What a strange notion I stumbled upon. It is generally accepted by most people of the right and a large portion of the middle that Capitalism beats Socialism any day of the week. And history has largely proven them right, if the Cold War is any indication.
But there’s another interesting question in my mind as I compare the tenets of the Communist Manifesto to much of what’s accepted as standard American practice of late. How is it that Capitalism can be so readily replaced by its antithesis if it is so demonstrably superior?
The answer could be most enlightening.
To start things off, let’s observe that Capitalism and Socialism have inherent ethical implications but no ethical philosophies. They are, by and large, amoral economic disciplines that have consequences to ethics but don’t espouse any particular ethical paradigms of their own.
This is both a blessing and a curse for both ideologies. You can have Christian Socialists and Christian Capitalists, and they can share essentially the same ethical frameworks (with some minor variation). On the other hand, you can have Atheist Capitalists and Atheist Socialists, or Buddhist, or Sikh, or whatever. There is no requirement.
But the curse is this: without a shared moral framework, there is no restriction on the worst aspects of human nature. If we did not all agree that murder is ethically wrong, there would be nothing within us to prevent us from committing murder. Or, if we all agree that helping the poor and needy (who are this way through no fault of their own) is an ethical good, there would be more charity than we could stomach.
It is a shared moral framework that keeps a society together. And it is a lack of shared moral framework that tends to lead societies to ruin.
Capitalism and Nature
Capitalism can be seen as an extension of the most basic observations of nature. All things must struggle and work to survive, and those who have found ways to band together and pool their struggles have usually survived better than those that have not. The strong survive and the weak die, but there are many kinds of strength that can bring survival and many kinds of weakness that can bring death. The division of labor has been with us since ancient times, and it has allowed some to master particular crafts at the expense of others (say, master builders who have no ability to farm) without costing them their lives.
Capitalism is a system designed to make the most of these natural phenomena. If a product is strong in almost every way (good marketing, fair pricing, desirable product, etc.), it will corner the market, but if a product is weaker than its competition it will eventually whither and die. If a man works hard but is poor at his craft, he will not thrive in the same way as a man who works little but has sufficient mastery to continue to remain competitive. And, given the ability to choose freely, people will act in their own self-interests in a way that ultimately works the same as nature – the scales balance naturally and a society has the ability to thrive on its own desire to be better than the other guy.
But there is a cost. Capitalism in an entirely amoral sense will act the same as nature and purge those who are not sufficiently competitive. A homeless veteran with insufficient marketable skills and battlefield injuries will die on the streets alongside the poor and the orphaned. Meanwhile, a company can gain sufficient strength to consume or crush any meaningful competition, allowing them to become sole arbiters of how the scales should balance.
It is this cost that provides the idea for this post.
How Capitalism, Absent Morality, Commits Suicide
We are creatures of moral and philosophical nature. The reason why the free markets of America didn’t long ago purge all its less-competitive members is because moral agents acted against their own, more immediate self-interests to help those in need. As an example, there is no reason under Capitalism to create charities unless you skim copiously off the top, but there were for a long time many charities that skimmed just enough to ensure their own existence. Or, as an example more relatable to some, there is no competitive advantage to more expensive coffee beans because they are “free trade,” but the moralities of many people ensure this business model can survive.
People are moral agents, but what happens when the idea of a shared morality is called into question, as it has been for many decades? In this case, the very idea of morality becomes subject to capitalism. Why should anyone give a tithe to the Church (which was, for a long time, the source of much charity) if it doesn’t help their own day-to-day lives? Or why should anyone use solar power if it is not economically feasible (as it isn’t)?
In a capitalist market of morality, only those ideas most desirable to the human mind will thrive. Narcissism, materialism, Machiavellianism, and sociopathy can, properly packaged, be transformed into entire moral and ethical systems that promote short-sightedness and self-interest without giving concern to the long-term ramifications for any action. Alternatively, the very notion of long-term ramifications can be twisted by short-sighted and sociopathic elements to create moral systems that are detrimental in both the short- and long-term – for example, a transition toward Socialism, which has been host to the slaughter of millions and the suffering of millions more on both a short-term and long-term basis.
This is the same tactic that makes cults grow and flourish. A cult leader creates a new moral code that appears to the prospective initiate superior to their old ones. Perhaps it’s a con man playing on the hedonist burn-out of actors to take their money and buy for himself nice things, or perhaps it’s a well-meaning but ill-reasoned attempt to wed two contradictory thought or belief systems together – one established and foundational, and one experimental and radical. Because of the weaknesses of individuals in maintaining truly enlightened self-interest, they fall prey to these schemes.
A Brief History of Capitalism’s Descent
Let us look at the ills of Capitalism that are readily observable and see if we cannot find further evidence that capitalism without morality eats itself.
“Crony Capitalism”, by all its names, is a natural consequence of capitalism. One of the strongest entities in any society is the government, for the government is empowered to create laws and wield force against the citizens. If, then, someone can gain the ability to wield that power for themselves, they can force their products onto those who would otherwise not be interested in buying. Universal health insurance regulations, the federal reserve (which has sole power to arbitrarily print and destroy currency), lobbyist groups of all sorts, and governmental agencies that enforce the will of a few special interests are all just examples of people using Capitalism to enforce their wills without a moral system that holds them back.
Wealth Redistribution, or robbing Peter to pay Paul, is about 50% of the US Federal budget. This is an example of Capitalism directly consuming itself, because it has no power to stop ill-conceived or ill-intentioned ideas from coming to life. The various socialist policies of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administrations, proclaimed to be short-term projects designed to do what charity could not, have become deeply ingrained in US policy. The idea that the government has the right to take and use your money however they see fit, in any amount they deem desirable, is about as anti-Capitalist as they come, but it is the basis for modern Americans’ most basic ideas about monetary policies (so much so that tax cuts are considered to reduce the government’s money pile instead of increasing yours). This was possible because Capitalism has no morality that can prevent such things.
Capitalism provides no morality, and this leaves a vacuum. As nature abhors a vacuum, the morality of a nation that embraces Capitalism must either be held important enough to check Capitalism and preserve itself or it must be open to the “fittest” morality that comes available.
If we wish to prevent the many problems we can observe in what was once a free and just society based on Capitalism, we must embrace a shared moral code, as those who founded America did (even those few who were not professing Christians lived and wrote largely as though they were).