Monday, May 28, 2012

Capitalists Need to Make a Decision

We are all still animals, after all. That's not a bad thing, but it comes with other realizations that should make us pause when trumpeting the virtues of certain political and economic philosophies.

Like, say, capitalism. I am a capitalist, because I believe capitalism is the best engine for equality, personal freedom, and individualism. But there are many people--most people, I would suggest--who believe in capitalism simply because they are on top of the system. Like any system, capitalism can be rigged to benefit a few lucky people who were born on third base, at the expense of people who haven't even been drafted yet.

Humans are tribalistic animals. We put things into boxes to distinguish them from each other, and place judgments upon them depending on their ability to give us--and our perceived in-group--what we want. Any system that doesn't take this simple fact into account is a dangerous system. This is why communism failed. This is why the capitalism of today's G.O.P. will also fail: it creates out groups and exploits them. It doesn't do the groups that benefit from it any favors either; they become soft over time, and entitled. Groups that are favored by a system designed to promote them will always fail to understand the complaints of those not empowered by the system, and will typically choose to patronize and feign offense rather than attempting to address systemic inequalities. All the while the favored group becomes softer and more isolated, and out groups become harder and more determined. This is where revolutions come from.

I don't want a revolution. I think capitalism can work, just not in its current form. There have to be checks and balances in place to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed within the system. That means building a strong safety net, and promoting social justice policies that can begin to mend years and years of inequality. That would mean shifting funding impetus away from the military, and into education. It would mean ending excessive inheritance, term limits for politicians, and increased support for the human services. It would mean allowing everyone the opportunity to pursue a top notch education that wouldn't eventually leave them suffocated by debt, and offer all of our citizens with access to quality, free healthcare. Within that context, Capitalism can be great.

People get upset when you start talking like that. 'But it's not real capitalism if the poor aren't rendered completely immobile by medical bills! How will they ever learn to pull ahead if we keep giving them hand outs!' What these people are talking about is not capitalism. It's Social Darwinism, and I doubt they've followed their line of thinking to its natural, blood soaked conclusion.

So Capitalists need to make a decision: are we actually for the tenets of capitalism (free and fair competition, equal opportunity to succeed and fail based upon individual merit, the unhindered pursuit of happiness), or are we for extolling these virtues while quietly stuffing our burlap sacks with goodies while our potential competitors continue to stand outside, rattling the doorknobs and tapping on the windows?


Philip said...

Spencer, this is something I have been thinking about for quite some time as well. I like how you seem to have incorporated some Stephen J. Gould into your thoughts on Capitalism. I believe that when we limit the ecosystem to only one paradigm*, we limit our abilities to improve the system (i.e. GM not adopting the models that Toyota used).

All of this is, of course, a teleological argument. I have always found it disconcerting when business people and organizational development types bring up the "triple bottom line" of "people, planet, and profit." The problem with this argument is the fact that people do not act and cannot act in such a way within a purely capitalist frame work. One role of government, religious (theist and nontheist) institutions, educational institutions, non-profits, groups, clubs, etc. is to feed the remarkably disparate aspects of the human being. This is why it is best not try and have pastors make public policy per se, or have legislators willy nilly fiddle with schools. Human beings create these nitches so as to fix particular problems with particular tools. A church is a particular tool for a particular problem. A corporation another. A government still another. When we try and bring these institutions into a unified theory of another institution we are missing the mark. The unified theory is the human being himself or herself.

So, I would argue our big problem with capitalism is that we are expecting it to do things outside of its utilitarian creation. People should give more to charity, but it is hard to argue that a corporation is going to do this without some ulterior motive whereas a person is free to give for an ulterior motive or for goodness sake (to borrow a phrase used often by Daniel Dennet).

In the end, to fix capitalism, it will take the rise of humanity asserting itself as being in control of the tool and not the tool controling the human being. Capitalism, progressivism, anything really can often become a case of the tail wagging the dog.

* The question can of course be asked if we have only one paradigm. Take Republican capitalism, which many would believe to be monolithic. However, we know that upon closer inspection it is hardly that at all. Rather, social conservatism, lazzez faire, Neo Conservative all exist under one banner. The give and take of all of these (which I admit was more pronounced in '00 than it is today) works seamlessly enough that it creates a unified front. Yet, the rise of a shrill group of purists has led to the fall of such smooth working. Yet, I suspect that even if we looked more closely at these purists we should find frayed edges. Nothing is a pure economic system not even American Capitalism.

Spencer Troxell said...

"In the end, to fix capitalism, it will take the rise of humanity asserting itself as being in control of the tool and not the tool controling the human being."

That's a great and concise way to put it.

Willie Y said...

Another great post as alway Spencer.

Spencer Troxell said...

Thanks, Willie!