Oft-maligned capitalism is a force for social change

About the only thing more insufferable than a tyrant is a well-intentioned fool. It pains me to see people who have noble goals (and the skills needed to reach them) shoot themselves in the feet by relying on faulty mechanics.

This pain has been felt very acutely these past four years for obvious reasons, but I digress. The well-intentioned fool has become a virtual mascot for do-gooders on the anti-capitalist left.

Anti-capitalists, be they social democrats, Naderite consumer advocates or unabashed Marxists, have made the demise of capitalism a goal in their quest for social justice. In doing so, they have forsaken capitalism’s vast promise as an agent of social change and embraced dangerous alternate ideologies that contradict their stated purpose.

I’ve read enough leftist literature – from Karl Marx to Stokely Carmichael to Michael Moore – to realize that their central complaint is far from untrue. People in capitalist countries are, or at least have been, getting screwed.

Where these authors err, however, is in their assumption that the problems associated with capitalist societies are symptomatic of capitalism itself and that anti-capitalist ideologies are necessarily preferable.

One claim that has been made by both black authors such as Carmichael and white authors like Noam Chomsky is that racism is either an inevitable product of capitalism or is inseparable from it in result.

To bolster their assertion, these critics have pointed to instances of racial discrimination in capitalist countries as well as to wars waged by “white America” against “brown-skinned peoples” across the world.

Alas, these atrocities are not the byproduct of capitalism but of an unjust legal system.

Truth be told, capitalism is ideologically incompatible with racism. Racist business practices, such as hiring discrimination and redlining, lie in direct contradiction to capitalism because they diminish competition.

Race is a non-factor in capitalism; the only color that matters is green.

Similarly, the allegation that capitalism invites oppressive governments (such as the Pinochet regime in Chile) can be falsified by examining basic capitalist principles. Real capitalism requires a free market. A free market demands that individuals make economic decisions without government coercion, manipulation or control.

Furthermore, a capitalist society is one in which the government respects property rights and intervenes as little as possible.

Some of the worst economic aspects of the Pinochet regime, including its hand in money laundering and financially supporting private sector monopolies at the expense of the working poor, represent anti-capitalist (corporatist, think Enron) rather than capitalist thinking.

It is interesting to note that while capitalist societies bar oppressive government policies, anti-capitalist societies often encourage them.

In order to “even the playing field,” socialist governments have enacted “land reforms” (a euphemism for forcibly seizing and redistributing property), nationalization of industries (by which a government forcibly places assets in state control) and other forms of blatant economic terrorism.

Even in mixed economies, government oppression is propagated in the form of punitive tax brackets needed to sustain a cumbersome public infrastructure (in other words, tax the rich and save Amtrak).

The oppressive nature of taxation and regulation is often overlooked by social justice advocates, however, because they have no sympathy for the victims (many of whom are wealthy). And yet conventional notions of justice say a wrong is a wrong regardless of who commits it and who is it is committed against.

Lastly, anti-capitalists have advanced the claim that capitalism is dehumanizing. Activists such as Moore have pointed to sizeable divisions between rich and poor, low wages and a diminished standard of living as being endemic of the American capitalist system.

He is at least partially correct. Capitalism does create class divisions and the need for rich and poor. What Moore does not mention, however, is that these classes are not fixed.

One can become rich and one can become poor. Being born into wealth might give a person an edge, but it is an edge he will soon lose if he lacks the skills to sustain it.

Conversely, as Stephen King and Bill Clinton have demonstrated, being born into poverty does not preclude the possibility of escaping it.

Ironically, while Marxists criticize capitalism for its class distinctions, Marxist societies have proven to be among the most classist in history.

Whereas capitalism at least provides the possibility for transition, Marxist class barriers tend to be far more rigid. There are the bureaucratic elites and their agents and then there is everyone else.

Just because Fidel Castro (to use a popular example) dresses like an average Cuban doesn’t change the fact he has many times the wealth (net worth of $550 million according to Forbes magazine) and influence of an average Cuban.

Capitalism is hardly without its faults, but it is just inasmuch as it allows every individual the opportunity to pursue his or her economic destiny.

It does not, however, guarantee equality of result, a concept that is fundamentally unjust to begin with (see the article on Fred Feldman in last week’s Signal).

Because they have falsely associated various faults and injustices with capitalism, the well-intentioned fools on the anti-capitalist left have long regarded it with cynicism and suspicion while at the same time holding an overly optimistic and idealized view of its alternatives.

Suppose, for an instant, that the two were flipped and social justice advocates worked toward Gult’s Gulch – the golden meritocracy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” – instead of Marx’s equally unrealistic classless society. If the energies spent into tearing down capitalism were diverted into building it up, many of its flaws could be worked out or overcome.

Capitalism is not the enemy, but rather a device that may be used to free men and women from racism, prejudice and government abuse. If anything, we need more of it in this country, not less. The sooner the well-intentioned fools realize that, the better off we’ll all be.