Capitalist Values: Trust, Sympathy, and Commitment

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the most important capitalist values? Are these values essential for a flourishing economy?

In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen says that a capitalist economy can help underdeveloped nations whose economies are struggling. He says the three core capitalist values—trust, sympathy, and commitment—are a big reason why Western economies are so successful.

Here are the three capitalist values in detail and an argument that claims these principles shouldn’t be forced on non-capitalist societies.

Capitalist Values

To flourish, capitalism requires a set of values and norms. A combination of legal institutions and social mores is crucial to economic functioning. We’ll refer to these values as capitalist values, which are part of the ethical guardrails Sen refers to (the “right to disclosure,” or public “right to know,”), and they help combat greed and corruption. 


The first value, trust, is crucial to economic exchange. Only in a system where mutual trust is routine can trade occur. Part of this trust can be provided by institutional measures, such as contract law, which give confidence to all parties that their agreements will be respected. Another part, however, is more implicit and has to do with the natural cultivation of social norms that give people confidence in the commitments of others.


Sympathy, too, is a capitalist value. There are many situations where self-interest compels a person to help others. If we suffer when someone else suffers, this is sympathy. This natural human drive persists even in a capitalist system dominated by self-interest.  


Sen contrasts sympathy with another capitalist ethic: commitment. Sen defines commitment as a person’s desire to help others, not to alleviate their own “sympathetic suffering,” but from a larger commitment to justice.

These values, Sen believes, allow capitalism to flourish, and they provide a means of achieving even more progress. Sen believes these values help explain the sustained success of Western economies, and that cultivating these values in developing nations is crucial to development.

Imposing Capitalist Values

In The White Man’s Burden, economist William Easterly agrees with Sen that there is a set of capitalist values that makes free enterprise work. Easterly specifically highlights the importance of trust in enabling capitalism to flourish.

However, Easterly also argues that these capitalist ethics must develop organically, and they can’t be imposed on a nation or culture unfamiliar with them. This is why, Easterly argues, attempts to bring capitalism to countries with long histories of other economic systems usually fail.

For example, the effort to rapidly turn former Soviet satellites into capitalist systems following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was largely a failure. This “shock therapy” was meant to bring to the region the economic success of the West, but it had the opposite effect. Easterly argues this was because these nations had yet to develop the capitalist values that he and Sen deem vital to capitalism’s success. 

Capitalist Values: Trust, Sympathy, and Commitment

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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