Liberal economics and master/slave morality

As an admirer of Nietzsche, particularly his analyses of human morality and his notion of advancing humanity (sadly, his word for this, der Übermensch, was co-opted by the Nazis and now carries unfortunate connotations), it remains the case that I strongly disagree with some aspects of his thought, such as his views on women, and his economics. Herein, I wish to discuss how liberal economics can fit into Nietzschean moral frameworks, as well as briefly why I support liberal economics, even though I also support Nietzsche’s goal of advancing humanity. Indeed, I maintain that the former is in fact quite beneficial to the latter.


It is often thought that liberal economics (e.g. universal health care, or a universal basic income) are indicative of slave morality. This is to a large degree understandable, since they seem to indicate that we wish to focus upon pity for the unfortunate. However, I would argue that this is a misconception. Rather, although liberal economics can be a consequence of slave morality, they can also be a consequence of certain forms of  master morality. I would also argue that there are moralities which are neither slave nor master.

First, a brief introduction to master and slave morality. According to Nietzsche’s theory (with which I do not entirely agree, or at least, I do not think it is in any way proved), there are two origins for morality. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ originated among the strong masters as a description meaning the same as ‘strong’ and ‘weak;’ they considered ‘the good (i.e ‘the respectable’)’ to mean ‘Those who like us, are strong, whom we must respect, because they could seriously oppose us or be valuable allies,’ and ‘the bad’ to mean ‘those who are of no consequence, the despicable.’ The ‘slaves,’ on the other hand, respected other slaves, and those who pitied the slaves; they took this word ‘good’ and applied it to such people. Meanwhile, they applied the idea of ‘despicable’ to the ‘exploiting masters,’ and called them ‘evil.’ For a further discussion, see Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy of Morals,’ Zur Genealogie der Moral. It is a book with many good points, but whether it is accurate regarding how human morality developed, I do not wish to comment here.

Now, I would argue that this concept of master and slave moralities might explain the origination of some moral value systems, but that today, many people have moral systems which are not fully described by master morality or slave morality. I think even Nietzsche acknowledged this: consider his description of selfishness in Also Sprach Zarathustra, von der schenkenden Tugend, where Zarathustra contrasts a selfishness which seeks things in order to transform them into better things to benefit humankind (‘the gift-giving virtue’), versus the kind of selfishness which seeks things to help the selfish person without regard to bettering humankind. But more on this in another place, should I write more about the difference between positive and negative selfishness.

In Morgenröte, S. 78, Nietzsche talks about how the Greeks had a word for ‘disgust at the misfortune of another,’ which he called ‘the more manly brother of pity [in German, Mitlied, meaning with-suffering or with-sadness].’ I do not speak Greek, so I do not know of what word he spoke. But the point is that pity can be empathetic, like the German concept of Mitlied, but it can also be anger at the unfairness of a situation. Nietzsche noted that a language dominated by christianity (such as German or English) had no cause for such a word, because christianity does not acknowledge the concept of undeserved misfortune (if everyone is an horrible sinner deserving hell, every misfortune is deserved). But a master morality can acknowledge an undeserved misfortune, like the Greeks did, with their ‘manly version of pity.’

The notion of master vs. slave morality is quite limited. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that moral values can come from strength vs. weakness, positive gift-giving selfishness vs. degenerate selfishness, and ‘manly pity’ vs. ‘Mitleid.’

Liberal economics and types of moralities

I claim that liberal economics are compatible with master morality. More generally, I claim that liberal economics is compatible with a moral value system which comes from strength, from gift-giving selfishness, and from ‘manly pity.’

It is easy to see how they could be the consequence of slave morality. Pity for everyone would lead to liberal economics, like universal health care and universal basic income, yes, but such policies can come from a very different source as well.

Recall that ‘manly pity’ (for lack of a better term) is, essentially, anger at unfairness. Or even perhaps anger at there being unhappiness. Now, anger at unfairness can go both in the direction of ‘This person has seen undeserved misfortune, and that angers me,’ as well as ‘This person has received undeserved benefits, which would not anger me, except that they have come at the expense of everyone else.’ In the former case, we ‘liberals with master morality’ might place the case of someone who was very intelligent and excelled at school, but who, because their family was poor and needed them to bring in income, was unable to go to college, because they had to get a job. In this case, we are angered not only because this is unfair to that person’s individual development, but also because of the resultant loss to society, of an educated person who could truly advance humanity. We desire individual development; we also desire the development of individuals to their full potential, because such individuals contribute best to the future of humanity. There are countless other examples: a person who is intelligent and got a degree, but could not find a research job because of demographics (both pro-white and anti-white racism, for example, or both pro-male and anti-male sexism), for just one.

The thing is, there are selfish master moralities and selfish slave moralities, but there are also unselfish master moralities and unselfish slave moralities. However, because slave moralities are generally built around pity, they all tend to appear unselfish. Although, as Nietzsche elsewhere pointed out (if I recall, in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, I do not remember which S.), this unselfishness is a bit odd, since it encourages others to be unselfish, which is ultimately a self-benefit.

However, a gift-giving master morality seeks to promote the future of humanity and the building-up of every individual. As such, it might sometimes crush others, but ordinarily, it will seek to alleviate the problems of misfortune or to force those upon whom fortune has been overly generous to share. And that is why I support liberal economics. There are those who fail even though they do not deserve to; there are those who succeed far beyond their desserts. And even if a person deserves to fail, why should we not allow this ‘manly pity’ to be angered at their bad situation as well?

To put this into the terms discussed in Morgenröte S. 78, and other aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy, liberal economics acknowledges three points:

First, when a person fails, it could be because of a tiny error, that does not deserve such massive punishment. The Greek Tragedy is all about people who made little errors, but suffered horrible for the rest of their lives as a result, according to Nietzsche’s statements in Morgenröte – liberal economics seeks to rectify such problems, but it also acknowledges that some people have made no mistakes, and yet suffer, and these people also need help.

Second, liberal economics acknowledges that there are also people who are the opposite of a Greek tragedy: people who did some things right, perhaps, but who have success far out of proportion to their desserts. Liberal economics demands that such people be taxed heavily, to help those whose case falls in the previous paragraph.

Third, liberal economics acknowledges that humanity as an whole requires individual innovators, who can innovate even if they cannot accumulate a massive amount of individual wealth. In this way, liberal economics acknowledges that wealth can be beneficial for both the individual and the future of humanity, but also acknowledges that there are limits on how much wealth can really be a good thing. In a sense, it can be the application of ‘the gift-giving virtue:’ redistribution of wealth prevents those with an hoarding, ‘degenerate’ selfishness from harming humanity as much as they otherwise would

In this way, liberal economics is not merely an economical theory based upon ‘pity’ in the form of ‘Mitleid.’ It is an economics which can be favoured by someone desiring that unfairness be opposed (by the ‘manlier version of pity’), that unhealthy selfishness be opposed, and that every person who can contribute should have the chance to do so – these are desires which are fully compatible with master morality.

Would free bread ruin its recipients?

Now, we should acknowledge that Nietzsche attacked the notion of giving people ‘free bread,’ in Also Sprach Zarathustra. ‘If those got free bread, alas!’ he said. His argument was that if we gave people sustenance for free, they would stop having to strive at all, which would decrease their humanity. I would agree that letting people become lazy decreases their humanity, but there are two points: first, Nietzsche’s suggestion that ordinary people receiving free bread would make them ‘stop striving,’ seems wrong in practice. Perhaps I will write at a later time about how test studies with Universal Basic Income show how people who receive it choose to continue to work or to use their new resources to start up businesses, but for now, consider the motivations that humans have, based on Maslov’s hierarchy of needs: (Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96) as well as Maslow, A (1954), Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper. ISBN 0-06-041987-3). Second, squandering is important for advancing humanity. To the first point: once people’s base needs are met, they are motivated by things from the higher levels in Maslov’s hierarchy. Those who are currently motivated to contribute to society solely because of the need to eat would very likely be motivated to so by other things once that need was fulfilled, contrary to what Nietzsche suggests. The reason that they do not currently show such motivations is explained by Maslov’s theory, which states that people focus on the base needs first. The reason many people are motivated to work only to eat is not because they are incapable of higher forms of motivation, but because they lack the opportunity to focus on those higher forms of motivation on Maslov’s scale. On the second point: Nietzsche himself agreed that squandering was a useful thing, and that nature squandered quite numerous quantities of individuals in order to gain progress. Why should we, as master liberals, not also be willing to squander any person who chooses to take the resources given out by a liberal economic policy, and to contribute nothing? Is it not better that these lazy individuals be ruined, than that the industrious and genius (in the etymological sense of ‘productive’ or ‘capable of being productive’) individuals should lack the resources to fulfill their potential to contribute to the betterment of humanity?

Perhaps we could come up with other means for giving incentives, which would be motivating: we could, for example, penalize those who have children if they cannot show that they are contributory to society. Though this might be to some degree enforced naturally, by the laws of attraction: it seems likely that people would be attracted to those who contribute, and would want to reproduce with them, rather than with the ‘moochers.’ ‘Moochers’ have always been an issue, in any social setting, and have always been reproductively unappealing. So, humans already have a drive to look like they contribute to society, simply in order to appeal to the opposite sex.

Thus, Nietzsche’s problem with ‘free bread’ appears rather weak, because people are unlikely to be ‘ruined’ by it, and are much more likely to be lifted up into the higher end of the hierarchy of needs. In any case, liberal economy, even one as liberal as to include Universal Basic Income, could easily be a part of a master morality, or least a morality which is definitively not a slave morality.

In any case, the advancement of humanity is, I posit, best served by ensuring that every individual who is capable of making a contribution, also has the resources to make such a contribution. If giving free bread to the incapable ruins them, I would far rather squander these incapable ones by letting them be ruined, than to squander the capable ones, whose circumstances might otherwise prevent them from contributing to humanity’s betterment.


PS It is also worth considering how there are some moralities which are not entirely master moralities and not entirely slave moralities. I would consider myself to have a morality which is not fully a ‘master morality,’ but not really at all a ‘slave morality,’ even though it has taken some influences historically from slave moralities.


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