Capitalist activity, being essentially “rational,” tends to spread rational habits of mind and to destroy those loyalties and those habits of super- and subordination that are nevertheless essential for the efficient working of the institutionalized leadership of the producing plant: no social system can work which is based exclusively upon a network of free contracts between (legally) equal contracting parties and in which everyone is supposed to be guided by nothing except his own (short-run) utilitarian ends.
In one sentence Schumpeter has put his finger on the greatest flaw of capitalist order. Contrary to what Rand and her followers believe, “rational” self-interest is not an entirely benign psychological force. Rand’s faith in self-interest (and it is only a faith) is not warranted by the facts. In the first place, it is absurd to regard human desires and sentiments as rational. A desire or sentiment can only be criticized in reference to an opposing desire or sentiment. As Spinoza famously put it: “an emotion cannot be destroyed nor controlled except by a contrary and stronger emotion.” Consequently, rationality, as an ideal, can only apply to the means by which desires and sentiments are satisfied. Yet this is not all. Even if there were (per impossible) such a thing as a “rational end,” it is very doubtful that very many human beings would be interested in pursuing it. If we make history and experience our guide in such matters—and whatever guide could possibly lead us to the truth besides history and experience?—then we are forced to conclude that the majority of human beings are largely non-rational in their conduct and are probably not even capable of being rational about any issue in the least complex (as rational methods of analysis tend to break down when applied to complex situations). When Schumpeter talks about “rational” habits of mind, he is not writing in the Randian sense of the word. He means something more along the lines of rationalism—i.e., the belief that no doctrine is true unless it can be proved “verbally,” through clever patter and other exercises of blatant sophistry. As a consequence of this sort of perfervid rationalism, individuals no longer believe in “higher” values or “lofty” moral ideas. Short-term self-interest and “immediate gratification” become the main desideratum, with sophistry being brought in to give the whole thing a window dressing of moral justification.
We see this played out in the financial sector. The birth of complex financial instruments based on computer generated formulas has allowed finance capitalism to mask what ultimately amounts to a vast ponzi scheme which yields huge profits in the short-run but ends in bankruptcy and dishonor. This sort of finance capitalism fits into what is known as the “Minsky cycle”:
Firms participating in the early stages of the cycle typically are not leveraged; Minsky called them hedged firms because their cash receipts cover their cash outlays. The success of the first movers draws in additional players. Speculative firms then engage in leverage to the point where they must borrow to meet some of their interest payments—usually borrowing in short-term markets to finance higher-yielding long-term positions. None of this is irrational behavior; market players are chasing short-term gains, and some of them are getting very rich.
The final stages of the Minsky cycle arrive with a proliferation of Ponzi firms, which must borrow to meet all their interest payments, so their debt burden continuously increases. At some point, a disruptive event occurs, … and markets abruptly reprice—the further along in the cycle, the more violent the repricing. [Charles Morris, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, p. 133-4]
In other words, what we find in the world of high finance is a system which, by giving individuals the hope of huge rewards in the short-run, encourages them to behave in a ways that are destructive in the long-run. It takes strength of character to resist such huge short-run gains. Unfortunately, the very success of capitalism tends to create a prosperous society that weakens the moral fibre of individuals. Add to this situation the tendency of individuals—particularly intelligent individuals—to cloak their real motives under a thick shroud of ingenious rationalizations (e.g., “portfolio theory,” the “efficient market hypothesis,” “laissez-faire” ideology, etc.), and we have all the elements required to create market failure leading to widespread and socially harmful externalities, as can be readily corroborated by examining the 2008-2009 financial crisis.