Posts Tagged ‘John Lauritz Larson’

American exceptionalism: Capitalism as freedom

November 25, 2013

One of the things that is exceptional about the United States is that, unlike people in all other countries I know about, we Americans associate capitalism with freedom.

That is not to say Americans are the only people who think that way—Margaret Thatcher in 1980s Britain and Ludwig Erhard in postwar West Germany were as strong believers in capitalism as any American ever was.  But the United States is the only country in which such beliefs go unchallenged.

market-revolution-in-america-liberty-ambition-eclipse-common-john-lauritz-larson-paperback-cover-artJohn Lauritz Larson’s THE MARKET REVOLUTION IN AMERICA: Liberty, Ambition and the Eclipse of the Common Good, which I read on the recommendation of my friend Craig Hanyan, attempts to explain why.

Most of the peoples of the world define capitalism as Karl Marx did—a system ruled by the holders of financial assets, in contrast to older systems ruled by landowning aristocrats and Oriental despots and a hoped-for future system ruled by workers.

Americans think of capitalism as Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty,” in which each person is free to pursue their own interests in their own way, subject only to “the law of justice.”  I was brought up to believe in this and I still do, although my idea of the “law of justice” is broader than Adam Smith’s probably was.

Larson’s argument is that the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War was the world’s greatest example of Adam Smith’s ideas in practice.   The system of natural liberty didn’t apply to black people or to native Americans,  but white American citizens, especially those in the North, experienced a degree of freedom and rising prosperity that was a wonder of the world.

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