A couple hundred years ago, in his "Theory of the Moral Sentiments," Adam Smith contended that capitalism requires a moral and ethical center if it is to function effectively and to the benefit of all.
About 30 years ago, supply-side economic philosopher Irving Kristol similarly emphasized the importance of capitalism's moral compass. His wife, the brilliant historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, wrote regularly about the importance of morality in society, culture and the economy, a topic she covered in her standout book, "The De-Moralization of Society." She sets off the Victorians in English history as an example of a moral society.
These authors and themes came to mind as I perused news accounts of convicted Enron crooks Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Of course, we all knew they were crooks before this week's verdict. But do they represent the moral core of American capitalism?
I think not.
Capitalism in this country has been under assault ever since FDR's New Deal 1930s, a time when a number of alphabet agencies attempted to control America's industrial and farming sectors. The experiment soon proved a dismal failure, with unemployment running 20 percent to 25 percent up until World War II. It was only when Roosevelt started unleashing businesses to produce wartime goods that the economy ultimately resurrected.
Still, the American welfare state would grow. In the 1960s and 1970s, the murderer's row of economic morons -- LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter -- in allegiance with their liberal Keynesian advisors, concocted a socialist policy mix that ultimately led to wealth-destroying big-government stagflation.
Providentially, Ronald Reagan changed all that in the 1980s. The Gipper slashed tax rates, deregulated industries and rescued the dollar, unleashing the forces of entrepreneurial capitalism. As a result, for the first time since the post-Civil War period (but for the brief Coolidge-Melon period in the 1920s), the American economic system became the envy of the world. Since the early 1980s, more than 46 million new jobs have been created, with inflation-adjusted GDP increasing $6.2 trillion, or 120 percent.
As deregulated stock markets democratized the American financial system, a great new investor class grew up. Roughly 20 million investors evolved into over 100 million share-buyers, and they got rich in the process. Since 1982, according to the Federal Reserve, stock market wealth owned by family households appreciated by over $9 trillion, or nearly 900 percent. During this period, the Wilshire 5000 index appreciated nearly 800 percent.