Are People In Commercial Societies "Better"?

In a characteristically penetrating and insightful post on the question “Does the Free Market Corrode Moral Character?” Richard Posner concludes:

History teaches that a commercial society is bound to be more prosperous and peaceful than an honor-based traditional society. The commercial culture creates incentives and constraints that, provided that economic activity is effectively regulated, (an important qualification) maximizes the values that are important to most people. This doesn’t mean that people in a commercial society are “better” than people in other types of society. The human race is genetically uniform, and our “moral” genes are not much different from the corresponding genes in chimpanzees. The success of commercial societies just illustrates that different institutional structures produce different human behavior.

I think Posner is off the mark here. He seems to think that moral dispositions are exogenous to institutional structures because humans are genetically uniform. This is wrong. Humans are genetically uniform, but one of those uniformities is a capacity for acquiring and transmitting culture, some of which is moral culture, from which comes variation in moral dispositions. Different institutional structures are possible only because cultural variation is possible. And a configuaration of institutions, once in place, exerts pressure on culture, which in turn exerts pressure on institutional structure, and so on. If more peace and prosperity is better, and the institutions and behavior that produce peace and prosperity are mediated by  moral cultured, and moral culture is embodied as emotive and behavioral dispositions by the people within that society, then it seems evasive to deny that those people are “better” in a pretty obvious sense. People who are better at producing moral ends are morally better. It’s not wrong to visit a place rife with corruption, dishonesty, racism and cruelty and remark that “the people are horrible.” It may not be anyone’s fault that they turned out this way, but people do turn out that way, and whole societies, whole peoples, can and do get better.  If behavioral dispositions were in fact invariant, and variations in peace and prosperity were entirely due to variations in institutional structure, Posner would be right. There would be no difference in the people. But since variations in institutions are themselves due in large part to variations in people, Posner is wrong. The evidence points to the conclusion that people in commercial societies are better, which is one of the best reasons to prefer commercial societies.

I answered the Templeton question here.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center