism and Western Civilization - Human Nature

William H. Young

Our commercial republic and capitalist market economy were designed for the nature of man as understood in the Western tradition. As part of that tradition, the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith, and our Founders embraced the idea of an inherent human nature with universal traits, through which individuals pursue their own material well-being and largely determine their own fate. Marxism, socialism, progressivism, and postmodern multiculturalism base their opposition to Western capitalism on the contrary concept that human nature is formed entirely by history, culture, and the state—“social constructionism,” which I elaborated here last August. We need to rediscover Smith’s and our Founders’ Western wisdom in thinking about our economic future.

Smith’s most famous work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), is wrongly seen, by critics of capitalism who usually have not read it, as favoring selfishness, avarice and greed, as noted last week. Quite to the contrary, cooperation—building upon the positive features of human nature—is its central theme. Let’s examine those features in a little more detail by returning to what Smith considered, and many others consider, his greatest book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). 
With Hutcheson and the other Scottish philosophers, Smith saw an innate moral sense which he dubbed “fellow-feeling” or “sympathy,” a natural sense of identification with other human beings. Interaction with others provides feedback from which we adjust our behavior and focus ourselves on the things that make us loved by others and by ourselves. The natural senses of conscience and sympathy guide self-interest beyond selfishness and ensure that human beings can and do live together in orderly and beneficial social organizations. Social organization is the outcome of human nature and human action, not the result of society or the state.
In Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith argued against theorizers of ideal systems of his time, such as the British Mercantilists and French Physiocrats:
The man of system…is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it….He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.
Smith provides as powerful a brief for competition and free trade, rather than “the wisdom of politicians,” as was ever written—which should be required reading for our postmodern social constructionists.
Ironically, both Smith and the Founders rejected the idea of the Physiocrats that human nature is shaped by the economy and the state, whose theory Tocqueville characterized as “absolute equality, State control of the activities of individuals, despotic legislation, and the total submerging of each citizen’s personality in the group mind”—a Gallic precursor to Marxism and social constructionism. James Madison also explicitly rejected Englishman William Godwin’s utopian concept of the perfectibility of man, correctly anticipating the destructive consequences of social constructionism.
Karl Marx held that “all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature,” explains Vernon Venable in Human Nature: The Marxian View (1945). Marx argued that the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. Man is the world of men, the State and Society. The essence of man is not an abstraction inherent in each particular individual. The real nature of man is the totality of social relations. Individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests.
Following Hegel, American universities made the doctrine of social construction of the individual by culture or the state into an article of faith in sociology and some schools of psychology. The superorganic or group mind, instead of the individual mind, became a basic tenet of social science. Progressivism and postmodern multiculturalism emphasize equality—the achievement of equal individual results through communal sharing to transform human nature. The administrative state commands the perfection of man and society by allocating status and entitlement rights—to groupsrather than to individuals.
It has become a common saying that “the trouble with socialism is socialism; the trouble with capitalism is capitalists.” We will see in later articles some of the adverse effects of the sometimes bad judgments and wrongful actions of capitalists. But socialism has a fundamental flaw: it is based on an inaccurate and misguided concept of human nature and, therefore, creates far more adverse consequences. Socialism is based on the social construction of the individual rather than the freedom of the individual.
Confounding social constructionism, the modern science of evolutionary psychology establishes that there is psychological unity of an immutable human nature with universal instincts beneath the superficial differences of physical appearance and parochial culture. Evolutionary psychology has elucidated traits of human nature, summarized by Will Wilkinson in the report Capitalism and Human Nature (Cato Institute, January/February 2005) and Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate (2003), which connote a natural social and economic order.
Humans have a deep-seated capacity for envy; as such they are envious zero-sum thinkers. They have a need for recognition or esteem from others. Human nature was forged in competition; the drive for human dominance is universal. Human nature is hierarchical; humans form hierarchies of dominance. Our civil society and competitive exchange economy provide outlets for human ambition and recognition in productive hierarchies.
Complex adaptations have evolved to benefit the individual within the social contract (our founding) tradition. The partial heritability of intelligence, conscientiousness, and antisocial tendencies imply that inequality will arise even in perfectly fair economic systems, and that there is an inherent tradeoff between equality and freedom. The human mind evolved modules for making judgments about property, a basic element of our market economy.
The most common ethos of humans is reciprocity or voluntary exchange, not theimposed communal sharing that is the basis for Marxism and socialism. This confirms Smith’s recognition of the individual’s propensities of both self-interest and consensual exchange.
Evolutionary psychology has substantiated Smith’s and our Founders’ idea of an inherent, mixed human nature. The theory of social constructionism and the group mind that has so debased Western economic and social thought is revealed as false as well as destructive. A commercial republic and market economy based on voluntary exchange of private property and goods reflects and builds upon man’s human nature. The marvelous advantage of capitalism is that it captures the motivation to self-interest and channels it in a way that encourages human cooperation and betterment.
Yet by the time most American students leave high school they have been indoctrinated in Marxist theory, social justice, and disdain for capitalism and a market economy by public education, as I described in Marxist Justice and Western Civilization. Charles Beard’s discredited An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) sows the seeds of Marxist “economic determinism,” the basis for the command societies referred to by Stephen Balch in Is Our Civilization a Bubble? (part II ). Needless to say, college instruction generally worsens rather than improves knowledge of the workings of our economic system.
Future college liberal education about our capitalist economic system, as called for in last week’s article, should include the importance of the universal traits of human nature as revealed by evolutionary psychology and how they are utilized by an exchange economy.
Next week’s article will show how the wisdom of Adam Smith and the Founders combined to form the basis for our commercial republic.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).
  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 21, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?

A reader asks, "If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?" A Hebrew expert answers....