Clearly, Hand Grenades Are the Answer
But wait, you say — Doesn’t that giant upward-spiked line stop spiking shortly after 2003?
Suppose it did. Still, that wouldn’t be a bad run, especially considering that the rest of human history looks like 1500-1700, only flatter. And do you see the Great Depression on that graph? Me neither. Depressions are awful, but the economic growth from capitalism is so great that even depressions — awful as they are — get dwarfed in a very short amount of time.
But wait, again — What about the poorest in the world? Are they doing better? Or is it all going to the 1%? Are the poorest doing worse?
If so, we’d have a problem on our hands, and capitalism might be indefensible. But:
[From 2000-2010] 19 economies doubled in size…
The U.S. economy itself expanded by 18 percent from the decade’s start to end, ahead of Britain (15 percent), Germany, and Japan (both less than 10 percent). Ranking the 164 countries for which the World Bank has data on GDP growth over the decade, that means the United States came 134th, with Britain, Germany, and Japan in 140th, 154th, and 155th place, respectively….
At the same time, the top 19 countries in the world in terms of decade-long growth saw their GDPs more than double over the ten years from 2000 to 2010. And that top 19 included some really big countries — not least India and China — so nearly 2.6 billion people benefited from all of that economic dynamism.
Just as significantly, Africa has been going gangbusters — though you probably haven’t noticed, since the whole region of 49 countries still has a combined economy smaller than the state of Texas. Yet within the club of economies that doubled in size were no less than eight from sub-Saharan Africa, the region traditionally written off as a hopeless economic backwater. Indeed, that region took 17 of the top 40 spots in the decade’s global GDP growth rankings; its GDP is 66 percent larger than it was in 2000. Populations have expanded there, too, by around 28 percent over the decade — but even accounting for more people, the average income in the region is about a third higher than it was 10 years ago.
The exact mechanisms can be debated, and the Foreign Policy article itself casts doubt on neoliberal economic policy as a significant factor in many cases, but I think any reasonable answer will have to include the general lessening of violent conflict, the introduction of stable, non-communist legal and political systems, the decline in military coups and other violent revolutions, and the resulting ability of ordinary people to go about the business of making, selling, buying, and consuming. Violence destroys all that.
Now suppose we conclude — finally, reluctantly — that some variant on market capitalism is a reasonable system, worth saving at least in some form, with perhaps a bit of correcting around the edges.
Sigh. No. Hand grenades aren’t the answer.
The reason why capitalism works is that it is significantly more voluntary than the alternatives. Capitalism attempts to honor the individual will far more than any other system I am aware of. If you have an idea, big or small, capitalism very often lets you try it out in the market. Whether it’s in buying or selling, producing or consuming.
Now, capitalism doesn’t guarantee success — nothing can — but it often lets you try. It even bends over backwards to provide you with funding, if that’s what you lack. Among economic systems, capitalism is unique that way.
We can bracket for now questions about the social safety net, or even product safety or labor regulations. These questions are important, and our disagreements about them may be significant. Yet only the more-or-less capitalist system leaves people more-or-less able to try innovations in product design, marketing, work structure, and the rest. Add all the social safety net and product regulations you like, and the result remains.
Command economies differ significantly, and even the presence of a principle of command — a principle by which any successful, happiness-generating activity might vanish overnight at the wave of a government pen — is often enough to drive the entrepreneurs away. Direct commands and prohibitions lose out virtually every time when compared to regulation around the edges.
Traditional economies fared no better. Economic controls in traditional western economies were quite strict and included price controls, severe restrictions on market entry, equally severe restrictions on land ownership and sale, prohibitions on many types of products, sumptuary laws, and the forbidding of lending money at interest.
Capitalism did away with all that, which is why you see that upward-spiking line on the graph above. The relative voluntarism of the more-or-less capitalist countries is the secret of their success.
I’m sure most of you deny this. I’m sure most of you think that capitalism merely replaced an old set of social controls with new, possibly stricter ones.
Try, though, to work with my premise. It’s one I actually believe, so it’s useful for getting inside my head. The conclusion follows very simply: If capitalism is about voluntary action, then police brutality is antithetical to capitalism.
The obvious response: “Well, they’re doing it, so it must be capitalism after all.”
But this is an absurdity. That someone is doing something doesn’t mean it’s “capitalism” any more than it’s “Mormonism.” That the world is on a relatively capitalist course doesn’t mean that whatever arrives in the world is capitalism pure and simple. Increased freedom for Chinese entrepreneurs does not compel us to applaud Chinese prison camps. We shouldn’t, and I don’t.
I find the police response to the Occupy movement reprehensible. I find that it is neither a capitalist response nor a necessary evil for the defense of capitalism. I find that the police, and not the demonstrators, have been the most anti-capitalist group of all, because they are the most anti-voluntary. Capitalism is for me little more than the gradual extension of voluntarism into markets, particularly financial ones. Destroy voluntary relations, and you destroy the foundation of capitalism.
If you want to camp out in a park, if you want to petition your government to change the way things are done, even if you want to carry a sign saying “CAPITALISM DOESN’T WORK,” then the capitalist response is clear: You can try that, if you want. People might buy it. They might not. We’ll wait and see.