The Ciceronian Case for Capitalism

32 Pages Posted: 11 Apr 2015

Date Written: April 9, 2015


Most contemporary moral defenses of capitalism rely on ideas drawn from the modern philosophic tradition that emerged in the 17th-18th centuries. Almost always, advocates of a free market society have either invoked the notion of a social contract, a theory of natural rights, the insistence that human beings ought to be treated as ends in themselves, the utilitarian logic famously championed by Jeremy Bentham, or, more recently, even the difference principle of John Rawls. Amid the post-modern currents of thought cascading through our culture, however, it is far from evident that modern philosophic foundations are sturdy enough to legitimize any politico-economic order.

An alternative defense of capitalism not reliant upon modernist premises can be derived from Cicero, the 1st century BCE Roman orator, statesman, and author. Proceeding from a skepticism entailing a more cautious reliance upon reason than that bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, Cicero emphasizes the importance of social co-operation to the satisfaction of human wants. On this basis, Cicero supports an economy grounded on the specialization of labour, trade, and most importantly, the protection of individual property rights. Cicero doubts that this mode of social co-operation can be assured by simply holding out the prospect of a more pleasurable and comfortable existence. Instead, it requires a moral context in which individuals treat justice -- understood to encompass the prohibition of violence, fraud and theft -- as an intrinsic good. The maintenance of social co-operation also requires that property rights be defended against state enforced redistribution. To prevent this from occurring, Cicero insists upon a mixed form of government combining monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements in such a way that the wealthier classes are able to check any legislation impinging on property. The Ciceronian case for capitalism both prioritizes social co-operation and limits democracy.

Keywords: Capitalism, Free Markets, Property Rights, Justice, Redistribution, Social Co-operation, Democracy

JEL Classification: A12, A13, B10, B11, B31, D63, H10, H11, K10, K11, N01, P10, P16

Suggested Citation

Bragues, George, The Ciceronian Case for Capitalism (April 9, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

George Bragues (Contact Author)

University of Guelph-Humber ( email )

207 Humber College Boulevard
Toronto, Ontario M9W 5L7
416-798-1331, Ext. 6049 (Phone)
416-798-3293 (Fax)

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