Is capitalism a help or hindrance to an immigrant’s ultimate attainment of Aristotle’s idea of the “good life” in America?

Maddy M. – P. 2
For centuries, man has sought to discover the perfect means from which to attain the “good life.” According to Aristotle, the role of the state is an invaluable component of achieving such a goal, as, ultimately, “the end of the state is the good life” (The Politics). Assuming Aristotle is correct in his emphasis on the role of the state in the attainment of the good life, the question becomes what form of political community will best assist man in his pursuit of a good life? However, Aristotle is very specific in his definition of the “good life.” Aristotle believes the “good life” is not simply the attainment honor, pleasure, or wealth, but the “good life” is a life in which man is best able to “exercise of his faculties and action of various kinds with reason” (The Nicomachean Ethics). Moreover, according to Aristotle, man’s reason and function must also be in accordance with “excellence or virtue.” As a citizen of the United States, it is relevant to evaluate, specifically, whether or not a country functioning under capitalism is effectively helping its citizens achieve this coveted “good life.” An array of current issues in the United States can be used to evaluate the degree of success of capitalism and its role in helping man achieve the “good life”; however, I plan to determine whether or not capitalism is a help or hindrance in achieving the good life by specifically exploring the current topic of immigration, as this multifaceted topic is and has been a key component of American society since its inception.

Uncertainty, fear, and hardship are words commonly associated with the idea of leaving one’s homeland and venturing into new, unfamiliar soil. Few arrive at such a life changing decision overnight and often times the choice to migrate to another country is viewed as a last resort, a final, desperate attempt to illicit the opportunity for success and/or stability for an individual or family. Clearly, there must be a powerful, defining characteristic of the land these people choose to migrate to—a characteristic so appealing that it makes all the sacrifice and hardship seem worth the fight. What then is the characteristic of the United States that has appealed to so many? The hope and the ever popular “American Dream” that the United States embodies for so many primarily stems from the fact that the United States operates under capitalism. Essentially, the “American Dream” embodies the idea of the vast opportunities available to all individuals in America because of the freedom of choice that all Americans are granted. Because capitalism is the system in America that allows for such freedom of choice, capitalism must be, at minimum, a powerful concept that has proven its capability of being a successful means in assisting man in his ultimate attainment of Aristotle’s vision of the “good life.” However, though life in capitalistic America has proven to be, under Aristotle’s standards, successful for many, there are also many people who, upon their arrival in America, have found success and freedom to be neither realistic nor attainable in capitalistic America. By exploring these two different experiences of immigrants in America, I plan to arrive at a better understanding of whether or not capitalism is ultimately a help or hindrance in the attainment of Aristotle’s idea of the “good life.”

When Fidel Castro announced that Cuba would be under communist rule, fear stricken, my grandparents knew they must escape. Aside from their great love of Cuba, they understood that life for themselves and their children would never be the same. They knew at once that they must gravitate towards a country with both political stability and opportunity. They found hope in the “American Dream” and were willing to work to attain what they perceived as the vast opportunities available to them. Arriving in the United States with only two cents and the shirts on their backs, my grandparents and their two children were forced to quickly learn English, find work, and adjust to a new culture. Life was hard. Though both had college degrees from a Cuban university and came from well-to-do families, upon arrival in America, my grandparents were discriminated against and taken advantage of by many. Fortunately, they overcame such hardships and were able to ultimately achieve a better life. The “American Dream” became a reality for my family and because of their experiences, my grandparents believe capitalism to be an invaluable component of life in America.

After witnessing the negative effects of a communist ruler and government, my grandparents are firm believers in the importance of capitalistic society. Their experiences as immigrants in America after having come from such a corrupt government have shaped their current views. These views align with those of Ludwig von Mises as expressed in Liberty and Property. For example, in reference to socialism Mises asserts: “It is a suppression of any kind of opposition. Freedom implies the right to choose between assent and dissent.” These words are very powerful and outline one of the main strengths of a capitalistic system: the freedom of the consumer to choose. In Cuba, my grandparents witnessed first-hand how socialism (of which communism is a form) “substitutes the sovereignty of a dictator, or committee of dictators, for the sovereignty of the consumers.” This is the primary reason my grandparents both fear and reject socialism. Keeping this in mind, when Mises notes the fact that in a capitalistic form of government “the consumer is king, is the real boss,” the strength of capitalism is further revealed, precisely because under capitalism “the manufacturer is done for if he does not outstrip his competitors in best serving consumers” (Liberty and Property). However, the freedom allotted to individuals in a capitalistic system is not limited to the freedom to choose what to buy or who to buy from. Rather, this freedom extends to an array of other choices, such as the freedom to choose to receive an education, to pursue a specific career path, to practice a certain religion, etc. It is these freedoms that my family knows not to take for granted and attributes to life in a political community operating under capitalism.

The “American Dream” became a reality for my family and, due to their experiences with socialism, capitalism now serves as a symbol of possibility and freedom to my grandparents. However, by contrast, for countless immigrants living in America, the “American Dream” quickly proves itself to be idealistic and unattainable. Unlike my grandparents, many people who come to America with the hope of building a better life for themselves and their families only experience hardship and defeat. Jurgis Rudkis, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, is an example of an individual who, despite his hard work, only experiences adversity and a life far from the idealized “American dream.” Jurgis’ initial perspective on the opportunities available to immigrants living in America parallels the hopeful attitude that many immigrants migrating to this country have today. Instead of presenting Jurgis and his family with freedom and success, capitalistic America completely crushes Jurgis and his family and alters their character and outlook on life. Throughout The Jungle, Sinclair describes life in capitalistic America, specifically the inhumane treatment of both people and animals in the stockyards of Packingtown—a place where workers and animals are valued only for their profit. Toward the end of The Jungle, Jurgis compares himself to the hogs being slaughtered in the stockyards, saying that while working in the stockyards in America, he too had been like one of the Packer’s many hogs. All the Packers wanted from both the hogs and working-men was ultimately the same—profit. Jurgis’ experiences in America depict a very different perspective on capitalistic America. Ultimately, life in capitalistic America causes Jurgis to advocate socialism.

Fortunately for my family, much changed in the years separating my grandparents’ and Jurgis’ story; great strides were made which ultimately enabled my grandparents to remain loyal to each other and to actually attain the “American Dream” Jurgis so longed for. However, while the United States claims to celebrate diversity and acknowledges the impact immigrants have had in shaping the fate of our nation, numerous laws currently restrict immigration flow and limit the rights and opportunities available to immigrants upon their arrival. Regardless of their individual paths to America, the reality for immigrants living in capitalistic America ranges from the attainment of a better life, such as my grandparent’s experience, to ordeals of relentless hardship and ultimate failure, reflected in Jurgis’ experience. Though there is not a clear answer as to whether or not capitalism is ultimately a help or hindrance in the attainment of Aristotle’s idea of the “good life,” after evaluating my grandparents story and the propositions of both Aristotle and Ludwig von Mises, I believe that capitalism does in fact play a key role in man’s attempt to achieve the “good life.” The conditions that Upton Sinclair describes in The Jungle were extreme. Though they were a true testament to the horrifying conditions of the stockyards in the early 1900s, America has since made great strides as a country functioning under capitalism. At a minimum, Ludwig von Mises is correct in his assertion that “capitalism is not simply mass production, butt mass production to satisfy the needs of the masses.” In capitalistic America, a business that does not cater to the needs of the masses will inevitably fail. Because the consumer is made the focal point and priority of a capitalistic political community, capitalism does in fact assist man in his attainment of the “good life.” Capitalism endows man with the power to choose. It is this power of choice that ultimately provides man with the ability to freely exercise his faculties in accordance with reason, excellence, and virtue.

Works Cited
Os Emigrantes. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p., n.d. Web. .
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle: By Upton Sinclair. (Long Beach, California): Published by Upton Sinclair, 1928. Print.


One thought on “Is capitalism a help or hindrance to an immigrant’s ultimate attainment of Aristotle’s idea of the “good life” in America?

  1. Very nice post. I like the way you’ve drawn on your personal experience as well as the authors you’re reading to write this. It makes it a much more compelling article.

    Though Sinclair’s fictional account no doubt provides a stylized narrative of what may have happened to many people, it’s actually not a solid historical source, however. From what I’ve read, Sinclair didn’t do any firsthand research to know what was going on. Here’s one good article on an aspect of The Jungle from the Foundation for Economic Education: I’m sure there is some more you can find out about this.

    Again, many immigrants suffered in very poor living and working conditions compared to what we might like. But a proper economic analysis will not compare the conditions people faced against perfection, but against real-world alternatives. Though immigrants usually lived poor lives, were the conditions they faced better than those of where they came from? You would have to compare 1) the objective living conditions in both places during that time, 2) the subjective attitudes immigrants had about having come here. For instance, having more freedom of religion or a sense of possibility for their children may have been more important to many than maintaining their current living conditions. One fact of immigration is that the children of immigrants to America were usually rich compared to their parents or their peer generation in their home country.

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