How would Thoreau and Leopold critique capitalism and the free market?

Expert Answers
jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Walden, Thoreau states that capitalism destroys the working man. He says:

"Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine" (page 3 in the Dover edition). 

Thoreau believes that capitalism degrades people by making them toil incessantly so that they can no longer exercise integrity or show the marks of their humanity. Instead, their constant need for work makes them into beings who are like machines in their relentless completion of tasks. He compares working in the northern factories and farms to labor that is akin to slavery. He says, "there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both north and south" (page 4). The worst situation, he says, is when people become their own slave masters and work themselves into a state of ruin. 

Unlike capitalism and the free market, which advocate the relentless pursuit and stockpiling of material goods, Thoreau advocates living only with what is necessary, which he defines as "Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel" (Walden, page 7). He says that luxuries interfere with our enjoyment of life: "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind" (page 8). He lives in simplicity and isolation at Walden Pond so that he can truly experience the essence of life without being weighed down by excess material goods and without the need to work beyond the hours necessary to pay for the merest necessities.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold states that "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community" (page 262). In other words, anything that changes the environment, including even the attempt to conserve the land, is bad for the environment. Therefore, he believes that capitalism destroys the land and people's appreciation of the land. In his book, he writes "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace" (page 7). In other words, in our capitalist economy, we are so removed from the land that we have forgotten how food is grown and how trees and other organic matter are used to make heat. If we forget these things, we will likely be careless in our use of natural resources. To restore ourselves to the land, we need to live on it instead of merely benefit from it. Therefore, capitalism and the free market are inimical to the appreciation and preservation of the environment.

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question