The Moral Argument as a Foundation of the Free Market: A Call to the Advocates of Economic Freedom in Puerto Rico

In his book Fatal Arrogance (1988), Friedrich Hayek faced the challenge of refuting socialism in a forceful manner. He shifted his analysis of socialism from political disputes between people with different values or preferences to a logical and scientific refutation of the errors of collectivism. In this shift of focus, Hayek revealed his pessimism about how socialism continued to have adherents, despite decades of intellectual and public campaigning, through works such as The Road to Serfdom (1944) and The Foundations of Freedom (1960), and his participation in the founding of The Mont Pelerin Society.

Photo: Jacobin

Hayek, in his autobiography, expressed optimism about the eventual defeat of socialist illusions; however, he did not understand that none of the three political traditions of the West - socialism, liberalism and conservatism - possesses absolute certainty or a definitive source of knowledge by which we can conduct political activity. Each of these traditions plays a role within the Western political context; therefore, despite Hayek's intellectual and public efforts in favor of free market policies and his refutation of collectivism, there will always be room, receptivity, and adherents for socialism in the world.

Rafael Bernabe's statements in Jacobin magazine that there is "fertile ground for anti-capitalist ideas to advance in Puerto Rico" exemplifies the inclusion of socialism in the Western political tradition. Although socialism is refuted with scientific and historical evidence, there are still forces on the island that maintain the hope of promoting anti-free market policies and ideas.

The recent results of the Institute for Economic Freedom's survey on Puerto Ricans' affinity for free market principles suggest that the hope expressed by Senator Bernabe could be considered illusory; however, the pessimism expressed by Hayek in The Fatal Arrogance reminds us that, in politics, there is no linear, end-of-the-road strategy that will lead us to a free market utopia. Therefore, free market advocates must engage in a constant and uninterrupted dialogue to persuade individuals of the importance of economic freedom.

What persuasion strategy should free market advocates adopt? Many favor the idea of presenting economic arguments in favor of free markets, since the evidence indicates that greater economic freedom leads to successful economic growth; but, focusing exclusively on the economic argument will not guarantee the success that is sought, in the long run. The economic argument must be complemented and, in fact, should be preceded by an argument involving the relationship between freedom and a sense of belonging. This approach is known as the moral argument.

When I speak of morality, I am not referring to a system of principles that determines right or wrong, but to an art of living or a daily practice that guides human behavior, as defined by Michael Oakeshott. Free market advocates must argue for the morality of individualism. This individualism has allowed each person to pursue his or her happiness and moral identity within the framework of authoritative conditions, such as the rule of law, and this morality is the catalyst for the modernity we enjoy.

The argument for free markets centers on their ability to respond to the reality of an individualistic morality. Free markets fit the character of the individual, described by Shirley Letwin as possessing vigorous virtues such as righteousness, self-reliance, energy, and a willingness to adventure. From a moral perspective, the free market combines freedom by allowing individuals to pursue their own happiness. Moreover, the existence of the free market is framed by the empirical and historical evolution of individualism in Europe, along with its practices, implying a sense of belonging.

Our defense of the free market should not be limited to the economic aspect but should emphasize the moral argument. Our support for the free market goes beyond instrumental considerations of economic benefits, it is based on the fact that the free market provides meaningful choices that shape the happiness and moral identity of individuals. It is the free market, that is the economic system that recognizes our individuality and allows it to flourish amidst the diversity of individual perspectives within a state.

Socialists face the empirical and historical reality of the failure of their policies to achieve salvation; for this reason, they shift their argument to the moral sphere, arguing that the free market is part of the oppression experienced by human beings. Although much of their criticism is directed at the free market, their real target is the morality of individualism; therefore, if we wish to turn Puerto Rico into a fertile land for economic freedom, our strategy of persuasion must constantly move into this moral sphere. Therefore, our support for the free market must be accompanied and directed by a moral argument in favor of individualism.

Ojel L. Rodríguez Burgos is a professor of international relations at Sacred Heart University in Puerto Rico and a doctoral student in the School of International Relations at St. Andrews University. His political commentary has appeared in The Hill, The Washington Examiner and Forbes. Follow him on Twitter @ojelrodriguez.

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