The global economic crisis now in play is being universally touted as the failure and collapse of capitalism. The cover of the February 16, 2009 edition of Newsweek ecstatically proclaimed “WE ARE ALL SOCIALISTS NOW”. The documented collapse of Wall St. institutions and international banking is being gleefully interpreted as the failure of capitalism itself. In the furious debate that has ensued, the arguments for and against capitalism have focused entirely on the causes of various recent economic phenomena, such as Wall St. greed, the failure of regulators, the incompetence of one or another administration, and the complexity of derivatives that were both unheard of and technically impossible only twenty years ago. All of them have totally missed the point. Capitalism has not failed, because capitalism was not practiced to begin with. Pure capitalism has never been practiced because it is philosophically unacceptable in our culture. What is called capitalism today is a hybrid political philosophy so filled with contradictions, it is unable to defend itself. To answer the question in the title of this article, we have to begin at the beginning.
Capitalism is a form of political philosophy. The philosophy taught and accepted as orthodoxy in our Humanities departments of our universities was largely imported from Europe during the nineteenth century. Europe’s ancient economic model and paradigm was that of feudalism, a system where the act of production was performed by serfs. In the minds of medieval Europeans, manual labor was split from intellectual life and All property belonged to their kings(the head of their tribe) and this property was bestowed by the King’s permission to noblemen, usually as a reward for military service to the King. Property could, and often was, reclaimed by the King at his whim. This system lasted well into the nineteenth century, when it was replaced by what came to be called capitalism. What really happened during this century is that ownership of property and production changed from the head of the tribe (the King) to the people of the tribe (the State). The tribal attitude remained unchanged. This is very important. The concept of individual rights of a sovereign man was virtually unknown in Europe. considered inferior to it. The role of nobility was to own and control such production. Any act of material production was considered lowly and demeaning, and certainly not an appropriate pursuit of the upper classes. Europe was (and is) very tribal, and everyone’s role was to serve the tribe. About this same time the science of political economy came into being, but was again based on the tribe as the smallest unit, not the individual. Political economy was the study of the most efficient utilization of economic resources, but those resources belonged to the community, and the individual was the smallest cell of that community. A serf was still a serf, and the only known paradigm was ruling the producers of material goods with physical force, and this use of coercion was the privilege of the noble classes of society. The American concept of individual rights of man was drastically and radically new. In feudal Europe, there was no dignity or value to the creation of wealth, the honor and glory was in the confiscation of it. The American system was based on the principle that wealth was to be owned by its creators. We became a great nation and economic powerhouse because people here could become wealthy beginning with nothing, because they were entitled, by law, not permission, to keep what they earned. We understood early on that without economic rights, without the right to private property, there were no rights, for property rights are nothing more than the right to keep the results of our effort.
European political economy however clung to the preeminence of the tribe rather than the individual, and the products of ones efforts belonged to the community, and any profit or surplus was to be disposed of by the ruling class for the benefit of the tribe. In America we saw a human being as an end in himself; in Europe they saw man as a member of the tribe. Europeans were collectivist in their mindset; we were individualist here in America. This has a lot to do with the fact that we have been a wellspring of innovation and entrepreneurial activity that has been the envy of the world. Anywhere in the world, a young person with get-up-and-go wanted to go to America. Europeans tended to be more rule -bound and clung to corporate models that emphasized security over risk taking; more safety and less reward. Their society provided extensive social safety nets for the less productive and more regulatory restraints on the more productive. In Europe individual rights were largely subordinated to group rights. In the event of a conflict between the two, the greater good of the greater number prevailed. That of course begs the question, The greater good as determined by whom? The answer of course is by whomever is in power at the moment.
The American experiment was enshrined in our Constitution and in our Declaration of Independence, two remarkable documents designed to separate us from any other democracy; these statements of intent declared that even in a democracy there were some things that could NOT be voted on, and that would NOT be subjected to the will of the majority: anything that was a violation of individual rights could not be voted away by some majority in power. These documents were to protect us from our own government; that the goals, visions, and wishes of any groups or gangs that might get voted into office were limited by the sanctity of individual rights. Those rights began with the right to hold property by law and not by permission. In America our problems began with a philosophical conflict between capitalism, or each individual seeking their own personal happiness and life values, and the ideal of altruism, i.e. that man’s highest and greatest value should be in the service to others. In time it became culturally unacceptable to openly declare so-called selfish motives, such as profit, and all such self-seeking behavior had to be camoflaged as job creation, charitable donations, community involvement. A man’s profits could only be justified by how much of it he gave away (to charity) for the public good. In a capitalistic society, values are established by objective criteria; the worth of a man’s product is determined by what another man is willing to trade for it (markets); whereas in a collectivist system, values are assigned according to either subjective (what I think) criteria, or intrinsic (what the value should be) criteria. We saw this manifested most recently by the current administration assigning salary caps to any organization which receives a government bailout. Who decides what such caps should be, and by what criteria? Rather than capitalism, we have what is commonly known as a mixed economy, which is a hybrid of capitalism (private ownership of the means of production), socialism (mostly private ownership of the means of production, but State regulation of it) and communism (all State ownership of the means of production). A mixed economy resembles feudalism to the extent that you “own” property until the King (the modern State) says you don’t. In a mixed economy, the State regularly interferes with free market processes, usually in the pursuit of political power thinly disguised as altruistic purposes. A mixed economy lurches schizophrenically back and forth from free market initiatives to social planning according to which philosophy is currently enthroned by the electorate. In a mixed economy, political decisions are frequently imposed by force on “free” markets for political or ideological reasons. Any time such decisions are imposed, they are never market choices or there would have been no need to impose anything by force, edict, or law. One of the many problems with social engineering is the Law of Unintended Consequences. Such was the case in 1999 when the Clinton Administration leaned heavily on Fannie Mae to ease the credit requirements on loans to subprime borrowers. Home ownership was declared a “right” without regard to financial qualifications. The banks were eager to make such loans because they got to bundle them and sell them in “securitized” packages at huge mark-ups to investors, primarily foreign governments. Easing of credit created a gigantic bubble in the real estate asset class, all of which has created our current global crisis. In a truly free market, without government guarantees, lenders would have been far more circumspect about credit worthiness; and without government interference with credit markets, we would not have had too much cash (and credit) chasing too few goods (real estate), resulting in runaway inflation of home prices. When the credit bubble collapsed, the promised collateral rapidly deflated in value, causing the banks to stop lending in an effort to improve their reserves, and no one, not the banks, not the government, and not the politicians, wanted to fix a real, current market value to the collateral for loans in default. To do so would have required a massive mark-down of the banks assets and a considerable number of them would have been insolvent.
The above referenced Newsweek article positively gushes about our rush to European-style socialism, engaging in circular prose and unanswered questions; the questions without acceptable answers. I give you: “Whether we want to admit it or not . . . the America of 2009 is moving toward a modern European state.” And, “As entitlement spending rises over the next decade, we will become even more French.” Or how about this one: “Polls show that Americans don’t trust government and still don’t want big government. They do however, want what government delivers, like . . . protections from banking and housing failure.” “The Obama administration is caught in a paradox. It must borrow and spend to fix a crisis created by too much borrowing and spending.” (emphasis mine) Crisis created by what policies? No answer. Then in direct contradiction to what it said before about a decade of increasing entitlement spending by government, this author continues: “Having pumped the economy up with a stimulus, the president will have to cut the growth of entitlement spending . . . ). The next article in that issue of Newsweek says approvingly: “One of the more lasting effects will be a steady drift toward what could be called a European model of governance, regulation, and paternalism. . . the U.S. government will be forced to fill the gap, firmly directing businesses in all sorts of ways—regulating some industries (particularly banking and the automotive sector) with big brother vigilance, favoring others like clean energy with grants and loans, and turning still others—health care and pensions—into virtual wards of the state.” Now folks, before we lose our perspective, this loving, paternalistic, omniscient government is the same one that spent Social Security trust funds (the largest Ponzi scheme in history), that lists an enemy nation-state, China, as its largest creditor, that has a national debt equal to $186,717 for every man, woman, and child in America, that is on target to incur $7 trillion in new deficits over the next 10 years, and that has already this year of 2009 incurred a deficit equal to 4 x the total deficit for 2008, which up till then was the record highest! Folks, this has nothing to do with capitalism. This is vintage social planning. The Newsweek article continues: “So aside from expanding the social safety net, the government will have to take a greater role in guiding business toward ends the state deems healthy for the overall economy.” (Emphasis mine) This is not the creation of wealth, it is confiscation and redistribution of that wealth to fit social and ideological visions of the planners with the guns. This is the practical application of altruism in the field of economics, and the only real question is, how do we seize property without losing our producers? “Publicly funded” means property expropriated from those who produced it. As Newsweek notes almost as an afterthought: “Slow growth could kill rugged American individualism, too.”
All of this is possible only because no one has the courage to challenge the socialists on moral grounds; that altruism is theft, not service; and that the great flaw of socialism is not its very unpleasant side effects, but the fact that it separates the producer from the product of his efforts and denies his right to keep it. It forcibly redistributes that wealth in ways that foster dependence (aka paternalism) and the greed of the needy. It is a philosophy that is anti-life, as we acknowledge in the Declaration of Independence, wherein we acknowledge the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Since property in a free society comes by the production of objective values that sustain life, expropriating those products is separating a man from his means to his life.
Did capitalism fail? It never had a chance.
Thanks for visiting. Leave a comment. John Bechtel, Greenville, SC