Markets and Generosity

Tibor R. Machan

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A frequent, though quite unjustified, charge against free markets is that they encourage what Karl Marx called the “cash nexus,” or what is also called “commodification”: treating people like items for sale. The claim is that when people engage in commerce, they are hardhearted, stingy, or (as movie director Oliver Stone and the Occupy Wall Street crowd would have it) greedy.

But this is a complete distortion. It’s been with us for centuries; in The Republic, Plato depicted merchants as the lowest rung of humanity, only concerned about the bottom line. Marx made one of his key criticisms of capitalism that the right to private property was a defense of selfishness. But the claim was very imprecise. The right to private property does secure for one the freedom to make use of one’s life, liberty, and property as one judges fit. Yet this can involve distributing one’s labor and resources for charitable purposes, as is well demonstrated by the vast sums wealthy people give away to others. What the critics resent is that they–that is, the critics–do not get to dictate to those with property rights. Property rights secure people’s liberty to determine how they will act, what they will do with what belongs to them. The critics want to be in charge of everyone’s wealth, which is why they support the public ownership of resources–the means of production–with the concomitant policy that the state, for which the critics are happy to speak, gets to say to what end those means will be dedicated.

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