It STILL isn't capitalism!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Some time ago, after I'd posted against socialized medicine, a leftist commenter wrote in to insult me for, basically, sounding like a broken record. He asked, "Do you have any other thoughts than the standard rep/conservative talking points?"

Although this was no more than a drive-by flame, I realized that there was a worthwhile point lurking beneath its surface, which I addressed as follows:

If I sound repetitive here, it's because the socialist left keeps trying to do the same thing with a new spin every few years. So writing against such efforts ends up being fairly easy: Figure out a way to explain why the new spin makes no difference and then point out the fallacies behind the socialist position. (These do not change.)

It's a bit like counterarguing someone who pops up every few years trying to convince everyone else that the sun rises in the West. One year, he'll say that it's an illusion that it rises in the East. Another year, he'll insist that what we're calling "East" is really "West". And then he'll try to tell us that what we think of as "setting" is really "rising". Of course he's wrong every single time, and I end up repeating myself.

Whose fault is that, really?
In short, it is the opponent of capitalism, not its defender, who causes the public debate to sound like a broken record. This is a very good point if I say so myself, but it isn't the whole picture.

I realized that this morning when self-described libertarian and self-proclaimed fan of capitalism, Glenn Reynolds joined the chorus of so-called capitalists calling for the government to impose an emissions cap (i.e., an upper productivity limit) on the national economy -- disguised as a "market" in the trading of "carbon" quotas as a "solution" to global warming. His one-line post? "CAPITALISM AGAINST climate change."

If you follow the link, you'll read mostly from an excerpt of a Wall Street Journal article in which R. Glenn Hubbard makes the same errors as any leftist mulling over a problem he wants the government to address:
We do not know how much long-term climate change will result from our ever-expanding economic activity -- primarily from the burning of fossil fuels -- or how much climate change is "safe." To understand this from an economic perspective, we need a flexible, measured approach, one that continues to research the consequences of climate change and how we can avoid damage in the future. This approach would establish a policy architecture that sends appropriate signals to businesses and consumers in order to spur climate-saving innovations, while engaging both rich and poor nations in similar, cost-effective activities to reduce the threat of climate change throughout the world. . . .

. . . near-term actions should not impose greater risks than the problem they seek to address. MIT economist Richard Schmalensee, a member of the NCEP, once put forward a helpful analogy: If you smell smoke at home, it would be silly to do nothing until you actually see flames, but you also should not hose down the house after one whiff of what might be smoke.
In other words, ignore the distinction between individual choices that do not violate the rights of others and "public policy" decisions that do. Play down (or completely ignore) the threat to individual rights caused by the government dictating the behavior of ordinary citizens while playing up the "threat" caused by the crisis du jour and pretending that it cannot be addressed without state intervention.

Only the above scheme has a small, further twist. It pretends that it is not a call for the government to initiate force against ordinary citizens and does so through a means that has become depressingly common in recent years. Namely, it clothes a statist policy in the garb of capitalism, as I have blogged before when commenting on an essentially identical policy proposal by Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger:
Yeah, and back in the days of the slave trade, people bought and sold other people in "markets". Just because the government creates a "market" by permitting the wholesale violation of rights (liberty in the case of slavery or property in this case) does not mean that it is promoting capitalism.
Sorry, but there is more to capitalism than the existence of free markets. Ayn Rand put it best in her essay, "What is Capitalism?" which can be found in her appropriately-named collection of essays, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:
Capitalism is the social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately-owned. [her italics] (19)
This formulation, while succinct, is hardly trivial or uncontroversial, contrary to the wishes of many libertarians. This is why Rand devoted more than one sentence, or one essay, or one book to the subject. Yes, markets will emerge as individuals under capitalism take advantage of the division of labor to trade with each other, but they are not the essential characteristic of capitalism. Protection of individual rights is.

Incidentally, this leads me straight back to the depressing commonality of presenting statist policies as capitalism. Note that Ayn Rand's formulation describes not just an economic system, but a political one. Many people understand on some implicit level that individual freedom and capitalism go hand-in-hand, but most do not understand that the two are corollaries or why that is the case.

This misunderstanding of the relationship between the protection of individual rights and a free economy is what permits -- for example -- some liberals to fight tooth and nail against censorship while also working to enslave physicians; and some conservatives to attempt to censor the airwaves while opposing socialized medicine.

Furthermore, this misunderstanding pervades even our foreign policy, where the notion of "democracy" is used as a vague substitute for "freedom", a condition of personal liberty that would be better described by the term "capitalism", and as a surrogate for some of the forms of the American republic, some of which are necessary for capitalism but not sufficient for its continued existence as evidenced by the saying, "A republic, if you can keep it."

And so it is that our wartime President forgets -- if he ever knew it -- that giving religion a hand in government violates individual rights and that a people who do not understand or value freedom will vote themselves into tyranny in short order. He has led his country into a worldwide crusade to dig toilets for ingrates and impose "democracy" on the unwilling -- when his goal should have been the execution of his duties to defend the lives and rights of American citizens.

Creating a "market" to distribute the government-imposed pain of a cap on the overall productivity of our economy is no more capitalistic (or pro-freedom) than sending American soldiers to die so Iraq can have "democracy" just long enough to vote itself into an Islamic theocracy even as our real enemy next door builds nuclear weapons and announces its intention to use them.

But thanks to such foolishness by the "protectors" of capitalism and freedom, we are no closer to laissez-faire or national security, and both capitalism and self-defense have been falsely made to look like socialism and limited war, being discredited to some extent in the process.

After "capitalist" carbon trading, what will we have next? A market for the "trading" of some government-limited quantity of "health care"? And after Bush's "war"? Well, we're doing something we shouldn't be doing with an entity that shouldn't even exist any more: negotiating with the Islamofascist government of Iran.

With "friends" like these, no wonder leftists keep making the same demands over and over again: They have ample reason to believe that nobody will notice!

So no, my earlier point about the open enemies of capitalism causing me to have to repeat myself isn't the whole picture. The fact that various self-proclaimed friends of capitalism either do not know or do not care what they are talking about is an even bigger part of the picture.

Think about it. If a proper understanding of what capitalism actually is were a lot more common, those of us who favor freedom would have an enormous advantage in the war of ideas, as my answer to the liberal should indicate. Unfortunately, although logic and reality are on our side, ignorance and cultural inertia are on theirs.

Fighting to preserve freedom is thus a two-front war: one must constantly work against repetitive political assaults on freedom from both its enemies and some of its alleged friends, while working to find and make more genuine friends to the cause.

-- CAV


Rick "Doc" MacDonald said...

I am amazed with every visit I make to your blog. I am amazed at the vast array of topics you not only cover, but cover very well and with the prolific nature or your writing. I haven't a clue as to who you actually are, but I don't need to either. Your work speaks for itself and represents you well. I have no problem publicly stating that I am a fan. Thank you.

Jim May said...

The leftists's complaint about "standard talking points" made me imagine someone complaing about the "standard talking points" of physics.

"Gravity, energy, mass. Can't you guys come up with something else so I can levitate over to Europe already?"

Great post, Gus. The quickie answer to that leftist's complaint is "as soon as you guys come up with something new". Their ideas haven't changed in over a century; all that changed is their shift in emphasis from the big-picture, whole-society-transformation of classic socialism and Marxism, to the boil-the-frog approach of extending government power, bit by bit, crisis by crisis -- some started by them, some by their doppelgangers amongst the conservatives.

Gus Van Horn said...

And thank you very much for the high compliments, Doc!

To hear that tells me that I'm doing something right, and it means a lot to me to hear that from time to time.

Gus Van Horn said...


Your comment got lost by Gmail's conversation thread in my comment notification....

I like your analogy to physics and your quick retort, because they underscore two things the altruist-collectivist-statist axis want their opponents to forget: That their demands have no basis in reality and that it is THEY who are wholly unoriginal, not counting how they disguise their basic ideas at the moment since mere disguise doesn't count as anything other than a tactic.

Ergo said...

I love how you adeptly identified and elucidated the underlying problem with the alleged defenders of capitalism. I like this post very much. Very well written.

Also, I have noticed this common problem even with the defenders of Objectivism. Often, they cause so much more harm than any good. At one debate that I attended involving Dr. Yaron Brook, Dr. Brook made the same point saying he has to first undo all the damage made by Objectivists before he can address issues raised by non-Objectivists.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you very much, Ergo.

I am glad you mentioned how Dr. Brook summarizes this problem since the description seems to have knocked loose a mental block I have had for a long time: namely, how to describe this difficulty succinctly to a layman who might be sympathetic to Objectivism, but will not necessarily see the importance of this issue.

No, I haven't figured out (or tried) a good way yet, but I think this will help me after it percolates in the back of my mind for awhile.