Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Insidious Beauty of Capitalism

Capitalism is a loaded word. It means a lot of things to a lot of different people. In a practical sense, Capitalism is the freedom to do what you want with your own property, your own labor, your own intelligence. In it's purest form, you can do this without anyone (church, mayor, social justice warrior) looking over your shoulder to see if what you are doing is "fair".  In a free trade system, the only people deciding whether the deal is fair is the buyer and the seller. I'm going to leave aside the question of whether oversight is necessary in practice. I'm going only talk about a benefit that free trade produces in a society.

How many, for the sake of charity, would serve refreshing beverages to strangers -- not just for a weekend, but for scores of hours every week for years. Yet Starbucks has enticed people to do just that for the sake of ...what shall we call it? Greed? Ambition? A desire to thrive and to take part in the luxuries of modern life? Also for a flexible work schedule that allowed the freedom to go to auditions. An 18th century economist used the Biblical term "concupiscence" which is a term I like. Whatever it is, the physically and mentally hale panhandlers I encounter everyday are apparently immune to it. 

Free enterprise entices us to serve the needs and desires of our fellowman, including the majority of us who would never do it otherwise. To extend Don Henley's observation, there's just not enough love in the world to dependably have access, by charity alone, to the basic needs of survival.

As I said, I'm not going to address whether free enterprise needs oversight. But we should recognize that it does provide a public good -- it does, in its way, cause us to be better people. And it is inevitable that every control policy designed to soften its edges undercuts its effectiveness in making us better in that way.

To whatever degree we lessen the NEED to have a job and cow-tow to a boss or customer, we will lessen the greatest natural compulsion available to us to serve each other. If we had "free" housing, "free" cable, "free" Internet, and a budget for food, we would then be able to have our needs delivered and never interact with other people at all. It is Utopian to believe that an unsustainably large segment of us, if not most of us, would not end up taking that offer. If the government provided a minimum salary that was anything but miserably insufficient, a significant number of us would learn to live with that. The recent growth of Social Security Disability applications demonstrates that people will accept a very low standard of living if it can be had without a work schedule. This is the compelling power of "free" on the human psyche.

Yes, Capitalism has sharp edges. So does a saw. That is how they are effective.

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