The Three Ethics

2006-12-03

In a recent essay entitled The Exceptionally Entrepreneurial Society, Arnold Kling writes as follows:

[A] nation's prosperity depends on three ethics: a work ethic, a public service ethic, and a learning ethic. The work ethic means that people believe that those who are willing to work deserve more rewards than those who are not. A public service ethic means that government officials are expected to protect private property, not to extort it. And a learning ethic means that people expect to learn, innovate, and adapt, rather than to resist change.

In the underdeveloped world, the work ethic and the public service ethic have not flourished. Instead, crime and corruption sap the economy, and entrepreneurship is particularly frustrated.

Continental Europe does not suffer such severe problems with the work ethic and the public service ethic. However, an important part of the learning ethic is taking advantage of the decentralized, trial-and-error process of entrepreneurial success and failure. The Continental European system attempts to replace the learning of decentralized markets with bureaucratic planning. Individual change agents have little access to capital and less opportunity to earn large individual rewards.

Ultimately, Europe's corporatist, bureaucratic model impedes learning and retards innovation. With its barriers to entrepreneurship, which are particularly discouraging to change agents, European economic growth has lagged behind during the last two decades of rapid technological change.

If the United States is exceptional because of our entrepreneurial culture, then our natural allies may not be in Continental Europe, in spite of its democratic governments and high levels of economic development. China seems more dynamic than Europe, but I would argue that China's government-controlled financial system ultimately is not compatible with American-style entrepreneurship. Instead, we may have more in common with other nations of the Anglosphere, as well as such entrepreneurial outposts as India, Israel, and Singapore.

Too often, those of a libertarian persuasion seem to focus only on the work ethic (or, even more narrowly, the functioning of a market economy), while ignoring the learning ethic and especially the public service ethic. They treat all governments as equivalently evil, not distinguishing between the governments of (say) Hitlerian Germany or Stalinesque Russia and the governments of (say) Periclean Athens or Jeffersonian America. To the anarcho-capitalists, all these and more are simply The State and therefore to-be-destroyed (or at least to-be-overcome). Far be it from me to argue from philosophical first principles that government is necessary, because I know that pre-state societies have existed in the past and I think that it's possible for post-state societies to emerge in the future (how likely that is, I don't know). But it's equally silly to maintain that all states are the same not only in principle but in fact. Some cultures have a stronger public service ethic than others, and those cultures have more open, honest, transparent governance. Rather than railing against all governance, libertarians might spend their time more productively by encouraging a stronger public service ethic as well as a stronger work ethic and learning ethic, since all three lead to a stronger civil society and therefore a culture that is more open to greater freedom.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal