“Punishment Capitalism,” The Curious Motivations of Some Supporters of Free Markets

by Andrew Russell

One of the more twisted maladays that the concept of “Fusionism” has inflicted upon us pro-market advocates is an attitude towards markets I like to call “Punishment Capitalism” (not inherently related to the similar sounding “Sado-Monetarism”). The concept of Fusionism, by which advocates of liberty could justify noncoercion as a means to Conservative ends, was first proposed by Frank Meyer; editor of the intellectually toxic “National Review” magazine. Previously, I have discussed the problems of Fusionism, for example how it forces libertarians to justify freedom as a means (implying that freedom is not a worthy goal in and of itself), and also how it was the libertarians who provided all the intellectual ammunition and cultural assets (i.e. Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter and Friedman re-conquering academic economics for markets, Rand and Heinlein who injected the ideas of liberty into popular discourse) yet it was the conservatives that grabbed all the political power. Regardless, the ever-widening faultlines between conservatism and libertarianism are rendering Meyerian Fusionism obsolete. This article will look not at Fusionism itself, but at the attitude of Punishment Capitalism, which the Fusionists frequently carry and have spread.

Fusionism grants us an uneasy tension between the antiauthoritarianism of libertarianism and the authoritarianism of conservatism. Fusionism’s economic attitude of Punishment Capitalism is the perfect example of this tension. Since the Fusionist evaluates on the basis of conservative standards of value, the Fusionist cannot see value in a nonauthoritarian portrayal of Capitalism. As such, the Fusionist must justify Capitalism as an instrument of control and punishment. Under Punishment Capitalism, people make money by “working hard” as opposed to “working creatively.” Under Punishment Capitalism, people work out of “duty to their loved ones” rather than “rational selfishness.” Under Punishment Capitalism, entrepreneurs are portrayed as “Christlike martyrs slaving away in the office” rather than adventurous, creative Richrd Bransons who probably adore their career. Under Punishment Capitalism, to truly enjoy one’s job instantly raises suspicion that it is not “real work,” rather than to see a truly rewarding career as a great thing. To the Punishment Capitalist, the market is a Drill Sergeant ordering producers to strain in blistering heat to produce a product with a very low price. During my following critique, please keep in mind that my favorite scene in Full Metal Jacket is when R. Lee Ermey’s character gets shot. The prick deserved it.

Economic activities tend to be categorizable as either production or consumption. Innovation may be seen as production of ideas. Regardless, the attitudes in each category that Punishment Capitalism has are as follows:

Production is seen as not a means to an end, but like a Kantian perfect duty. One must have some form of constant labor. In addition, this labor cannot be a joyous process to the individual, for that would mean it is ‘play’ rather than work. The entrepreneur is as such someone that suffers, as are all workers. The pain of production is strongly emphasized, work is ‘hard’ and the harder the work, the ‘better’ the product. In the sphere of consumption, however, it is declared that consumption is ignoble, after all consumption grants pleasure. Entrepreneurs that enjoy the rewards of their labor are derided as “playboys.” Inherited wealth is seen not as good fortune, but as the product of some sort of moral theft, and the heir instantly has some additional burden of proof of character thrust upon him.

It is no surprise that this attitude is a descendant of the Protestant Work Ethic. The Calvinist belief that constant labor is a sign of personal salvation makes all those nervous “have I really been saved?” Calvinists labor. Although I disagree with Max Weber’s belief that Calvin is responsible for Capitalism, it is unquestionable that the Calvinist work ethic is responsible for Punishment Capitalism. The Calvinist ethic is based, eventually, on the assumption (prevalent in almost every sort of Christianity) that sufferring is good for the soul. This idea is the Platonic hangover induced by the mind-body dichotomy which reveres the transcendent and damns the physical. As such, to the Punishment Capitalist, production is noble as a form of punishing, disciplining and chaining the physical, as some sort of penance for Original Sin maybe.

The political implications of Punishment Capitalism are as follows. To the Punishment Capitalist, although they will strongly support Capitalism is certain respects, they will have at least some sympathy with many forms of regulation. For one, industries that deal more closely with pleasures (be they the sex, drugs (illegal), entertainment or gambling) will always be regarded as shady, and as such may be regulated. Luxury taxes will also have some sympathy, since luxuries are regarded as hedonistic and excessive and sinful. Sin taxes (alcohol, cigarettes, etc) will also recieve at best mild opposition from Punishment Capitalists. What will be opposed, with religious zeal, is any form of social safety net. Although opposing safety nets is not unique to Punishment Capitalism, the key feature is why this opposition exists. Most libertarians disagree with safety nets, not because they aim to help the poor, but because they are funded by coercive taxation. A Punishment Capitalist, however, sees the evil of welfare not in the source of funding but in the act of welfare itself: it consists of funding an intrinsic moral depravity (laziness). In the debate over taxation, Punishment Capitalists will argue for consumption taxes over income taxes, rather than see all taxes as equally theft.

Unfortunately, Ayn Rand was not completely free of the spectre of Punishment Capitalism (although she was not necessarily a proponent). I give you the example of Hank Rearden’s hatred of Francisco d’Anconia in “Atlas Shrugged.” d’Anconia was hated for being a “worthless playboy” and a “destroyer of wealth” (as if piles of gold have an inherent value? Sounds much too Aristotelian-Intrinsicist for Ayn Rand). Although there is some evidence that Rand herself disapproved of anti-consumption positions, for example when Ragnar tells Rearden to spend a refunded gold ingot exclusively on his personal consumption, it is very easy to read Rand as supporting a Neo-Puritan belief that production via back-breaking effort is intrinsically moral (regardless of the fact that this attitude would contradict Rand’s technical philosophy on numerous levels).

Regardless, Rand critiqued how conservatives argued for Capitalism on the basis of human depravity. She described the argument as saying man is not good enough to be enslaved, and he must be punished with freedom. Extending Rand’s argument, to the Punishment Capitalist, there is no better punishment then being cast out of the Garden (or Welfare State) of Eden and forced to suffer and labor and sweat for our meager rations. To the Punishment Capitalist, constant and unending labor as an end in itself is the most effective set of chains ever devised and the perfect way to force men to virtue.

No wonder the conservatives are such pathetic defenders of Capitalism. In addition to the aforementioned sympathies for certain forms of political intervention that Punishment Capitalism gives, the ethical implications of Punishment Capitalism totally go against the teleological nature of human action as explained by the Austrian economists. Human beings produce because they need to consume. To induce guilt over consumption is to render production purposeless. They are, paradoxically, attempting to bake their cake and not eat it, too. They want factories and skyscrapers and workshops without Las Vegas and Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessey. Eventually, in trying to make the production of wealth a sacrifice, they only succeed in encouraging public decadence and worldliness by producing the stuff in the first place.

Given the vehemence of my critique, one may legitimately suspect that I, the author, am overstating my case. Whilst I understand why someone would come to this conclusion, I am not overstating my case, and I offer as evidence a quote from the conservative Roman Catholic commentator Dinesh D’Souza (known popularly for ‘debating’ Christopher Hitchens by accusing him of alcoholism whilst repeatedly invoking the Dostoyevsky Gambit (“If God is Dead, Everything is Permitted”) in spite of Hitchens’ repeatedly showing that said gambit is false). D’Souza, in his book “The Virtue of Prosperity,” attempts to morally justify capitalism on traditional, religious moral grounds. His ultimate conclusion is that Capitalism is good because Capitalism “makes us better people by limiting the scope of our vices” and “civilizes greed, just as marriage civilizes lust” [p. 126]. In other words, the goodness of Capitalism is that it restrains us from our vices, being chained to a desk prevents us from being able to indulge our greed. Capitalism is, to D’Souza, a punishment mechanism that essentially forms an economic chastity belt around humanity, and it is this that makes Capitalism an engine of taming the beasts that, to D’Souza, we are.

Thankfully, there is an alternative. This alternative is an understanding of Capitalism as a life-affirming, benevolent system. Philosophically, this alternative requires rejecting the anti-flesh attitudes of the Protestant Work Ethic, which are the basis for the mind-body dichotomy that grounds the anti-consumption attitudes of Punishment Capitalism. This alternative of Benevolent Capitalism is worldly (and hence compatible with either nonspiritual or Immanent/Aristotelian forms of spirituality but not Platonic/Transcendent forms of spirituality) and teleological. Production is simply a means to consumption (which is in itself a method of satisfying our needs) and as such is instrumentally but not intrinsically good. Producers act for their own joy and are justified in doing so. Above all; sufferring and control are not to be considered spiritually superior states or proper for man. Those whose job is joy for them are to be celebrated and praised. Those who inherit wealth are to be treated as everybody else. Ultimately, the core of Capitalism is not one of “work harder than everyone else” but one of “live for your joy.” It needs to be promoted as such.

6 thoughts on ““Punishment Capitalism,” The Curious Motivations of Some Supporters of Free Markets

  1. Pingback: /++//++//++//++//++//++/ » Blog Archive » Kurjast kapitalismist

  2. Live for your joy would equal hedonism in most people’s eyes. Anyhow someone should alert Don Arthur to this post.

  3. “Ultimately, the core of Capitalism is not one of “work harder than everyone else” but one of “live for your joy.””

    Even the left, Christian churches and most workers realise this. “Work life balance” would not have become an issue if Andrew wasn’t at least partly right.

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