In a previous post, I explained why I end up criticizing conservatism much more than liberalism in this blog. To summarize, American conservatism has become so extreme, so dogmatic, so anti-scientific, that it warrants far more criticism than liberalism at this particular time. Nevertheless, there is a problem inherent in all ideology, and that problem is an unwillingness to look at the evidence, openly and honestly.
Just as there is an almost religious faith among conservatives in the “free market,” there is an equally dogmatic rejection of capitalism by some on the left. The system must be torn down to its foundations, these ideologues believe, and replaced by something, something supposedly more humane. All business must be government-controlled. The profit motive must be eliminated. Private property must be abolished and replaced by collective ownership.
Of course, we have already seen plenty of experiments along these lines. A few of them are still around. North Korea. China. Vietnam. Cuba. Venezuela. Nicaragua. In every case, the original goals sounded very noble and humane – put farmland into the hands of peasant farmers, put factories into the hands of workers, operate the economy for the benefit of everyone, not to line the pockets of a few. And in every case, the society soon degenerated into a repressive oligarchy which merely replaced the profit motive with an equally corrupt demand for loyalty – those who gave up their individualism and blindly obeyed the party line were rewarded, while those who demanded their freedom or criticized the government were marginalized, imprisoned, or killed.
Riding alongside an anti-capitalist sentiment, there often seems to be an anti-industrial sentiment, an uncritical attachment to what is supposedly “natural,” and a kind of vague nostalgia for a time when people were “close to the land,” eating fresh food and doing things by hand. This conveniently ignores the fact that our ancestors who were “close to the land” faced the constant threat of cholera from drinking unchlorinated water, lived in hot, stuffy houses with flies, cockroaches, and bedbugs, often died in childbirth due to inadequate natal care….well, the list goes on and on. Modern industrial society has given us vast improvements in education, health, and wealth. Those who wish to give up chlorinated water, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and modern medicine can certainly do so on an individual basis, if they feel these are impediments to their happiness.
And speaking of happiness, in another previous post I discussed the Happiness Index, which is generated annually by the U.N.’s Sustainable Solutions Network. Let’s see how the countries I mentioned above rate. Well, North Korea and Cuba are not rated. Their societies are simply too closed to allow an adequate evaluation. Venezuela ranks a rather dismal 102nd. Although social support is pretty good, freedom to make life choices is poor, and the perception of government corruption is high. Vietnam is not much better at 95th. Although China has made great strides over the last 70 years, it still only ranks 86th. Nicaragua is considerably better at 41st place – but compare this to its neighbor Costa Rica at 13th place (ahead of America!). Costa Rica has never rejected capitalism – it merely controls it. Nicaragua is showing the strain, as many of its people are sick and tired of government corruption and repression. Repression seems to be the only way such governments maintain themselves, because they invariably become corrupt.
Capitalist democracies such as Canada, Australia, and Germany rank highly on the Happiness Index. Germany ranks 15th, Australia 10th, Canada 7th. Even higher in the rankings are some of the Scandinavian countries – Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Finland occupy the top 4 positions. High GDP per capita. Strong social support. High life expectancy. Good freedom to make life choices. Low perceptions of government corruption. These are facts that cannot be ignored.
“But Dave,” some liberals might object at this point, “the Scandinavian countries have universal health care, strong labor unions, and plenty of government spending.” Right. They do not have unbridled capitalism. They have CONTROLLED capitalism. They have “mixed economies.” The profit motive is alive and well. CEO’s of big corporations make plenty of money. Competition and trade are encouraged. But the power of big business is balanced by that of strong, transparent government and organized labor. There is plenty of government spending and a strong safety net. The basics of life are ensured so that people are free to pursue the privileges.
“But Dave,” I can hear some liberals insisting, “you can’t deny that capitalism translates into tremendous economic inequality. Just look at the parts of California that are booming. A few live in luxury while others live on the street.” This is the Scandinavian argument in reverse. When capitalism isn’t properly controlled, ordinary folks get the shaft. The solution is to establish the proper checks and balances, not rip the whole system to shreds. It’s not an all or nothing. Capitalism is much like electricity. Untamed, it can be quite destructive. Harnessed, it can improve lives dramatically. An economy that works includes a strong safety net and investment in human capital. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter how rich the richest people are, as long as everyone can depend on the basics.
There is one more argument that anti-capitalists will resort to, and that is that these happy, democratic, capitalist countries have achieved their happiness on the backs of poor, mostly brown people in considerably less democratic countries – that highly developed, technologically advanced countries depend on enormous amounts of raw materials and cheap labor provided by the third world. The problem with this argument is that if anti-capitalism were the solution to this problem, countries like Venezuela and Vietnam would be shining examples of human well-being. Venezuela is one of the founders of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and has enormous amounts of oil, ranking 11th in the world in oil production. Norway ranks 15th. Norway has used much of its oil wealth to create the largest retirement fund in the world, and its per capita GDP is one of the highest in the world, at $74,941. (America’s is only $59,501.) Venezuela is in the grip of rampant corruption, hyperinflation, food shortage, and civil unrest. It ranks 81st in per capita GDP ($6684).
Vietnam has been under communist rule since the 1970’s. For many years it was plagued by government corruption and inefficiency. But in the 1980’s, the government introduced privatization and other market reforms. Since then the economy has grown tremendously. The government now describes the economy as a “socialist-oriented market” economy. Interestingly, Vietnam justifies this “corruption” of socialism by arguing that it is a necessary transition – that ultimately, genuine socialism will take hold. Even with all of its growth, Vietnam currently ranks 132nd in per capita GDP ($2354).
In other words, the very thing that is supposed to protect vulnerable third-worlders from exploitation by the first world, anti-capitalism, ends up giving them nothing but corrupt governments and impoverishment. Market reforms, time and again, have shown themselves to lift people out of poverty and build the middle class. Again, not unbridled capitalism. Controlled capitalism.
In yet another previous post, I discussed Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights. These rights include the right to earn enough for basic necessities, the right to a decent home, the right to adequate health care, the right to a good education, and the right to economic security in old age. These things did not make Roosevelt an anti-capitalist, any more than the Scandinavian mixed economies are anti-capitalist. The happiest people on earth reside in countries that have achieved a balance – a heavy dosage of free markets and free trade combined with a strong safety net and powerful labor unions to protect workers.
It isn’t a matter of being “moderate” either, merely for the sake of satisfying both sides of an ideological tug-of-war. If a particular position or policy happens to work, despite the fact that it happens to lie far to the right or the left ideologically, more power to it. If you say you want universal health care, I say fine. Why do I say that? Not because I am anti-capitalist, nor pro-socialist, nor because I have a “cause” to defend. My “cause,” if you insist on calling it that, is pragmatism. I say fine merely because I look at the evidence, and the evidence tells me that universal health care seems to work. If you say you want strong labor unions, good wages, and good retirement systems, I say fine. Why? Because these things seem to work. If you say you want free college tuition and plenty of government spending on social programs, I say fine. Because these things seem to work. I do not run in terror from these things because some people slap the label “socialist” on them, nor to I embrace them because I’m enamored with anti-capitalism.
If, on the other hand, you say you want to destroy capitalism, because it’s the source of human misery and degradation, I say what is your evidence? What is your evidence that CONTROLLED capitalism is a source of human misery? Your Marxist professor told you so? You’re gonna have to do better than that. Ideologues of every stripe tend to suffer from absolutism, in a world where nuance and complexity rules. The evidence tells us that neither pure capitalism nor pure anti-capitalism works. Market economies generate proven results – provided they are properly controlled, with a balance of power.