Teaching the Moral Foundations of Capitalism, One Student at a Time
AP Photo/David Goldman, File
Teaching the Moral Foundations of Capitalism, One Student at a Time
AP Photo/David Goldman, File
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Professor C. Bradley Thompson of Clemson University works each day to rebut the still-popular teachings of Karl Marx. “America’s cultural elite harbors an anti-capitalist bias” due to Marx’s rhetorical success, Thompson says, but capitalism remains the most just economic system ever devised by man.

Thompson founded the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism to teach undergraduate students the moral and political foundations of capitalism, its importance in maintaining a free society, and how it has improved the lives of billions of people around the globe. CISC offers 40 student scholarships, over 30 classes taught by affiliated professors, and 12 lectures and conferences annually.

Countering the Marxist claim that capitalism produces only self-interest, exploitation, greed, and inequality, CISC teaches that capitalism is in fact the only moral economic system because it correctly views “the individual as the primary unit of moral and political value.”

Based on the idea that “every individual is properly self-owning, self-governing, and self-reliant,” capitalism “recognizes the right and freedom of each individual to pursue happiness as they see fit as long as they don’t violate the rights of others,” Thompson argues. “Laissez-faire capitalism,” he continues, “promotes life-enhancing virtues such as rationality, justice, productivity, honesty, independence, and integrity.” These are necessary virtues for citizens living in a constitutional republic.

The keystone of CISC is its Lyceum Scholars Program, a highly competitive scholarship program open to Clemson freshmen and aimed at cultivating “a new generation of citizen leaders and public intellectuals who will promote the virtues of a free society.” Named after the Lyceum school that Aristotle founded in ancient Athens, the program provides its scholars with a Great Books education that explores the relationship between capitalism, liberty, the American Founding, and moral character.

Each class of Lyceum scholars takes eight classes together over the course of four years. Scholars read great works such as Aristotle’s “Ethics,” Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” and Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law” and take classes on the political thought of the American Founding and the theoretical underpinnings of capitalism.

All scholars are assigned a faculty member – known as a “Socratic Tutor” – who guides their intellectual development. Students meet with tutors on a biweekly basis to discuss moral character and how ideas and principles connect with reality.

Each semester, scholars participate in the Lyceum Student Speaker Series, where they present a written work they submitted in class in a public forum, giving them the opportunity to hone their writing and speaking skills.

Due to popular demand, Thompson says that CISC has added a non-scholarship program called the Lyceum Fellows Program, which “has allowed us to expand the Lyceum Program to almost 130 students per year.” Another recent addition to the program is a lecture series for the families of Lyceum students. CISC also co-hosts the annual Morality of Capitalism student conference with the Foundation for Economic Education that explores the virtues of a free market economy.

CISC works to educate high school students as well. In 2019, associate directors J. Michael Hoffpauir and Marjorie Jeffrey taught a one-week seminar for high school students that explored the virtues and political acts of statesmen such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill.

The John W. Pope lecture series, Clemson’s largest lecture series, invites notable scholars, journalists, and other public figures to discuss crucial economic and political questions each semester. In Spring 2020, columnist Andrew Sullivan and scholar Yaron Brook addressed the question: Is Western Civilization worth saving? Those interested can watch every lecture and conference event at CISC’s YouTube channel.

Thompson also points to CISC’s “Capitalism Project,” a new venture that hosts conferences and lectures and offers web-based courses on capitalism’s history and moral foundations. He says that CISC is currently creating a web portal that will offer articles and videos on these themes.

In order to keep the “meddling hands of politicians and government officials” from intruding on the “rights of individuals to produce and trade,” CISC scholars work to ensure that students not only know the principles of liberty but also live them out every day. As John Adams once wrote, “Liberty once lost is lost forever.”

Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.

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