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Stephen Gottlieb: Character, Capitalism and Regulation


Many conservatives are concerned that we have lost a sense of moral obligations, without which the state must eventually fail. They trace most of the nation’s ills to character, including the national debt, crime, failing schools and poverty to name a few.

The Founders would have agreed that character is central to democracy. They spoke about what they called “republican” character, which is to say, a public spirit ready to lay aside personal advantage for the public interest. They understood character as about self-control and concern for others who are part of the community. Untempered selfishness is pathological, often criminal, and not to be admired.

Conservatives believe that their concern with so-called social issues is about character, the character necessary for a healthy community. Foregoing some of the things we want and devoting ourselves to others builds character. I’m not sure what the connection is between sexual orientation  and community spirit. Foregoing something that someone else wants but you don’t doesn’t build your character and may not build theirs. But I accept as we must that character matters.

Modern conservatives have been schizophrenic about capitalism. Plainly conservatives in public life glorify capitalism and its leaders. But many conservative thinkers and philosophers have been worried about the impact of capitalism on character and public spirit. Capitalism rewards greed. Community needs are frequently the roadkill of capitalism. In the process, capitalism imbues a selfishness that is the opposite of character.

Where modern conservatism really has trouble is in putting those perspectives together. If unrestrained selfishness corrodes character, then regulation should build character to the extent that regulation rewards behavior that considers the community. Indeed a regulatory-friendly culture means that business needs to build political support lest regulation prove destructive.

Conservative philosophers have feared that people at the highest levels of influence would forget the community that gave them life. That fear of character lost is exemplified by the reactions of many, though certainly not all, prominent Wall Streeters to the lifeline that both the Bush and Obama Administrations extended to them in the crisis. We need banks, financial institutions and stock exchanges. They are important for our country. But they can be run in ways that contribute or in ways that threaten the economy and the people who depend on it. But many of the leaders of the Wall Street and financial institutions reacted that they were entitled to conduct business as usual, entitled to enormous bonuses for behavior that caused a crisis, reacted that they owed the public nothing back but to repay any loan they had. Their view was that there need be no change of practices, no concern for risks to others, or to the community at large, just unmitigated pursuit of profits. At that attitude, the notion of responsible business sticks in the throat.

Conservatives could come back with something like free will – only by giving people a chance to err can we find out who will not. That’s a test, a religious mission, about salvation, but it is not a mission to create character. One creates character, public spirit and self-control by demanding it and by practicing it. That understanding goes all the way back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks. Responsible business people do not tell the public that the only way they can make money is by risking the health, safety and happiness of their community, and that for the sake of profits, the public has no right to complain.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.