When I was a little child, my morality was driven by fear – not of God, but of Santa. Even if my parents had indulged me with religious teachings, I have a feeling that my fear of going to hell would have been less than my fear of not getting Hell’s Handbasket III (or whatever) for Nintendo on Christmas morning.

Whether or not Santa exists is open to debate, but even if you’re one of those cynical bastards who doesn’t believe in him, you should still be able to see the lesson in his effect: Commercialism is a moralizer.

Few things are as universally misunderstood as the competitive free-market system. Incentive – that’s about the only aspect everybody understands. Aside from some coffeehouse clique types, even opponents of the free market these days admit that it’s necessary because of incentive. Their angst is now directed toward the “evils” within the system: Big Business, outsourcing, overdevelopment – or however old biases against freedom are repackaged to seem like sympathies for the unfortunate. Either way, even avid supporters of the market go for its economic looks rather than its moral heart.

Now, I’m all for judging things by their looks, but the idea that commerce is soulless is absurd. Any bisexual who’s been inspired by “The Twilight Zone” to sell his soul for a pair of “his” and “hers” tattoos can tell you that. The reason for the absurdity is that people are so overwhelmed by the beautiful forest of capitalism that they fail to notice the trees, let alone the roots.

Those roots lie in the often-ignored “free” part of the free market, which means voluntary action and consensual interaction. Already we’ve entered ethical terrain, since nothing you do can be moral unless you choose to do it. And only under capitalism is everything you do a matter of personal choice.

Incentive, after all, is not merely an economic indicator. By definition, virtue is a means to a value. So if you value anything, you have an incentive to be virtuous. Any rational code of ethics is ultimately based on what’s appropriate for mankind to survive and flourish. All good deeds are done to that end, even if we don’t realize it, because unlike rape, the benefits are so long-term.

Capitalism, by confining governmental force to a retaliatory role, nourishes productive energy while punishing destructive energy. It has thus unleashed individual human potential from past collective bondages. Side effects include: a vastly increased and ever-increasing standard of living, the strong being subjected to the demands of the weak, the erosion of class and race structures, judgment of merit over status and peaceful coexistence of religions. All this by virtue of the system that supposedly has none.

Combine these roots with their effects and you can begin to understand why the Invisible Hand is more than just an erotic supernatural experience. It also slaps those who act badly in the market. Economic success and failure are the result of the combined will of individuals, which does not take kindly to fraud or inefficiency. Some say that there is a little bit of God in all of us. Well, if God and righteous wrath have anything to do with each other, then in this sense they are right.

Take Enron. As soon as its fraud was exposed, it was bankrupted by free-market forces. Compare that with the involuntary realm, where each year government agencies fail to account for much more money than Enron ever lost. How do they get punished? By receiving even more funding the next year.

Yet the left believes we can only preserve our national soul by having such things as involuntarily financed public arts. Just glance at the surface of the issue and ask yourself: Is it right for everyone to be forced to pay for some public art that only a small number of rich, white people enjoy?

It doesn’t take much to see the hypocrisy of a left whose idea of spirituality relies on the barrel of Uncle Sam’s gun.

Alec Mouhibian is a Daily Nexus columnist.