Capitalism?

Even as America’s mainstream politics have been drifting leftward for decades, with gradual increases in the state’s regulatory reach and an ever-growing list of entitlements for all and sundry, an influential and radicalized new left has emerged. The ‘squad’, their millions of followers and even the newly elected Representative for the congressional district in which I have lived for decades are proudly and vocally anti-capitalist. My Congressman-elect recently recently opined forthrightly that “capitalism is slavery by another name”.

I have always thought of capitalism as the economic system that’s defined by the freedom to make personal choices about what to buy or sell, goods or labor, as contrasted with socialist or feudal systems, which limit choices and level outcomes through the assertion of necessarily coercive state power. How might my soon-to-be Congressman have arrived at the opposite conclusion to what I was taught? What does capitalism mean to him and to the other radicals and how is it that they see the economic system that has lifted untold millions out of poverty – and, in a material if not a psychological sense, enriched all by empowering people to capitalize on their own labors and creativity – as oppressive?

That in a narrowly material sense American capitalism has enriched all becomes clear from any objective comparison of the things enjoyed by poor Americans as compared with those of the destitute of previous generations and less developed nations. Our poor have access to a wide array of taxpayer-paid-for, state-provided benefits – food, sometimes shelter, emergency medical care, schools for their children, etc.; in the past, and elsewhere, too often these things have been or are far from sure.

That said, while our government – and private charities – may provide such things to the neediest, vast swaths of the poor must see our system as depriving them of both opportunity and personal dignity – so what do our vaunted freedoms mean to them? They may be able to take a job or not, but their wages will likely be paltry, at least initially, and genuine betterment from such jobs as are available to them seems so remote as to be nearly irrelevant. America’s poor are surrounded by images of great wealth – wealth that they are extremely unlikely to ever enjoy and that makes their own circumstances seem miserable by comparison – so they see the deck as having been stacked in favor of the overclass. Resentment about the system – which they assume to be the epitome of capitalism – presumably comes naturally.  

They aren’t wrong to see the deck as stacked against their own aspirations.

Seventy percent of African-American children and nearly as high a percentage of poor American children of other ethnicities are now born outside of marriage – and for the same systemic reasons. The tax code (which, because of payroll taxes, is absurdly punitive and regressive at the lower end of the scale) and our entitlements system work together to discourage the poor from both legal employment and marriage – resulting in a cycle of dependency that provides immediate, though paltry (by comparison with the rest of society), sustenance at the expense of plausible paths to prosperity.

The public schools that their children attend are almost certain to be failure factories, teaching minimally and at the level of the lowest common denominator. School choice for the ambitious poor? Fuhgeddaboutit – the teachers’ unions and their elected-Democrat patrons, all of whom benefit directly from the status quo, are doing their best to strangle it. And without educational achievements that far exceed what their children might reasonably be expected to accomplish in failing schools, what chance have those children to climb the ladder to professional opportunities? Close to nil.

Note, though, that the ways that our tax code and entitlements programs are structured and how our inner-city and rural-poor public schools fail their students have nothing to do with freedom of choice, or capitalism; they are manifestations of how government works. Ironic, then, that more of the same is the universal ‘solution’ to our problems proffered by socialists.

***

Meanwhile, the kinds of manufacturing jobs that once offered plausible paths out of poverty for adults without the kinds of academic credentials needed in the professional world have been disappearing for decades – free-markets do bear some blame for this trend. American manufacturers have long since discovered that lower wages and less regulation in the developing world translate to higher profits. Indeed, if they weren’t taking advantage of those lower cost production opportunities, they reason, other companies would be and their own viability would be at stake. Further, lower-cost manufacturing, whether by American-domiciled companies or foreign ones, offers real cost benefits to those Americans who have the money to afford their products. The only losers in this equation are the poor, un-credentialed Americans who now won’t be able to find manufacturing employment that might have changed their lives for the better.

Even many necessarily local manual labor jobs – in yard work, construction and the like – are being filled by immigrants, legal or otherwise, who see any job as a big step up from no job. Such immigrants are too new to the land of opportunity to have been schooled in the dubious benefits of entitlement dependency or the nursing of generational grievances. To the local poor, though, the immigrants’ eagerness to work represents competition for scarce jobs, just as their mere presence may be an added strain on government-provided services.

Today’s ubercapitalist plutocrats – the tech lords – and their financiers think of themselves as global citizens. To them, sourcing their products overseas and accessing foreign markets by complying with local rules on the suppression of free expression, say, or selling tyrannical governments equipment that they know will be used to suppress dissent, is only logical. Morality or the US national interest, to say nothing of the needs of America’s underclass, don’t don’t count for much in their equations.

And what’s more, to the extent that they can swing an election in the US by suppressing information about a Biden scandal, or by paying hundreds of millions for election ‘support’ that favors the Democrats, why wouldn’t they do that? Trump wants to repeal the Section 230 immunities they enjoy, his Administration has initiated an antitrust action against Google and he has been trying to limit their employment of both non-American tech talent and the (almost certainly largely) immigrant laborers who tend their gardens. Trump is, in short, an economic nationalist of the sort who can be expected get in the way of their profit opportunities. Biden, on the other hand, will surely remember who did so much to get him elected.

The American underclass has every reason to see the tech companies’ and Wall Street’s capitalism as predatory, monopolistic and doing little or nothing for them. Sure they can communicate with friends and family more easily than they once could, and are offered endless entertainment in return for giving up any semblance of privacy; but the cold hard truth is that these things don’t open a lot of doors for them: they mostly just open windows onto a world they’ll never inhabit.

***

Finally, our ‘high’ culture – the one that fills the screens with ‘free’ entertainment – relentlessly depicts capitalism as an oppressive force in the lives of ordinary people. The bad guys are almost always greedy businesspeople, the good guys government employees or crusading progressives. Western civilization, which nurtured and prizes individual liberties and the capitalism that grew out of those liberties, are generally presented as oppressive and exploitive, all in the name of a morally relativistic multiculturalism that tech and entertainment companies see as good for their bottom lines.

Is it a sign of health that many of our most successful companies immerse the system that nurtured them and, indeed, our culture, in self-loathing? For them, maybe – if by doing so they are able to partner with regimes fair and foul around the world, thereby cementing their positions and profits – but such partnerships have little to do with capitalism’s foundational ideals.

Freedom is too often confused with license. Ours was never intended to be a system in which whatever you can get away with is to be allowed, and indeed encouraged by the profit motive and a winner-takes-all mentality. Capitalism grew out of a sense of individual liberties that, in turn, depended on an ultimately religious understanding of human dignity and of our obligations to each other. When it’s seen as a system in which anything goes, it’s a monstrosity.

***

Fenced-in by the ill-considered incentives created by government policies, in full view of the take-no-prisoners, predatory behavior of America’s largest companies and fed a steady diet of overtly anti-capitalist and covertly anti-Western-Civilization propaganda, many of America’s poor are apparently concluding that capitalism is evil. But the system they are living with and see on their screens can’t fairly be described as capitalism: it’s an amalgam of ill-considered government policies and the worst of crony capitalism.

Middle class Americans still live in a mostly old-style capitalist world – a place where individual freedoms, personal responsibility and opportunity encourage both wealth creation and a strong sense of community. It is our society’s poor, its ultra-rich and its credentialed intellectuals who have become unmoored from the religious/moral values that gave individual liberties their birth and capitalism its moral legitimacy.

I think I understand why today’s radicals profess to hate capitalism; I just think that what they resent isn’t really capitalism at all – more like the opposite of the system of individual liberties that capitalism is supposed to be. Freedom can’t enslave us or deprive us of our dignity; bad government policies and crony capitalists do.

M.H. Johnston

One comment to Capitalism?

  • Vivian wadlin  says:

    Marvelous Essay. I am going to share it with all of my friends who are not out right communists.

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