Human Nature and Capitalism the Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

In this regard, Sayer advises that:

The distinctiveness [of bourgeois capitalism] lies as much in its organization of production. It is the continuous and rational employment of capital in a productive enterprise for the acquisition of profit, especially in industry which is characteristically modern. Bourgeois capitalism alone has produced a rational organization of labor, which nowhere previously existed.

Of course, not everyone has experienced the Horatio Alger "Ragged Dick" rags-to-riches story in the United States, but the fact remains that capitalism provides the opportunity for success in ways that are simply not made available in other economic systems, particularly those that are strictly controlled by the state. The pursuit of filthy lucre since the Industrial Revolution made it possible to do pursue wealth in the United States in even more efficient ways, and Marx and like-minded theorists maintain that this has created a lopsided system wherein capitalism must be regarded with suspicion and fear because of what is can do to those who are not up to its challenges, or so the argument goes.

In reality, though, the United States was fully intended to be a "bourgeois capitalist" society from the outset, and the Founding Fathers were proud of the fact. In fact, they ensured that capitalist values were installed as part of the nation's heritage. It was the Founders' view that it was human nature to enjoy liberty and be free in every sense of the term in ways that would contribute to the nation's collective success. For example, Kmiec (2005) reports that, "While certain aspects of who we are, such as nationality or ethnic ancestry, may be culturally or serendipitously determined, there is a truth to human nature which, if not observed, corrupts or destroys life and any exercise of freedom dependent upon it. Human nature and the natural law it reflects are inescapable."

In fact, it is the capitalist society and government that have provided the framework in which the collective efforts of millions of Americans have created enormous wealth where none existed before, but the infrastructure had to be installed before these desirable outcomes could be achieved. In this area, at least, capitalism conforms to Marxian concepts about stages of capitalist societies and how it just represents one phase in human social evolution. On their way to social, political and economic perfection, Marx and his associates argued that capitalism was a natural but undesirable phase and things would likely be better if humans could simply avoid this step altogether. These pie-in-the-sky views about what really drives the human best, though, ignore the realities of how people act in their own self-interest irrespective of the economic model that is in place. More importantly, it is hard to argue with success and capitalism has a proven track record while the communist nations have largely folded their socialist cards and conceded that it is "glorious to become wealthy."

For the Founding Fathers, though, capitalism was not a phase but rather the fundamental structure that the United States would follow in fulfilling its destiny by providing some constraints on liberty that were dictated by the invisible hand rather than the federal government. For example, this view of human nature and capitalism was specifically addressed Hamilton in Federalist 15 wherein he asks "why, if man is naturally free, has government been instituted at all?" The answer provided by Hamilton is "blunt and rests squarely on a claim about human nature": "Government is instituted because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint. Liberty without restraint will not lead to private or public good."

Capitalism, then, is just when the Founding Fathers called for when they were looking for the right approach to delivering on their promises of a free meritocracy where peoples' success was limited only by their own abilities and wherewithal. Certainly, even the best capitalist society will have a few bad apples, but Hamilton was making it clear that without the invisible hand to place some constraints on Americans' human nature, the natural outcome would be more reflective of the Ku Klux Klan or other elitist organizations rather than an altruistic society where individualism and material success were celebrated. In this regard, Kmeic cites another reference concerning human nature and the Founding Fathers:

It is to be expected that men in a collective or group will act badly because the regard to reputation has a less active influence. Think about it, Hamilton admonishes: Liberty will be badly used if joining together obscures accountability. Moreover, a spirit of faction will aggravate these intrinsic human aspects, thereby magnifying the resulting harms. In a group, we will ally with others of like mind in a shameless way to disadvantage or harm others. We will be inclined to use our liberty to pursue improprieties and excesses, for which [we] would blush in a private capacity. The desire for liberty to be well used, once 'we the people' were united in political society, greatly motivated the Founders.

Other authorities have weighed in on the relationship between human nature and its manifestation in capitalistic economic systems. For example, Akerlof and Shiller (2010) emphasize that, "Human nature remains as powerful a force as ever. People are still every bit as concerned about fairness, still vulnerable to the temptations of corruption, still repulsed when others are revealed in their evil deeds, still confused by inflation, still dominated in their thinking by empty stories rather than economic reasoning."

In capitalist societies in general and the United States in particular, people with the type of human nature that distinguishes them as successful are widely regarded as being the best, irrespective of how they may have gotten to the top of their profession. In this regard, Leicester, Modgil and Modgil (2000) emphasize that, "The most highly valued persons are those who are successful in life endeavors. Central virtues are, therefore, a matter of actual achievements, actual successes, actual abilities and skills, actual excellences."

Some observers question the type of overwhelming emphasis that is placed on material success in the United States, and cite flagrant abuses of the system by corporate leaders as examples of how capitalism fails the average citizen. For instance, Leicester et al. (2000) caution that, "Rampant individualism leads to a form of 'casino capitalism' in which people would relate to one another like players at the roulette table; the winners would be applauded while the losers quietly place the loaded pistol in their mouths."

This type of rampant abuse of capitalist systems is what is likely envisioned by critics of bourgeois capitalism such as Marx who argued that capitalism exploits workers while enriching a few lucky elitists who run everything from an evil cabal.


The research showed that human nature is a complex combination of patterns, attitudes and ideas that some theorists maintain are fluid and malleable while others argue that human nature is innate and unchangeable. The research indicated, though, that human nature appears to be socially acquired and it therefore relative and dependent on time and geography. The type of human nature that is prevalent should therefore provide a useful measure of a civilization's values, mores and priorities at a given point in time. When a civilization establishes ways for people to do good things and get rewarded for them, more people will do good things. Conversely, when civilizations make it difficult to perform acts that are in individuals' best self-interest, they will likely respond by finding alternatives. Since human nature responds to these environmental conditions over time, societies that balance altruistic values with the individualism and competitiveness that drives capitalism, can achieve far more than the ill-conceived Marxist model. Because people are just people, human nature remains influential in shaping peoples' responses to environment circumstances. In virtually every setting, human nature can best be applied in capitalist societies. In the final analysis, capitalism provides a proven framework in which the invisible hand can operate efficiently, helping to raise all boats with this economic tide by placing sorely needed restraints on humankind's human nature to do otherwise.


Akerlof, G.A. & Shiller, R.J. (2010). Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

Heilbroner, R.L. (1985). The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. New York W.W. Norton.

Kmiec, D.W. (2005, Fall). The Human Nature of Freedom and Identity - We Hold More Than

Random Thoughts. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 29(1), 33-35.

Leicester, M., Modgil, C. & Modgil, S. (2000). Systems of Education: Theories, Policies, and Implicit Values. London: Falmer Press

LeFave, S.A. (2007, Feburary 28). Nietszche: Master and slave morality. Ethics and ideology.

[online] available:

Sayer, D. (1999). Capitalism and Modernity: An Excursus on Marx and Weber. New York:


Scheibe, K.E. (1995). Self…

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