Immanuel Kant was one of the most foundational Western thinkers of the Enlightenment Age, as any first-year philosophy course might tell you. His central philosophy of the categorical imperative arguably shaped the discourse on moral philosophy for generations and still inspires young philosophers today.
The idea that humans, as rational beings, have some innate value has a profound relevance in the modern era. Moreover, the idea that human beings should act according to universal laws is something philosophy geeks like me can — and certainly do — debate until the end of time.
But what’s less apparent and seldom analyzed is the congruences between Kant’s philosophies and economist Adam Smith’s theories of market economies. Both thinkers rely on the better nature of humanity and the processes in which humanity takes part.
Smith’s ideal markets will always equalize after change or instability. Kant’s ideal individual would act in perfect compliance with universal laws of morality, with no regard for the outcome of their actions. It’s no surprise that the father of capitalism and the philosopher of categorical imperatives have so much common ground.
Smith’s theories of the free market rely on the drive to do not only what’s right, but also expedient and monetarily beneficial. While that may be an oversimplification, in the Kantian context, an entrepreneur would do well to treat their customers equally and fairly because that is what they have a moral obligation to do — regardless of the consequences to themselves or their business.
No amount of theorizing or moral hand-wringing, though, will change the fact that we live in an imperfect reality, the circumstances of which put his work further at odds with Smith’s.
To invoke a less optimistic concept, humanity is driven primarily by two things: desire and necessity. Although I’m no contemporary of Sigmund Freud, who championed this idea, it seems ever-apparent in this modern era that human beings are driven by materialistic desires and self-interest.
Perhaps, while it is our capacity for rationality that makes us human, it can also be what makes us inhumane.
For instance, the sociopolitical economic calculations made by pharmaceutical corporations to raise prices on life-saving drugs is a step away from universal morality. This, of course, is simply because it is their legal purpose as corporations to increase profit.
It would seem, if Kant and Smith were treading similar paths of logic, that there has been a shift away from what capitalism was meant to be. To put it simply, capitalism as a structure in this post-industrial world has strayed inexcusably far from the principles that were meant to govern it.
Of course, Kant and Smith both died before the second Industrial Revolution and the birth of the modern proletariat, but in the two centuries since their deaths, capitalism has spread in some form or another to every part of the world. In doing so, it has brought neoliberalism with it.
As Stephen Metcalf aptly puts it in The Guardian, neoliberalism has “swallowed the world.”
Laissez-faire practices have spread like wildfire, opening new markets, streamlining distribution, increasing production and generating obscene levels of profit. It can be said that in America, we have the largest economy, according to our nominal GDP.
To put that into perspective, we are the wealthiest country in human history. That’s no small feat, to be sure, but how that came to be matters.
Some historians might still tell the story of the great struggle between liberal capitalist democracies and the seemingly monolithic specter of communism, but in the end, it boils down to market share and economic dominance that secured tentative American economic superiority.
This superiority is “tentative” because American capitalism may be riding high on over-stimulation and deregulation, which isn’t a new phenomenon, either. What President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” along with other private interests has stretched American capitalism to a point of mechanical failure.
The real income of the bottom 90 percent has been either flat or falling for the past three decades, 78 percent of full-time workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the American dream is ceding to a bleak image of American aristocracy.
I might be more inclined to agree with Kant and Smith if we lived in a perfect world. But we don’t.
Kant and Smith’s thinking suggest that the world will fall into a natural balance of doing what is right. However, Kant believes the right thing is universal and indeterminant of outcome while Smith believes that the right thing for markets depends on their outcome on the economy.
In modern times, capitalism has accelerated to paramount levels, and human beings act on selfish motives — two main factors that neither Smith nor Kant, respectively, may have anticipated.
Perhaps the question of what human motivation ought to be is more important than how it is presently. As the Kantian truism goes, motives matter. Invariably though, we are left with the choice to change how it is our economy operates or to let it devour itself.